When You Don’t Understand Yourself, How Do You Expect Me To?
It’s a damp Tuesday morning in the North West of England. Nothing new there then, I hear all you Southerners decry. Well, actually, the North West of England isn’t really full of dark, satanic mills and we do occasionally see a glimpse of what could potentially be called sunlight every once in a while every millennia or so.
I quite like living in the North West of England and you’re hearing that from someone who lived on Miami Beach for a number of years. Not actually ON the beach, you understand; I actually lived in a rather nice condo with a stunning view of said beach and its own pool. Coming back to England on another fairly gloomy day back in 2006 was a culture shock, I can tell you. I came back amidst a snowstorm which made my US Airways plane bump and slide to a halt somewhere it wasn’t supposed to stop but luckily no-one was hurt and I was able to buy a coat in Manchester because I was getting very strange looks as I was still clad in cut off shorts and an off the shoulder tee shirt despite the temperature being below zero. Well, it was 87 degrees in the shade when I’d taken off from Miami International Airport the night before!
Anyway, as I said, I quite like living in the North West of England, notwithstanding the fact that I haven’t got a particularly stunning view anymore and that it’s very rarely 87 degrees even with the heating on. I’ve got North Wales on my doorstep, and there are some beautiful and scenic places to visit for days out which aren’t more than 50 minutes from my home. I can head for Snowdonia and lose myself in the solitude of climbing a mountain – relishing the sound of the silence and the cragged, rocky landscape bathing my eyes with its weather beaten beauty. If I go further up the M6, I’ve got the Lake District and I can walk my way to vast, lush greenery; tranquil lapping lakesides crowded with nothing more than shingle, reeds, and the odd passing duck. Nearer to home, I’ve got the Trans – Pennine Trail to drag eager feet and a reluctant dog along, with its twisty pathways dappled in sunlight leaking through a leafy umbrella overhead.
So, yes, I quite like living in the North West of England. The other reason I like living here is because I’m nearer to you; and this is really about you, after all.
We’re on a break right now. That’s the only way I can describe what’s happened to our relationship because of your mental illness. I always remember the day you told me that you were mentally ill. We’d been seeing one another for about a month, and to be honest, I think even so early on in our relationship, we both knew it was much more than a few nights out and some great sex. So, you called me and arranged to meet me because you said there was something you wanted to tell me. On the way to the café where we’d first met (romantic, you) I ruminated what it was but in all honesty, I never expected to hear you tell me you were mentally ill. I remember your hands, they were tied together in one tense fist, and the knuckles were turning white because you were holding yourself together so tightly that you might have uncoiled like a ball of rubber bands snapping. You told me later that you expected me to walk away there and then. Only I didn’t. I stayed and we’ve been together for the last six months.
Although maybe together isn’t the right way of putting it, at the moment. I don’t think anyone with a mental illness can be ‘together’ – certainly in the last few weeks, I’ve been watching you fall apart with a helplessness and an overwhelming sense of despair that I’ve only ever experienced once before in my life – and that was when my daughter died. Watching this happen to you has made me realise that your heart doesn’t have to stop in order for you to die.
You suffer from PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety – and right now I’m suffering from them alongside you, because not only do these two illnesses seem to control your life, your thoughts, your reactions, your demeanour – they also impact on mine – my life, my thoughts, my reactions, my demeanour. They devour us in a spiralling vortex of what can only be described as confusion. Where we were once solid, we’ve disintegrated. Where we were once happy, we’re miserable. Where we were once together, we’re apart. Mental illness does that. It isolates you and disenfranchises you from things that people who don’t have mental illness take for granted. For instance, I never knew until you told me once that even something like having a relationship can cause your anxiety levels to mount to a point where you have to separate yourself from me just in order to try to control it. Even something that makes you happy, also makes you anxious.
So you ring fence yourself as a defence mechanism – to enable you to lessen the heightening anxiety, you have separated yourself from me and now I’m left here living your mental illnesses with you because that’s what they’ve done – they’ve invaded our relationship and pulled us apart to enable them to feed on the distance they have created between us. When it got to the point where you told me that our relationship was making you ill, you had to take the decision to take a step back and now we haven’t seen each other for three weeks and my What’s App messages don’t have any kisses on them anymore. This is the way you cope – you shut me out in order that you can escape your anxiety. It takes a strong person emotionally to understand that this is not personal, that this is something you have to do in order to regain control of an illness that will control you if you let it, and finally; finally I’m beginning to see the battle that you go through everyday.
Yet when we first met, you told me that all you wanted was to be happy, and I know that despite the anxiety; despite the PTSD, we were happy. So that’s the bit I don’t understand, and I don’t think you do either. The way I look at it, being happy is the best defence against your anxiety. Just holding my hand and letting me love you in a thousand silent ways; just a cup of coffee and a pat on the shoulder letting me give you quiet support at a time when you might need it; a hug and a quiet ‘you’re doing great’ spoken in a whisper which strengthens your resolve to remain calm. All these small gestures could bring both of us so much happiness, if only your anxiety would let you reach out to me and let me fight with you instead of side lining me, leaving me in a no man’s land where I’m only a spectator now.
Happiness is such a fleeting, fragile thing. Sometimes it only knocks on your door once, and then it’s gone in a flurry of yesterday and suddenly, you’re left with only your anxiety for company. I’m trying so hard to understand this whole thing for you, but if you don’t understand yourself, then how do you expect me to?
© Amy J Steinberg 2017