Here's the Thing: Dating with Mental Illness

There's no wrong way to disclose your mental health status.

A CUTIE PIE:

I’m 22 and beginning to delve into the world of adult dating. I have a couple different diagnoses for mental illnesses with which I’ve been struggling for most of my life. I’ve been healthy for a year now, which is allowing me to approach dating more seriously than I have in the past. However, I find myself unsure about how to discuss my health history.

When dating, how open should I be about my history of mental illness? When is the appropriate time to disclose my diagnoses? I know there’s no exact time, like it has to be 7:42pm on a Thursday or it has to be during the dinner portion of the fourth date or anything like that. But what cues should I look for? How can I know a dating relationship is at the appropriate stage to talk about mental health? My mental illnesses have been impacting me since before I even started kindergarten, and any partner or potential partner couldn’t fully know and understand me as a person without knowing about my illnesses.

Also, while I am healthy now, there’s no guarantee that I’ll remain so, and I feel like I should disclose this so people know what they’re getting into with me. Again, though, I’m unsure—do I have an obligation to tell them, and if I do, how much detail should I give? I guess the TL;DR version of my question is: how can I, as a now-healthy young adult with a lifelong history of mental illness, best approach conversations about my anxiety and bipolar with people in whom I’m romantically interested?

SOPHIA:

So, for starters, I would say, instead of trying to feel out when the other person is most ready to hear about your mental health (you will not be able to gauge this perfectly based on non verbal cues), try listening to yourself and when you’re ready to talk about it. You know when people make you feel safe and listened to. Like you said, this is a big part of you, so I think you should tell people when you want to invite them in. You don’t need to detail everything, you don’t need to give disclaimers as if it might start to suck to be with you. Be honest about your past when it is important to you, when it explains you. You can be casual about it if it feels right to you, you can cry into someone’s arms; there isn’t a wrong way to share yourself with someone else.

You don’t owe it to people to tell them no later than date two so they can sprint out of the restaurant screaming if they need to or anything like that. I find it fairly unlikely that anyone is going to hear you say, “I have a history of mental illness,” and they’ll go, “DEALBREAKER!” Most people these days have a relationship to mental illness on some level, so I just don’t think that’s a scenario that will ever play out. That does not mean that everyone is going to be knowledgeable and sympathetic immediately and know exactly what to say and how to treat you. They won’t! They will mess up how they treat you and you will mess up how you treat them, which is a big part of dating that is even more prevalent when you add in mental illness.

Good people will keep trying. Good people will also, unfortunately, give up. Good people will be incompatible. You may have to walk away from someone you love because they’re great when you’re healthier, but don’t do well when you aren’t. It will be heartbreaking. I’m sorry; I wish it weren’t like that. Put your well-being first anyway.

I’d encourage you (and I may be totally wrong on this, but this has helped me) to try to break away from thinking of yourself in the binary forms of “healthy” or “unhealthy,” words which tend to have a lot of baggage and stigma with them. It often allows others to label you this way and to dismiss behaviors and feelings of yours as simply part of being “unhealthy.” I would encourage thinking of yourself of a spectrum (like healthier to not doing as well), and I would encourage you to think in days rather than years. You aren’t doomed to bad years ahead. You aren’t baggage. You aren’t weighing anyone down or bumming them out. You’re a good deal; you’re kind and lovely and brilliant.

(One more thing: read anything and everything you can by Beth McColl who writes brilliantly on love and mental illness both separately and together).