My Story of Long-Distance Love, Sex & Mental Illness
Writing about my relationship with a man with serious mental illness (SMI) feels a little like wearing a tube top in a chapel or like mispronouncing “gewÃ¼rztraminer to a sommelier: vulnerable and a little awkward.
Though he’s “out about his SMI to people we know and we make jokes about it “ and the statistics on SMI continue to evidence that it isn’t really that anomalous – it still seems like some deeply personal thing that cannot be spoken of without what feels like the vain tones of a confessional. But it’s there all the time even when I forget. Just last weekend we went to a birthday party at a dive bar in the Tenderloin. The birthday girl, a friend from college, who hadn’t met my boyfriend before leaned over and asked “So what’s with him and the hand sanitizer?
My boyfriend has severe anxiety and has had three major nervous breakdowns. The doctors who have ventured a guess have postulated that his SMI was caused by premature birth and the arrested development of myelin sheaths in his brain. The anxiety makes it such that sometimes he has a hard time going out for prolonged periods because public bathrooms set off a series of disastrous thoughts. Sometimes he won’t eat the ends of French fries that his fingers were directly touching. Sometimes we’re just sitting together, holding hands and his palms begin to sweat and I know that this means he’s feeling nervous about something like the pathogens in the chicken we ate last night that was room temperature. He carries hand sanitizer a lot because it makes him feel safe and eases his concern about bacteria. When we first met he was washing his hands with a mixture of alcohol and water about 40 times a day. In short, the things that exist as fleeting thoughts to me (and lots of people) consume him completely at times.
Before I met him, I blanched at the phrase “serious mental illness. It sounds thoroughly incapacitating, like a pathology that places a pre-emptive period upon the story of one’s life. But, depending on the severity, things like anxiety and depression can be considered SMI. And tons of people have experience with one or both. When we met he said that he’d tried to hide it in every relationship he’d ever had before me. He’d mask an anxiety attack by getting drunk or sometimes saying something cruel or starting a false argument that would lead to the isolation that he needed to get through it without having to discuss it. It was a cycle of self-loathing that ultimately led to a prolonged vow of celibacy and the expectation that he would just never have a romantic relationship. He had a nervous breakdown during his final year of college, inspired in part, he tells me, by a class on theology and the Holocaust. Though he says that he had always felt a bit of a tenuous grasp on what most call sanity. After that he became agoraphobic.
We met the way I suppose a brilliant celibate agoraphobe and a mouthy sex educator would meet. I was working in radio at the time, and the recordings of my shows were available on iTunes. One day, after having heard one too many episodes of Democracy Now (did I mention he’s a news junky with strong political convictions about the responsibility we all hold as world citizens?), he decided to listen to something, shall we say, a little lighter. iTunes suggested my show about sex. He says that it was the thoughtful way that I spoke about my experiences with fetishism and the way that my voice sounded. He said he’d heard it a thousand times before in a thousand dreams. He said he knew when he heard my voice that I was the one.
He wrote me a love letter that was about three pages long, detailing the ways that he was truly unsuitable for anything or anyone, warning me that he was a crazy good-for-nothing who couldn’t leave his house, and advising me that I should under no circumstances write him back. But, all the same, he wanted to let me know that there would always be someone in a far off land (New Zealand, to be exact) who was there loving me.
Maybe it was my taurean stubbornness or my emotional gluttony or my own feelings of fraudulence, unsuitability and unworthiness or maybe it was my experience having grown up with a mother who self-medicated to silence her own mental illness, but I wasn’t scared of any of the things that he said. When we spoke for the first time there seemed not a trace of all the things about which he’d warned me. He was charming and smart and sexy, but he admitted that on the way to pick up the phone he was using to call me he had vomited into a trash can outside the electronics shop from the anxiety that the outing had caused him. And what I realized soon was these two seemingly disparate facets were somehow not mutually exclusive; they lived together in this same person who I loved too.
It’s been nearly five years since we met, and he doesn’t wash his hands 40 times a day anymore. We’ve traveled on airplanes and trains to Costa Rica and Texas and Disneyland and Australia together (without his vomiting). We eat at dingy places with a San Francisco Public Health Department rating of 62 out of 100. He went on to complete his Masters degree in 2009. Though intimacy had always scared him we had sex within 30 minutes of meeting each other. And my relationship has some of the same drama that my past relationships have had: stinky man arm pits and that annoying little rash I get from facial hair rubbing all over my sensitive parts. I experience “love swings. No, they’re not the newest thing in sexy ceiling installations; they’re sort of like mood swings but they have less to do with mood and more do with how in love I feel on a given day. There are bouts of being utterly enamored and those can be very quickly followed by “don’t touch me! days. I hate those. They make me feel guilty. They make communication really difficult and they make sex unthinkable. He takes these days really personally and unlike my other boyfriends he takes them seriously.
I don’t believe in an SMI personality, but I do believe that going through life with what is deemed a disability can have effects on how one sees the world and interacts with its structures and strictures. And I believe that there are many factors “ among them his SMI – that have impacted the way that my boyfriend enacts masculinity. For instance, what place does a man who’s afraid of so many things have in a society that dictates he must be fearless? How can a man who’s had trouble finding a job because of his disability adhere to masculinity’s directive to provide financially for himself and his family? And this is where masculinity becomes an obvious set of oppressive, dictatorial and ableist (among other “-ists) rules.
Now, from around the time that I knew I was a fat, toppy, hetero-inclined, radical feminist of color and that I was going to stay that way, I realized that I fundamentally could not be with the man I’d been taught to desire: the big hunky savior man¦ you know, the perfect combination of your daddy, Jesus and a serial killer. He’s distant, enormous, rich, white, able-bodied, always right, and finds vibrators “unnecessary (i.e., threatening). He’s like Beast from Beauty and the Beast (lesson learned: sure he incarcerated you, but if you keep smiling he’ll become the man you want). Or like Eric from The Little Mermaid (lesson learned: sure you lost your tail and your voice, but it was all worth it in the end; you prefer his world anyway). But I digress. Because I knew that I would end up really, really hurting a man like Beast or Eric, I had to engineer the kind of man I did want without the help of Disney. And that was challenging. It took time to figure out that a lot of the things that women are taught to want could work really well for me if I could just be thin, submissive, pro-reproduction and good at making my man feel like every orgasm and every good idea had been inspired by him. After some thought I realized what I actually wanted was close to the antithesis of the “perfect man” (as seen in Muscle & Fitness).
There are times when I am so proud of and turned on by the fact that my man isn’t some carbon copy of a typical heterosexual male prototype. He anticipates my feelings and nurtures communication. He turns to me for emotional safety. He doesn’t hide how he’s feeling. Then there are days when I wake up mad at him because he’s not like a typical man or maybe when I say that I mean a man who doesn’t have a mental illness. Though I read a book once called I Don’t Want to Talk About It about the unspoken population of men who have serious depression and hide it or bypass it with anger or isolation. Is that what I want or expect from someone I love? I think about things that would be easier: he would belittle my feelings instead of taking them seriously and I could just get away with so much; he wouldn’t show me how much he loves me and that would make things more mysterious. Trust me, being with a man who doesn’t follow society’s rules on masculinity can dredge up all kinds of really disgusting expectations from men (like emotionally abusive behavior) that I as a woman hadn’t realized had infiltrated my brain and become normalized.
So, this is the part where I tell you what I do when those bad days come, how I fundamentally negotiate a relationship with a man with SMI. I can give you some answers, but in a lot of ways it’s just like negotiating any relationship: there is anger and joy, frustration and compromise, tears and orgasms. Just like any relationship you have to decide if you want to be in it. If the answer is yes then the next two paragraphs may be useful to you.
As far as advice for the bad days I recommend the following (actually, this is useful regardless of your partner’s mental health status): I make a mental list of all the things I really don’t like. I just go to town. I can be as mean as I want because he’s never going to see it. Some of the stuff makes sense (“I hate that he has such a hard time finding a job) and some of the stuff is kind of ridiculous (“I hate that he never walks out on me during an argument. Why can’t he just be more dramatic?). And then I make a list of all the things I really like, from the mundane (“He always washes the dishes and makes the best breakfast) to the sexy (“He’s the first man who ever made me squirt during sex) to the romantic (“He does lovingly provide undiluted streams of love, comfort and adulation). And before the good list gets very long I often find myself lost in feelings of love and appreciation for him.
The second recommendation is this: don’t feel guilty about your feelings. They’re feelings. They’re thoughts. They have been impacted by a million things over a lifetime: the commercials and the beer ads and the advice you got from your grandmother and that one time that kid in school said something about your nose and that one episode of Alf. Sometimes I have the urge to blame my boyfriend for having an SMI, and I want him to will it away as if it were just a detachable part of him or some kind of a bad habit. And when I think about where this thought comes from I can trace it back to all the little stuff I listed above and some more. I can trace it back to my own family, where illness of any kind was simply considered a simple matter of will. I was taught growing up that if you really wanted to get better, you would. And I imagine that this had to do with my grandparents’ experiences with poverty and trying to succeed in the US as Mexican immigrants who knew there weren’t second chances. We live in a culture that values big mean men who can do everything and never miss a day of work and never shed a tear. And it’s normal to long for that sometimes, but remember that it’s imaginary and it’s pretty ridiculous and unfair.
When these feelings of frustration come up, I talk to my boyfriend about them or I write about them. I start with the thought and I trace it backwards: “Where did this thought come from? Who taught me to feel this way about this? This is where I often find social rules about masculinity and ability and all the other icky stuff. And then I ask: “Is this thought working for me or my relationship and does it make me happy? And if the answer is no then I figure that thought has got to go! And each time the thought comes up again, I remember this or I start the questions all over again. And this is how thoughts that suck become things of the past. I’ve done this with other things in my life too. I used to think that I was worthless and ugly because I am fat, but I realized I was taught that lie and that the lie wasn’t real and that in fact I had been a bad ass hot fat girl all along.
Ok, back to my relationship. I think of us as being in a mixed relationship: we’re different sizes (I’m about 100 pounds heavier than he is), we’re different races (I’m brown and he’s white) and we have different mental well/illness statuses. When my boyfriend looks at the world he often sees a scary swath of chaos with a silver lining made up of my cleavage and the squirrels in Golden Gate Park. When I look at the world I often see glitter and cupcakes and cheetah print jumpers with occasional interludes of pandemonium. We have other differences too. He likes whiskey and I prefer strawberry milk. He prefers Willy Nelson and I prefer The Scissor Sisters. He drinks Xanax for his anxiety when he wakes up and I drink Prilosec for my heartburn before I go to bed. And he finds dogs endlessly endearing while I find them indiscriminately sycophantic.
But somehow we work.