Finding Love Within My Mentally Ill Heart

I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life. Though I hoped to one day find love and happiness, I always believed I was broken and damaged beyond repair and questioned who could possibly want or love what I have to offer. A friend once told me that two mentally unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship. I took that to heart, believing love might indeed be beyond my reach. That is, until a twist of fate brought someone from my childhood back into my life.

My childhood was a jumbled mess of abuse, trauma, dysfunction and mental illness. Even as a child, I had struggled and learned early on to wear a smiling mask, reassuring everyone around me that I had everything together and was okay. I went through the motions, striving to be the person everyone else expected me to be. The real me beneath it all felt unseen and unheard, irrelevant and invisible.

Growing up, he was one of my older brother’s friends, a few years older than me. Though that fact rendered us off limits to each other, he was still always very kind, friendly, gentle and sweet to me. Where everyone else only saw the mask I wore, that bubbly, smiling cheerleader with straight As and not a care in the world, he always talked to me and treated me as if I was more than that. He saw the real me even when I felt invisible.

I was thoroughly smitten by him all those years ago. In my head, he became the embodiment of all that I adored. He was sweet, smart and funny with just the perfect amount of cheese. He had this off the beaten path nerdy side and was never afraid to walk to the beat of his own drum. He was the epitome of the boy next door archetype and would influence every other man I would ever find myself drawn to or interested in. Whether or not he realized it, I saw him, too, and he quickly became my first puppy love crush.

As often is the case, life happens. My world collapsed beneath me, spiraled out of control and I found myself living another life, a world away from the world I grew up in and everyone attached to it. My childhood was firmly behind me. I spent many years running from that time, hoping to put as much distance as possible between myself and the demons of my past.

I learned the hard way that you cannot outrun your past. It is attached to your heels like your shadow, always connected, always behind you hanging on. Mental illness and trauma compounded over time. It became harder and harder to function. That beautiful, smiling mask I had worn for years started to crack. I began to fall apart piece by piece.
In an effort to pull myself back together and bring myself to a healthier place, I started to talk and write about all I had been through, hoping to heal and move beyond it. Reopening old wounds also reopened old doors. I found myself back in contact with people from my childhood that I hadn’t spoken to in over twenty five years.

He arrived within the tidal wave of my past that washed over me, knocking me off my feet. The remnants of old, long dormant feelings flowed in, as well. It was not the strong, passionate flood of a love fully formed but rather that innocent, sugary sweet trickle from a young heart that still believed in fairy tales and happily ever afters. I had been caught for so long in a fierce storm of very deep, very serious, adult issues and problems. Though I was thoroughly unprepared for his re-entrance into my life, it was oddly refreshing.

We arranged to meet, to just sit down and catch up. Sparks flew immediately. For hours, we talked and talked. There was this incredible comfort I was unaccustomed to feeling and an instant trust that threw me off-guard. Though we had lived our lives seemingly a world apart, we had been unknowingly been walking down the same path. Our journeys had left us both riddled with scars and pain. Yet somehow, we had both found ourselves at the same destination, wanting to live a healthier, happier, more positive life above and beyond the damage caused by our past.

As we talked, it became increasingly clear how well he understood everything I was saying. Topics that I normally hesitated to discuss or that I often minimized for the comfort of others, flowed freely without restraint. All the scars I normally hid for fear of making others uncomfortable or scaring them came into full view. I had no fear or shame of sharing myself with him because he always truly understood where I was coming from. He could see beneath my scars to the person I was beneath. Once again, he truly saw me.

And once again, I saw him. Life had given him some deep scars as well. Like me, he was still raw and hurting in some ways. But like me, he had this incredible drive and desire to no longer let his past define or control him. Beneath all the scars, though, he was still very much the boy I remembered from years ago. He still had that same sweet, warm heart, that same adorably cheesy sense of humor, that same lovable nerdy side. He was still very much himself.

Everything has steamrolled from there. It seems impossible that a relationship could have grown and blossomed so quickly until you stop to consider that we have spent many whole days, whole nights, whole weekends together. Not a day has passed since we reconnected that we have not talked throughout the day from good mornings to good nights. Even on the busiest days, we find time for each other. We have not wasted a single moment making up for lost time. And no matter how much time we spend, we still hate to part ways and miss each other minutes after we’ve parted.

That is not to say that our relationship is perfect. We have had a few misunderstandings along the way as our old baggage crept in. Even those moments feel drastically different from anything I have ever experienced before. We know the pain we’ve each been through and don’t want to inflict anymore on each other so we are both conscious and cautious of our words. We take the time to talk things out instead of letting our insecurities, fears or frustrations control our emotions. I’ve never before experienced such peaceful or rational resolutions, never had anyone so fully consider my feelings even during moments of conflict. We’ve both lived through emotional war zones and refuse to allow our relationship to become another casualty.

For the first time in my life, I have someone there who truly saw me, who fully understood me, who accepted me wholly without judgment. For the first time, I could fully be myself, not hide my scars or minimize my pain for the comfort of anyone else. I could openly discuss my insecurities. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel I had to be ashamed of the person I truly was underneath.

We spend a lot of time talking and are brutally honest with each other not only about our feelings in the moment but also the baggage that our feelings stem from. We have quickly become a safe place for each other, where we can share all our thoughts and emotions, the good, the bad and the ugly. We understand each other because we have both been there. There is no discomfort, no shame, no second-guessing whether we can speak our mind, no walking on eggshells wondering how our words will be taken. We can both finally just be ourselves.

I find myself thinking back to the friend that told me that two mentally unhealthy people could not have a healthy relationship. I am beginning to think that perhaps the only way I could have a healthy relationship is to be with someone who has been down the same unhealthy path I have traveled. I needed someone who could truly understand my pain and who could empathize without judgment. Only someone who understood what it is like to be riddled with scars themselves would be able to see past my scars to the person I truly am inside.

I have honestly never felt more accepted, more heard, more adored for the person that I am. I feel safe. He feels like the home I always wanted for myself, the sanctuary I always hoped to find. Like me, he is a survivor. Like me, he wants more from his life. He refuses to let his past or his scars define him. We are two peas in a pod, two puzzle pieces that fit together, two souls that just work and make sense.

I love how he makes me feel. I love him. We know it may seem irrationally fast, bordering on insane to anyone outside looking in but it’s the first thing in a long time that makes sense to either of us. We’re already looking toward the future and making plans. Neither one of us was looking for or expecting this but we’re not going to question it, either. We are what has been missing from each other’s lives for all these years – someone who truly sees us, accepts us without judgment for who we are and loves us completely, scars, baggage and all.

Love and acceptance are much needed in life. You can’t let go of that hope for love and happiness. It is out there. It can happen. Sometimes it appears in the most unlikely of places but it does exist. You just have to keep your heart open to the possibility. No one is beyond hope, no one is too broken to find or deserve love. Sometimes it takes two people who have each been thoroughly broken before in order to create and build something beautiful and whole.

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