Braving A New Relationship
I remember the first time I had to tell my boyfriend my mental health story. We had been going together for a couple of months and were lying on the couch watching an old cult classic. Suddenly my heart slammed against my chest. I couldn't catch my breath. I had recently begun having these baffling symptoms at my teaching job. Looking back, I realize that I was terrified of being in a new relationship, of having to share my painful story with a potential partner.
I've lived all my life with complex post traumatic stress disorder due to childhood trauma. I grew to be an expert at hiding my anxiety symptoms, but for some reason that night I couldn't fake my usual calm. When the movie ended, I excused myself to the bathroom and burst into tears. My boyfriend knocked on the door, then took my hand and led me to the couch where he patiently waited for an explanation. I remember mumbling a few details, none of which seemed close to the actual fear I was experiencing. How do you tell someone your incredibly complicated and traumatic life story in ten minutes? What if he raced for the door in sheer overwhelm?
A few days later I knew what I had to do. I emailed him a presentation I had given that year to some close friends, disclosing details about my childhood history, my PTSD diagnosis and treatments. I had written the presentation in preparation for a mental health talk I was giving later that year. I crossed my fingers and prayed he would embrace my story with a reassuring balance of compassion and empathy.
Flash forward one year later and the relationship is remarkably smooth sailing. I answer any lingering mental health questions from my presentation and he seems satisfied with my answers. Still, he has not yet seen a trace of my night-time phobias, ruminating thoughts or other anxieties. Inside I am secretly shocked that despite our overnight travels together my insomnia has miraculously kept at bay. I feel free, hopeful. I have successfully managed to dodge my PTSD hump!
But of course, on the last evening of our overnight trip together, it emerges. I lie in our hotel bed and stare at the clock in panic, my thoughts racing as he sleeps peacefully beside me. Suddenly I am flooded with a combination of terror, grief and inconsolable loneliness. I long to reach out and wake him, to tell him how afraid I feel right now, but hesitate. I have been doing so well for so long. He has never seen me like this. How will he react? I gently touch his shoulder and he stirs. Later he awakens to my frantic breathing and strokes my hair. I try to relax as he holds me. I sleep an hour or two with fitful, anxious dreams. As morning arrives, I feel a welling panic in my gut, the familiar shame of my vulnerability. I am convinced my ptsd has won. That my relationship is doomed.
But then a small part inside of me whispers, “tell him” and so I do. I tell my boyfriend that I am having a panic attack, the same kind I had as a child. I talk and cry and talk some more and to my surprise he listens and validates my feelings. He assures me that he is not going anywhere, that he loves me. He tells me I won't feel this way forever and that this is just a blip, a growth opportunity in our journey together. And even though I am filled with fear and doubt, I make another decision. I decide that just for today I will borrow one ounce of his faith and optimism. As I drag myself into the shower, I realize that a part of me has always known this moment had to happen. My PTSD was testing the strength of our relationship, the strength of our trust. I have no idea what our future relationship holds. I do know that it takes great courage to trust someone else with your mental health story. But it is entirely worth it.
About The Author:
Phyllis Rittner is a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter, where she speaks publicly about her experiences to schools, corporations, providers and families. Watch Phyllis' PTSD story at This Is My Brave Boston: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJxWpu7g72U. She is the creator of Broadway Seated Dance, a music and dance program for senior citizens. She is also an actor, playwright and belly dancer.