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Pillow talk

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Senior Staff

JULY 13, 2022

Content warning: discussion of mental health, suicidal ideation and self-harm

I only told her what she needed to hear when she was asleep.

In the fall of my freshman year at Berkeley, I started dating the first girl I met on Tinder. Our relationship moved quickly — after only weeks of knowing each other, she was meeting my parents over dinner and sleeping in my bed every night.

From the outset, our relationship felt perfect. Even the smallest things, such as making dinner together or watching as many movies as we could fit into a single day, filled me with joy. It wasn’t long before I began thinking I could spend my entire life waking up next to her.

However, I withheld part of myself, unable to fully reveal my ongoing battle with mental health.

I know what it’s like to burden a partner with my depression. I was fourteen when I entered my first relationship, and I had been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts only months before. My inexperience setting boundaries led to months of oversharing my self-destructive feelings.

While my friends went on picnic dates and enjoyed first kisses, I spent my time with my partner describing lingering urges to harm myself. It was no shock when the unfiltered weight of my depression severed our relationship.

When I came to college and met my new partner, I vowed not to let my diagnoses take a toll on her. But, as I sidestepped excessive divulgence, I moved too far in the opposite direction, deflecting conversations about my wellness.

At the beginning of my second semester, I entered a severe depressive episode, and it was clear to my partner that I wasn’t doing well. I skipped meals, slept until late afternoon and cried at every inconvenience. Despite her constant pleas for me to open up, I refused.

I took a different tactic instead: Amid the sleepless nights that I spent in my partner’s dorm room, I started talking to her after she’d fallen asleep. Once she’d drifted off, I was comfortable enough to communicate the heaviness of my thoughts, knowing that she couldn’t listen. 

“I think my depression is the worst it’s been in a while.”

“I’m worried you won’t love me if you know how I’m really feeling.”

“I don’t know how to talk to you about this.”

The irony of that last statement wasn’t lost on me; I knew it wasn’t productive to be vulnerable only when my partner couldn’t hear me — lifting the curtain only when there was no audience. In my head, bottling my emotions was the only way to maintain our relationship. I convinced myself that keeping my partner at a distance was protecting her from my harsh reality.

Yet, neglecting to talk about my depression didn’t make it disappear. My silence caused us to grow apart. Nights that had once consisted of conversations about the future turned into bitter fights about my refusal to be vulnerable.

Eventually, during an argument, I revealed that I spoke to my partner about my depression when she was asleep. I’d hoped this would show her that, in my own way, I was trying to let her in.

“I want you to talk to me when I can actually respond,” she told me instead, struggling to mask the hurt in her voice. She offered to stay awake with me until I fell asleep, wondering if I’d be more inclined to open up at a later hour of the night. I declined, knowing this wouldn’t make a difference; my habits had grown too severe to rectify.

Despite my efforts to pretend I was doing fine, my mental health wedged a gap between us, and we broke up the following August.

When you’re in love, protecting your partner is instinctual. I wanted to preserve the success of our relationship at all costs, ensuring that she only saw the positive sides of my life. I wanted to give her a love that felt easy.

In truth, it’s healthy to be vulnerable with your partner. There are consequences to building boundaries around mental health. But just as sharing too much can strain a relationship, sharing too little can do the same.

My mental health will always be a crucial piece of my love life. A partner will never be able to cure my depression, nor should they ever feel responsible for my mental health. Still, I can allow them to help me through depressive episodes by taking on smaller tasks, like quietly listening to my feelings or helping me fold laundry when I’m too exhausted to do it alone.

As I’ve juggled relationships throughout the past year, I’ve kept these experiences in mind. I’ve tried to be upfront about the ways in which my mental health impacts me, and I’ve allowed my partners to support me through depressive episodes. I’ve let them know that I’m capable of managing my well-being on my own. Setting boundaries takes practice, but I’m nearing a healthy balance.

This past spring, I ended up reconnecting with my partner from my freshman year of college. I discovered that I’d grown exponentially in my ability to communicate with her about my mental health. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, without the silent burden of my depression weighing on our relationship, we could now enjoy much more interesting pillow talk.

Olivia Rhee writes the Wednesday column on navigating mental wellness. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter

JULY 13, 2022