When I first started dating my boyfriend two and a half years ago, I knew nothing about mental health. I mean, I read a lot about it, and I had some not so close friends that struggled with anxiety and depression. But I had never actually had to provide support for someone with a mental illness. But because I did often read about it, when I found out my partner was struggling, I thought nothing major of it.
Luckily, there is a lot of conversation going on now about mental health.
I say luckily because I firmly believe that the more people talk about it the close we get to tearing down the stigma often attached to this topic. But while many talk about what it’s like to be the one struggling, or what others can do to support them, I had never before read or heard anyone talk about how the struggles of one person can affect those in their close circle. As I came to discover, it can really take a toll on you.
Now, I’m not saying this in a “boo-hoo we all struggle, get over yourself” kind of way. Of course, it is extremely important of support those in your life who may be battling a mental illness, an illness which is 100% valid. The point I’m trying to make is, you should never stop taking care of yourself when you’re supporting someone else.
You see, about a year into my relationship, I began to feel emotionally exhausted. Once the honeymoon face had faded, things were far from rosy colored. Much like every relationship, we had some issues. The problem was, I dreaded the idea of making my boyfriend upset, so I refused to bring up anything that bothered me or made me upset. Instead, I would just swallow my feelings, hoping they would go away. But here’s the kicker: they never actually do. When you bottle all that negativity down, it begins to simmer, waiting for the moment it can blow up. The more I tried to pretend like I was fine all the time, the more irritable I became.
Because I wasn’t the one struggling with mental health, and because I wanted to be a proper support for my partner, I told myself over and over again that my feelings weren’t valid, that I had no right to be getting upset, that I should just suck it up. Whenever me and my boyfriend were together and he would have an anxious episode, I felt like I had done something wrong and it was my fault. And no matter how much I had read up about mental illnesses in the past, I had no clue how to help him at all, which made me feel incredibly helpless. But because it wasn’t my struggle, I felt like I had no right to get upset over it or share it with anyone. At the end of the day, it wasn’t me going through the hardships. Wasn’t it, though?
The unreal expectation I had placed on myself to always be fine began to make me apathetic. I was often talking down on myself, making all sorts of conjectures in myself. Mostly ignoring my feelings and needs caused me to be extremely irritable and constantly dissatisfied. All of these things I was trying to suppress to make myself a “better supporter,” at the end of the day just made me way worse at it.
It was only when I finally began owning up to what I was feeling, started having honest conversations about my needs (even when they were uncomfortable and made my partner upset for a while), and took the time for care for myself as well that things began getting good again. We slowly found our way towards a balance that makes space for both our needs. And not having to pretend like I was fine all the time gave me the chance to notice all the amazing things I had, which helped me feel much more fulfilled. At the end of the day, it was actually putting as much into caring for myself as I did for my significant other that made me a better support system, rather than pouring everything onto the other person and draining myself.
It was only recently that I discovered there’s such a thing as compassion fatigue. The term refers to a kind of burnout often found in those that have caregiving roles (mainly health care workers). As it turns out, studies have shown that putting all your energy into healing or supporting others without properly looking after yourself can have very real consequences.
Everything I was feeling, which I thought I had no right to feel, was actually not only valid, but a proven sort of burnout. The point of this whole story is this: self-care is never a luxury, it is ALWAYS a necessity.
So, take the time to look after yourself. Remember that whatever you feel, no matter what it is, it is valid. Honor your needs and your emotions. Failing to do so will not make you a better supporter, but the oposite.
As the cliché (but very real) saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Guest Writer - Sabby Rosenblatt
Sabby is a photographer, editor and aspiring filmmaker from Uruguay. While she always had an interest in mental health, it was two and a half years ago when she started a relationship with her current boyfriend, who has anxiety, that she found herself in the role of the supporter for the first time. As she dealt with his struggles and realized the big effect they had on herself, she had to learn how to validate her own feelings and the importance of self-care to provide better support to her partner. Along the way, she realized how much easier her own journey would have been if she'd had a community of support with people going through similar things. That's how the Mental Health Adjacent Community project was born, in an attempt to provide others the support and safe space she wished she had had throughout the relationship and generate a positive impact in people's lives.