A friend of mine shared a meme on Facebook that said never give up on someone with depression. I like that sentiment. If you have a long relationship with someone it’s definitely a reminder we need from time to time. Though lately, I have been struggling with this ethic and have come to a few nuanced opinions that run contrary. Chiefly, that when dating there may be times to walk away from someone who has depression (or other mental health conditions) and that it’s okay to do so.
That sounds harsh and my gut tells me that it makes me sound like a horrible person. Historically, I have almost always extended myself to others even if I have little left to give. My gut informs me here as well; this is a bad strategy. Somewhere in between there must be a balance.
I have had people say that I’m an empath. I don’t believe in new-agey empathic ability, but I am highly sympathetic and value deep connections with others. People often say they feel safe around me and tell me things that they have previously told no one. This means, as a friend once told me, that those who are hurting seek me out for comfort. This is a blessing that without boundaries becomes a detriment.
Perhaps that explains my relationship history. I had an eighteen year relationship where the other person dealt with depression and mania. I was mostly on the outside looking in and was shut out concerning my partners thoughts and emotions.
My next relationship was with someone coping with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. They chose to talk about the problems they were having with our relationship only as they were packing their things to leave. Two years later, they said we couldn’t be friends. I didn’t really get a good reason for any of it, not that I have to. It was their choice to make.
Last, I spent another two years in a truly abusive relationship with someone who was on the heavy end of the narcissist spectrum.
I had given myself over to these relationships and extended myself in ways that were both reasonable and not. Most of the time, the emotional flow and attention felt like a one-way street and to a large extent I understand. Having a mental health condition can make it especially difficult for someone to show up for a partner in the way it is needed. As the brain turns to bleak thoughts it can be hard to ask for help, discuss feelings, and to know what is real. People who have a mental health condition sometimes use all of their willpower to take care of themselves. They don’t always have the ability to look out for someone else as well (1).
Flash forward to my more recent dating life and I’m still running into people with some of these difficulties, but something in me has changed. Namely, that I don’t have the space for folks like this that I once did. I need a mutually supportive relationship; a connection with someone where we lift one another up. Otherwise, it’s a rush of goodwill and emotion flowing out without much in return. It leaves me depleted.
My relationships have taught me that it’s not my job to heal everyone. In fact, strictly speaking, it may not be my job to heal and center anyone but myself.
I came around in my thinking about a year ago when I started seeing someone that was dealing with depression. When we were together I could tell they liked me and I liked them. Still, they were understandably distant. Plans were canceled and messages were returned 10 or more hours later if not the next day. It wasn’t exactly the kind of behavior that fosters a solid connection or indicates interest. I had to end that relationship and I was honest with them and myself as to why.
People will come with their own baggage because, my gods, who doesn’t have that? Run from anyone who says they don’t. Should someone come along who has a mental health condition who can also care for me as I care for them then I will gladly accept them into my life.
For instance, I have a friend whom I dearly love. They push back against chronic depression and addiction every day. I’m not going anywhere in that relationship. They have let me in enough to understand what they deal with and they still manage to be there for me even though it must be difficult at times.
That’s the kind of love that I want, and need, and it’s okay and even healthy to say so.
So I’ve started a new chapter in my life. I don’t have the mental space anymore to pour myself out for others without anything in return and I’ve been bowing out from those situations when I feel the need.
Those twenty two years weren’t a loss. I don’t view experiences that way. It has given me a hyper-awareness of when people aren’t able to fully step into a relationship. I still give folks the benefit of the doubt because I think people are deserving of that. If they cannot meet me where I am then I just step aside.
Staking out boundaries for myself is incredibly hard to do. Still, this feels healthy and I want to stick with it. I want to put myself in a position to find someone who can show up for me as I can for them. This is part of how it will happen (2).
1. Though I don’t think this gives those who have a mental health condition an excuse for carte blanche, because who we are is defined in part by how we deal with others. I see people using things like introversion (not a mental illness) and depression as excuses for how others must make concessions for them and their behavior. That works to a degree. Just as others may have to make concessions to occasionally accommodate them, so too must they accommodate others. I think the key for those with a mental health condition is to know when to push their boundaries to be there for others and when to politely bow out in order to take care of themselves.
2. I wrote this when I was dating. As of this writing my tactics have been successful in helping me to establish a relationship that is reciprocal.