In the minefield that is dating and mating, when is it safe to
reveal a mental health problem? Does a history of mental illness
ensure that psychiatric services users are losers in love?
Since suffering a psychotic breakdown during my first romantic
relationship, I’ve been wary of admitting to a history of mental
illness to prospective partners.
An ex informed me “depression is a sign of weakness of
character” – this was from a young man whose own mother had
suffered this affliction. I expected a little more understanding
from him considering his experience, yet his reaction reflected the
erroneous attitudes towards psychiatric disorders that are rife,
despite anti-stigma campaigning.
Most of the time, I’ve kept silent on the subject. When I have
chosen to be honest after I’ve felt enough time had elapsed (and I
hoped my boyfriend knew me well enough not to run off in fright),
I’ve been surprised by different reactions.
One said I was brave to have told him about my illness as many
men would be put off. I knew he was right and felt foolishly naive,
as I’d not considered this man would reject me. The fact that he
had already told me he was on a waiting list for psychotherapy did
not seem to sway his opinion: I was a bona fide psychiatric service
user in the community, and he was a regular guy who happened to
have an emotional problem.
Another time I tried to tell a boyfriend why I had to take so
much medication. Before I’d managed an explanation, he hastily
assured me there was no need for me to reveal such a “secret”
matter, and it was none of his business. It would seem the tricky
(for some) subject of mental health problems is a yardstick of
intended commitment: someone who desires minimum information from a
mate clearly isn’t in it for the long haul.
I have a schizoaffective disorder, but often refrain from
telling people I also suffer from psychotic symptoms as well as
depression. Clinical depression has become so commonly diagnosed it
is now more acceptable. Psychosis, however, is subject to basic
misconceptions and prejudice. I often wonder whether I will ever be
accepted by a partner whose experience is not similar to mine.
My most recent relationship offered a refreshing change of
reaction. I was seeing a divorcee whose recent tumultuous emotional
life prevented him being shocked. He realised we all go through the
mill in different ways. The relationship ended for other reasons
but it made me realise mental illness is not the terrible black
mark others judge me for.
I know in my heart that anyone who harbours a fear of such
issues is not suitable for me. Openness and a willingness to accept
negative life experiences along with the fun times are more likely
to ensure compatibility. I’ve never expected to give less than I
receive in this capacity and continue to hope I am not
disadvantaged in the dating game.
Helen Waddell uses mental health services.