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May 21, 2024

Navigating dating and relationships with mental illness

By SARINA REDZINSKI | November 29, 2018


I usually don’t like to tell people I’m dating about my struggles with mental health for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s something that I’ve learned to cope with mostly on my own. With obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit Disorder (ADD), difficulties mostly pop up on a brief, day-to-day basis, and I’ve adapted to handling small anxiety flare-ups and focus issues without too much help (though there is no downplaying the amount of help from family and friends I needed in order to get to this place of daily comfort with my disorders). 

But more importantly, I don’t share these things with people I’m dating because it doesn’t usually get that serious. Very rarely do I connect with someone deeply enough and get to know them well enough to share those kinds of intensely personal details about myself. Typically, I’ll get a solid four-ish months of casually dating before I move onto someone new, which doesn’t leave me much time to divulge much about my disorders outside of the flippant “it’s an OCD thing” when asked about an odd quirk or habit I have. 

For many people, being open about mental health in their romantic relationships can be an arduous process. And I’ve found that to generally be the case for myself too. So, I figure, why go through all that just for someone I’ll only be dating for a little while anyway? 

I don’t want the other person to view me differently or to pity me, and being vulnerable in that way after being mocked for it in the past can be scary, particularly because a lot of my symptoms are nonsensical and strange to anyone who doesn’t relate. Explaining why I have to spit a certain number of times while brushing my teeth before bed and why I always insist on wearing my socks inside out can be a real mood killer that I just don’t have the time for.

But then I started dating someone seriously for the first time, and I was faced with deciding how much of myself I really wanted to share with him. Feeling truly safe for what was essentially the first time, I slowly and carefully revealed little pieces of my symptoms when I felt I could. I’d mention things that made me anxious when they came up and explain how my ADD would sometimes send me veering the conversation in a totally unrelated direction (though he mentioned how he appreciated the way I’d try to veer it back on track once my tangent was over). I was starting to open up more than I had ever dared to before — though that isn’t saying much. It was scary, but I liked feeling as though someone genuinely wanted to know more about me.

Things turned sour pretty soon after that. It wasn’t necessarily anything to do with my mental health, but that certainly didn’t seem to help things. 

I remember waiting with him for a D.C. subway train and gently tugging him away from the yellow line that delineated the area that was considered “too close” to the tracks to be safe. “Don’t stand there, it makes me nervous,” I told him. His head snapped to look at me and, almost venomously, he said:

“Everything makes you nervous.”

It was humiliating to be just standing there, surrounded by people, having my boyfriend use my anxieties as fuel for his anger at me. In that moment, I wished I had never told him anything. I swallowed embarrassed tears and conceded, laughing weakly. “That’s fair,” I said.

Following that afternoon, I stopped trying to get him to understand what I was going through. After having a bad anxiety attack and feeling too unsafe with him to explain what had happened and why I hadn’t contacted him all day, I ended the relationship.

I’d like to tell you that once I broke up with him, I found someone who made the effort to make me feel loved and comfortable with my disorders, even when they weren’t easy. That would be a wonderful circular lesson to impart on you, that there is someone out there who will be able to accept all your weird and painful hangups and anxieties. 

Unfortunately I can’t say from experience that that’s the case. I don’t yet know what it’s like to have that kind of deep trust in someone, to know that they won’t throw my symptoms back in my face or judge me when things get hard. Navigating relationships when you struggle with mental illness can be confusing and strange and potentially painful. But I’ve at least come to realize that if someone can’t handle these parts of me, then they don’t deserve any of me. And if I didn’t find someone who could do all that, at least I learned that lesson.

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