By Sarah Ryan, NAMI
Sharing such intimate information is scary, but taking the risk is worth it on many levels
Telling your partner about your mental health diagnosis is a big step in a relationship that is often met with anxiety, uncertainty and fear. Here is what I have learned through my process of disclosing my diagnosis to the man who is now my husband. I hope my experience — and hindsight — can help guide others who are making this important, brave decision.
Choosing to disclose is a positive, even exciting step
If you want to share this type of information with someone, it's a sign that the person is special. Your sharing likely means you want to be real and transparent — to achieve greater intimacy.
If I could go back, I would tell myself that sharing a mental health diagnosis in the first place is actually a privilege and honor; whomever you choose to tell is fortunate to know. A good partner will understand the significance of a disclosure because it leaves us vulnerable. Our ability to be vulnerable speaks volumes about the strength of the relationship.
Trepidation is a normal but important filter
Understandably, we can't predict someone's reaction. We may not know a person's thoughts about mental illness, if they have first-hand experience with it or whether they may see through a lens of stigma.
It’s normal to worry that we might be seen differently. Personally, I feared for the first time my partner found out I wasn’t “perfect,” or worse, that I have a “problem.”
There are other reasons that disclosing a diagnosis is hard. Maybe this relationship is the best thing to happen in a long time. It's a risk and painful to think of being rejected. Rejection can make it seem as though our past and current mental health status always will prevent us from finding love and happiness.
However, I think it’s better to know sooner if a partner will be rejecting because I don’t want to waste my time with someone who won’t accept me. I wouldn't truly know if my partner was the right person until he learned about and accepted me fully, including the diagnosis.
Transparency can be a relief and strengthen a relationship
The truth is: while illness doesn't define or identify me, the act of hiding information is emotionally draining. It takes energy that could be directed toward growing the relationship instead. Beyond the exhaustion, there's anxiety about the person discovering on their own.
From my experience, withholding important information can slow down or impede a relationship. By being resistant to 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. He would see how well I was doing despite the challenging diagnosis. While this method led to a successful relationship, I still wish I had disclosed sooner.
The right person will respect your journey
Ultimately, my partner admired my courage to face my illness and my persistence to seek treatment. He learned my limitations and imperfections — and still loved those parts of me.
In the process of disclosing my diagnosis and growing my relationship with my partner, I realized that not having a picture-perfect past turned into a gift. I know I am loved, regardless of societal stigma, hospitalizations and labels.
I feel so fortunate to experience a love that surrounds me regardless of setbacks. I prefer it to being considered “perfect.” Now, I know my husband fully accepts me for exactly who I am. My disclosure gave him the opportunity to show his love and belief 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.