When you’re dating someone new, you want to put the best version of yourself forward. At least that’s what I used to believe.
For years, this mentality convinced me that in order to be in a relationship, I needed to lie about my history of mental illness and addiction; I need to hide my lifelong struggle with my mental health.
In college, as I told people I was casually dating, or even my ex-boyfriend, about my life, I left out many parts. I omitted the time I spent a month in inpatient rehab after a drunken suicide attempt; I left out the years I’d spent secretly locked in bathrooms, purging my meals; I left out the days I couldn’t get of out of bed because I was so depressed.
I didn’t tell them how many therapists I’d been to, how many medications I’d tried, or how many times I’d been to the ER for alcohol poisoning, pill overdoses, and combinations of the two.
Basically, I covered up any sign that I’d ever severely struggled with mental health. And surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard for me to hide my mental illness.
I’ve been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder since entering the double digits of age, and I’ve learned how to mask my depression. No matter how debilitated, depleted and hopeless I may feel, I have perfected the art of projecting a completely different image. Even at my lowest, I can be engaged in a conversation; I can still appear to be happy and healthy.
When my college relationship ended almost immediately after I drunkenly tried to kill myself (again), I hit what people often refer to as rock bottom. I realized I was inching closer and closer to death, and that one of these times, I wasn’t going to be able to come back.
So, I decided to get better; I decided to live. I gave up alcohol, I went on antidepressants (and four years later still take them), and I stopped lying to my therapists. I began to address my underlying depression, both medically and emotionally.
But, furthermore, I realized that I didn’t want to be a person who lied about who he was to be in relationships. That urge was coming from my own stigma: I believed that if I admitted I had mental illness, an illness that could be subdued but never seemed to fully disappear, then that meant I was somehow flawed, undesirable or even scary.
So, I suppose I took the opposite approach. I became committed to sharing my story, in hopes that it would help contribute to the movement to push against the stigma attached to mental illness, and to make quality mental health services more accessible and affordable for more people.
I began writing about my mental illness, and eventually published a memoir, Shitfaced, which details my experiences with addiction and mental illness. Recently, I launched a podcast, Mental Health Hangouts, where I talk to fellow young people about their own experiences with mental illness.
Though so much of my professional life is focused on writing about mental illness, I have always found it more difficult to be open in my personal life, however counterintuitive that might seem.
It has taken me a few years, and a severe learning curve, but I think I’ve begun to figure out how to effectively bring mental health up when you’re dating.
The first thing I have learned is not to force the conversation. Instead, wait for a place for it to work into the conversation naturally. When I didn’t want to talk about mental illness, I purposely steered the conversation away from it. When you want to talk about it, let the conversation lead itself there.
Being honest is an incredibly useful tool when being in a new relationship, in every sense, but it is especially valuable for discussing mental illness, and mental health, in general. When you are honest about your mental illness, it makes you seem mature, confident and in control. Not only are you pushing against stigma for yourself, but also you’re playing a part in redefining the conversations we have about mental illness as a society, at large.
I have also learned that not everyone is open to talking about mental health, and not everyone is going to be able sensitive or empathetic to my experiences with mental illness. Though I may disagree with their outlook, I don’t let it affect me.
I know that not everyone is going to react well when I share about my mental illness and my mental health history, but I also know that is someone reacts poorly, it’s actually, in a sense, a blessing that I learn this about them sooner rather than later. Mental illness is a part of my life, and it always has been and always will be, and if someone cannot have honest and open conversations about mental health then we are never going to be compatible.
I am always surprised at how many people’s lives are touched by mental illness, whether they personally have a mental illness or are privy to the life of a loved one who does. This tends to mean many people are more empathetic than you might believe if you aren’t used to talking about mental illness.
The most important tip that I have is to have these conversations on your own terms, and on your own time. Some people may have these conversations on the first date, and others may wait for a few weeks. Timing doesn’t matter as long as you are not intentionally withholding this information because you are afraid to be honest.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.