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.

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.