No amount of coming of age books, romantic comedies, or magazine articles about dating and relationships could have prepared me for how my life as a 20-something would actually turn out. At 21, I developed a severe anxiety disorder. Within 6 months, I was hospitalized 5 times, faced countless medication changes and misdiagnoses, and gained 40 pounds. As 2013 ended, so did my long-term relationship.
For over 2 years, I healed my mind and body with therapy, medication, and the gym. Every second I spent working on my mental and physical health was paying off, and each day I realized my inner-strength and what kind of woman I wanted to be. By the time I turned 24 this year, I knew that I was finally in a place where a relationship would add to my happiness instead of having my happiness depend on a relationship. I was ready to date again, and I didn’t know what to expect.
Here are the 5 things I have learned so far about dating with a mental illness:
1. Love yourself first:
Admittedly, it took me a long time to fully accept that my mom was right when she told me that I needed to take time to work on my health and learn to love myself again. I felt insecure and jumped into a new relationship almost immediately after my last hospital stay. During a time when I should’ve been deeply focused on healing and restoring my self-esteem, I was relying on someone else to make me feel confident. When the relationship ended, I realized that I didn’t have the skills to generate my own happiness. My attention then shifted to discovering who I was as a woman and figuring out how to manage my mental illness. Learning to love myself was a crucial part of my recovery.
2. Mental health is still a priority:
I don’t let my anxiety disorder dictate my life, but it does play a part in how I approach different circumstances, like meeting new people. Friends and family encourage me to try some of the more popular methods of meeting a potential boyfriend like online dating or being set up on blind dates. Talking to an unfamiliar person online, meeting up with someone alone who I don’t know, or feeling nervous at night in a crowded bar are all situations that are anxiety triggers for me. Even though they are convenient and work for many people, I know that my mental health is more important. I’ve had to discover ways to “put myself out there” while still respecting my comfort zone.
3. When to discuss an illness is a personal choice:
I’ve contemplated when to open up to a date about my mental health issues, but I couldn’t decide if I thought it was a first date conversation or not. I know I have nothing to hide, but I also knew that I shouldn’t need to explain my disorder right away. After being in that position several times, I’ve learned that when to discuss my illness is my decision, and each situation is different. While I won’t go into major details while at a movie on a first date or second date, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my psychiatric service dog and explain why I have him with me. Mental health is a personal topic, and there is no right or wrong answer.
4. Mental illness can change what is important to you and what you look for in a partner:
I have become a public advocate for mental illness and discovered that what I desire in a significant other has transformed along with me. How does he view topics about mental health, disability, and inclusion? Would he ever mock those receiving therapy or shame people who take psychiatric medications? Is he someone that can stand by my side and advocate with me? My journey with mental illness has made these topics extremely important to me. I’ve learned that, above all, a person with empathy and integrity is the soulmate I’m searching for.
5. Never settle for less than what you deserve:
A line that has stuck with me is, “It’s better to be single than to be in the wrong relationship.” It isn’t always easy for me to see other people in happy relationships. I could be with someone if I wanted, but I know that being with the wrong person isn’t what’s best for me. It’s not the best answer for anyone. Even on the loneliest nights, I’m content knowing that waiting for the right person is what I deserve. On my good days and my anxious days, I am deserving of the best love.