When I was growing up in Aba, there was this mad man we called “Anya Faya”. His upper eyelids were permanently turned inside out. It was the first thing anyone noticed about him. I guess it made sense that the defect inspired his name (which loosely translates to “eye fire” in English). It indeed looked like a flame. There was also the fact that he roamed the streets naked and chased people around when aggravated…but even that could not compare to the conspicuousness of his eyelids
One time, we drove past Anya Faya on the street and I asked my father why he behaved that way he did, also why no one wanted to help him. My dad explained that Anya Faya was mentally ill, and he said to me: “whenever you see a mentally ill person, know that he is mad and take another route.” Solid advice. No?
Of course, it was not until I was much older I realized that mental illness does not always entail the sufferer ripping their clothes off of their bodies, wandering the streets untamed, eating from dustbins and wreaking havoc when upset as I was made to believe and as Nollywood tends to show us. Those are extreme cases. Mental illness/health disorders are of different levels and the odds are you’ve likely encountered many people, probably even dated someone, with a mental health disorder.
Mental illness is prevalent in Nigeria, however, there is a real lack of education about it. It is considered a form of taboo and as a result, a big stigma is still attached to a diagnosis. And with the stigma of self-disclosure, it’s no shocker that people hardly have discussions about being in a relationship with someone with a mental illness. And those who are in the relationship even have a harder time opening up to their partners about their struggles as they refuse to disclose their mental health status in the first place.
Last Saturday, on my way out of the Knorr Taste Quest audition venue (the worst audition ever planned: every bit disorganized, a colossal waste of time and basically, a sour story for another day), I got a call from one of my closest female friends. She said she was conflicted about something and wanted to talk to me about it. Seeing as I was going to be passing through Ikoyi, I decided to stop at hers. The gist was a unique one.
The guy she had been talking to had finally confided in her that he was undergoing treatment for mental illness and she was now scared to move ahead with the relationship based on that information. She wanted to opt out before she got too emersed. The way I saw it, she wanted too take the easy way out. I thought it was a weak move so, I asked her what the mental illness was. To my surprise she said she didn’t ask. She did not ask because she did not want to pry and make him uncomfortable.
What? Was she having a laugh?
First of all, mental illness is not a singular ailment, it cannot be generalized either. You cannot say that someone has a mental illness, therefore they behave this particular way. There are different kinds and levels of mental illness. Secondly, if you do not know what kind of mental illness it is, how do you know that you cannot cope with it? These were some of the questions I asked.
It was understandable that she would be discouraged by the fact that the mental illness would be one extra baggage to carry while already navigating the complicated world of millennial dating. But just as I was about to concede and agree with her, she said that she refused to pry into his mental illness business, because she did not want to have to divulge details about her own situation. She then said that she is borderline depressive and has ROCD (relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder).
ROCD is a form of OCD which according to her was mental illness too; and she was afraid that going into a relationship with someone who had any form of mental illness, while she was already suffering one, would certainly make things more complicated. To be honest, I was stunned by her admitting to mental illness. Shouldn’t finding a partner who understood the challenges of mental illness be a dream come true? Surely, it would mean that both parties can easily empathize and be compassionate about each other’s conditions?
Truth be told, it already takes an exceeding amount of patience and understanding to love someone through their down times, their insecurities and debilitating anxieties.How much more, mental illness? Chances are the pressure and responsibility a partner will feel towards supporting the other partner through the illness could affect their own mental health. Personally, I would be eternally worried that a misstep on my part could result in tragedy.
At the end of the day, I said these three things to her:
1. The more you pretend about mental illness, the more you build on the stigma surrounding it. Own it and let everything else be damned. Talk to him about your situation and see if you both can reach a compromise.
2. Breaking up with someone who has a mental illness, especially when you also have a mental illness is difficult and may even seem hypocritical. You have to rise above the guilt and learn to put yourself first.
3. Building a successful relationship with someone with mental illness, even when you have mental illness as well, is not impossible. If you are determined, you can have a happy life with them.
Have you dated anyone with mental illness?