Welcome to The Single Files, Refinery29's new bi-monthly column. Each installment will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you're young, dating seems like it’ll be such a piece of cake. Movies and TV shows always portray the hardest parts as trying to find the perfect outfit and wondering whether your date will kiss you at the end of the night. The reality, for me at least, is a little different. While I’d love to have my clothes be my top worry when I’m getting ready for a first or second date, instead, my inner monologue sounds like: Is it too early to tell him about my mental illnesses? If I don’t, will the tension of not telling him make me have a panic attack at the table?
I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, and a panic disorder since the age of 18. My symptoms include intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, and occasional suicidal thoughts. And though my illnesses don’t define me, they affect my day-to-day life quite considerably.
I was diagnosed six years ago, around the time I was due to embark on my university journey. It seems like recent history, but in 2014, mental health was still very much a taboo subject. Whilst I was relieved to have some answers about what was causing my symptoms, I worried about how my diagnoses would affect my ability to date and make new friends. I barely understood my mental illnesses myself, so how could I explain them to others? Would opening up about mental health scare people off? Would they find me overwhelming?
I found it especially difficult to contemplate disclosing my suicidal thoughts. It’s quite a heavy subject, and not one everyone is comfortable discussing. Often, when I talk about being suicidal, I’m not communicating an actual desire to die. Instead I’m acknowledging that the way I’m feeling is too much for me to handle. I wondered: Would a new connection understand that? Or would they be intimidated, even afraid?
When I finally decided to take the leap into dating, one of my first encounters was with a guy who often mistook my anxiousness for shyness — understandable, as we hadn’t yet had the "mental health talk." A few weeks in, we were chatting over text on a night where I was feeling incredibly anxious and in turn started overthinking. I finally decided to confide in him. “It seems like if you stopped overthinking, you wouldn’t feel anxious,” he responded.
It was not the reaction I was hoping for. In fact, I felt totally misunderstood, unheard, and dismissed. I assumed he meant well, and I didn't fault him. After all, not everyone is educated about mental health issues. But still, it was clear to me that he didn’t get it.
Not long after, we decided to part ways. It was mutual — we were too different to make it work. But the dealbreaker for me was that, after my initial attempt at opening up, I realized that I’d never find it easy to talk to him about how I was feeling. Fear of a reaction like his has haunted me on subsequent dates.
Disclosing mental illness to a new potential partner makes you feel so vulnerable. And while I’ve had positive experiences — my favorites are when the person I’m with can relate to my mental health issues, and we spend hours sharing experiences — I always find myself preparing for a negative outcome.
Adding to the tension is the fact that not opening up can also backfire. For instance, back in 2015 whilst at university, I was on a first date and my intrusive thoughts kicked in. All I could hear in my head was, Could you imagine if you had a panic attack right now? which eventually developed into... a prolonged panic attack. I could barely catch my breath, but I was less scared than I was embarrassed about my date seeing me in such a state.
I ultimately had to go to the hospital. My date very kindly took the long Uber ride with me and waited whilst I underwent testing. He opened up about his own mental health struggles (which, as I said, always makes me feel more comfortable), and alluded to a second date. He even pulled out the old, “I just feel like the universe paired us together for a reason” spiel. But soon after he left, I realized he’d blocked my number. I was a sobbing mess for the rest of the evening.
My reaction had nothing to do with not seeing him again (plenty more fish in the sea). Instead, I worried that he’d been secretly judging my mental health on our date. And that made me worry that other people in my life found my mental health to be a burden as well. I would have much preferred he put me in an Uber to the hospital and politely texted something along the lines of “Feel better soon, I hope your results come back okay. Also, I don’t think this is going to work out. All the best” and be done with it, rather than making false promises.
Those early experiences were difficult but formative. Today, I approach the “mental health talk” much differently. I might say all the same things, but I’m coming from a different place. After all, I was 18 when I was first diagnosed, and now I’m 25. I changed a lot in those years: I went to therapy and found antidepressants that work for me. I’m older, more mature, and more confident in myself. I became less bothered as to what other people thought of me. Nowadays, I always aim to put myself first.
I also realized that a big part of the problem was the people I was dating. I seemed to attract people that cared more about themselves than anyone else. I’ve had more than my fair share of conversations that didn’t go as planned, but once I stopped wasting my time on guys who ultimately just don’t care, I stopped having frustrating and upsetting incidents like the previous encounters.
Additionally, mental illness has become far less of a taboo, and therefore much less daunting to talk about. In fact, these days other people are the first ones to get onto the topic of mental health, which makes it easier for me to chime in.
Even so, I still feel apprehensive when it’s time to open up to someone new, and I worry about how my anxiety is perceived by others. Despite that, I consider myself an oversharer. That’s partially because I’ve realized — thanks to experiences like the aforementioned dinner-turned-hospital visit — that until I’ve told someone, I’ll feel uncomfortable if I begin to feel anxious or panicky around them. When someone knows about my mental illness, it means one less intrusive thought to deal with down the road.
So while I do sometimes wish I didn’t have to factor my mental health into dating, I can say it’s gotten easier as I’ve grown more confident in myself. I know that I, and all of us, are worthy of love, friendship, and more — and we must never let our mental health tell us otherwise.