Navigating mental illness, trauma & intimacy

How I grew throughout my illnesses and relationships

Illustration by Stephanie Jiang

Feeling even the slightest bit of love when you’re struggling with your mental health can reinstate value in yourself and your life. But it can also create a dependency on a person to define your self-worth. 

It’s a double-edged sword.

Navigating my mental illnesses, trauma and general mental health through intimate relationships has been a challenging road. These partners rebuilt me when I was broken and tore me down to the weakest point I’ve ever been at when I was rejected. 

After I experienced a sexual assault in my second year of university, I immediately jumped into a relationship. Looking back, I question so many of the decisions I made. I shaped my day around this person, neglected school work to hang out with him and changed myself to fit the girlfriend mold that would be just right for him. And it all felt so right.

I opened up to him about my assault and he was loving, caring and compassionate. So I defined myself off of how he saw me — I built my self-worth around it, I told myself that as his girlfriend, I’d be okay, safe and I could heal. 

Next, I told him about my anxiety, depression and self-harming. He showed me even more love and intimacy and I finally felt accepted. I was the person who I wanted to be.

And then he ended it. 

Any feelings of self-worth I’d built in our relationship came crashing down. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I lost my appetite. I self-harmed. My anxiety went through the roof and I walked around campus shaking for weeks.I walked around blaming him, feeling angry and even texting him an occasional “fuck you.” But my pain wasn’t really caused by him. It was caused by myself.

Still, I didn’t have time to reflect on or even realize this, because when I was vulnerable and hurt, another guy showed up at my door holding the intimacy and attention I needed and wanted to build me back up. I took it and ran. 

My friends questioned me, and there were times I questioned myself too. Either way, after a five-month relationship, I jumped into this unhealthy on-and-off hook-up situation where I was with him only when I was drunk. Subconsciously, I knew I was using him as a crutch to get by.

I’d only see him when I felt the worst about myself — simultaneously using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety and depression. The vicious cycle of this relationship combined with drinking caused me to feel increasingly depressed with each interaction.

Once again, I didn’t see the common factor in all of this – that I was depending on someone else to reinstate my self-worth. I didn’t spend any time working on myself, coping with what had happened or even just being on my own. 

Even after we ended things, I didn’t stop to think about any of this. I blamed him and again, walked around feeling angry.

Without time to reflect yet again, I entered a relationship that lasted from my third year into the second half of my fourth.

Once again, I built myself around fitting into the mold this person wanted me to be as their girlfriend. But for the first time, this person also experienced some of the same illnesses I did. Because of this, I committed to working on myself to get to the place I wanted to be —  I started to see a therapist, with whom I talked about the assault and worked through memories.

Having a partner while you’re revisiting and striving to heal from the trauma of sexual violence can be, again, a double-edged sword. You’re with someone you trust, and I was lucky to be with someone so patient with me and my healing.

But the other side is that you’re not healing on your own. You’re relying on someone else to help guide you through the process. 

After we opened that door, I began to rely on him for everything — for supporting my mental health day to day, for when I experienced thoughts of self-harm or when I battled with alcohol addiction. As you can guess, this isn’t the recipe for a healthy relationship. So we ended too.

But now I’m taking the time to learn. I’m stopping to realize that the onset of what I struggle with the most came from my assault and I never took time to heal from it on my own. 

It’s a hard stop to come to. Making a decision that will be better for you in the long run is usually the hardest commitment to stick by — especially when your vice is just a text away.

So many of us are in relationships. These relationships are short or long, healthy or unhealthy, casual or serious. But we’re at an age where one in four of us will experience the onset of a mental illness, making navigating these relationships even more complex and challenging.

With mental illness(es) or trauma, it can be easier to have someone there to reinstate your value than to try and recognize it on your own. To build you back up when you feel broken. To give you the love that you need. But this is the easy way and it’s often only temporary. You have to remember that what will make you strong is working through these things on your own. 

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be in a relationship if you experience a mental illness. But, shaping your worth around your partner places you in a vulnerable position to be absolutely defeated. If it ends, you could be pushed away from any progress you might have made.

So I look back wishing I did it on my own. I wish I recognized I wasn’t in the place to give myself to someone. And I wish the same for whoever is reading this. Whatever you’re experiencing, I promise you can move back into a place of wellness and healing on your own. Rely on your support systems and your partner if you have one but recognize that you’re so much more than what they see.

It’s the higher hill to climb. But once you reach the top, it will lead to the best view. 

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