Before diving into my story of living with a mental illness, I first want to say something to you. If you are reading this, you are likely also living with the ebb and flow of mental illness. You may have a front row seat to the hard days, hopeless nights and the unique challenges that lie between. And, if you’re like me, you may feel some guilt for always struggling, fighting, or working to improve their mental health.
The following is for you. I am sharing my story because I’ve been there and I want to help. My hope is that what I’ve learned from where my mental health has taken me—and the work I did to get through it—may help you.
You need to know that you are worthy of love. You are also worthy of a kind and supportive partner who loves you through your darkest nights and your brightest days. You are worthy of a love that wraps itself around your struggles and embraces you with compassion and gentle understanding. You are not a burden because you have challenges that extend far beyond your control. I know the thoughts can get loud and the pain can feel heavy but at the beginning of each morning and the end of each night and every moment in between…you are still worthy.
How It All Started
The summer before my senior year of college I began experiencing hot flashes and random episodes of dizziness . During those moments I felt out of control and I was convinced I was having a heart attack or symptoms of some serious physical illness. The more they happened, the more I feared them happening again. I was in a constant state of nervous anticipation. With my mom’s encouragement, I hesitantly agreed to see a therapist and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Up until then, I had little knowledge of mental health conditions and no idea what life looked like for someone who lived with one. My “normal”revolved around college life. I focused solely on the external. Until that day at the end of the summer I had never turned my focus inward; never thought about how I was feeling. My diagnosis marked the beginning of a different realm of life for me. It was as if I had been snapped awake—finally feeling everything my mind had been stuffing down for many years.
Due to the severity of my symptoms, I wasn’t able to return back to school that fall, the following semester, or the semester after that. My GAD turned into Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. Sadly, I became emotionally paralyzed and unable to leave my home on my own for months.
It was a scary time. I lived in a state of continuous fear and discomfort, completely isolated from the outside world. It was shocking how quickly my life had changed. Seemingly overnight I transformed from a thriving college student—with a bright future—to a housebound prisoner of my own mind. The agoraphobia was fueled by the concern of having another panic attack in public. Or, running into someone I knew from school and being bombarded with questions I wasn’t ready to answer.
Weekly therapy, endless doctor visits and tests, daily mental health education, and an obsession with getting better became my new normal. Suddenly, my entire life became about saving it.
Anxiety, Depression, and Heartbreak
During this difficult time, I continued dating my college boyfriend. Before my diagnosis, we had a normal and exciting relationship—I thought of him as my best friend. My diagnosis, however, took us both by surprise. Our carefree, college romance was suddenly derailed by a real life crisis.
We tried to do the long-distance thing but the adjustment was tough. One day happily walking through life together; the next torn apart by an undeniable challenge that at the time seemed impossible to understand. He watched helplessly as I tried to fight for a life that no longer had a heartbeat. Feeling as though I had lost everything—except him—I leaned into that love even harder. I held onto him like a safe harbor in the eye of the storm.
Eight months into my recovery my worst fear came true when he ended our relationship. I can’t speak for him or his actions but I’m certain my situation wasn’t easy or fun to deal with. After our breakup, I discovered devastating pain that I didn’t know was possible. My mental health continued to plummet, even more rapidly than before. What was already heavy got heavier and the bandwidth of my pain expanded into depression and worsening anxiety. Losing him meant losing the last sliver of a former life.
Enter, A New Relationship
When I started dating Andrew, it had been a year since the breakup. There weren’t any checkpoints or milestones I felt I had to reach before getting involved with someone new but after a year of working on myself I felt confident to take that step forward. This time I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect and there’d be times I’d have to remind myself of the distance between who I was and who I used to be, but I did it—we did it.
I was far enough along in my recovery, but still in an active place of healing. I had just come out the other end of the most difficult season of my life and maintaining stability in my mental health was my main priority. As a proud mental health advocate, I shamelessly told Andrew right away that I was in recovery. I filled him in on all of the delicate parts of my history and explained the work and self-care I practiced each day to take care of myself.
It was necessary for him to fully understand that my health came first. Of course, these admissions came with fear. After all, I was no stranger to abandonment. How could I not fear that my struggles might be too much for someone else, even if I did have a year of figuring out how to manage them?
But Andrew didn’t bat an eye. A weight lifted off my shoulders—I finally understood what real acceptance felt like. It just had to be by the right person at the right time. Andrew’s level of compassion and openness to learn about mental health made it so easy for me to let him in. We fell in love quickly and organically. Perhaps it was because I had a love to offer that was built from the ground up. Perhaps it was because he had a heart that saw me for me. Perhaps it was because life knocked me off my feet and I had the opportunity to begin all over again with a new sense of self and insight. Perhaps it was all of the above.
Seeing the Struggle
Over the years I taught Andrew how to be there for me. The difference in this relationship is that I was now knowledgeable about my mental health and skilled in advocating for myself when I was struggling. I learned in therapy that it was okay to ask for what I needed from Andrew during the hard times and allow him the opportunity to be that for me. I learned it was okay to be vulnerable. We learned what worked and what didn’t. We put in the effort to find a rhythm that was right for us. We worked hard at communicating and found a love language that honored both of our needs.
It wasn’t until we moved in with each other that he was able to see the hard edges of mental illness up close. The first four years of our relationship we lived apart, so the opportunity to see all the dark corners of my mental illness weren’t there. Call it timing, call it a milestone rattle, call it work stress, but after we moved in together, my mental health began to plummet. I’ve lived with mild obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, my whole life, but towards the end of 2017 it worsened beyond measure. By May of 2018, the OCD was suffocating me to the point of debilitation. Andrew suddenly found himself sharing a table with the unforgiving, complicated, and scary side of mental illness.
I was struggling with Moral Scrupulosity OCD, a constant worry that I’ve been immoral, rude, offensive, or disliked. Those obsessions would lead to mental rituals/loops of repetition, constantly seeking reassurance and apologizing. At times I’d find myself frozen in place, needing to repeat a thought in my head until it “felt right.” It was utterly consuming and I once again found myself fighting for my life in a way I never had before. But instead of being silent, I spoke up about what I was going through. I accepted the support Andrew had to offer as he figured out how to offer it. Although it was out of his wheelhouse, he did his best to help me through something that could only be understood by my own verbal account of it. So he asked questions, he offered help, he listened, and he never stopped instilling the belief in me that I could make my way through it and maybe, eventually, out of it. Communication saved my life. Speaking the pain saved my life. Allowing someone to be there for me saved my life.
Managing Mental Health and Love: A Brain That’s Loud But a Heart That’s Louder
In September of 2018, in the midst of my recovery from my OCD, Andrew proposed to me while we were vacationing in Colorado. I couldn’t believe it. Every day up until then (and even moments before!) I had been battling my own mind, questioning my worth, succumbing to hours of mental rituals, and fighting for my life.
Even the morning of the proposal, I had woken up early to do my OCD homework. I was on vacation, but recovery didn’t stop. How wild it is that those two very different energies, love and challenge, shared space on the same day? I couldn’t believe that in the thick of my struggles, I was receiving the most beautiful message; I am still worthy of love. Though I have a brain that likes to convince me otherwise, in that moment, it was loud and clear; love always wins.
At first, being engaged was terrifying for me. On top of my existing struggles, it immediately stirred up new anxieties. After all, it was completely new territory for me. But with any struggle that came my way, I did the inner work to navigate it.
I sat with that fear, exhaled it into joy, and after a couple weeks I could feel myself detangling. During times of anxiety and fear, I’ve learned to turn to the written or spoken word. I either write my pain or speak it. Whether it’s to Andrew, the Instagram community (@anxietysupport), or my own therapist, asking for company when I’m feeling alone in my head always helps me. Writing has been the most beautiful form of processing this for me.
Each day I’m doing my best, listening to my heart, doing the work, and remembering that I have a brain that’s loud, but a heart that’s louder. I’m blessed to have the most wonderful partner who doesn’t ever do the work for me, but with me. Next to me. A partner who helps me see fear not as a mountain blocking the sunlight but as a mountain for me to climb. Here’s to love, here’s to mental health and here’s to believing we are all worthy of both!