Relationships

Mental illness isn’t a personality trait, and it definitely isn’t a relationship maker

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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“Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do, doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

– 500 Days of Summer

I used to hate this quote. I thought that same-ness was what made two people compatible. The more the better, pile on the similarities. If myself and another person could melt into each other as seeming clones, repeating each other’s sentences and finishing others, I thought that was the ultimate relationship compatibility. It still can be, to some degree. But as a mentally ill person in the dating field, I have to be careful that I’m not mistaking my mentally ill traits as elements of me that should be replicated in my partners.

I have a laundry list of issues. I have a mood disorder, an obsessive disorder, an eating disorder, and a trauma disorder. Sometimes, I fall into the trap of believing that those are qualities of Me. I am my eating disorder, my depression, my OCD, my PTSD. When experiencing them, they often swallow me all-encompassingly. I’ll be unbearably sad, twitching or sobbing out of residual fear, or frightened of my dinner. It takes work to remind myself that those are illnesses; they’re not traits I can have in common with anyone.

To validate myself, I understand why I’d be drawn to partners who understand what it’s like to be mentally ill. In more general populations, it’s quite frustrating to be one of the only ones who understands what it’s like to feel differently and overwhelmingly. We’re supposed to seek safety, comfort, and companionship in partners, and same-ness can be those things.

The fallacy is in thinking that the disorders themselves are the compatibility. To explain, I’m going to use an example of a past relationship.

He and I were the same on paper. We liked all of the same things, were both bright, had the same sense of humor, had similar life experiences. I thought we had all of the same disorders. And having him really get what a trauma attack is like, what being suicidal was like, what being anorexic feels like, was powerful to me. I felt a magnetic pull towards him. Our shared disorders, not Harry Potter or John Mulaney, became our compatibility.

What I now understand is that disorders are not personality traits. Mental illnesses are diseases, and diseases are meant to be managed or cured, always. There is nothing sweet or endearing about an illness. It strews pain and damage in its wake at every turn, and because they’re so random in who they happen to, the disorders themselves say nothing about their hosts.

What does say something about a person who’s mentally ill? The choices they make.

My partner made choices that I would never have made, would never make. He chose to lie, manipulate, hurt, and feign. These can be symptoms of mental illnesses, absolutely. But they needn’t be.

Those choices- deception, manipulation, pain inducement- are what character is really composed of. As Dumbledore says (and has said multiple times on this website…), “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What we choose to act on, what we do to ourselves and others, what we say and what we put time into, is the composition of character.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, a traumatic way. Now that I know it, and now that I’ve left my old, “therapeutic” school, I’m going to be sure to surround myself with people I’m genuinely compatible with, not just people who “get it.”

What kind of person makes me feel good? What kind of person draws out my healthiest self? Who really makes me feel safe, at home? Who am I the best version of myself around? None of these answers are “my clone,” and none of these answers are “manipulative people” or “compulsive liars.” Likely, these answers vary and will be up to experimentation.

As it pertains to mental illness, I can still try to find some camaraderie in shared illnesses, I believe, but it won’t be the fact that the illnesses are shared that draws me to a person. I take my medication every day, twice. I go to therapy three times a week. I pour my heart out to therapists and trusted friends. I have an enhanced empathetic outlook due to what I’ve been through, and a keen eye for hardship in the lives of those around me, as well as learned methods to improve those hardships. I’m a bleeding heart liberal and an intuitive justice seeker. I use writing to help others through shared experiences.

These are the things I can control about my illnesses. I make these choices every day. As such, these are the makings of my character, and they are what I can try to seek in others if I’m in pursuit of same-ness.

“He has PTSD too!” is NOT the basis of a relationship. “He is also kinder to others because he also knows that there’s a deeper level of sadness others can sink to,” or “he always tells me the truth because he understands how lying can be particularly painful for the formerly abused,” and other such compatibilities, can be the basis of something sweet and rare.

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One thought on “Mental illness isn’t a personality trait, and it definitely isn’t a relationship maker

  1. Poignant and honest. I loved it. You have been and are making such strides in understanding and managing your illness. Not only that, you are reaching out to others in order that they might begin to grasp this understanding, too. Helping while hurting must take superhuman strength of mind and character. You are really heading toward both, and your Mema and Pop are so proud of you.😎👏💋

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