Online dating is now the second most common way to meet people (after meeting through friends) and it accounts for over 20% current committed relationships and this number is growing. As an introverted, bottom of the career ladder, divorcee, the advert practically wrote itself! In a world where “women’s desirability peaks at 21” once I was ready to be thinking about dating again, I was considered over the hill! I’d been in the mental health world for many years, out of work and my self esteem was pretty low. My last relationship had ended with my mental health playing a large role. I’d been hurt when most in pain and it was hard to consider trusting anyone again. I was ambivalent about wanting someone else in my life.
1. Am I ready? I did not want my mental health to dominate a new relationship, nor did I want my unhealthy behaviours to be considered normal but I felt, for my personal recovery journey to continue, having that someone special, just might be the key. I think it’s important not to look for someone who’ll fix you, that won’t work. I was on and off online dating for over a year, tried different sites, met a few people – I just had to take it all as an interesting experience. I think being at the right point is really important. You have to be ok with “putting yourself out there”, it’s important to feel ok with who you are and where you’re at…then start looking. Having said this, if you give it a go and realise you’re not ready, you’ve not lost anything, leave it and go back to it in a few months.
2. Do I put my diagnosis on my profile? If you consider your diagnosis to be part of your identity then yes. If you want to be judged (positively or negatively) because of your diagnosis then yes. If you only want to attract people who understand mental illness right from the start then yes.
I did not want anyone to make contact with me based on my diagnosis i.e. “Ah, she has anorexia, I like skinny girls” – I’m not skinny so this would not work, or “Ah, I know about depression, she’s vulnerable, I’ll look after her” – I do not need looking after, nor is this a good basis for a relationship.
Nor did I want to scare anyone off just because they didn’t understand about mental illness. I like opportunities to spread the word that we (people with a mental health diagnosis) are not aliens or scary, we’re just “normal” people but I couldn’t do that if they rejected my profile before we’d even started chatting!
I took the chance that I might get to know someone and then be rejected, but online dating is about being open minded, giving things a go and just seeing what happens. I am so much more than a diagnosis, it was fun (but really hard!) putting a profile together, it helps you think about what’s really important to you, what makes you tick. I would suggest a mental health diagnosis does not need to define you, it can be something you talk about later (like a cantankerous aunt you have to visit weekly).
3. Would I date someone with a mental health diagnosis? I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I said “no”! But it’s an interesting consideration because 2 people with mental health problems would be a lot harder to manage but we’d certainly have a lot more understanding and empathy for each other. I had to think carefully about people I came across who put their diagnosis in their profile, I wondered whether they considered it part of their identity or whether they were just trying to avoid starting to get to know people who would judge them for it. It did not stop me connecting with them per se but I knew I would only want to get to know someone if they had a similar attitude about their mental illness and recovery as I did (i.e. it did not define them). Of course, someone can become mentally ill later down the road so it’s worth considering when you get into a relationship with anyone – can I stick by this person, no matter what?
4. Do I talk/write about mental health before meeting? I wrote some hints on my profile, such as “has been through some difficult stuff”, so people would know there was more to me than met the eye but I decided not to bring it up unless asked. I would exchange a few emails before meeting just to check out a few basics but to be honest, once the internet has done its thing of enabling paths to cross, I’d say meet asap – ultimately a relationship is in person so why put it off?!
5. Do I talk about mental health at the first date? I did not want to avoid the subject for too long, nor did I want it to be this massive “I’ve got something to tell you”. I decided I would look for opportunities to drop it in. I’m very fortunate that my job is mental health related so it’s a very helpful “test” conversation. Another way to drop it in might be to say you’ve just spend an afternoon with a friend who has depression/schizophrenia or whatever, this way you can gradually gauge the reaction and see what conversation arises. I’ve been pleasantly surprised people have often come out with “yeah, I had an episode of depression a couple of years ago” or “yeah, my uncle has schizophrenia” – obviously their previous positive or negative experience will influence how they feel about you sharing your story but there’s nothing you can do about that, you can only be honest about your experiences.
I’d always say it’s important to be open. If you’re asked a straight forward question, answer it! Living with mental illness, it’s easier to hide the truth when stigma and discrimination are rife but if you’re considering a committed long term relationship, this is not the time to keep secrets.
6. What if I’m rejected because of my mental health? Stuff ’em – they’re not worth it. It’s painful but if you’ve done everything you can to make it work and if they choose to go, let them.