You Need Help: How To Date While Dealing With Mental Illness

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Q:

How do people who deal with mental illness date? I’ve had anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. It’s mostly linked to loneliness. I’m trying to make friends which is a work in progress. I’m also trying to date which is completely new to me. (I had one relationship in college but we came together pretty organically) So far I’m finding it’s very stressful and not fun.

Like earlier this summer I matched with this girl that I thought was pretty cool. We had stuff in common, very sweet, very cute, etc. and I was supposed to take her out. But then someone from her past came back into her life and she said she had to explore it. Afterwards I was pretty sad, I’ve had brief stints of trying dating apps that never worked out but this time it felt promising. Pursuing people romantically is emotionally exhausting for me. I shut down my dating apps after that. Just couldn’t really deal with going through that again any time soon. As I’m typing this I can’t help but feel kind of pathetic. I don’t think most people dwell on these things and it’s not like I actually knew her.

None of this is very fun or sexy to me. It feels like trying to solve an elaborate puzzle. But I would still like to have romantic relationships or at least go on a few dates and enjoy the company. But I don’t know how.

Would love to hear from someone who had similar feelings and moved past it? Or just any general advice.

P.S. I’ve thought about maybe going to therapy again to discuss this but I’ve never felt comfortable talking about this part of my life with therapists and I don’t know where to start.

A:

I am, by no means, any kind of dating expert, but I do struggle with depression, don’t take rejection well, and not too long ago wrote an essay about loneliness being the enduring experience of my life. So, I thought I’d share the few things I’ve learned in the last few months or so that I think might be helpful to you, and I encourage others to offer their advice and perspectives in the comments as well.

First things first, please don’t think of yourself as “pathetic” because you were hurt when someone you were interested in turned you down. Can I tell you how many dating app profiles I have created and deleted and then created again because I was rejected or felt unwanted? Too many to count, friend. It’s really shitty and painful to be rejected, even if it’s by someone you don’t really know. But, at least in my case, what hurts the most is that it feels like a door that I was just starting to open got slammed in my face. Again.

I’ve never found trying to talk myself out of my feelings to be particularly productive, no matter how many times I’ve tried it. Slowly, begrudgingly, I have accepted that I’m a person who gets hurt easily and who cries a lot. In the past, I would have said that made me weak or, taking your word, “pathetic.” But now, I just accept it as part of who I am and accept that if I hold the sadness for what it is then sooner or later it will pass, and I’ll be ready to move forward again. And the somewhat incredible part of doing that for a few years now, is that each time I let the feelings flow, I’m able to pick myself up a little more quickly.

The second part of this is being able to unpack the dimensions of my feelings. I was rejected by someone recently, and I sobbed in my bed that night and the next morning. And yet, to this day, I maintain, that I really am ok about having been turned down by this particular person. I realize that we wouldn’t have worked out, anyways. But while I was crying into my pillow, I also knew my sadness wasn’t about that specific person. It was about the door being shut again. About another foreclosed possibly, even after I tried to put myself out there.

Again, it’s taken me years to build this type of self-awareness, but having it makes it so much easier to move on. Within a few hours, I was able to laugh about the whole thing, and even able to chat with the person I had asked out as a friend, the very same day. I know that doesn’t like much, but this is significant progress for me. (Again, I will point you to the essay I wrote trying to get over my first relationship while pandemic shutdowns raged on.)

Dating has often felt like a game I don’t know how to play. “An elaborate puzzle,” as you say. One where the pieces are sharp as knives that cut to the core of my deepest insecurities. And honestly, with online dating in particular, I have to say it’s been quite a bust lately — as in, for the last two and going on three years now. I say this as a person living in the New York metropolitan area where (theoretically) it should be easier. If I could only show you the endless list of personalized intro messages I have sent to matches that have gone unacknowledged… Also, too many to count. It’s really hard not to feel depressed about that, frankly. As a friend of mine put it, recently, the online scene is really a wasteland these days.

Suffice to say, therapy was essential to bringing me to this point. Ironically, trying to find a therapist is much like dating. Sometimes — most of the time — you have to try a few people out to find a good fit. Sometimes you ask your friends for recommendations, and you find your therapist after being referred by a friend’s therapist. But the thing I’ve found to make it easier to just open right up with therapists is that I remind myself how much money I am sinking into the endeavor. I am literally paying this person more money than I have ever spent on pretty much anything else in my life to listen to me as I talk about my problems, no matter how small or large.

With therapy, I’ve found it helpful to try to go in with a specific thing I want to work on, and then take as many deep breaths and sips of water and swallows as I need to get myself to say it. My therapist waits: she knows that I’m summoning up the strength to confront the hard things that I’m really there for. But sometimes, when I can’t muster the courage to open up about my real problems, I just talk about mundane shit in my day. A good therapist should be able to pull a strand here or there to get you to go deeper.

The other thing that’s helped me become more comfortable with opening up in therapy is being more comfortable with opening up in my life more generally. Until the last year or so, I never spoke about dating or romantic interests with any of my friends, including my closest ones who have known me for over a decade. Eventually, on the encouragement of my therapist — my logic here is a little circular, I know — I started sharing some of my dating struggles with my friends. That helped me feel less alone in my experiences, less “pathetic” for being so bad at dating, and also work through some of my feelings when I was upset or got hurt.

With dating, it can be easy to feel like “I’m not good enough” after getting rejected so many times, and getting other people’s perspectives helped me remember that the “problem” here isn’t me. This is, unfortunately, the process. But that doesn’t mean you have to slog through the process all the time, either. This isn’t a race, and there is no “right” timeline by which you should have it all “figured out” so when you need to check out, you should give yourself the grace to do so, without judgement.

Sometimes, when I feel frustrated with online dating, I try to go to in-person events (that I feel comfortable with based on the status of COVID spread at any given time) in the hopes of meeting people that way. Sometimes, when I feel frustrated with dating overall, I take a step back and just focus on connecting with my close friends and strengthening newer friendships. Sometimes, when my friends are unavailable, I try to do things I enjoy doing on my own, like watching a nice movie or reading a book by an author I like or any of a number of hobbies I’ve cultivated over the years.

It can be lonely at times, for sure, but as a kind woman I met on a layover once said to me: “Loneliness is just a feeling, like happiness or sadness.” Let yourself feel the loneliness, but don’t let it consume you.

Honestly, more than anything else, I think the most important thing is to be kind and patient with yourself.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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himani

Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 47 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Dear god, writer, are you me?! I had three dates with one woman last year and I have still not really (in my horrible heart of hearts) forgiven her or gotten over the fact that she decided she no longer wanted to date me after that. I felt like I’d completely failed, like I was unloveable, like I had done something wrong, like I was broken, like if I’d been different we would still be dating. It put me off dating apps for about a year! Again, cannot stress enough, I resonate with the emotional exhaustion, the loneliness, the beating yourself up with “most people don’t dwell on these things”…I’m here to tell you that maybe not “most” but PLENTY of people DWELL, THEY REEEALLY DWELL, and you are not alone.

    • Hey @mariafullofmace! thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience as well. You’re absolutely right that plenty of people really dwell and feel really hurt after a rejection or being ghosted etc. Wishing you all the best with dating. As a good friend of mine says, “It’s tough out there on these streets.”

  2. I’m not the LW, but I am another person struggling with mental illness and trying to date and feelings of rejection and loneliness.

    It’s kinda affirming to hear that online dating is hard in general rn and not just for me specifically.

    Like Himani I live in a major metro area where it seems like dating should be easier, but it’s not, and the suburb/city divide makes queer social options either nigh nonexistent or a near hourlong drive through traffic away.

    I guess I’m just venting about it right now, but it’s helpful to at least hear I’m not the only one struggling.

    • Hi @xanith, thanks so much for reading! It is super reassuring hearing your experience with online dating as well! It can feel really isolating when people talk about their successes with dating apps, especially in these days, bc it has really felt like a huge bust for me! Wishing you all the best!

  3. I relate to this letter writer, though I’ve been in therapy since 2010. I thought I would spend this year starting to date women, but ended up with little to no social life altogether while I focus my extremely limited energy on switching antidepressants, getting treatment for atypical anorexia, and pursuing the upcoming breast reduction surgery that will hopefully reduce my physical discomforts but could further worsen my body image. Dating apps and websites have gotten me nowhere yet, but I’m discouraged to see them deemed “a wasteland,” as they still seem to be my best hope for effective verbal communication — I’m too visually-impaired for the nonverbal signals by which people allegedly detect and express attraction in person.

    • Hey @seastar, thank you for reading and for sharing your experience! I’m sorry that my comment about dating apps felt discouraging! That is just my experience, and I also know people who have had recent success, including the letter writer who commented below. Wishing you all the best with everything going on and with your upcoming procedure!

  4. Second to the comment above, I HAVE read this and I definitely recommend the book/audiobook Overthinking About You by Allison Raskin.

    It’s not queer-specific but is inclusive and all about how to date with anxiety, depression and/or OCD, including online dating.

    I am in a long term relationship but have had a lot of relationship anxiety in the past and still working on bits, I found the book really helpful even though a lot of it is more relevant to someone in LW’s position.

  5. Just wanted to chime in on the “this could be me!” sentiment. I always take a long time in between dating episodes because the whole thing is so exhausting and discouraging. It doesn’t exactly solve the dating problem, but it does help me when other people share their struggles because I feel less alone.

  6. Letter writer here! Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thorough response Himani I really appreciate it. It’s nice to know there are others that can relate to this experience and your response gave me a lot to think about. I bookmarked it and I think I’ll go back and read it when I’m feeling down.

    Good news is in between when I originally sent this letter and now I actually met someone through Hinge and it’s going pretty well. Dating hasn’t really gotten less scary since meeting this person who is genuinely into me. But now there’s an added excitement!

    • Hi @possums101– thank you so much for reading and also responding! Congrats on meeting someone and I hope you continue to have a nice time with them! So flattered that you found my reply generally thoughtful. As you said, it’s really comforting to know that there are others who feel the way we do! Wishing you all the best!

  7. This is extremely me as well. I am a sensitive person who had a rejection years ago send me into a crazy spiral for awhile. Therapy and accepting my strong ass feelings when they arise has helped me even when my depression is getting to me the hardest.

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