grow from strength to strength
Dating is hard. It’s paved with heartache and unrequited crushes and the blurting out of gabbled nonsense in front of the unimpressed person you like. When I finally found myself in a conversation with someone I liked at work, whose head I had resolutely stared at the back of for a full three months, I answered an innocuous, “So, how’s your day going?” with, “I am awash with existential despair.” She stared, confused and unblinking, back into my face. I then followed it up with a tiny, pathetic, “Woo!” She sat down again. I continued to stare at the back of her head from my desk, in the full knowledge that she would never speak to me again. This isn’t just me, right? This is how it is for everyone. This is what it’s like to date. It’s awkward.
But what is it like when, in addition to your inability to say anything remotely funny or interesting to the person you are into, you have a mental health problem as well? How does that affect the way you interact with them? How does it affect a relationship once you are actually in one? And, more pressingly: how do you even tell someone you are, or have been, ill? At what point during the dating process is it appropriate to bring up mental health?
The pressure of not knowing when or how to reveal your mental health status can be an additional and very valid source of anxiety. If you tell them too soon it can feel like you are setting the stakes too high; but if you leave it too long you might find that the person you are dating has offensive views on mental health, doesn’t want to deal with it or just isn’t equipped to handle it at all.
As a serial dater it’s something I’ve contended with a lot. It’s also something I’ve done badly a lot. You would have thought there was a finite number of ways to do this wrong. There is not.
How not to tell someone you are mentally ill
Let’s start with some of the poor ways I’ve handled this so far.
Avoiding telling someone until it was catastrophically too late
Hey! I thought, after a month or two of relative tranquility. I think maybe I don’t have mental health problems any more! I think maybe things are going to be perfect for ever and I’m never going to have to think about this ever again. There’s absolutely no point telling my new boyfriend about it, is there? Nah. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’m fine.
It was not fine.
At that point I was deeply embarrassed by my previous psychotic episode, and tried to distance myself from it as much as possible. It was easier for me to avoid the topic and skirt around it awkwardly than to confront it. I chose to blame my breakdown on the stress of starting university, moving away from home, and spending all my time drinking. I didn’t want to think about the possibility that it might continue to affect me for the rest of my life.
But eventually my boyfriend and I did end up talking about self-harm and suicide. It was two years into the relationship and we were in the pub. “It’s all just attention seeking, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s just people who want to feel special: ‘Ooh, look at me, I’m on antidepressants!’ Just get on with it.” He went on to tell me about an ex-girlfriend who had gone on antidepressants after her dad had died unexpectedly; he complained that she lay in bed all day and wouldn’t have sex with him no matter how much he bugged her. It was brutal to hear him write off what was clearly a traumatic experience for his ex as her being “lazy” and trying to “avoid sex” – as if her depression wasn’t about her at all, but was a punishment she had decided to enact upon him. After two dates, this would have been fine – I’d have just dumped him. After two months, even, I could have escaped from the relationship pretty much unscathed. After two years, though, it came as a horrifying blow, one that precipitated the end of the relationship. It forced me to consider how well I really was, and how integral my psychosis, my depression and my mania all were, in their own ways, to my self-image.
We argued about it a lot that day and from then on. He blamed me and said that he wished I would kill myself already and just get it over with if I was so serious about it. There’s no doubt that he was a dickhead about the whole thing, but I can’t help feeling that if I had talked about my experiences earlier in the relationship it might have been avoided.
Rule No 1: it is definitely a good idea to actually, at some point, tell them.
Blurting it out on a first date
I was on a genuinely brilliant first date. He was tall, good-looking (in a kind of disheveled professor way) and the first person I had met who had piqued my interest since the breakdown of my previous relationship. I was very invested in not messing it up.
And I was nailing it. There was lots of wine and I was pulling out all of my best anecdotes. Then came this exchange:
Him: “So, you know I have a son?”
Me: “Oh. No. I didn’t, actually.”
Him: “Yeah. He’s 10.”
Me: “Don’t worry about it. I have bipolar.”
Not only had I completely failed to acknowledge anything he had just said, but I had also equated his beloved child with a debilitating and heavily stigmatized mental health problem. I felt like his child and my bipolar were both things that could and would put someone off, and that he had somehow just issued a deal breaker amnesty by mentioning his son. In fact, he had just wanted to tell me a boring anecdote about a trip to the zoo.
Rule No 2: don’t compare someone’s child to a mental health problem on your first date.
Telling someone during sex
Things you can say during sex: “That feels amazing”, “Keep doing that”, “Could you stop leaning on my hair please?” We’ve all read Fifty Shades of Grey. We know what’s allowed.
But things you should not say during sex? “So, you know I have bipolar?” Don’t ask me why this happened. Don’t ask me about the chain of thought that led me to blurt it out like that.
Just remember rule No 3: never say it when you are literally having sex with someone. Never.
How to tell someone you’re mentally ill in none of the ways outlined above
I would love to be able to say, “Yeah, you should definitely say X after Y number of dates”, but relationships don’t work like a PlayStation cheat code, much as I wish they did. You have to play it by ear, pick up on the person’s vibe and try to work out how best to communicate it to them. I can give you some tips, though.
Actually tell them
Yes, this is obvious, but it’s important. Even if they are the understanding type, it’s best to tell them before you have an episode, because you will need to have a conversation about what you expect from them or what you might need. If they don’t want to date you because they can’t handle it, that’s fine, but it’s unfair on both of you if they are forced to make that decision while you are ill and will cause undue levels of stress when you really don’t need them. It may cheer you to know that a 2013 study undertaken by the charities Mind and Relate found that 77% of people with mental health problems actively told their partners about their mental health problems and just 5% experienced a breakup because of it. A further 74% of partners of someone with a mental health problem said they “weren’t fazed”. So you have almost nothing to worry about.
You don’t have to tell them all the gross minutiae, but it’s best to be broadly honest. Detail the type and severity of your illness. Tell them how it has affected you in the past and how it is likely to affect your relationship.
Don’t sugarcoat it.
For me, there are two major things that tend to go as soon as I become depressed: being able to leave the house, and being able to take a shower. These are obviously fairly big hurdles in a relationship – having a girlfriend who smells like a bin and who sits in the same spot on the sofa for three weeks may not be the most appealing prospect. But by talking about it – telling someone how best to coax me into leaving the house, how to encourage me to look after myself, how I might respond – I’ve found that these hurdles are far less daunting than they first seemed.
Offer some advice
You’re an expert on your own condition, but your partner might not be: help them out.
Encourage them to research your diagnosis so they know, roughly, what they are dealing with. Tell them what you might need and when, or how they might be able to spot warning signs. As with many people who suffer from mania in some form, the first symptom for me is a complete inability to sleep combined with a desperate compulsion to talk all of the time. Telling someone that those things are meaningful parts of my illness, rather than just random occurrences, means that they’re much better equipped to recognize and deal with them when they occur.
You should also, as a couple, draw up a contingency plan in case of emergency. Which family member or friend should your partner contact in a crisis? What resources do you need? This could be anything from bubble bath, music, books or puzzles to calm you down, to something more serious – do you have spare medication, for example? Make sure you are clear in advance about what actions you are happy to explicitly consent to – it’s important that your partner knows what you are comfortable with. And draw up a list of contacts – local authorities, your psychiatrist or doctor, your support worker, or whoever might be able to help.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Having someone decide not to date you because they can’t cope with your mental illness sucks. It feels deeply horrible and personal. Talking to a newly single friend recently, she told me that several relationships that seemed to be going well had mysteriously withered away as soon as she mentioned her severe clinical anxiety. Some told her that was the case – that they were unable or unwilling to deal with it – and others mysteriously disappeared as soon as she mentioned it. It, understandably, bummed her out.
There is a silver lining, though: it is far better to be with someone who is willing and able to help you with your illness. Having a mental health problem obviously doesn’t define you, and it’s the same with relationships. But knowing that someone has chosen to stick with you on the bad days as well as the good can significantly reduce anxiety.
This is an edited extract from A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind
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