For being two white people at the same college, Andrew* and I were a textbook case of how opposites attract. I wore weird scarves and was really into discussing the systemic devaluation of womyn in the Western philosophical tradition (i.e. the opposite end of the pendulum swing from my sorority days). Andrew was a strapping jock working on his econ degree. We met at the library and, soon after, fell madly in love.
I’d never felt so close to another person before. Despite our superficial differences, Andrew and I connected intellectually, emotionally, sexually. Much to the chagrin of our mutual friends, we had such an extensive litany of inside jokes that half the time no one else knew what we were talking about. With Andrew, I could be my whole self: serious and whimsical, intellectual and creative, vulnerable and strong. Being able to experience that kind of reciprocity – of giving and receiving, loving and being loved – is surely one of the best things about being human.
More worrisome details emerged over the following weeks. Andrew told me that his father had been physically abusive to his mother throughout his childhood; that his father may have hit him, too, but that there were entire years of his life he couldn’t remember. He said that sometimes the voices in his head told him to hurt himself.
Andrew already knew about my experiences in therapy, and how rewarding I found my work with my current therapist to be. But when I suggested he try therapy for himself, he dismissed the idea out of hand. He didn’t want to, he said. He was fine.
He clearly wasn’t, and the more I learned about him, the more worried I was. And the harder I pressed, the more resentful he became. I tried to dropping the issue of therapy altogether, but unlike him, I couldn’t willingly forget all the scary stuff he’d told me.
Paradoxically, my sessions with my therapist began to revolve entirely around him. How saddened I was by the obvious magnitude of the pain he was repressing. How scared I was by his increasing distance from me; by his new, offhanded cruelty. “You’re really gonna eat that?” he asked when I got a cookie at dinner one night. “That’s not very healthy.” When I angrily replied that I could eat whatever I wanted, he grunted and shrugged.
“Why would you even say that to me?” I pressed. “You know I had an eating disorder a year ago.” Another grunt, another shrug.
Sometimes, in his more reflective moments, Andrew would admit that there was something in him that wanted to hurt my feelings, but he didn’t know what or why. I would once again beg him to talk to a mental health professional, and he would once again say no.
I cried all the time. It was amazing how his insults wore on me over weeks and months, until the smallest provocation could set me off. And yet, there were still enough glimmers of the Andrew I knew that I felt loyal to him. It was clear to me that he was suffering too, in the clutches of something that was far deeper and nefarious than I could comprehend.
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The kicker was right before Thanksgiving our senior year of college, a little more than a year after we’d begun dating. I was spending the night in his dorm room; the plan was to take a taxi to the airport together the next morning. We hooked up, and immediately afterwards, Andrew said, “It’s weird – I don’t feel any connection to you when we have sex. Like, you could be anyone.”
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I told him that I loved him and cared about him, but that we weren’t making each other happy, and that I was exhausted. He was stunned and burst into heaving sobs, begging me to change my mind. I threw my stuff in my bag and left.
At the beginning of Andrew’s and my difficulties, I believed that love truly could conquer all. That, like so many romantic songs and movies say, loving each other would be enough to get us through our problems. It’s a dangerous lie.
You can’t teach, cajole, or force anyone else to be self-aware. You can’t tell someone else how to save their own life – no matter how much you love them, no matter how much you want them to be happy. Because even if they do everything you say, if they don’t do it for themselves, it won’t work. Nothing will change – and you’ll be left alone at sea, trying not to drown in their problems.
In the wake of my relationship with Andrew, I was deeply angry. How could I have let myself been treated so badly, and for so long, at a time when I felt otherwise confident and empowered?
Moreover, after everything that had happened, how could I still miss him?
Strangely enough, through mutual friends, Andrew and I maintained a polite acquaintanceship for several years after we graduated. And then, this past Christmas, we met up for coffee. It was Andrew’s idea; a year ago, he’d finally taken it upon himself to start therapy, and he wanted to tell me about it. “You were right,” he said. “I needed to do it, and it’s been really hard, but it’s changing me for the better.” He wanted to apologize for all he’d put me through. I said, honestly, that we’d both learned a lot from the experience – that he had hurt me deeply, but that I’d come to understand, through therapy, that he simply wasn’t capable of treating me better at the time.
I want to be unequivocally clear that I am in no way condoning partner abuse of any kind – and that, yes, by the end of our relationship, Andrew was being psychologically abusive (which I have said to his face, and which he has acknowledged as true). In that sense, he certainly deserves blame for what happened between us. However, given the specifics of his and my relationship, I have, over the past few years, determined in tandem with my therapist that the best thing for me personally to do – the best thing for my psychological well-being – is to forgive, but not forget. Needless to say, there are many, many cases in which this attitude should not apply. I am deeply comforted to know that Andrew has had several healthy and fulfilling relationships since we dated – as have I – and that he has learned to break the unhealthy behavioral cycle that pushed us apart, which is no easy feat. And which, as he says, will be an ongoing process.
With that out of the way, Andrew and I ordered another cup of coffee and moved on to other topics – his culty neighborhood soccer league, my obsession with my cats. It was as if no time had passed at all. We still knew each other’s quirks, could still laugh hysterically at things no one else would even find funny. Even now, I’ll admit to occasionally wondering if we should restart our romantic relationship. But then I think of the other side of our time together – the unbearable pain that ultimately defined it – I know that I can’t go there again. No matter how much Andrew has grown and changed, no matter how much I long for the camaraderie in a partner that he and I had. I’ve fought too hard for my happiness to even invite the possibility of opening up those old wounds.
I’ve had many more adventures with mental health since then – some good, some challenging, but all instructive. Maybe, at some point, I’ll write about those too.
But for now, this is what I leave you with:
You alone are entrusted with the sacred project that is your life.
You will have to fight difficult battles, and you may have to fight the same ones over and over again. This is not weakness, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t win the first time; it’s the very nature of being alive, and more specifically – as it relates to this series – having mental illness.
But you also have the capacity to learn, to make affirming choices. Now, when I date, the first thing I look for in a potential partner is self-awareness, and a commitment to personal growth that mirrors mine.
And most important of all: If you want to be strong, be kind to yourself. It’s the first step that makes healing possible.
*Name has been changed
Read the rest of Estelle’s story here.