I recently was having a conversation with a friend about what it meant to date people with mental health issues. She disclosed to me that she wasn’t comfortable with dating someone who was dealing with mental health issues and mood swings. Now before you get upset and decide to jump down her throat she had very valid reasons as to why she didn’t have the capacity to date someone who had mental health issues. In her case it was a very real and valid possibility that emotional abuse could take place while someone was having an episode. And if I’m being honest, as someone who deals with mental health issues I really wish more people would be honest about their capacity when it comes to dating us. Now I’m sure you have watched the Silver Linings Playbook movie about how two people dealing with severe mental health issues somehow find a way to overcome it all and fall in love. Jennifer Lawrence is beautiful and wild and her mental illness is portrayed as something that is simply just a character flaw or an issue that the rest of the world has with her instead of something that she is dealing with internally. Bradley Cooper is just a man who has been cheated on by his wife and is now dealing with the mental break of what has transpired. Their mental illness is quirky, thought provoking and it causes its watchers to feel sympathy for these two people who are simply just trying to overcome all of the trauma that they’ve incurred and somehow come on top with love in tow.
I wish it was that easy. I wish I could tell you that my body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression are just cute little characteristics that I’ve acquired over the years that make me ever more so lovable. To be honest I wish my life was like Silver Linings Playbook. I wish someone was just waiting to look past my crippling anxiety around my rolls and my abandonment issues to see the deep and thoughtful sexy young woman that I am. Unfortunately that’s not the case and it probably never will be. Instead of sleeping with every man in my office or creating a sexy burlesque choreography, my body dysmorphia and depression looks more like days without getting out of bed, staring at images of all the women that I can probably never be and convincing myself that I’m neither lovable or wanted no matter how many times people tell me otherwise. For many of us dealing with mental health issues, relationships look more like navigating ways to quash insecurities while simultaneously trying to show up in healthy ways for our partners. And even when we have found ways to cope, put ourselves on medication, write think pieces, join help groups and go to therapy it still isn’t easy. Living and surviving with mental illness can sometimes feel like we are undeserving of love and this feeling is heightened even more so by people who are not honest about their capacity to love us through it all.
Well-meaning people often times will approach us with the full intent to love us, support us and even build futures with us. They fill our heads with promises of loving us on the tough days and sticking around even when we can barely stick around for ourselves. The problem with this is that these promises, commitments and assurances are usually made on days when we are quote on quote “normal.” It’s easy to love us, it’s easy to show up and it’s easy to be there when our depression is quiet, our anxiety is hidden and our body dysmorphia has decided to play hide and seek. What isn’t easy is sticking around for the days where tears make more sense than words and we need a little bit of extra convincing that we’re worth sticking around for. Loving us isn’t easy and trust me if it was we’d be doing a lot better of a job at it ourselves. I’ve lost count over the years of how many partners have held me and reassured me that they’d stick it through, that no matter how scary or tough it gets that they’ll be there to hold my hand along the way. The problem is when you’re not honest about your own capacity and inevitably end up breaking promises to people like me, it does more harm than good. You instead become just another person making yet another promise that you are not able to keep and no matter how much you intended to, it doesn’t change the outcome.
There is also this misconception that if those of us with mental health issues just get enough therapy then we will be healthy enough partners, for what the rest of society sees as, normal people. The problem with that, is that my depression has been and will probably be a life-long issue and will unfortunately probably be the third wheel in our relationship that we never asked for. Whether I date you today, tomorrow or ten years from now, you may come back and still find the same girl who’s loving her body and sometimes just not liking it. She’ll still need extra reassurances of love and your willingness to stay because her abandonment issues left lasting marks on her heart. And you may still need to work just a little extra harder to love her. Dating people with mental illness does not mean subjecting yourself to harm or abuse. It doesn’t mean ignoring red flags or sticking it out because you feel sorry for the person. It’s stopping and taking a second to ask yourself “do I love this person? Do I have the capacity to continue to love this person? And do I have the capacity to stay even when it gets hard? Because it will.” What I can promise is that even though it won’t be easy, the person that you’re choosing to love with mental health issues is trying twice as hard and doing twice the work to make loving them just as easy as it was for Bradley Cooper to fall in love with Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook.
So what are some of the steps that you can take when choosing to date someone dealing with mental health issues. The first step is asking your partner what kind of support they need, particularly when they’re in a dark place or having an episode. These supports can look like anything from just running a bath, other times it’s holding them until they feel safe or maybe it looks like just listening to them rant while they try to work through their insecurities and feelings. It may also look like you helping them create a self care kit. Maybe it’s filled with bubbles, love letters you’ve written for them or even a list of other supports that they can call on when your capacity is low. The Next Step is having a conversation with them about where your capacity lies during these times of need and if you are able to openly and honestly support them in the ways that they need you to. It’s important to know what their love language is so that you can be there for them in all of the ways that they need without adding additional pressure to an already difficult moment or situation. Something that is also equally as important is creating a self care plan for yourself for either before or after your partner has gone through a mental health episode. Relationships are never one-sided and they are especially not one-sided when it comes to dating people with mental health issues. You are not your partner’s therapist, psychiatrist or mental health doctor. You are their friend, their lover and their support person in a healthy and equal capacity. This means ensuring that your mental health well-being is also taken into consideration when loving someone that has mental health issues.
Loving us is not like loving everyone else and if we’re being honest you never loved someone the same way twice. Capacity and boundaries should always be an important part of every single relationship you enter into, this is particularly true when it comes to dating someone like me. Be honest, be open, be supportive and you and your partner should be able to navigate anything that comes your way, even depression.