Dating When You Have a Mental Illness Is Hard, and It Shouldn't Be That Way
Having a mental illness isn't exactly sexy.
I've struggled with an anxiety disorder for most of life. And knowing that my partner has to deal with it regularly leaves me feeling guilty and full of self-doubt. My mind swims with thoughts that he deserves so much better than what I have to offer.
I'm hardly alone. According to a survey conducted by PsychGuides, 35% of people who have mental health disorders feel they aren't good enough for their partners. And it's not just our inner struggles! Societal stigmas around mental illness are alive and well -- and hurting our ability to have healthy relationships.
Self-sabotage is just the beginning
When you have a mental illness, you worry about scaring partners away: What if I sound crazy? What if this person doesn't want to date me anymore? What if he rejects parts of me that I can't change?
I feel horrible shame that my partner has to deal with my anxiety, even when his love and support give me no logical reason to feel this way. Often, and unfairly, I express those feelings by picking fights with him -- over problems I've created because of my own self-doubts.
When you're not sabotaging things on your own in these ways, you have to deal with severe stigmas surrounding mental health that are alive and well in our society -- like unfair judgments by people who don't understand how mental illness actually works, or potential love interests being afraid to get involved with someone who has a condition like yours.
A person with a mental health disorder often feels isolated and alone in dealing with their issues because admitting you have an illness is like publicly announcing to the world that you're defective. If you have a broken leg, society accepts you're injured and understands the importance of seeking help (like a hospital or physical therapy) to heal and mend.
Yet if you have depression, anxiety, or a host of other mental illnesses, you're a social outcast. You're avoided. You have a harder time holding a job. People judge you when you say you can't get out of bed one day. Friends say things like, "Snap out of it!" or "Come out with us, it will make you feel better." They'd never say things like that to someone laid up in traction, or a person running a high fever.
In other words, the way the world deals with mental disorders isn't at all similar to how we deal with physical ailments. And that's completely ass-backward.
Disclosing the state of your mental health is a major stepping stone
I didn't tell my boyfriend about my anxiety for a long time. Actually, it only came up because he saw me taking my anxiety medication and asked what the pills were for. He was really supportive and didn't seem too affected by it.
In part, I think some of his reaction had to do with me playing it off like it was no big deal. My dismissiveness of my disorder is pretty common: Telling someone you really dig that you've got some abnormal stuff happening in your brain is seriously scary stuff when there's still such mystery and judgment around mental illness. So much so, in fact, that 12% of people wait more than a year to tell someone they're dating about a mental health issue.
When it comes to mental health, no matter how scary it is, you ultimately have to be honest and seek love and support from your partner. PsychGuides found a majority of people in relationships had partners supportive of their mental health disorders.
You have to "come right out with it," says Aaron Harvey, founder of the mental health website Intrusive Thoughts. "It's part of [your] identity. And being honest about it is important for both parties."
Since my boyfriend found out about my anxiety, I've been increasingly open with him -- about the illness itself and how it affects my rational thinking (especially around our relationship). My honesty has also encouraged him to ask questions, and be open with me about how my illness affects him, too.
Stigmas are centered around a lack of understanding
Harvey says the first step to alleviating societal stigmas and self-doubt is through education.
"Beyond the fear, there's also a major stigma that stems from a lack of education about mental disorders and mental illness," Harvey says. "It makes it really tough to be honest."
Harvey's method is grassroots. "It's not enough to say we should 'end the stigma,'" he says. "Who's going to disagree? There’s no friction. We need to empower sufferers to not only share their story, but also spend the time to educate their loved ones on their experiences, symptoms, and treatment."
Finding love when you have an illness is not impossible
To cope, you have to begin to understand that the shame you encounter, the overwhelming feelings of anxiety, the fear that something terrible will happen in your relationship, and the intense intrusive thoughts that mar your mind are simply byproducts of an illness.
Recognizing these issues, seeking professional help, and having a partner who loves and supports you every step of the way is the healthy way to find balance. You can't have a loving relationship where there are secrets. We all possess traits other people find undesirable -- the trick in dating is to find people who love and accept us wholly: idiosyncrasies, illnesses, imperfections, and all.
"I think sufferers need to remember you are not your disorder," Harvey says. "Respect yourself. Show your vulnerability."
Try to remind yourself that this illness does not dictate who you are as a human being; it is only a part of the amazing, complicated person that you are. "There may be short-term consequences if you speak openly about mental health," Harvey tells us. "But in the long term, your honesty will lead you to the right relationships, the right partner, and a better version of you."
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