Dating When You’re Mentally Ill

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

For years, I struggled just to exist, with my depression rearing its ugly head at every corner. And I made it through. It took 3 major episodes, a hospital, and two psychiatric clinics. But I made it through.

Yet, when I started dating, I realised I’d entered a minefield. How much did I tell my dates? At what point did I share? Is it okay to be dishonest?

I understand that my experience with depression is different to those with other mental illnesses. I know that it’s the easiest illness for others to relate to. And so, what I’ve gone through is probably nothing like what people with bipolar disorder, BPD, schizophrenia, etc. go through.

Nonetheless, this is the balance I found in sharing my experience with depression while dating.

Withhold (lie)

The first date I went on after leaving my second psychiatric clinic that year, I spilled everything. I was so nervous about being rejected for it, that I feigned confidence and I disclosed my entire history.

Needless to say, I scared the guy away. I never heard from him again, even though we had what I thought was a nice two hour chat.

I didn’t have to agonise over what went wrong. It was obvious. Choosing to date someone who has just come out of a psychiatric clinic is a huge risk. Even I would have reservations about it, and I can see behind the stigma. Who’s to say I’m “cured”, and won’t fall back into a depression that takes it all out of me and everyone around me?

From then on, I learned to withhold. Not just to withhold, but to lie sometimes. When someone asked me what I did (a basic first date question), I did not tell them that I’d only started to get my life back on track. I told them an approximation of the truth. It’s like saying you’re an entrepreneur, even though you have nothing going on at the moment. It’s kind of true, but it is purposely misleading.

This might sound unfair. Was I trying to get someone to fall in love with me before burdening them with my illness?

Not quite. Someone doesn’t have to fall in love with you in order to accept the risks. They just need to see the potential in you. So, when I told Kyle about my depression, he could have walked away. But he already knew he wanted to give this a chance.

Think about your own requirements of a perfect match. You might want them to live in your area, share the same political views or religious beliefs, and want the same amount of kids as you. You may filter your dating pool according to these requirements, but they’re not necessarily deal-breakers. If you meet someone you click with, there are many things on your wish list you’re willing to let go of just so you can see where it goes.

Be honest (eventually)

That said, it’s important that you don’t keep your secret for too long. Not just for their sake, but for yours too.

Your mental illness is a major part of who you are, for better or worse. Managing it is part of your lifestyle. You might, like me, see it as part of what shaped you into the person you are, who you can admire. If your date is not going to accept that, it’s not going to work.

Once you’ve gotten to know each other – once you know that you have chemistry – share your story. At this point, s/he is probably not going to run away, but they will have a lot to think about.

If they think that you’re too high-maintenance or see you as a lesser person because of it, they’re not the right person for you. Chances are, you’ve dodged a bullet. Just because you have rapport with someone, does not mean you know how to support each other, and this person clearly cannot support you.

As with everything related to your mental illness, you’re going to have to take a risk. This is an integral part of your life, and a negative response to it will be a dating deal-breaker.

Let them be a part of it

Early on in my relationship, I mostly kept my emotional struggles to myself. Although Kyle knew my history, I did not want him to see it manifest in our present lives. I was scared he’d treat me with cotton gloves, like a porcelain doll that might fall apart with any wrong move.

Turns out, he had similar fears. He did worry about me, but he also worried about not being real with me. He did not want to treat me as fragile, but at the same time couldn’t tell when or if it was ever necessary (and sometimes it is).

It took a lot of personal work for me to begin opening up to him more and more. And what helped was making him a part of my journey. We had to navigate the minefields together, so that he could know me intimately enough to intuit how to relate to me. He learned that I’m a strong person, who does not need to be treated as anything but, and he also learned that sometimes I need a bit more TLC than the average person.

To this day, I still have the instinct to hide my struggles. When I’m feeling depressed or particularly anxious, it can take a lot for me to disclose it. But ultimately, I share, and it’s crucial that I do. Kyle is my partner in this, and remembering that is key to keeping our relationship honest and supportive.

Don’t compromise yourself

Ultimately, it’s crucial that you don’t compromise who you are. Yes, start with a life story that’s only something like the truth. But be sure to clear things up early on, before you get caught in a lie you can’t escape.

If, once you’ve disclosed your personal truth, the other person bails, so much the better for you. They’re not the right person anyway, and staying the course would have only led to problems later on.

In the end, you know you’re worth it, and you should never accept anyone who’ll run at the first sign of trouble.

Cliffy Is Dead

Darryl hooted and I rushed out the house and got into his car. I was wearing smart black pants and a dull red-striped button shirt. I don’t remember what he was wearing. I don’t remember how his face looked or what he said to me or what I said to him. I was only pretending to be there. Pretending to care that Cliffy was dead.

I do remember the dullness and denseness of the colours around me. The trees that lined the streets on the way to the cemetery. The dullness of the cemetery itself. I remember nothing of the eulogy or whether people cried aloud or how long the funeral took. I do remember his squad from the police force doing a tribute, and I remember that one of them looked anemic, almost like Cliffy would have looked without the muscles.

I had felt nothing when my mom had told me Cliffy’d committed suicide. I was too deep in my own depression. The fact that a person who was once my  best friend had gone through the same and had not made it was too dull to break through the wall of terrible numbness.

I had loved Cliffy once. We had all loved each other back then and had vocalised it regularly. But after school, we took very different paths and I hardly ever saw him again. I’d always thought we would reconnect one day, but that did not matter to me on the day of his funeral. All that mattered was that I was stuck at a fucking funeral and just wanted to get home so I could lie in a fetal position on my bed.

The episode had started about a week earlier.

I was at my old alma mater for shabbat. Yeshiva Gedola, where I had spent many of my happiest days. It could not lift me. Instead, it left me feeling trapped, unable to leave until nightfall on Saturday.

On Friday morning I had written a poem:

Give in to me
I’ll have you mine
I’ll have your breasts
I’ll have your fine
stomach, long hair,
sweet lips, pussy
In which to stick
fingers fussy

You have no self
and nor do I
You are my tart
and I your pie
of timeless time
eternal? No!
You are my soul
ejac’lated.

I’d named it Procrasturbation. I had not known what what was yet to come. But I had felt intensely negative and I had known I was not doing well. Hence, that awful poem.

The problem was that I’d thought the pit was the right place for me. It had seemed to absolve me of responsibility for knowing what to do with my life. It had seemed like a good thing until it absolutely broke me.

On that Friday night, trapped in the confines of a religious institution, I cracked. Major depression took me for only the second time in my life. I did not know how to manage each second. I tried playing around on my phone, even though it was the sabbath. I tried calling a friend, even though he was probably observing the sabbath. I hid the phone in my pocket when around some of the others, but I knew they probably saw it. I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care about anything.

When I look back on it, Cliffy’s funeral epitomises that particular episode. I had once loved him, and to this day, I feel immense fondness for him. And I feel guilty for not being there for him. And guilty for not being able to care when he died or properly say goodbye.

I never mourned for him, and maybe that’s why I still think of calling him sometimes. I’ve never fully come to terms with what happened to him. I will always feel that guilt.

It’s the most visceral example I can come up with when trying to describe what depression can do, aside from suicide.

It can make you dead, inside what looks like a living human body. It can make the best times seem like the worst times. It can make lying in a fetal position seem as moving as your best friend’s funeral.

Along with death, it is the great equaliser. Because it’s its own type of death. To paraphrase my awful poem, it is the detritus of le petit mort of the soul.

Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.

This Is Why Depressed People Hate Their Psychiatrists

“When can I see you?” I texted in desperation.

“I have an opening at 3PM,” Dr Lymeberger wrote back. “Come visit me at the clinic.”

I was in the midst of a major chemical depression, one that had been brought on in a misguided attempt to change my antidepressants. I had not needed to change my antidepressants. I was not feeling any worse than I had over the preceding year. But I was depressed nonetheless, and hoped that a chemical change might be just what I needed.

Unfortunately, switching antidepressants can have unexpectedly disastrous effects, as happened when I switched from Cymgen to Cipralex. Both of them are SSRIs, working in almost exactly the same way. But, for some reason, I was plunged into a deep horror-show, which I would have given anything – literally anything – not to have gone through.

I wrote that text to Dr L at 11AM. 3PM seemed like an eternity away, but at least I had something to look towards. Some semblance of hope.

In the meantime, I decided to go for a run. It would release endorphins which might make me feel just a little bit better. It was a horrible idea, although curling up on my bed would have been just as bad an idea. As would anything else. I ran for what felt like hours of torment, but when I got back home only 10 minutes had past.

3 hours and 50 minutes left before my impromptu appointment with Dr L.

Throughout this week-long depression, Dr L had been readily available. He’d given me his personal cell number, which I phoned and texted over and over again. My mom even phoned him a few times. He had given me sleeping pills as well as anxiety pills to help me get through the chemical hell while my body adapted to the new drugs.

But up till then, the sleeping and anxiety pills had been his only solution. I’d been taking them during the day, making myself unconscious for a few hours. Only to wake up to the same suffering. Only to take more sleeping pills that would eventually just make me groggy instead of helping me sleep, leaving me both depressed and disoriented.

3PM finally came around and my mom drove me to my appointment with Dr L.

“I think we’d better stop the Cipralex,” he told me. “From tomorrow, take the Cymgen instead.”

That was all he had to offer. I was in infinite suffering, and all he had to offer was to tell me to abort his initial suggestion. Something I would do only the next morning. That my body would take time to get used to.

I needed something right then and there, but he had no good ideas. The long-awaited appointment lasted about as long as my earlier run. I hated him. I had to hate him.

Dr L is innocent

Doing their job

Psychiatrists are just doing their jobs

I’ll go back to that story at a later date. It was one of three major depressive episodes I’ve been through, each one progressively worse than the one before.

For now, I want to focus on my hatred of Dr L.

Technically, Dr L had done nothing wrong. When I first saw him, my chemical depression was under control. My life, however, was not going the way I wanted it to, and I did not know how to change that. So I asked him to try use medication to fix it.

Psychiatry is often hit and miss. Certain drugs will work for one person and not another. Some will do the opposite of what they were supposed to, like Cipralex seemed to do to me. Nonetheless, I have huge respect for the profession, and I have personal experience with the lifesaving potential of antidepressants when they work.

And yet, to this day, 5 years later, I still hate Dr L.

Why psychiatric patients hate our psychiatrists

Help me, doc

Blaming someone gives you a little bit of control

Mental illness is a unique kind of hell. It is unique in that there is not always an evident cause, which is why it can be impossible to treat. Sometimes it’s chemicals. Other times it’s unresolved feelings or traumas that you thought were behind you.

Whatever the case is, there seems to be nothing you can do in the moment to fix it (at least for those who have not learned techniques to manage their mental health). You have no control and it is terrifying.

Still, from within that deep chasm you look for anything to clutch onto. Anything that might give you some semblance of control in getting out of there. Since you cannot do anything yourself, the most instinctive option is to look to someone else.

And when that does not work, you have to blame them. Because as long as it’s their fault, there must be someone else who can fix the problem.

If only I had gone to another doctor, you say. Alternatively, you reject psychiatry as a whole. If only I hadn’t trusted these quacks and their unnatural chemicals, you say.

It gives you something to believe in. The tiniest hope that maybe you can get out of this darkness that you’d otherwise have to admit is your life itself.

Why we continue to hate

StockSnap_LXCKQ8LU32.jpg

We are terrified of getting lost again

Now, when we get out of that chasm – through some miracle of science or willpower or simple luck – we need assurance that we’re never going back.

Shortly after a major episode, it seems almost impossible to live knowing there’s a chance it might happen again. The memory of what has just happened is so bad that our minds force us to forget it so that we can get on with our lives in some sort of ignorance of what happened.

But how do we ensure that it doesn’t happen again? We need to either blame it on something, or find something else to save us. Or both.

So we blame our psychiatrists, we blame the meds, or we blame our own lifestyles. If we trick ourselves into thinking we can get rid of the problem, we can go on living.

This is why most blogs about how to beat depression are not milquetoast about anything. They are not only CERTAIN that they are RIGHT, but they have to convince everyone else, too. Because the possibility that they might be wrong and that someone else might have a better solution is just too much, man.

So, to Dr L, I’m sorry. I know my hate is unjustified, and that you were just trying to help me. But my mind is never going to forgive you entirely. Don’t expect to see me again anytime soon. And if anyone asks me for a referral, unfortunately they’re not coming your way.