CN: Depression, anxiety,

relationships, disability


I’ve never had a whispered midnight conversation with a lover.

It’s not because I’m a deep sleeper, or don’t like talking in the night. It’s simply that, when I remove my cochlear implants (an implanted, high power hearing-aid) I can’t hear anything.

As you can imagine, it’s not really all too comfortable to sleep with little hot, plastic boxes of sound behind your ears. The result being, the cut-off statement in my nighttime communication with partners is often “I’m switching off now, love you”, and then maybe a spell in the middle of the night where I stir, bleary-eyed as they try to wake me up to remove the duvet from my vice-like clasp. I know I sleep-talk, and it makes me wonder if my boyfriend does too, and what he says. More than anything, my wonderings have more recently turned to how our own difficulties, idiosyncrasies and disabilities can make simple tasks far harder to let a significant other into. Continuing my night-time hearing example, I then have to trust a partner to wake me up if there’s any issue in the night. For every element of trust, there’s a possible benefit – I can’t hear in the shower, so I’ve always been blissfully oblivious to any shouts to hurry up. I have no idea if my partner snores, nor will it ever bother me. In a distant future, I may be a rare well-rested new mother.

By Paul Friel

The hardest struggles for me, however, with a new partner, have been letting them into my most vulnerable mental health moments. Having had my fair share of unbalanced relationships in which one or the other always felt they were taking or giving ‘too much’, I’ve recently found myself having stunning moments of lucidity. After a panic attack and a night of me apologising for requiring so much “talking down”, so much “time”, so much “effort” on his part (a habit we would all benefit from getting out of when we ask for help), he finally and simply said “But we’re a team? We’re together for both the good days and the hard days.”

The meaning of that didn’t really sink in until the following week, when he fell into one of his depressive clouds. I found myself asking him all the questions I wished someone had asked me when I similarly struggled, eager to do whatever I could to help, even if it meant backing off for a bit. It was definitely a careful balance between involvement to help and involvement so as to not send myself off into a tail-spin of similar problems. One morning, my mum asked how he was. I said he was improving, just needed reminding to be slow and gentle with himself, and that it never lasts long. She smiled, recognising the phrases I used with her in the ones she told her own friends during my bad spells. She echoed his statement, “You make a great team – it only works if you feel like you can both give and take”.


“Instead of just caring sympathy, there’s a sense of empathy. A sense of pride in the ability to love and be loved, to care and be cared for. A balance of care that unconsciously takes care of itself. “


A crystallising statement. I catalogued some of my previous relationship issues. I saw my gut-wrenching difficulty with always feeling like I was taking, taking, taking. On some days, taking while I felt anxious, taking while I asked for words to be repeated due to my hearing. It was like I felt like I was always taking from their biscuit jar, without ever being given the chance to bake some for them. Sometimes they grew to resent me, sometimes we both struggled with boundaries. All my most intimate partners have seen me curled in a ball, hyperventilating and muttering irrational thoughts. They’ve been recipients to the paranoid “But are we okay?” questions in the midst of an entirely unrelated panic episode. However, something is fundamentally different this time. Instead of just caring sympathy, there’s a sense of empathy. A sense of pride in the ability to love and be loved, to care and be cared for. A balance of care that unconsciously takes care of itself.

It’s difficult to let someone new into the spaces you’ve found easiest to inhabit by yourself. The spaces where you panic, where you’re so low the floor feels like it’s dropping, or simply just the trust it can take to sleep next to someone new. Maybe if you’ve been hurt a few times it gets more and more difficult. However, sometimes you can find someone who shares your love of gallows humour, depression memes and gentle disability jokes. Someone who isn’t afraid to ask if this is a time to joke or a time to be gentle. Someone with the knowledge to ask if to be held is what you want while you panic, or to be read to, or to have space. They might not know it instinctively, from the first time you weather the storm together, but they create a little filing cabinet in their head full of you. And you do it for them too, because you’re a team.


Header image by Josep Ma. Rosell

One thought on “How being vulnerable in relationships helped me

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