First dates can fill you with excitement; the prospect of that connection where you can’t wait to see each other again. But it can also be nerve-racking, and for those of us with mental illness, there are even more challenges...
Putting yourself out there, being vulnerable and open to the possibility of love, can be quite a scary thing – we all know the risk of heartbreak, but also the possibility to learn, grow, and make a truly special connection.
Having a mental illness can mean the thought of dating is even more daunting – will they understand? What if you’re not ready?
Even though one in four of us will be living with mental illness at any one time, feeling anxious about sharing your mental health experiences with a potential love interest is completely natural.
I’ve experienced this myself; I have bipolar 1 disorder and I was hospitalised in 2014 with mania and psychosis. When I had recovered, I still had an anxiety disorder and panic attacks to contend with, alongside a fear of rejection from potential partners if they knew how ill I’d been. I feared a lack of understanding about my symptoms.
I began dating again in 2015, and eventually met my now-fiancé, who wasn’t fazed by the fact I have a chronic mental illness. We spoke about my symptoms extensively over time, and he is now a brilliant support to me.
Having a mental illness shouldn’t stop you from living and experiencing the things your heart desires. Here, I want to share some of my tips for dating with a mental illness, so that you too can enter the dating scene, when you’re ready:
1. Don’t rush for romance
Mental illness can often leave you feeling lonely, and sometimes this leads you to feel that you need to find a partner quickly. However, it’s important that you are at the right place in your recovery before you enter a new relationship. It’s easy to get swept up in romance, and spend all your energy on that, but you need to have the time and space to dedicate to yourself, allowing yourself to heal and feel better before arranging dates.
2. Be honest, but go at your own pace
If the dates have gone well and you can see the relationship developing, it’s important to be honest about your mental health – when you do this just depends on when you feel ready to.
From my own experience, I chose to wait before telling my date about my mental illness, because I wanted to get to know each other before disclosing intimate details.
But others may view this differently, and prefer to open up sooner than later, rather than waste time on someone who isn’t understanding. Just think about what’s right for you. If they have an adverse reaction, it says more about them than you.
3. It’s OK to be anxious
Dating anxiety is a completely understandable part of life. Even people who don’t have an anxiety disorder feel nervous before dates! When I started dating, I regularly had to cancel due to social anxiety, and was met with a variety of reactions – some were understanding, and some were not – I didn’t see the ones who weren’t again.
While stigma still exists, in a study from 2013 by charities Mind and Relate, out of 1,000 people with mental health issues surveyed, 63% of those who told their partners revealed their other half wasn’t fazed. They also found that 77% actively discuss their mental health with their partner, and only 5% said partners ended the relationship when they found out.
4. Pre-date relaxation routines
Practising some deep breathing exercises can help those pre-date nerves – breathe in through your nose for the count of five, and out through your mouth for five. Repeat this for a few minutes.
You could also try meditating, or if that’s not your style, distracting yourself might help – put on your favourite show, read, or listen to music. If the nerves are still there, speak to someone you trust – a friend or family member – who can talk you through it, and give you a positive boost before you leave. Putting on your favourite outfit will help you to feel more confident as well.
5. Have fun
While the initial thought of dating might be nerve-racking, remember why you’re there: to meet someone special and hopefully find a romantic connection. It’s important to enjoy yourself with your date, try to forget about your worries, and be in the moment. Remember that your mental illness does not define you as a person – you have many amazing attributes, so let them shine.
And if the date doesn’t go well, it’s not the end of the world. Frame it as a positive – it means your first date with that someone truly special is something you can still look forward to. It could be just around the corner.