There’s no self-help book or guide out there so here are some suggestions from the frontline
Dating is hard. We’ve all had enough bad dates and racist Tinder matches and horrible, soul-destroying break-ups to know that dating is hard. And not only do we all know that it’s hard, but we’re probably all bored of hearing about ~dating in the modern world~. You know the kind of thing I mean – “The Role Of Romance In The Age Of The Right Swipe” and “Are Millennials Capable of Love?”. The last thing you want to read is another article about dating.
But amongst the endless, droning voices talking about Tinder and Happn and whether or not it’s okay to have sex with your AirBnB host, there’s a very notable silence – and it comes from the mentally ill.
What is it like to date when you’re mentally ill? How do you tell someone you’re dating that you’ve got a mental health problem? And what happens when you’re affected by mental illness once you’re already in a relationship?
These are all issues I’ve struggled, and continue to struggle, with. As with much of my life, my mental illness has irrevocably changed the course of my love life. Both the nature and the trajectory of my illness, bipolar, have not been conducive to a happy dating life – nor particularly happy relationships. It’s impaired my ability to cope with fairly reasonable things (someone being late, for example, has in the past made me so anxious that I hyperventilated), and has also been more of a major issue. Being in a stable relationship doesn’t mix very well with mania – I’m prone to go on huge, ridiculous four figure spending sprees when I’m manic, which predictably never sits very well with partners with whom I’ve been patiently saving money. I’ll go out more, take more drugs, drink to excess – basically act like it’s Fresher’s Week. It’s not quite so becoming when that week becomes a month, though, or when you’re in your mid-twenties, have a full-time job and are not a suburban teenager high on nitrous oxide and freedom.
Depression, too, has seriously affected my relationships. When I have a severe depressive phase – which, luckily, is only about once a year – I find it hard to function at all. For weeks at a time I can’t eat, shower, cook, wash up or do pretty much anything a functional adult is required to do, something even the most understanding partner would find it hard to deal with. Sex goes out the window too, obviously, because nobody wants to have sex with a girl who literally smells like a bin. And anyway, I wouldn’t want to have sex with them either.
So how do I deal with these myriad problems? The answer to that one is probably badly. But I have learned a few ways of navigating the incredibly difficult world of mentally ill dating.
Telling people your mental health status can be scary at the best of times, let alone if you’re also trying to get them into bed. In my experience, it’s a little like coming out - you don’t just come out as queer once, you do it a hundred times in a hundred different ways. And mental illness is the same. If you date a lot, or you meet a lot of people, it comes up. And you have to own up.
When you’ve been diagnosed and you’re comfortable with whatever label you’ve been given, and you’ve told parents and co-workers and best friends, you don’t really think about the multitude of ways that you’ll have to tell other people. You don’t actually think “God, how am I going to tell almost every single person I have ever have sex with again?”.
“There’s no way of predicting whether someone is equipped to deal with it, or even if they’re willing to try.”
My current partner is fine, and has always been fine, with my mental illness, but I’ve not always been that lucky. And it’s not an unusual story.
“I’ve dated people who have broken it off with me because according to them, I’m ‘crazy’,” Sophie, 26, told me. “I’ve talked to them about my mental illness and they’ve just decided that it’s too much for them.”
As anyone with mental illness will tell you, this is kind of par for the course. So what can you do about it?
Sadly? Not much. There’s no way of predicting whether someone is equipped to deal with it, or even if they’re willing to try. But the key is to be honest. You don’t have to tell them on the first date, or solemnly sit them down and tell them as if it’s the end of the world. It’s enough to float the idea past them subtly, mention it in passing. You can even bring up mental illness more vaguely – a concept rather than something personal.
“They might be a dick about it,” Sophie told me. “But it’s better than finding out they’re a dick about it six months down the line.”
So what is it like when you’re actually in a relationship? It is, predictably, also really hard. The worst thing is feeling like a burden – that, no matter how much someone loves you, your mental illness and the difficulties that it inevitably brings up will ruin everything.
“Sometimes when you’re depressed you need to stop fighting it and just hide under the covers for the day,” said James, 23. He has depression and OCD – something his girlfriend knows and understands. But he still has anxiety about how it affects his relationship.
“Every relationship is so different, every diagnosis and experience so nebulously un-pin-downable, that there’s no real blanket advice that will unequivocally help every relationship.”
“It just makes me feel...just so guilty, really,” he said. “I feel like I’m a huge strain on her. I see how much she worries about me, and we both know that there’s nothing she can say or do to make me ‘not depressed’. It makes me feel impotent.”
So how do you counter this?
I know this is going to sound like a cop-out, but nothing will act as a panacea; every relationship is so different, every diagnosis and experience so nebulously un-pin-downable, that there’s no real blanket advice that will unequivocally help every relationship. So you need to experiment.
My anxiety goes into overdrive when I don’t know what I’m going to be doing, so me and my partner make sure to work out what our plans are before the week starts. It calms me down to a point where I can better deal with spontaneity and can, for the first time in years, actually enjoy it. This might not work for other people, obviously, but it works for me. And that goes for just about everything.
“Because I get loads of intrusive thoughts about everything from relationships to physically harming people, I counter them all the same way,” Sophie told me. “Like – yep, my house is probably on fire. Yep, if I go to the cinema tonight while my boyfriend’s at home, he’ll have enough time to himself to realise he hates me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if I seek reassurance for it I don’t deal with the issues. And it’s really improved our relationship.”
Neither of these things might work for you. They both might. But the key is being honest about it and seeing what works for you.
WE COULD TALK ABOUT SEX, BUT I’D RATHER TALK ABOUT MY DEBILITATING MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
The single most important thing in all of this? Communication. It can be really, really hard. I know this. I have struggled to articulate how I’m feeling and I’ve struggled to hear it from people I love. Not only can it be difficult but it can be awkward for both parties. Talking to someone often feels like a confession, like you’re owning up to something you’ve done wrong. And we all know how hard that is.
But talking about it is so important. And, furthermore, so is listening. “Listen to yourself and understand what you need” and “listen to your partner and try to understand what they need” are hardly radical statements, and I’m not saying anything new here, but they are things that are very easily forgotten in the midst of a breakdown. Nobody’s denying that supporting someone, and yourself, can be really hard - but listening to each other isn’t.
“Above anything else, having someone who just listens to me is what helps me,” James said. “It’s what really helps me cope.”