My name is Elisabeth Ovesen, but you may know me by my pen name, Karrine Steffans.
Yes, that Karrine Steffans. In 2005, my book Confessions of a Video Vixen went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and it was followed by numerous others. But that’s ancient history. People grow. Things change. I love where my life is today — and what I’m learning.
Today, I spend the majority of my time working as a personal and professional performance coach for women, while slowly chipping away at a master’s degree in psychology. At 42, I’ve come a long way from where I started — as it should be. But there are still miles to go, and many lives to live before it’s all said and done.
In the five years since I published the final book as Karrine, things have evolved. Quite a bit for the better. And while I’m hopeful for the fate of Black love, I see one place where we need to have harder conversations.
We live in an era where brothers are challenging notions of gender conformity, redefining fatherhood, and doing the long, hard work of shedding generational trauma. I’ve not yet been in a relationship with that man. In fact, I’ve never played the love lottery and won a prize, much less hit the jackpot. But I know they’re out there.
What would happen if more people made therapy a prerequisite for dating and marriage? How would our romantic choices and relationships change, and how much heartbreak could we avoid?
My mother’s “all men are trash” rhetoric never sat well with my spirit. So, with the help of my therapist, I went back into those spaces most of us fear — those dark, dank corners of our past relationships, where everything we’ve ever learned about love, from the people who love us the most, has been wrong.
One constant I found is that I date mentally unstable men. When I’m not dating them, I’m marrying them. And whether I’m dating or marrying them, I’m ignoring their mental health issues — as well as my own.
The fact that it took me until I was in my forties to come to this conclusion is frightening, especially with my familial, personal, and relationship history with mental illness. But I’m not the only one. Asking my girlfriends what they’re looking for in a man uncovered requirements like: good cook, family man, and financial security. None of my friends mentioned mental health, even though each of us suffers from some sort of mental or emotional disorder, and have been in relationships with men who have either been diagnosed with, or displayed signs of, serious mental health issues.
After decades of dating disasters, marital malfeasance, and loss, I finally decided it was time to make mental health as much of a priority as sexual and financial health. In fact, I’m drawing a line in the sand, putting my foot down, and flat-out demanding that my man sees a therapist at least once a month, and that we have quarterly couples therapy sessions, or else. Yes, it’s an ultimatum. Women are now making sure our loved ones get screened for heart disease, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and more. Now we need to add one more to the checklist: seeing your therapist to gauge your mental health.
What would happen if more people made that a prerequisite for dating and marriage? How would our romantic choices and relationships change, and how much heartbreak could we avoid?
I’ve seen more than enough to know why it’s necessary.
I grew up in a house with nine other people, including two uncles who weren’t well. One of them was an alcoholic who soothed his unstable thoughts by guzzling fifths and pints of the gin. (Eventually, his alcoholism killed him.) My other uncle was into hard drugs, and often walked around the house talking nonsensically to himself. (Eventually, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital.) My father was absent during my early childhood, which made my uncles the most prominent male figures in my life — and set an example of manhood I’d later recreate in my dating and marital choices.
The women in my family also exhibited symptoms of mental illness. One of my aunts disappeared, leaving my cousin behind for my grandmother to raise. Years later, she showed up on my grandmother’s doorstep, incoherent and talking about people chasing her and needing a place to hide. Alarmed by my aunt’s behavior, my grandmother asked her to leave the house; mere hours later, my aunt was found dead and floating off St. Thomas’ waterfront.
Even with all of these frightening examples, no one in my family ever said the words “mental health” to me. Even now, long after my uncles and aunt passed away, no one talks about them, their illnesses, or the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
The 14 years I’ve spent enrolled in weekly therapy is more than an act of self-care, but an act of willful defiance against my generational trauma. I will need my future partner to understand where I’ve come from and why I’m never going back. And more importantly, how to make sure he’s on this wellness journey with me.
One of my ex-husbands would sometimes curl up in a ball on the floor and cry about his family, a never-ending swirl of lost parents, outside families, and informal adoptions. It was during a conversation with my mother-in-law, a mental health professional, that I learned my husband had challenges with his mental health — information I wish I had been given before we were living together, much less married. He never once mentioned his diagnosis to me, and our relationship continued until meeting an explosive end.
Before him, there was another ex-husband who was physically abusive from literally day one. He was a deeply disturbed man with obvious mental health issues and a long history of abusing women, though most of it went largely unchecked. Like my uncles, both of them used hard drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate, appearing to the public as substance abusers, but never as mentally ill.
In both scenarios, being with someone who triggered the feelings of insecurity, fear, and abandonment I experienced as a little girl exacerbated my own diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. After a period of misusing benzodiazepines — a powerful, habit-forming class of tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs — I began seeking natural ways to cope with my anxiety and panic. It would take years of practice for me to perfect my new coping mechanisms: such as clean and organic eating, a gallon of water a day, eight hours of sleep each night, meditation, prayer, and sharpening my ability to throw men out onto the street when I’ve had enough of their bullshit. It’s proved effective.
But nothing is more effective than prevention.
My two ex-husbands were not the first, or last, of the men I would date and marry who suffered from mental illness. In each instance, my partners were either undiagnosed, in need of updated diagnoses, or were aware of their diagnoses and made the decision not to divulge their mental health stats before we began dating. In all my relationships, I ignored the warning signs, and accepted such issues as a normal part of life, love, dating, and marriage. After all, I’ve never seen anything different — not in my family or in my immediate friendship circle.
Women have our own traumas; we’ve got our work cut out for us as it is. There are days when it’s hard enough for us to face ourselves, and to commit to our wellness, when we are charged with taking care of so many others. As your partners, we want to help you, but you have to help us do so. And what’s one of the best ways you can do that? By putting mental health and wellness at the very top of our requirements for dating and marriage.
Demand regular therapy for your partner, and require it of yourself. Together, check in with a family and marriage therapist regularly, even if everything seems to be going well in your relationship.
Don’t fight us on this. It’s for you. It’s for us. We are all in pain, and we all deserve a safe place to express that pain, where there is no judgment, only help. Commit to taking care of your mind as faithfully as you take care of your sneaker collection — and please, hold us to the same standard.
Moving forward, and in the interest of not repeating my familial and relationship cycles, I’m vowing to make mental health care paramount in my relationships, and the cornerstone around which I build my love life.