I sat through a lot of tense family moments. My father would become unpredictable, stubborn and angry. Little things were often blown out of proportion. And although my family was very open and “progressive” about mental health, it took my father many years to seek help.
I must have been about 14 or 15 when my dad was diagnosed. He was never abusive, but I had seen him slip into days of irritability and sleepless nights and months of very low functionality. In fact, there were a few instances when he could not wake up to take me to school. But the worst was the paranoia. It was not only that everything felt “wrong” to him, but that he was sure that everything and everyone was out to get him…
Epilepsy runs in the family, so we learned back then. It manifests differently in both men and women, and it does not appear obvious until after the age of 30. My dad got the depressive-paranoid kind; his sister, on the other hand, was prone to fainting and convulsing, which led to her later losing her sense of taste and smell in one of those episodes. But one of the things they both share, along with everyone in their maternal line (the one associated with the illness), is the deep dysfunction that rules their relationships.
I often wondered what life was like for my step-mother… She appeared calm and serene most of the time and she was a natural caretaker. Her traits contrasted with my dad’s strong, sharp and self-centered personality. I guess that is why the relationship worked for so long. But I bet it was not easy and that is why eventually there was a breaking point and both of them walked away… Honestly speaking, I was not surprised when the relationship broke apart… I was rather stunned it had taken so long…
Little did I know that this was a cue to my future relationships.
I was not allowed to be present while the Sheikh did the ruqya, which followed months of unanswered prayers and a couple of medical appointments that proved useless. Two different doctors had told my partner to take Tylenol and eat better, after he described strong headaches and fatigue and I expressed my concern over the lack of functionality and the irritability. It was then that his family’s religious beliefs were “confirmed,” and his depression was framed as a rather supernatural issue.
When my partner got sick in our fourth year together, his behaviors triggered memories of my dad’s illness. The irritability, the anger, the lack of functionality… There were a lot of days when I ran the show; from taking him to school, to feeding and looking after both of us. I knew depression had befallen him… I also knew I could not do anything to help him feel better, other than assisting with the day to day things and encouraging him to seek professional help.
I never had a problem being a caretaker, perhaps because I had seen my step-mother doing it most of my life. Therefore, it seemed normal and natural, even in days when our relationship was unrecognizable. I cannot say it was easy. Some days I could not help but being angry, while others I just could not handle sharing the same space. Yet, despite his resistance to seeking medical help, he tried hard to make it “easier” for me. Hence, he became quite proactive in verbalizing his needs, feelings and lack thereof, which helped me assess situations much better.
After the ruqya, however, it was a good six months before my partner could function and control his emotions. At that point, we had been through weeks of talking very little, of him feeling extremely guilty, of him yelling at everything and everyone and of him simply hiding from the world. If it was not because I had a key to his apartment, I would have probably never seen him.
The religious context in which the illness took place, just made it all the more complicated… There was never an admission or a formal diagnosis of depression because he refused to see another doctor or therapist and his family backed him up. Hence, black magic and jinn were discussed as causing the symptoms, and my role as a caretaker was considered to be what “proper Muslim women” do. Without the appropriate care, advice and awareness, he spent the next four years in and out of depressive states, months at a time, until his passing…
Our meetings were often the highlight of my month. Conversations flowed on every direction, spiritual debates sprung and were followed by good food and laughs. I traveled back and forward trying to build on the incredible connection I felt on my end. I wanted to make sure he knew how much I liked and admired him.
I knew he had struggled with depression for a while when we started dating. I thought to myself “I have seen and done this before.” What I did not know is how it would be dating someone living with depression while dealing with mental illness myself. More importantly, I was not ready to be with someone who has done this alone for so long and finds it difficult to let anyone else into his life.
As the relationship progressed things got darker and darker. He would go days without making contact and weeks without seeing me. Even the few messages that were exchanged resembled business-talk rather than an intimate relationship. I went through a number of situations where I truly yearned for his support and care, but he would then retreat, as if he did not know what to do. Every attempt to reach out was shut down and any offer to get closer was ignored. Talks were diffused and feelings were put on hold; yet, the assumption of a committed monogamous relationship remained…
I do not think I ever felt so anxious, alone and neglected before…
He often apologized; he acknowledged how amazing I am; he mentioned “understanding” if I wanted to leave… but I was never sure what any of those phrases meant. Was it real? Was it a way of manipulating me? Was it something scripted over years of failed relationships?
I slowly started realizing the complexities of dating someone living with a mental illness while being such a person myself.
One of the most difficult parts was perhaps the tension between normalizing mental illness and addressing the way in which it can be incredibly destructive. I had seen it before… I was never a stranger to dysfunction and other destructive traits to start with.
Those who knew about my relationship often told me that I “had to” be there for him; that I had to “understand;” that I had to be “supportive” and that I would have to work “for him” to move the relationship forward.
Yeah… there were those who would tell me to take care of me first, but such a recommendation was tainted by questions around whether or not I was “capable” of having a “real” relationship if I was finding it hard to stay with a depressed person despite my own illness. Only a few people were ever concerned that his behaviours did not only reflect depression, but broader issues of toxic masculinity, immaturity and neglect. In addition, many people within the circles we shared tried normalizing absence and hurt as the “status quo” of mental illness love.
One day I just became numb.
I had tried convincing myself, for a long time, that I could do this… and that I had to do it because that is what you do when you care for someone and love them so deeply… But it does not work that way. Love is never enough. In fact, the resentment, hurt, and pain, are often stronger… and prevail for much longer…
Probably, the memories that will remain from this relationship are the moments of desperation and anxiety triggered by the lack of care. And as I struggle to get out of the numbness, I am trying to see purpose and meaning in such destructive expressions of love… Perhaps this is Allah’s way of reminding me that nothing is forever… maybe it is a way to drive my attention away from the dunya…
Or maybe, it is just an earthly lesson aimed to remind me that one thing is loving someone and wanting to be in a relationship with them; another very different thing is actually committing to fighting and taming our own demons (i.e. mental illness)… Without that second part, relationships cannot be more than ill love.