The modern dating world is tough to navigate, even at the best of times. Dating or maintaining a romantic relationship while also dealing with mental health issues is another beast entirely — for the person with mental illness, and for their partner.
It was nearly two years ago when third-year journalism student Brie Davis entered a new relationship, just a couple of weeks after the passing of one of her close friends. She was lonely, she was vulnerable and at the time a boyfriend seemed like the perfect remedy for her grief. But in hindsight, she realizes she was in no emotional state to be starting a new relationship.
“I was replacing that hole in my heart with someone else. But I was having panic attacks, I was [depressed]. At first, I thought it was because of the passing, but I realize now that … I filled that hole too quickly,” Davis says.
“I found myself very reliant on him. I wasn’t independent, I was always needing that support, I was always needing that crutch. Every time I had a freak out I would immediately go to him. Instead of it being two [people] in a relationship, I needed him or it was Meltdown City.”
The relationship fell apart about five months later, when Davis found out her boyfriend was cheating. While she does not know for sure, Davis suspects that her poor mental health throughout the duration of their time together was at least partially to blame.
Davis’ experience is not so unusual; mental illness presents a whole new set of challenges to dating and enhances many of the already existing ones. Romantic relationships require a lot of labour from both sides, and in cases where one person in the relationship has anxiety or depression or any other sort of strain on their mental health, it can be emotionally taxing for both parties involved.
Not long after she started dating her boyfriend of three months, first-year RTA student Karly Cywink was prescribed new medication for depression and anxiety. The medication, in short, did not work.
“I turned into my depressive self, but times a hundred. I had suicidal thoughts overnight. I was rambling on and on about nothing that really mattered. I had very extreme mood swings. And he had to be there through it which was really tough on him because he’s never dealt with that before and he didn’t know how to,” Cywink says.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just saying what was on my mind and I think that the worst part about when I get manic is that I don’t really have a filter,” she explains. “The worst part after was that I know I hurt him, and I didn’t know what to do about it.”
“It’s really hard. I’m not gonna lie. It’s really difficult because when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in your own brain, and to figure out why you’re feeling the things you’re feeling, it’s really heavy stuff and a lot of [people] aren’t ready for that,” says Lexy Benedict, a third-year journalism student. Having been diagnosed with depression herself about two and a half years ago, her mental illness has been a constant throughout much of her relationship with her boyfriend of four years.
“I feel like when you’re dating someone with mental health, it’s like taking care of someone who’s sick,” she says. “You have to be prepared to deal with hospitals, doctor’s appointments, medication, and there’s just so much responsibility.” Benedict’s boyfriend is her greatest support system, she says. On the other hand, she has also seen some of her friends have to break off relationships because their partners weren’t prepared to deal with mental health.
“It’s like an emotional roller coaster, and it’s scary at the same time because you’re just wondering, ‘when will it be too much?’”
Oma Shirichi*, a first-year nursing student, says she rarely discusses her depression with friends — and especially potential partners — for exactly that reason: she doesn’t want it to be too much. She has a bubbly personality and takes pride in making people laugh. It’s only when things quiet down that the dark cloud of depressive thoughts begins to creep in.
“A lot of people don’t really notice, but when I do show outward signs of it I won’t talk to people and I’ll just kind of keep to myself. I don’t want to impose on anybody or make anybody feel like they need to look out for me or worry about me,” Shirichi says. Due to her depression, she has elected to mostly steer clear of romance, for now.
“It’s definitely hard…but you don’t want to put a burden on them, so you just stay away from that,” she says. “Sometimes people will ask me out on a date, and I’ll go. It’s just continuing anything doesn’t make any sense. To be in a relationship, you can’t feel like somebody is gonna complete you and I feel like if I were [with somebody, I would do that] when I should be looking to myself.”
The key to being in a romantic relationship while mentally ill, it seems, lies in finding the right person. Then, add to that an extremely healthy amount of communication.
Since her depressive episode about a month ago, Cywink and her boyfriend have taken their own steps to prevent one like it from happening again.
“We know what those look like and we know how to not have them. We know how to prevent them and, if they do happen, what to do,” Cywink says.
First-year history student Abbey Humphreys-Morris and her boyfriend both deal with depression, and their relationship thrives on them talking out all of the struggles and listening in return, no matter how long it takes.
“It’s not easy, but when you have somebody that’s struggling in the same way that you struggle, you want to help that person as much as possible. Especially when you love them,” Humphreys-Morris says.
“When something is wrong or when [one of us is] having a bad mental health day, you have to pick up on it and know something is wrong,” she says. “You have to push everything that happened to you aside.
“Knowing the fact that I will be listened to is enough that I don’t have to talk about it ASAP. I can push my problems aside for a minute or an hour to talk because I know I’ll be listened to that day.” Humphreys-Morris wants it known that it is possible to have a happy relationship, even — and maybe especially — while dealing with mental illness.
In some cases, building a healthy relationship when your mind isn’t healthy means taking a break from the world of dating altogether. For Shirichi, this means keeping herself busy with her studies, her friends and writing poetry in her spare time.
“School is my bae,” she jokes.
As for Davis, she has taken the year since her last relationship for personal reflection.
“I took that year for that mental cleanse and just taking time for myself. That definitely helped a whole lot,” she says. “It put everything into perspective to sort of analyze what went wrong and what I want and how to balance my personal needs with the needs of somebody else.”
Dating with mental illness is hard work. It means communication, patience and self-sacrifice from both sides. In some cases, it means practicing self-care and taking a break from relationships altogether, but finding happiness with another person does not have to be impossible.
*Oma Shirichi’s name has been changed.