By Sarah Merritt Ryan
Telling your partner about your mental health diagnosis is a big step in a relationship that is often met with anxiety, uncertainty and fear. I have first-hand experience telling the person I saw myself spending the rest of my life with that I have a serious mental illness and will be taking antipsychotic medications for the rest of my life.
Here is what I have learned through my process disclosing my schizophrenia diagnosis to the man who is now my husband. I hope that my experience — and what I wish I had known — can help guide others who are making this important, brave decision.
If you have the desire to share this type of information with someone, it is a sign that this person is special. Your wish to disclose likely means that you want to be real and transparent with them — to achieve greater intimacy for the purpose of a long-term relationship.
If I could go back, I would tell myself that sharing this information in the first place is actually a privilege and honor to your partner. Whoever you choose to tell is fortunate to know this information. A good partner will understand the significance of you thinking highly enough of them to disclose sensitive information that leaves you vulnerable. So, the right person will see your disclosure as a good thing. And your vulnerability speaks volumes about the strength of your relationship.
Understandably, you may not want to disclose because you do not know how your partner will react. Even if you don’t know how they will react, it doesn’t mean they aren’t the right person – you may just not know for sure what they know or think about mental illness. Perhaps they don’t have any first-hand experience with mental illness, and they might unintentionally see your diagnosis through the lens of stigma. It’s normal to worry that their limited experience might lead them to see you differently. Personally, I feared for the first time my partner would find out that I wasn’t “perfect,” or worse, that I have a “problem.”
I understand why disclosing this information is so hard. Maybe your relationship is the best thing to happen to you in a long time, and you don’t want to take the risk. Of course, it would be painful to find out that your partner doesn’t accept you and your diagnosis. Rejection can make us feel as though our past and current mental health status keeps us from finding the love and happiness we are looking for. We don’t want someone to look at us and worry that we could be untrustworthy or relapse.
However, it’s better to know sooner if your partner would reject you as you don’t want to waste your time with someone who won’t accept your illness. Your time is just as precious as your partner’s, and you won’t truly know if your partner is the right person for you until they know and accept you fully — including your diagnosis.
The truth is: while your illness does not define or identify you, the act of hiding information about yourself is emotionally draining. Concealing information about yourself takes energy that could be directed to growing your relationship instead. Beyond the exhaustion of hiding a diagnosis, you will likely experience undue anxiety about your partner finding out before you decide to tell them.
From my experience, I can say that withholding that information can slow down or impede your relationship. By resisting sharing my diagnosis, I was putting the brakes on my relationship without meaning to; I was holding back, afraid of him rejecting me and my mental illness history.
I revealed information incrementally over the course of two years, because I wanted my partner to really get to know me — and he could see how well I was doing despite the challenging diagnosis. While this method certainly led to a successful relationship, I still wish I had disclosed sooner.
Ultimately, the right partner will admire your courage to face your illness and your persistence to seek treatment. They will know your limitations and imperfections — and they will love those parts of you as well.
In the process of disclosing my diagnosis and growing my relationship with my partner, I realized that not having a picture-perfect past has turned into a gift. I know I am loved, regardless of societal stigma, hospitalizations and labels. I feel so fortunate to experience a kind of unconditional love that surrounds me regardless of setbacks — and I would prefer that to being considered “perfect.” Now, I know my husband fully knows and accepts me for exactly who I am, and my disclosure gave him the opportunity to show how much he loves me and believes in me.
Sarah Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics like stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia, and she is an ongoing NAMI Wake County blog contributor and NAMI Connection support group facilitator in North Carolina. She is now a wife, mother and proud owner of two Pitbull rescues.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI