What it's like when mental illness is part of your relationship.
When I made the transition to freelancing full time in June 2016, I felt like I was reclaiming my life. I left a nonprofit job that had a hard pay ceiling, and I started to pursue my passion for writing. My boyfriend of nearly four years, James, was supportive of my chasing my dream. I expected lots of hard work and time spent in front of my computer. What I didn’t expect was the anxiety.
Since I’ve officially become a freelancer, my income has never been the same month to month. I’ve always been able to pay my bills, and I do have a healthy savings account. But the instability of freelancing has caused me to experience anxiety like never before in my life.
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For me, anxiety feels like a tightening in my chest and a tendency to obsess over one thing. (Why didn’t that editor respond to my email yet? Why???) Freelancing brought anxiety into my life in waves. I had to complete the writing and edits, and grow a social media following—plus do the invoicing, quarterly taxes, and recording of payments. I was making more money, but it came with more anxiety.
Anxiety, meet depression
As I was experiencing work-induced anxiety, James was dealing with depression. In the same way that my anxiety hit in waves, he would have days where he felt mired in depressing thoughts.
For him, depression manifests as a feeling of hopelessness about the future. While I was an anxious mess over how to create stability month to month, he dealt with frustration and sadness about the world at large. (Not helped by today's news cycle!) He works at an company that helps protect the environment, but the constant news about climate change and cuts in funding to the EPA sapped his positivity. It’s easy to believe the worst when something you care about is always under attack.
Mental illness had wormed its way into our relationship, and it brought challenges with it. In my case, when I was in the grip of anxiety and feeling awful, it was easy for me to blame things outside of myself: My partner didn’t do as much housework as I did, or he wasn’t as ambitious as I was. He was the cause of my anxiety, and he needed to change.
In James' case, his depression prevented him from noticing the good things in his life and the world around us. He was continually drawn to the negatives, and he failed to notice the positives. That heightened my anxiety, because sometimes all we would talk about were the endless problems we saw.
While sometimes it feels great to blame someone in the moment, all I was doing was adding more stress to my life. I was trying to control things that were outside of my control. Rather than saying, ‘I'm struggling with financial and professional uncertainty, which makes me feel anxious about the future,’ I looked for someone to blame around me, and landed on my partner.
Our communication began to suffer because we only heard things through the filter of our mental illnesses. It became clear that while we loved each other deeply, we weren't always being good partners.
The relationship wasn’t broken in any way; our individual behaviors were just weighing us down. It wasn’t that his beliefs or behaviors were incompatible with mine (of vice versa). We loved being around each other, and we shared the same political, social and ethical views. But we were each falling into negative cycles that hijacked our thoughts. I was stressed about money, so I talked about money nonstop. James was sad at the devastation caused by climate change, and he blamed his own actions (like driving to work).
We realized that we each needed to sort some things out. We talked about it on two different occasions, and we decided to enter individual therapy to get some help. Our battles with depression and anxiety stemmed from us as individuals, not as a couple. We didn’t have the tools we needed to deal the right way, so we went looking for them.
Saved by therapy
Having time each week to focus on ourselves and talk through life with an impartial third party was invaluable. Therapy offers a chance to get things off your chest. For me, that meant a safe place to voice my work frustrations and fears. My therapist helped me see that my frustration didn’t originate with my partner’s actions; it stems from the instability of freelancing.
Therapy also gave us tools to communicate. We learned how to say to each other, ‘I’m feeling X, and I need Y from you right now.’ We found it helpful to simply identify our anxious or sad feelings out loud. Saying ‘I’m feeling really anxious right now’ told my partner why I was behaving in a certain way and showed him that he wasn’t to blame. Opening up when we were struggling gave the other person a clear understanding of what was going on without making the other responsible for fixing it.
Right now, we’ve each been in therapy for around five months. My anxiety is much better; I can recognize when it’s growing, and I have tools to stop it before it causes a professional or personal problem. One tool in particular is journaling. I can write out my feelings and organize them on paper, which helps me identify the root of them. I also started a weekly video call with other freelancers, so we can talk about problems we’re having and get support from one another. I can bring my work issues to people with the same issues—instead of my partner.
Our experiences with mental illnesses have brought us closer in some ways. We’ve seen each other deal with some tough experiences, and we’ve functioned as sources of support for each other. We talk through everything as a couple—something I’m thankful for.
Dating with mental illness isn’t always hard, but it isn’t always easy. I know that as long as I continue to freelance, I will have periods of intense anxiety. I know that James will deal with depression for periods of his life. It’s a never-ending dance, but we've found the tools and resources to make it more of a waltz than a face plant.