Dear Level

Your Partner Has a Suicidal Past. Here’s How You Can Help.

Mental health can take a toll on any relationship — here are ways you can show up for your lover

Just a few days after I matched with a new guy — let’s call him Shane — on a dating site, our conversations started getting deep. Shane and I had the same interests, including writing and podcasting. We were each divorced with young children. I liked him right away.

I was my full self, even in those early days: brash, talkative, silly, and intense. He showed up in full, too: vulnerable, laid-back, intelligent, and equally intense.

It was that early, intoxicating phase of things when I was still dashing to my phone to see his latest message and spending long moments crafting each reply before responding. We were each rehearsing, both of us on our best behavior. But I was going to have to throw a monkey wrench in it all.

From that moment on, I vowed to come clean immediately to anyone I planned to date. If they didn’t understand or weren’t willing to try, they could kick rocks.

How do you say to a new guy, “Just so you know, in the past, I’ve wanted to kill myself. Anyway, what’s your favorite color?”

I’ve dealt with depression since I was a teenager; I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder in my early thirties. It’s been a 30-year struggle, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have decent health insurance and a supportive circle. These days, with the right cocktail of meds and regular appointments with my doctors, I’m in remission from mood swings. I have to work hard at it. And I’m blessed that it’s working for me.

The only time I have to truly confront it, outside of my circle, is when it comes to dating. It’s been a long time since I’ve been depressed or suicidal. But anyone in a relationship with me still has to know what could happen.

If I were in remission from a physical condition, it might not feel so weird. Explaining that you had cancer, took chemo, and are now in remission is not quite the same as telling someone you’ve been depressed enough to be suicidal and you need meds to stay on the right path. Ugh. Not exactly a first-date conversation.

But for me, it has to be. Years ago, I’d begun dating someone and didn’t feel comfortable sharing my diagnosis. If I had to take meds while we were on a date, I excused myself rather than invite questions by swallowing a pill in front of them. I wouldn’t have lied about it if they’d asked, but I didn’t offer up any information — it was deception by omission.

Finally, after about a month, I decided to say something. We were going out more often, and the better I got to know him, the weirder it felt to keep such an important part of the conversation to myself. So, one day, while we were standing in my kitchen, making coffee, I slid my container of meds into his line of vision and explained what they were and why I needed them.

His face fell flat; he shook his head.

“What’s that face for?” I asked.

“They’re always trying to keep Black people on drugs,” he said. “You don’t need that shit. You just think you do.”

“I’ve actually been suicidal,” I explained, my throat tightening. “And the meds help.”

“Black people don’t get depressed,” he said. “Our parents didn’t get suicidal. It’s just some shit people are saying these days. You should just smoke weed.”

Tears stung the corner of my eyes. I wanted to punch him in his throat. How could I date him for a month without knowing where he stood on mental health and treatment? I thought. Fuck this dude.

From that moment on, I vowed to come clean immediately to anyone I planned to date. If they didn’t understand or weren’t willing to try, they could kick rocks.

Back to Shane and the monkey wrench. We were three days in and still hadn’t met in person. We felt like we were in sync on most things; I didn’t want to end up meeting him, liking him, and then wanting to throw him off a mountaintop for being an ignoramus.

But Shane ended up going first. He said that before we went any further, he wanted to share some of the challenges he’d been through. (I didn’t tell him that I’d Googled his writings and already knew pretty much everything he was sharing.) But I listened. And I listened more. And I told him I understood. And then I took a picture of my daily capsules in my hand. Did I dare? I pressed send. His response, immediately, was that he was happy for me. He said he was glad that I had a handle on my journey and did what I needed to stay well.

I exhaled. And now we’re getting married next year.

There’s plenty more we’ve been through between then and now, but we started out with our eyes open and knowing each others’ struggles. Here’s what you need to do if your loved one suffers from depression that can lead to suicide. September is National Suicide Prevention Month — and while this is a year-round effort, it’s never a bad idea to use a specific time period to hammer the points home.

Here’s what I know.

Join NAMI

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has been amazing for me. The NAMI website contains well-vetted information on the latest medications and studies, and they have local weekly meetings nationwide that are open to everyone. Whether you’re dating someone with a mental health issue and you have a question or you’re concerned about your own emotions, you’ll find people who know what you’re going through and how to help; most of the facilitators are real-world folks who know the deal.

Ask questions

I know that sometimes people don’t want to ask questions about suicide, because it’s such a scary thing to contemplate. I had a friend tell me she never addressed the topic with me because she was afraid that talking about being suicidal could make me suicidal. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of us folks who’ve been down the dark path and come back from it don’t mind talking about it. It’s helpful. If this person is going to be a part of your life, but you don’t feel comfortable talking about suicide, it won’t work.

You can’t fix them; you can only support them

If your partner is not formally diagnosed and doesn’t have a treatment plan, the relationship is in deep trouble before it can get started. It’s not your job to get them into therapy. It’s not your job to get them to a psychiatrist. If someone you’re dating has ever been suicidal and does not have a plan to stay well, understand that you’ve got a tough road ahead.

Don’t think you have the answers

I lost a very good friend to suicide a few years ago. She was a fellow writer, and we spoke often about our struggles. When she passed, her family and close friends refused to believe she’d taken her own life — solely because she was starting a new job, had visited her nieces and nephews right before she died, and had a smile on her face at Thanksgiving. That’s not how suicide works; a person who is suicidal can actually feel a rush of relief when they’ve decided to end their life. You don’t know what suicidal thoughts look like. You have to talk it out when they’re well in order to help.

You can’t be the only help

My circle of support is small but mighty. I have siblings, cousins, tight-knit friends, even my ex-husband, all of whom know me and know how to show up for me. My partner knows who he can contact if he feels like I’m in need of help.

September is my fourth anniversary of remission from all my mental health -isms. And still, I have to be ever vigilant. I like it here. I want to stay here.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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