Dating with Mental Health issues is tricky but not impossible!
If you are single and brave enough to forge the dating world, I salute you. Dating is difficult — full stop. The constant mismatching, rejection, self-doubt, and disappointment can be enough to deter the strongest of hearts. Not to mention it can be time-consuming and draining both financially and energetically.
Dating (& love) is a risky business. Add your mental health into the mix on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and love can indeed feel like a battlefield and sometimes even a zombie apocalypse!
If like me, you are still single and living in the city (a la Carrie Bradshaw) it can be comforting to know that all the stress, elation, bullshit, and blahs that come with dating are “normal”.
When is a Good Time to Date?
According to Todd Baratz, LMHC Psychotherapist and Relationship Expert, (and one of my favorite Instagram accounts @yourdiagnonsense) “There is no wrong time to start a relationship or fall in love. It’s ok to start a relationship if you are struggling with your mental health”.
He goes on to say that. “you don’t have to be a perfect person, 100% healed self-aware and full of psychological tricks to cultivate a healthy satisfying relationship. You can be depressed, chronically ill, jobless, completely lost personally, or in the process of healing a major trauma.” So, let’s dissect this a bit because, for some, it may sound counterintuitive and controversial.
For those of us committed to personal growth (hello — therapy since age 16!) and a connection to a spiritual path, striving for a complete wholeness of self can come with the territory. As I get older and accept more of my humanity, that notion of perfection and completion has fallen away and been replaced with a peaceful surrender of I AM ENOUGH. The self is a construct in flux. Its completeness lies in the acceptance of just that.
There is no better version of myself that I need to be to attract a partner. It often comes down to luck, opportunity, timing, willingness and perhaps a bit of grace. Letting go of the idea that I need to perfect or the perfect partner is freeing (though easier said than done).
In my twenties, I started a relationship while in the throes of an undiagnosed manic episode. I met “Sky” in July and three and half months later I was in the psych ward diagnosed with Bipolar I. After I got out of the hospital, we were together for about another year. The romance faded but the friendship has proven long-lasting. To Todd’s point, there is no wrong time to start a relationship. The longevity and sustainability of that connection is another story.
When to Disclose
Let’s get down to basics. The more stable I got the less I tend to worry about when to disclose my diagnosis to my paramours, and honestly, the less I care about the response. A year or two after my hospitalization, I would get stressed out about this topic. I felt that I needed to share the information pretty quickly. I thought that if I didn’t share it, I was being dishonest. The further I get away from the hospital and any episodes, the less thoughts like that occur to me. While truth is one of my core values, I do not owe anyone an explanation of myself or my past. That information is for me to share when and if I choose.
I have shared on a first date and I have waited until months into a committed relationship. Just like there is no wrong time to fall in love, there is no wrong time to share — as long as you feel comfortable and ready. If the other person responds terribly and you would still be fine, then share away.
I recently went on a date with a man who told me before the date that he Googled me. I was a little taken back. I’ve spoken at NAMI as a mental health advocate and I’ve also written a book called “My Beautiful Bipolar Mind” so if you Google me, there’s a good chance something related to mental illness will pop. He did and it did.
On the date, he started by complimenting my book. He then launched into his own experience with depression. Here’s the double edge of the sword — while I was grateful that my openness on the topic made him feel empowered to be vulnerable, some of my agency was removed from the dialogue. It was our first date and I honestly was not up for a pseudo-therapy session. If there is personal information about someone you are dating that is public, whether it be about a messy divorce, addiction, or mental health, it is fine to acknowledge it but do not assume that person wants to get into it – especially early on in the relationship – unless they bring it up. By googling me, he took away the opportunity for me to disclose if and when I felt like sharing but that is one of the hazards of the job.
Barring any public information about your very private mental health, when to share is entirely up to you. To protect yourself, if you are feeling vulnerable, wait until there is an established connection. I think everyone’s worst-case scenario is the nightmare of sharing something personal and private and that information makes the other afraid/revolted/repulsed/(fill in your verb here) and then disappears. That has NEVER happened to me but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t. If you share something sacred and private and that does lead to the ghosting scenario you need to know that it is not about you. Good riddance!
Things to say (and not say) when someone shares their diagnosis
For those with little to no experience of mental illness (which are few and far between), I will liken my diagnosis to an illness like diabetes or alcohol addiction. I think both of these analogies are helpful for those who are unfamiliar with mental illness. People understand diabetes as an illness that can be managed over time with medication and therapies but will at a time have flare-ups.
I often will mention addiction because there was a specific point where I had to choose to get better or at least do everything in my power to heal. There were and are setbacks and daily challenges ( this lack of sleep during the pandemic has had me worried at times) but I continually make the choice, every day to put my mental health at the top of my priority list. With the help of great doctors, medication, and mindfulness, I have been successful.
So here are some of the best, most supportive responses:
- That sounds really difficult.
- You are so strong for going through that.
- Thank you for sharing.
- Would you like to talk more about it?
Pretty basic, human kindness and good for many situations.
Here are some of the things not to say! :
- Yeah, sometimes you just have to go crazy. (This was a recent one)
- I don’t believe in labels.
- Nothing. No acknowledgment.
If you don’t know how to respond – say that. Say something. Saying nothing is worse than saying something even if it’s “dumb”, IMHO.
Strategies for Dating Better
My friend once told me she had a spreadsheet (technically a Google Doc) cataloging all the dates she went on, what she wore, where they went, and how she felt. My first response to hearing about her organizational management was to laugh out loud, literally.
I have come to see the value in such a document and while it doesn’t have to be as professional as an excel spreadsheet, writing down your experience on your date, your first impression, what you wore, your comfort level with the person, even where you are in your menstrual cycle, or how you were feeling (hypomanic? A little low) has its purpose. This may add value to your dating life but even more so, offer insight into yourself.
If you do decide to share personal information about your mental health, you can make a note of it on your document – when you shared, how it felt and how they responded. Over time this sort of journaling can be a valuable asset of self-reflection.
A Note on Dating While Manic
Dating while manic is hard but not only for the typical reasons of lack of impulse control, etc. The high from making a connection in an already elated state becomes an unfair and unrealistic benchmark for all others. Comparing the connection from a first date in a grounded and stable state of being to that of dating while manic is, to be blunt, boring. I have come to embrace that banality as I am not longer seeking that immediate spark but looking for something that has the power of sustainability –a slow burn. But if you are like me and used to the bright and fast burn, this shift can take some time and support but I believe it is worth it.
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