My first article was about my month-long break from my boyfriend, Zach. This one is about why it was necessary - in short, he needed a break from my obsessiveness, and I was forced to face the ugly truth about what I thought was love.
Relationships are hard work as it is - a bit of conflict is normal. But throw in mental disorders and that adds a whole new level of difficulty into the mix.
I've dealt with mild but persistent episodes of depression and anxiety off and on since I was 16, coupled with PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), which manifests as moderate to severe depression or anxiety before my periods. These issues have since been addressed, but sometimes I would get so low that I'd be unable to get out of bed, or I'd get so angry at everything that I'd shut myself in my room out of fear of what I'd say or do to whoever I saw. These symptoms often worsened in the fall and winter because of my seasonal affective disorder, brought on my an inherent deficiency of vitamin D.
He was diagnosed with autism at age three. I had worked with kids on the spectrum at my summer job in high school, which was a horse therapy stable for disabled and handicapped people, but he clearly wasn't disabled - he'd started working for a newspaper in high school and had no trouble succeeding in the classroom. So what was I to do?
We met in July 2014. I was a senior at BCU, just rising up from a depressive episode that spanned over most of my junior year and left me weak, lost and empty. He was an incoming freshman, ready to make a name for himself at college and already ahead of the curve with experience in his field of study... and he filled that void immediately.
Of course, I was attracted to his looks (my mom even said he somewhat resembled Bradley Cooper, my celebrity crush) and his personality (he shared more interests and opinions with me than almost anyone I'd ever known), but I didn't really start to catch feelings until he told me about his diagnosis. The fact that he also dealt with hidden demons really drew me to him - that he was able to understand that I wasn't normal, because he wasn't, either.
A show I watched as a kid described every girl's dream guy as a "mysterious, vulnerable, dangerous lost puppy." Zach fit all those things for me - he was everything I'd been looking for since seventh grade when I had my first real crush. And for the first time in my life, I didn't feel inferior to the guy I was into.
In fact - and I feel horrible saying this - I actually felt a bit superior.
I liked the power that came with dating him. I felt like I had a sense of purpose, like I was needed somewhere, irreplaceable - I'd never felt that way before. At first I didn't know how independent he could be - he didn't have a driver's license, so in our only semester of school together, he would ask me to drive him places if I was available, which I willingly did - anything to get that rush that came with feeling important.
I felt a strong sense of duty to stand up for him to others - students and professors alike. When a classmate of his provoked him and he responded with a backhand to the face, I asked the classmate what the hell he expected (and then comforted him because he thought I was mad at him for getting physically aggressive). When a professor reprimanded him for using politically incorrect language in his opinion paper, a move that became the last straw in favor of his decision to drop out of BCU, I wrote the prof a three-page email asking what the big deal was about words.
With his permission, I made sure people knew and understood that although they didn't have to treat him like a special needs individual, they couldn't expect the same response from him as with a neurotypical person.
I wish I could've treated him the way I'd asked from others.
After graduation, I took a job in Davenport, Iowa, his hometown, as a phone sales representative for advertising and marketing at the newspaper's corporate office. It was the worst experience of my life. In July 2015 my supervisor took me into her office and said, "JoAnn, you're a good employee. You are always here on time, never leave early, haven't missed a day, and you do your job. But you're clearly so unhappy here. Go find something that makes you happy."
I left the office that day without a job.
My sense of purpose again disappeared. I had moved 365 miles to be with him and be his rock (he had always called me that when we were at BCU together), but now I had no way to support myself, physically or emotionally, let alone both of us. Granted, he still lived with his parents, but I felt like I was responsible for his well-being, too. I spent nearly every day of my unemployment curled up in a ball on my couch crying. Nothing he did could make me feel better - even sitting with me only temporarily healed the wound.
My parents hadn't been comfortable with me moving to Davenport from the start. They didn't think it was right for me to leave everything I knew behind for a guy. But every time I'd visited it felt more and more like where I was supposed to be. And it still did, because I was with him. But now that I had no job, I suspected my parents would want to force me to move back to Nebraska with them. I couldn't bear to be away from him.
The emptiness I felt soon morphed into fear - why did they want me to come home so badly? Surely they didn't believe Zach needed me the way I knew he did. They must've thought he was abusing me, brainwashing me into wanting to stay in this strange city where I knew no one but him and his family.
Fortunately, I got a new job just days before he moved away to re-start college. But the anxiety didn't disappear with ample employment. If I had any spare time to myself I was texting him, asking him how he was doing at college or telling him how much I missed him. If he was nervous about an assignment for one of his classes, I would stay up and help him with it. On weekends I would drive down to see him and stay as long as I could. We FaceTimed every night because it killed me not to hear his voice. If he didn't text me for more than an hour, I started to worry about him.
After our first anniversary in September 2015, our interactions became strained. I would get annoyed when he would ask store workers where to find certain things because he wouldn't give them enough information (in my clouded opinion), so I started asking for him, which in turn annoyed him - "I'm not five," he would say, sounding almost hurt.
It even happened at Thanksgiving - I'd start talking to my extended family about his accomplishments in school, and later he would ask me why I didn't just let him do it. I would tell him I didn't know, but deep down I had this fear that he'd say the wrong thing or forget to mention an important point. I wanted my family to like him, because I still couldn't shake the fear that they didn't - they thought he was turning me into someone I wasn't, that he was killing my passion for life.
But it wasn't him doing that - it was my mental illness.
As 2015 passed into 2016, I started to believe the demons in my head and their twisted idea that I was being brainwashed, especially because he had never been happier. He had every reason to be happy - he'd been able to shine in the broadcasting department at college, making it onto ESPN3 doing play-by-play for women's volleyball. I couldn't help but be a bit resentful of all his success at college, while I had a degree but was working as a temporary office assistant. While I truly was happy that he was working toward his goals, I couldn't get rid of the fear that I was no longer part of them.
Decline and breakup
In March he was asked to finish out the semester as an RA in a freshman dorm, a position he eagerly took. His taking the RA position was what really set off my anxiety. He now had less time to talk to me, with juggling school and RA duties, but I felt like he was purposely making less time. Even though he was often doing homework or setting up a floor program, I would sit at home and mope because I just knew he was ignoring me.
He talked about trying to get his driver's license when he came home for the summer. That thought was too much to bear for me - why would he even need me around anymore if he could just drive himself places?
Every day we spent together was negative. I was pouty and bitter, and he was confused. He'd ask me why I was "being crazy," and I would ask him why he loved me. I could never get an answer that satisfied me, because I was convinced he didn't. I felt like the only reason he was staying with me was because he was using my second laptop for school, although even in my mental state I knew that was ridiculous.
He finally asked me one day, "Do you want to break up with me? Because it really sounds like you do."
I didn't - I wanted him to try harder to love me, I told him, because I loved him more than anything. But nothing he did could erase that feeling like I was just barely hanging on, like he was pulling away from me.
So on May 24, it came as no surprise when we were sitting at a McDonald's and he said, "When we get home, I need to talk to you."
His reason for calling it quits? He wasn't making me happy anymore, and it had just become too much for him to try to fill the emptiness caused by whatever was making me so negative.
He wasn't wrong, but he wasn't right either.
It took me nearly a month to realize it, but he hadn't been making me happy because he wasn't being the needy "kid" that gave me a sense of belonging and importance anymore. I was even more upset with myself at that realization - here, I'd been feeling like a victim for the past half-year, when in reality my mental illness had made me the abuser, of both him and myself. As much as I'd stood up for him, telling others he was more than just his autism (and actually seeing it for myself), I'd been unable to make myself draw a line where his disorder ended and he began, and, rightfully, he wouldn't stand for it anymore. And by not seeing him for more than his disorder, I had devolved into nothing but my own.
Since this past summer, I've addressed my mental health issues, which were mostly eased by exercising regularly, and Zach and I have repaired our relationship. The ceaseless, unnecessary worry is gone because I immerse myself in work, my hours at the gym, and my time with friends. But most importantly, I've learned that what I gave him before wasn't love - love isn't supposed to stifle one person and drain the other. Did I love him? Of course, and I still do. But now I love him for who he is, not for the way he patched up the hole in my heart dug out by mental illness.