What I Learned From Dating With A Mental Illness
Around 3 million Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. I am one of those 3 million people. Living with mental illness affects every day of your whole life; it changes how you wake up in the morning, how you eat, how you sleep. It changes how you work. And it changes how you date.
Since I was a teenager I’ve had that old adage swirling round my big head: “You can’t love someone else until you learn to love yourself”. And it’s informed how I’ve approached every relationship I’ve ever had – especially since I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
When I began a relationship with my first partner after my diagnosis, I was acutely aware that we were both humans living with mental illness. We were both people who didn’t love ourselves, trying to love each other. It was an unqualified disaster, but I learned a whole lot.
The idea that you can’t find love, solace and support when you are mentally ill is backward and counterintuitive. Of course you can find love; in fact, really good, healthy and solid love is a great foundation for recovering from and living with common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
I know this, because I am lucky to be in a solid, comfortable and healthy relationship now – and it’s a thing that works even when I don’t.
Sometimes love and mental health totally gels… and sometimes it totally doesn’t. Out the other side, I can recognise all the lessons I’ve learned while dating with mental illness.
Don’t Do Anything You Don’t Want To Do
It’s really easy when you’re mentally ill to convince yourself that something works when it really, really doesn’t. Don’t let any person, especially a romantic or sexual partner, take advantage of any vulnerability you might have because of your mental illness.
It’s OK to not feel like being social with your partner’s friends (but it’s also OK for them to want to be social without you, if that’s the case). It’s ok to not feel like pushing a physical relationship when you’re not feeling it.
A lot of mental illness is convincing yourself there’s a “certain way” to do things, and the way you’re doing it is wrong. But remember: if something makes you uncomfortable, or sad, you absolutely do not have to do it.
Take It Slow And Stay Out Of Your Own Head
My first couple of relationships after my diagnosis, I was bogged down by over-analysis – I just could not stay out of my own head. This meant that everything, big or small, was put under the microscope in my brain.
It took them this long to reply to my message, does that mean they’re mad?
I saw pictures of them at a party without me: are they embarrassed of me?
I did this last night and I fucked it up, oh god, I fucked it up. I am the worst.
Slow down, take a deep breath! This is what I wish I could’ve said to tangled up, anxious Me back then. Relationships are a lot of work, a lot of activity, a lot of mental energy and a shitload of compromise. You have to move your life around to fit your partner in it – and they have to do the same.
So give yourself one hell of a break! Take it slow and try not to let your Anxious Brain take over.
Be Only As Honest As You’re Comfortable Being
There can be a lot of agonising, when you’re mentally ill, over whether To Tell Or Not To Tell. Do you tell friends, family, colleagues, lovers about your mental illness? A lot of this drama is down to the long-running stigmatisation of mental health issues. That kind of pressure makes it hard to tell even the people you love most how you’re feeling when you’re feeling bad.
And sure, your partner is your partner, but don’t feel you need to disclose anything about your mental illness to them until you’re ready. Because, yes, it might change how you interact with each other. And it might darken the dizzying lightness of the beginning of your relationship – which is one of the best bits of dating, and something we all deserve to enjoy.
Feel free to disclose the details of your mental health to your partner only when you’re ready, and you feel you can trust them. Or, just disclose when it suits you! There are no rules, and your mental illness is a part of you, you deserve the right to control that knowledge for yourself.
Lean On Your Lover, But Don’t Make Them Your Crutch
Sometimes it feels selfish and cruel to lean on your loved ones when you’re having a hard time. But do you know what’s worse? Keeping pain bottled inside you and doing yourself damage.
One of the joys of dating is having a someone on whom to lean; so absolutely feel free to lean on your partner for love and support during difficult times. That’s what they’re there for. But remember: you are your strongest ally during hard times, so remember that, where possible, it’s a valid and important thing to aim to support yourself.
Dating is fun! If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t invent hundreds of new ways every century to date bigger and better. Remember that you deserve to enjoy yourself, even when something takes work.
One of the biggest problems with common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is the tendancy to punish ourselves, especially when life is different or hard. And sometimes dating can be different, or hard. So remember to sit back, give your partner an eye, and luxuriate in the feeling of: “I like this person! We have fun! This is why we’re together.”
Try Not To Make Them Your Only Metric For Self-Value
On top of the fact that mental illness can reduce your ability to measure and appreciate your own value, women in particular are socialised early on to seek approval and validation from the men in our lives. Thank you, patriarchy! But anyone with a mental illness can find themselves pinning too much of their identity on a relationship.
It’s really important that you don’t look to your partners for validation and to be your sole metric of self-value. You must prioritise yourself, your feelings and your sense of self before you take into account how your partner values you.
And sure, this can be hard when you’re suffering and you’re not the biggest fan of yourself. At times like this, a partner beside you, telling you they love you, can be invaluable. But remember: they are not the final word on whether or not you are valid. You know you are – remember that!
Love Love If You Love Love
Love is hard, and it’s sometimes silly, and it’s definitely over-valued in our society. But it’s also important and special and magic and great. Just because you are a person living with a mental illness does not mean you don’t deserve love – or to love love.
If you have someone to whom you can express that love? Great! Feel free to do that, guilt-free. You deserve it just as much as anyone else. Just take care of yourself, too.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. You can find more of her ramblings about women and the arts on her website. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith