I’ve gone through it more times than I can count: I start seeing someone new and things will be going pretty well, and then I’ll have a change in my mental health, so, suddenly, I can’t respond to texts on time or I’m a little less present during conversations, but how do I explain that to them?
There are certain things that tend to happen in every relationship: the “what are we?” talk and the “do you want kids in the future?” discussion that, at some point, need to be discussed. However, as someone who lives with mental illness, I always have an extra conversation that needs to occur when I start dating someone—and it’s absolutely terrifying.
So, A Little About Me
I’m 25 years old and have always had a tumultuous experience with mental health and mental illness, even though I wasn’t officially diagnosed until I was 20. I have general anxiety and also bipolar disorder, which causes me to oscillate between manic and depressive episodes; essentially, I will go from being very energetic and impulsive for several days and then suddenly not be able to get out of bed.
Whether I like it or not, my mental illness affects just about every aspect of my life in some way, and my romantic life is no exception.
The Beginnings Are Generally Seamless
Dating someone new generally starts off pretty seamlessly for me: we go on a few dates, we hang out, we text each other pretty regularly. When you’re in the early days of anything, it’s easy to put on your best face with a romantic interest and make it clear you’re only available a couple of times a week. Even if I do have fluctuations in my mental health, they tend not to have a large impact.
However, Things Get More Complicated With Time
The longer you see someone, the more time you spend together. It becomes harder to ignore the fact that my personality and energy levels are so drastically different as the weeks go on. It’s out of my control when I go from being attentive and exciting to flakey and despondent.
Then there’s the overwhelming fear that the guy I’m seeing will think I’m playing hot-and-cold games with him—because, frankly, that’s what it can look like—and will read it as me being uninterested.
So It Hits A Critical Moment
At some point, it becomes more difficult and damaging to avoid saying anything about my mental illness than it is to say something. Of course, this point comes at different times in different relationships.
For example, I was seeing a guy for just over a week during a period when I was manic—spontaneous, energetic, and a lot of fun—when I had a sudden swing into a depressive episode. Since so much of my personality had seemed one way so far, I didn’t want to confuse him, so I disclosed my bipolar disorder. On other occasions, I have waited months before telling a partner.
Do I Have A Duty To Disclose It?
I struggle to personally know if I have a duty to disclose my mental illness to new romantic interests. I mean, on one hand, I feel like people with certain physical illnesses would never have to lay out the details of a diagnosis when dating. On the other hand, though, I partially think that my potential partners might deserve to know what they’re getting into ahead of time.
Disclosing Is Scary
It’s unfortunate, but we live in a world where mental illnesses are extremely stigmatized and misunderstood by a majority of people. I find that this stigmatization is even stronger for people with mental illnesses that are a little more difficult to understand: for example, many people are familiar with anxiety and depression but struggle to understand other illnesses like personality disorders, impulse control disorders, traumatic disorders, or nuanced mood/anxiety disorders like OCD.
Frankly, the media isn’t all that helpful in its portrayals of mentally ill people, either. When disclosing, there is always a fear that a person will make unfair assumptions about me or just decide they aren’t interested at all.
There Are Other Negative Reactions
Beyond perhaps the initial fear of rejection, there are other concerns that come up with disclosing a mental illness to a romantic partner. There have been times where I’ve told a partner I have bipolar disorder and it, in a weirdly fetishizing way, made him more into me. Needless to say, that relationship did not last long.
In other situations, I’ve had boyfriends use my mental illness as a way to invalidate and gaslight me; I’ll bring up something they’ve done to hurt me and they’ll weaponize my diagnosis against me to say I’m “crazy” and “imagining things.” There’s much more vulnerability present beyond them simply being uninterested when you share details of your mental illness.
So What Do You Do?
I will say that most romantic interests I’ve had have been receptive when I’ve disclosed my mental illness to them. In terms of how to actually do it, it depends on the circumstances. However, the way I generally go about it is that I wait for a moment when we’re both calm, not rushed, and alone to bring up my diagnosis and specifically explain what exactly it means in terms of my life and behaviors.
I generally wait until we’ve been on a series of dates, or after we’ve already felt each other out a few times and think there might be a future—anything sooner just feels a little forced and like a weird confession. Additionally, I don’t just drop all the information at once: it’s more like I slowly share details over time so it’s not overwhelming for either party.
Luckily, Society Is Moving Toward Being More Conscious
We definitely have a long way to go, but I do think that more people are becoming educated on mental illnesses and disorders, and the stigma is decreasing. While dating for people with mental illnesses can still be stressful and terrifying, it is getting a bit better.
In my personal life, I will say that I find it much easier to disclose my diagnosis to romantic partners now than even a couple of years ago because they tend to be more receptive and ready to listen to the details.
It’s Up To You, Honestly
At the end of the day, you have no obligation to disclose a mental illness to a romantic interest, and there definitely isn’t a timeline you have to adhere to. If you are comfortable with sharing details about your mental illness with a partner, you should go for it, but you also shouldn’t feel pressured to do so if you’re not ready.
Having a mental illness means that sometimes you can’t control your own brain chemicals, but you definitely are allowed to control who you talk to about it. Just trust your gut feeling.