|Photo courtesy N.S. Lavay|
Dear Able People:
Creating A Relationship That Transcends Ability Issues
by N.S. Lavay
What is it like being in a relationship with somebody who has severe mental health needs?
I think it’s probably a lot like any other relationship. We spend Sunday sitting on the couch watching Netflix and eating chips. We listen to crappy music together and debate the merits of
different brands of peanut butter at the grocery store.
We also have a very unique set of challenges.
My fiancée, who I call ‘Goose,’ has been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. This creates certain difficulties, but through our teamwork we’ve navigated these challenges and come out stronger. I’d never tell anybody I’m a relationship expert but we just set a date for our wedding; as a commitment-phobe who’s not running away screaming, I assume we’re doing something right.
It took time to figure out how to be a good partner, but I’m very glad I’ve had the luck to meet the incredible individuals who’ve helped me understand how crucial honesty, communication, respect and trust are in fostering a healthy relationship -- regardless of mental health. I recognize that it’s important to learn from my previous relationships. Critical reflection has helped me discover what I don’t want to put up with from others, and realize my own missteps as well.
In my first relationships, I found honesty and communication especially scary. Goose is amazing at gently pushing me towards straightforward discourse and setting boundaries. Not too long ago, I was afraid to discuss my needs, but she’s shown me that it’s okay to tell her when she does something that annoys me, like stealing my pajamas every night. It’s okay to confess that staying in for three weekends in a row is slowly eating at my soul. Being honest is good — I deserve warm pajamas in our cold apartment and I shouldn’t silently develop cabin fever.
Time has taught me that advocating for my needs creates openness between us. Being able to talk about little things which annoy me is practice for talking about the issues that scare us. If I can’t ask Goose to stop stealing my water, how can we talk about bigger issues such as our plan for a mental health crisis?
Trust has been an interesting issue for me. Most people think of cheating when the word ‘trust’ is thrown around, but for the first ten months of living together, I found myself adopting this horrible caretaker approach to our relationship. I made Goose’s lunches, did all the laundry and the grocery shopping, all because I wanted her to be happy and comfy. After a string of weekends on laying on the couch feeling grumpy and irritated, I realized that I didn’t trust in her ability to take care of herself, and this attitude led to burning out. I genuinely enjoy taking care of others regardless of ability, but when I’m stressed I forget to take care of myself. There’s nothing worse than feeling exhausted and emotionally drained, only to be hit with a mental health emergency. It’s important that I trust her to make the best decisions for herself, because when she does request my help, I want to be ready for when she needs me the most.
I won’t lie about the fact that PTSD influences our couple time. We can’t go to the movies, ride the bus at night or go crowded places. While these are things I miss, it means we go on unique and thoughtful dates. We’ve gone to secluded beaches, mini golf, and hiked while holding hands. A therapist suggested we take a dance class so we could experience a safe way of being in a crowd. One of my favorite activities is picnicking at the park with a game of Scrabble. I’ve also found that these types of activities allow us to interact with each other, which is more difficult when one is plunked down in front of a screen or nursing a beer in a loud bar. This has helped me feel so much closer to my love.
If I want to do anything Goose feels uncomfortable doing, like going to bars or dancing, I save it for my friends. This means I get to explore the city I live in with my other favorite people, and have partner who feels safe and mentally balanced.
The PTSD directly influences date-night choices. It also influences our arguments. Goose navigates couples issues much better than I because she was lucky to have received the help she feels she needed. A variety of mental health experts helped her develop a set of tools to evaluate emotions and communicate during arguments. She’s able to ask critical questions needed during times when we don’t see eye-to-eye. Goose has the ability to stay grounded and ask, “Why are we arguing in this moment? What are we trying to accomplish with this argument? How are we feeling? What’s the appropriate way to talk about that?” She’s been an amazing example regarding communication during disagreements. Thanks to my partner, we can find solutions without hurting each other’s feelings. We usually come out of disputes feeling better about the issue at hand and even stronger as a couple.
Being with her can be challenging, but all relationships have their moments. For me, it’s been about deciding whose issues I’m most willing to handle.The magnetic connection I felt during our first conversation has never gone away and every day I only feel more drawn to her. The swelling in my heart when I look into her gorgeous eyes always throws me off guard. I recently accidentally saw Goose in a wedding dress she was trying on, and the sight of it nearly knocked the breath out of me.
Everybody has problems, including able-bodied and neurotypical people. Regardless of ability or mental health needs, everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Mine work well with my fiance’s. The difficulties we face together are nothing compared to our determination to overcome them. I love her so fiercely that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to stick together. Goose attends therapy and engages in other activities to stay on top of her mental health, while I proactively eliminate triggers, or stay in with her on anxious nights. At the end of the day, I’m content from the time we spent together during the evening, and obsessively imagining the details of our wedding, which I bug her about as she attempts to fall asleep. Sometimes she asks me how I can put up with anxiety and avoidance of loud noises, but I always tell her it’s a very small price to pay if I want to watch crappy Netflix with her when we’re 105.