Dating With Mental Illness: Can We Start Talking About It?

Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning

By Lisbeth Leftwich, Intern 2015

Everyone you date is hiding something, right?

And anyway, mental illness isn’t exactly first date conversation.

And besides that, isn’t it fun to be seen as a new person, someone who doesn’t have debilitating panic attacks … for once?

I have this internal conversation with myself every time I start dating someone new. On one hand, part of me is excited about having such a clean slate. After living with panic disorder for over 13 years, it’s nice to talk with someone who doesn’t know how quickly I can become completely submerged in panic. At the same time, I am immediately riddled with guilt over hiding such a significant part of myself. While my panic disorder doesn’t define me, it feels like a friend who is always following me around: It doesn’t control my every move, but it is still wise to consider its feelings.

The stigma around mental illness can make conversation about it difficult. Western society has constructed the image of a person with a mental illness as unpredictable and potentially dangerous. It seems like the first thing the media talks about whenever a violent crime is committed is its possible connection to mental illness, despite the fact that there is no proven link between mental illness and violence. On television, characters with mental illnesses often end up as villains, or their conditions are used as ways to move the plot forward. Even as people and organizations work to break down the stigma, the lingering fear of talking about and existing near mental illness persists.

Furthermore, words associated with mental illness have crept into our everyday vocabulary and made it acceptable to trivialize others’ experience. It has become common for someone to say they are feeling “bipolar” or “depressed” when they mean they are feeling moody or sad. Even though it is important to be familiar and comfortable with these words, the process of making them mean something less serious ultimately hinders the conversation we should be having. We are in this liminal state of throwing around terms that undermine the reality of mental illness, while still being unable to talk to one another about how many people are actually living with this reality.

So how do you tell someone you’re romantically interested in that you have a mental illness? It is often recommended that you don’t bring it up until you know you want to become serious with that person. After all, you don’t owe them anything when you are casually dating, and you don’t know every private facet of their life. But what happens when your mental illness shows up before you are ready to talk about it?

Last summer, I decided to start dating casually. Because I would be leaving the area when I returned to school several months later, I was only looking to meet some new people and perhaps have someone to text regularly. So I gave myself a pass when it came to talking about my panic disorder, and went out with guys pretending that all I was feeling were first date jitters. I told myself I was doing this to avoid unnecessary awkward moments, and that really it wasn’t a big deal.

However, my decision to conceal my condition had more to do with my self-image than I was willing to admit at the time. As much as I tried to deny the effects the societal stigma had on me, they managed to seep in and influence the way I thought about myself. I’ve lived with panic disorder for over half my life, but I still saw myself as a burden to others, and my mental illness as a reason why someone wouldn’t want to be with me. It’s hard enough to shake stigma off when it’s coming from an external source; it feels impossible when it’s coming from yourself. So I decided I didn’t have to talk about panic disorder if I didn’t want to. Besides, if I wasn’t ever going to see these guys again, what was the harm in leaving out this information about myself?

Except panic disorder isn’t something that likes to be left out. When it comes to panic attacks, sometimes I know when they’re coming, but often I have no warning at all. The latter was the case when I went on my third date with a guy I was seeing that summer. We were having a great time eating BBQ and getting to know one another when suddenly I was struck with panic so intense it felt like I was going to die. I knew logically this wasn’t the case, but panic isn’t rational. First I had trouble speaking, and then I had trouble eating. The only thing I could manage to do was quietly say, “I’m not feeling well.”

For his part, my date behaved admirably. He got me water and listened to me when I said I needed to go home. As we left the restaurant, I told him about my mental illness and what I thought had triggered it that day. As we drove back to my apartment, I overcompensated for this new information by laughing too loudly and talking too much.

We ended up dating for two months after that, but my big reveal put an abnormal amount of pressure on our fledgling relationship. Whenever panic disorder came up again, it felt like we didn’t know whether to approach it with humor or as something more serious. It continued to show up for the rest of the summer and, as hard as he tried, the guy I was dating didn’t understand what was going on with me. This wasn’t his fault — I was terrified of explaining it in a way that would reveal the seriousness of my condition, and I was embarrassed that he already knew something was “wrong” with me. I had gone from a (relatively) normal woman on our first two dates to someone with a mental illness on our third. As I had planned, things ended between us when the summer came to a close, but I was left with a guilty, unsatisfied feeling about the way I had handled myself.

I tried to learn from this experience and be more upfront about my panic disorder on future dates. If it came up naturally, I thought, wouldn’t it be better to cross that bridge sooner rather than later? However, it’s difficult to bring up mental illness without it making the conversation uncomfortably serious. It feels like you’re saying, “I know we just met, but I have this debilitating condition that will definitely affect both of us if you want to continue seeing me.” I couldn’t figure out how to effectively navigate this conversation and never saw any of these dates again after we parted.

But the thing is, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about mental illness. And we shouldn’t pretend that those who live with it aren’t a part of our lives; they are all around us all the time. According to a 2012 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.6 percent of adults in the United States are living with a mental illness of some sort. In fact, the Center for Disease Control reports “that only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health.” Every single day you leave your home, you likely come across many people who have a mental illness.

As a society, we are already living and functioning with this thing we are so afraid of. Being able to talk about it would only help us understand one another better. This change begins on a micro level, and that is what pushed me to alter the way I talk about my mental illness.

As much as I want to give myself the space to hide from panic disorder and never mention it again, that’s not the healthiest way forward. I have always presented it as the reason why someone wouldn’t want to be with me, but that isn’t fair to myself or others in my position. Suffering from something like panic disorder is part of life for millions of people, and not something I should be ashamed of.

Having gone through years of treatment and the search for the right medication, I am finally in the healthiest and most stable place I have ever been. I have developed a deep awareness of my own strength and how hard I can push myself. Most importantly, my recovery from panic disorder has played a huge part in establishing my self-respect and in shaping who I’ve become, and that is not something I should ever fear being found out.

So the way forward, for me, is transparency. This will almost certainly mean more awkward moments and rejection in the dating world, but it will also mean embracing and sharing this part of my life of which I refuse to be ashamed. I do not need to be taken care of; I only need to be heard. At the end of the day, I want to date someone who can know about and accept the most important parts of my life. Knowing about me means knowing about my mental illness, and that is all right. I am not hiding anymore.

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