What it means to date when you have a mental illness
Romantic relationships—from time to time—are difficult in different ways for a lot of people. In my case, living with and, coping and managing fibromyalgia and bipolar affective disorder complicates these experiences further.
A constant dilemma I used to face was of having to decide when is a good time to tell the other person about my health. It was tricky because sharing this too early on might have been unnerving for them, since they hadn’t spent enough time with me to see me as “normal.” On the flipside, if I shared this after some time had passed it would risk being interpreted as a dishonest act on my part.
I would exercise caution when it came to talking about my diagnosis in such situations. In some instances delaying my sharing for a little while helped me—by the time I opened up the other person would be more willing to listen because they had begun to be emotionally invested in me. Knowing this reassured me; I could tell them about my health without the fear of being dismissed right away. This said, sometimes it didn’t make a difference when I brought this up—their prejudice and ignorance would trump what feelings they had for me, making them opt out of the equation.
I’m now in a space where I feel too jaded because of the experiences I’ve had. I no longer want to try and get people to become more aware; to change their minds about how they see my illness. The way I see it, someone who is empathetic in nature won’t view my physical and mental illness as a relationship dealbreaker—and that’s the kind of person I’d like to date.
Nowadays my dating profile description—on websites, apps—includes mention of my health. In other instances in the present, if an opportunity to share this comes about in the course of the conversation I tell them right off the bat. I frame this by letting them know about a support group meeting or a doctor’s appointment I have scheduled—I want to normalize it, not make it sound like a whole different thing I am dealing with. It’s a part of my life, yes, but it doesn’t define who I am.
False assumptions, prejudices, and anxiety
Recently, someone asked me if my illnesses are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In another instance a person called me a lesbian, a whore, and told me to see a psychiatrist; it’s a different matter that none of these statments are truly insulting.
Negotiating the world of dating is very hard and punishing for someone who lives with a chronic illness. I fear that I will have to live alone my whole life. The process of looking for a partner scares me because of all the hate and discouraging experiences that I think will be a part of this.
My last relationship ended because of my illness. I was going through a bad phase of anxiety and it made it difficult for me to go out a lot. Anxiety has such debilitating symptoms, it makes it difficult for you to even perform everyday tasks that you would usually do without a second thought.
When I’m in a relationship I’m constantly worried that a breakup is just around the corner. Add to this the effects of bipolar disorder—that send my moods and emotions on a rollercoaster ride. For me to be able to cope and manage my illnesses it’s important that I am not overwhelmed by the relationship I am in—and this means being with someone who is understanding and patient.
Focusing on my wellbeing and becoming more self-aware
Over time, I have gotten better at navigating relationships by taking care of my health. I make sure I’m taking my medication regularly; stick to my treatment plan; exercise; sleep well and avoid using substances. I am stable because of this and have very few mood swings.
Something else that I’ve come to understand is very important for me is being communicative with my partner—like telling them if I’m having a depressive episode, feeling anxious, or in a hypomanic state; if they care for me they will be there for me during these times.I have a sense of gratitude toward my caregivers—I ask them for help and listen when they tell me my mood seems different. I often remind myself that it is possible to have a strong and intimate long-term relationship with someone even when you are living with bipolar disorder. Previously I had internalized the stigma I had faced and thought that I am not good enough for a relationship. I now realize that this is not true: I have a lot to offer in a relationship.
The nature of relationships
My dad once referred to relationships as being among the most bipolar experiences—he was talking about the highs and lows that all relationships have. Now when I experience a low in the space of dating I try to remember that the negative feelings are temporary in nature and will pass; and that I’ll be okay even if they don’t pass. .
I recognize that I’m more emotional than a ‘normal’ person is in such situations. When things appear tough to manage it’s important for me to remember to be calm, and not get overwhelmed by the small bumps that are common when it comes to dating and being in a relationship.
I strongly feel that empathy is a key aspect of a good relationship. Sometimes people dismiss valid things I say to them, and term it as my illness—and not me—talking. It matters to me that I am heard and given the space to be heard, instead of anything negative I say labelled as stemming from my illness.
In a relationship it’s important to respect each other’s boundaries. I know where I stand when it comes to certain behaviors in a relationship, like verbal abuse, cheating, overspending, not taking responsibility for your own health and not seeing the doctor—I am not okay with it, period.
A relationship doesn’t have to be only work, or something that adds pressure to my life. I find that a relationship can play an important role in my mental wellbeing—it can give me much needed stability. Even though I am yet to master how to navigate a relationship, I hope to keep improving with time and find an empathetic partner one day.
Swati Agrawal works as a Director (Operations) at IDIA Charitable Trust, and lives in Delhi. She wishes to use her own experiences to create awareness about mental health and invisible illnesses. She spends her free time playing with her two cats, board gaming and writing.