The Realities Of Dating When You're Struggling With Your Mental Health
The Debrief: Dating is an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times - but how do you stop your mental health defining your love life?
Dating is an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times. None of us are exempt from that rush of nerves and excitement, elation and rejection, from the moment you swipe right or catch each other's eye, to the agonising wait for that post-date text. But when you're affected by a mental health problem, those highs and lows can be all the more intense.
Nisha* is 22 and has suffered from severe depression and anxiety since childhood. She's now been with her boyfriend for 9 months, but says dating has always been a struggle for her. 'Whenever I was approached, I'd be very closed and anxious about it, like "why are you talking to me?" I've always thought I'm not really good enough, which got me quite anxious and depressed – so whenever someone did approach me I'd often reject them, not because of them but because of me,' she says. 'You push yourself away from people because you think you don't deserve a relationship, and you compare yourself to others a lot.'
Her current (and first) relationship 'just happened' without any pressure or expectation: 'I just thought we were best friends,' she laughs. 'Probably half of me was thinking there might be something here, but then my anxiety would kick in and I'd think no, it can't be. I was shocked when he told me he felt something more too.'
Likewise 23-year-old Kate* says: 'I've always felt as though, because I have bipolar, I'm not good enough for anyone to date, so it stopped me putting myself out there. I was never ready to open up to someone on that level, or expose myself and my self-harm scars, and have to talk about them.'
Although she's learnt to deal with the unexpected mood changes that come with her condition, Kate says she constantly used to worry about how someone new and unfamiliar would deal with it. After four years of hiding from the dating scene, she's now seeing someone who brings out 'the best version of myself', and says 'for me, being surrounded by positivity and love helps to keep everything in balance.'
25-year-old Jessica is single, and recently finished things with a guy she'd dated a few times. She suffers from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and says the obsessive spirals have made dating a huge challenge over the years. 'One little incident can trigger a whole panic,' she explains. 'The most challenging aspects of dating are my anxieties about pregnancy and STDs – I couldn't tell you how many needless pregnancy tests, morning after pills, and STD tests I've had!'
Beyond sexual health, Jessica says: 'I get anxious about my date's social media communications with other women, and I obsess about why he hasn't text in x amount of time. I used to get so caught up in anxiety that I wasn't good enough for the guy, that I'd done something to offend him, or that he was lying to me about how much he cared. I've worked hard to build my confidence and address some of this anxiety over the last year, but I still struggle at times with texting – the 'what if' train of thought is the worst.'
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the focus for this year is around the importance of good relationships. We asked psychotherapist Imi Lo from Eggshell Therapy how young women dealing with mental health issues can make romantic relationships work for them. 'If you're dating someone and you do struggle with these emotional whirlwinds, it's important to take good care of yourself, rather than constantly leaning on the other person. It's ok to gain emotional support and understanding, but if you lean on them to rescue you from how you feel, that's going to make the relationship tough,' she says.
'If you have a really harsh internal critic making you believe there's something fundamentally wrong with you, waiting for texts may feel like an abandonment – but that may not have much to do with what's actually happening. You may have transferred painful feelings about your past – maybe an ex-partner or someone who's hurt you – onto this new person who you don't know much about. Take a step back, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself "Am I reacting to what is right in front of me, or am I reacting to an assumption?"' Imi suggests.
Then, of course, there's the all-important question of how much your date needs to know. 'I've never explicitly told my boyfriend I have depression and anxiety,' Nisha says. 'We're both from ethnic minorities, where there's still quite a stigma around mental health – as well as around sex and relationships – so when we were initially going out I worried that he'd think I'm mad and be put off me.'
As a mental health campaigner she says she's relatively open about mental health generally, and other people's mental health, but still struggles to be honest about her own issues and recently felt hurt by her boyfriend's careless joke at the expense of mentally ill people. 'Even though it wasn't directed at me, it showed there's still that stigma there,' she says.
'I've often felt that I need some sort of mask to give me confidence with potential partners – whether that's drinking, online chat or texting – and this furthers my anxiety when I come to meet up with them again, as I get really anxious about being a disappointment in reality,' says Annabel*, who's 24 and suffers from depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 'I've cancelled dates in the past – or, if I don't cancel, I know I can come across as very distracted and removed until I'm able to relax in their company,' she adds.
For Jessica, alcohol played such a big part in setting off her anxiety the following day that she now avoids drinking on dates altogether. But Imi says recognising and acknowledging these needs is a really important part of self-care: 'You may have to say "I don't want to go to crowded places" or "I don't want to stay up late, or have a drink, because it makes me end up feeling crap" – it's ok to assertively express those needs, and it doesn't make you any less desirable. You don't owe anyone an explanation,' she says.
'I think the decision about whether or not to disclose, or when to disclose, really depends on the nature and maturity of the relationship,' Imi adds. 'If the person you're dating is mature enough to share this with you then it can be a really good enhancer and bring you really close together. Embrace where you're at now, know that it's not your fault and there's no need to feel ashamed, and date someone who can embrace that part of you too. There's no need to shy away from [your mental health problem], but there's no need to let it define you either.'
*Some names have been changed
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