Dating with Mental Illness: How I’m Navigating

Mental illness and dating is a HEAVY combination. This blog post was a bit of a struggle to write because it required a lot of introspection and self-awareness in an area that haven’t truly considered the impacts of. While I know that mental health and mental illness impacts our lives on a daily basis, I never thought of the ways it impacted my personal life when it comes to dating and relationships. Frankly, mental illness affects our everyday lives and the way we interact with people. It can be negative or positive; depending on the severity of the mental illness, the understanding of it and the level of support from those closest to us. Just the same, when you are actively dating or in the beginning stages of a new relationship, the vulnerability that comes with revealing a mental illness is unnerving.

African American plus size young woman sitting inside of a circular sculpture looking off into the distance. The photo is in black. and white. She is discussing mental health in this article.
Photo courtesy of author.

Explaining the Un-explainable

Even though I am an open book when it comes to a lot of subjects, I’m also not walking around wearing a placard that says “Hi, I’m Ronny and I have mental illnesses.” The truth is, even if I wore such a sign, what could I have really said about something I was constantly navigating and learning about? What could I share about something that I didn’t even fully understand myself? To further complicate things, as I began to delve a bit deeper into the world of mental health and mental illness, for the most part; I wasn’t exclusively dating any one person. It was easier to keep someone at bay in this area. In hindsight, I genuinely felt because I wasn’t dating for longevity that it wasn’t necessary to make anyone privy to this personal information. Quite frankly in my mind, it was none of his business. Which in more ways than one, wasn’t the right approach. As relationships evolve whether temporary or long-term, people also deserve to know that they’re getting into. They deserve the option and freedom to decide if they want to be involved with someone navigating any kind of illness.

Mask-Off

Mental illness certainly plays tricks on your mind with the most popular one in my experience is that you are a burden to people or that people will view you differently once they know your truth. I am not exempt from these torpefying mind games of self-deprecation. While I had hinted and made jokes about depression and anxiety, when it came to the men I dated, there was never a direct conversation about it (that I recall), until I randomly decided to share with this one person in particular. Strangely enough, we weren’t even dating but “what the hell”, I thought; “let’s see what happens.”

It was perhaps one of the most daunting moments of my life as I shared with him that I struggled with depression and anxiety. He immediately began to ask for understanding on what that looked like for me, what treatments were available but most importantly what he needed to do to support me. He has consistently proven over the years in the course of our friendship, that he has my best interest at heart by allowing me to vent when I need to as well as being a beacon of encouragement and genuine support. It was a refreshing moment. So much so that I cry most of the times we speak because every time I am overcome with gratitude.

Plus size African American woman sitting inside of a black and white polka dot room. She is smiling at the camera revealing a slight gap. She is discussing mental health in this article.
Photo courtesy of author.

From that point forward, I have been able to openly share with men I date about my mental health and it’s been met with nothing but support, thankfully and some relatability.

They understand that things sometimes happen for me in cycles such as insomnia, not eating or the inability to focus. They also understand that my isolation isn’t personal or intentional. As we progress in our relationship, they’re able to pick up on when I’m not myself, which allows me to check in with myself to evaluate what I have going on.

While I’m still not wearing that sign on my forehead announcing my depression and anxiety, I’m a huge advocate for protecting my peace above all else and by any means necessary. Being open about this aspect of my life has made it much easier for me to weed through men who aren’t interested in me for the right reasons.

Self-Care is Accepting Support

As I began to understand more about my mental health, and those triggers, I also began to understand what self-care and support looked like to me. Self-care is not always the glamorous stuff that folks post about on social media. Yes, bubble baths with champagne flutes are relaxing but the real self-care is unlearning your own negative and sometimes self-sabotaging behaviors. It’s breaking habits that prevent you from healing. But most importantly, self-care is also a commitment to showing up for yourself. When you connect this to mental health, learning about your mental illnesses is self-care. Therapy is self-care. Medication is self-care. Prayer or a religious connection is self-care. Make no mistake, no one can love away your mental illness but allowing people to come in and support you is self-care and necessary for both growth and healing.

A few years ago, bored at work, I took the Love Language quiz (highly recommended, by the way) and learned that acts of service was one of my highest ranking results. It was shocking because me being me thought for sure that gift giving would be in first place. I love gifts, who the hell am I becoming? Ugh.  However, reflecting back to the moments in my relationships, it was easy to make the connection between my love language being acts of service and moments that I felt the most at peace and supported.

 It was the moment when my flaring anxiety was met with a back rub and Him putting on “I Love Lucy” without me having to ask. It was Him remembering my specific order at a restaurant and dropping it off when I said that depression has caused me to skip a few meals.  It was Him getting off work and helping with something that was important to me or him spontaneously taking me to the beach when I was sad and homesick for my second home. There are countless other moments but more than anything support for me was the ability to just exist freely in my own little world, marching to the beat of my own drum without judgement.

Partners for the Moment or Partners for Life

Every mental illness looks differently. Even the same illness looks different for everyone affected by it based on genetics, diet, treatment, environmental factors and so much more. Whether you’re seeking a partner for the moment or a partner for life, it’s imperative that you have the conversation with them about your mental health and mental illnesses, just as you’ll share anything else about yourself. This may not be an easy conversation, but it’s a necessary one.

So, how do you have that conversation? Come with an open mind and with your guard down. Having your guard up can easily turn a conversation of understanding into a defensive one. Be prepared to answer questions that include your specific symptoms, triggers, treatment and the ways you want to be supported. It would also be helpful to have information readily accessible such as pamphlets or a website. If your mental illness is more severe, seek out partner support groups that you can connect them to or invite them into your treatment process if you’re comfortable.

Just as you had to learn about your mental illness, so will your partner. Show grace as this will be a learning curve and new territory for you both, individually and as a couple.

Go live in your truth, authentically.

Plus size African American woman wearing a black blouse and magenta long tulle tutu skirt. Her head is downward with a smile. She is discussing mental health in this article.
Photo courtesy of the author.