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Can I Start Dating When I Have a Mental Illness?

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Steelflower asks:

I'm a seventeen-year-old girl and ten months ago, I was diagnosed with a light form of pseudologica fantasia, usually known as mythomania. The basis of this illness is an addiction to telling lies. I'm seeing a therapist for this and she's a very kind and competent woman, but she has warned me that this illness is usually hard to cure and there are few known cases where the therapy was actually able to get rid of the problem. I'm doing a better job at keeping it under control than I used to but the urge is still there. I just keep it under wraps and tackle the illness on my own, with the support of my nuclear family. The thing is, one of my friends has recently expressed a romantic interest in me, and I would very much like to get involved in a relationship with him, but this would mean disclosing my problem to him, because of course I'm not going to enter a relationship without telling the other person involved about this first.

Heather Corinna replies:

Steelflower's question continued:

I'm deadly frightened to tell him because this is something I am really ashamed of. I trust him and know my secret would be safe with him, but I'm terrified that he'll suddenly find me disgusting, or frightening, or that he'll never be able to trust me again - because honestly, who would fully trust someone who's a compulsive liar? There's so much stigma attached to lying that I sometimes feel broken. Like a leper, almost. This is getting a bit too dramatic for my taste, but that's the only way to express how I feel. Do you have any advice about this situation and/or about being in a relationship when suffering from a mental illness? Thanks in advance.

You're right, there certainly is social stigma attached to lying. Really, it's the usual motives for dishonesty which have the big bad rap, and we can probably agree that's actually sound, but even though you know you don't have an intent to deceive or manipulate anyone, and you have an illness that can compel you to lie, rather than lying being something you actively choose to do, I can understand why you feel the weight of all that regardless. Add that to the stigma attached to nearly any mental illness, and it's unfortunately all too easy to feel very isolated, ashamed, scared about social interactions and vulnerable. On top of all of that? Starting to date, period, can be mighty daunting, too. I'm so sorry that you're feeling the way that you are right now: it sounds pretty overwhelming.

If it helps, I don't think mental illness is something anyone needs to feel ashamed about.

I also think it's important to try to keep in mind that the fact that it's stigmatized doesn't mean that stigma is sound or right: often what stigma demonstrates most is a lack of education, understanding or compassion on behalf of those applying stigma. Mental illness is not a choice, just like having freckles, autism or cerebral palsy aren't choices. It's something that happened to you entirely outside your control, something that doesn't make you any less a good or valuable person than anyone without mental illness. It also sounds like you've been doing all you can and working hard to manage it well, which is the best anyone can do. No shame in any of that. And if you need an extra little boost right now, this page might be a help, too. I don't know about you, but I don't think that Abe Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, John Keats or Issac Newton -- all people who had mental illnesses -- were disgusting or frightening. I think that the fact that they did the amazing things they did with mental illness makes them more awesome and exceptional, not less.

I also think someone thinking this deeply about these things as you are, who is considering taking a pretty big emotional risk by disclosing something she's scared about for the other person's benefit? That person sounds very trustworthy to me, and like someone very invested in building trust and being very mindful about it: more mindful than most.

Whether we're talking about a condition like yours, depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety or any other mental illness or mood disorder, the very first thing I'd always recommend is doing all you can to get a good mental healthcare provider to work with: you've already got that covered.

That person, I think, should be your lead point person for these questions about intimate relationships.

If you haven't already talked about all of this with your therapist, that's the first thing I'd suggest. I think the best first step is a fact-finding mission and an in-depth talk with someone educated about your condition who also knows you and how you have dealt with it so far well. That way, you can have plenty of reliable information to consider in making choices with dating and disclosure.

If you're unsure about what to ask her, I'd suggest questions like:

  • What is your opinion about someone with my illness, in the place I'm at with managing it, and romantic relationships?
  • What challenges do you feel I'll face when it comes to an intimate relationship? What about a person I'm involved with? What might their challenges be?
  • Do you feel like I'm yet in the place where I can successfully pursue and maintain an intimate relationship? If you don't think now is the right time for me to be dating, can you give me some things I can work on so I can work towards getting there?
  • What are some things you suggest people with my condition tell potential partners or even just people they're dating? When do you suggest they tell them?
  • What are some tools you've seen other people use with my condition in their intimate relationships to deal with some of the particular challenges it might pose?
  • This -- you describe this guy to her, your relationship with him so far, and what he says he's looking for with you right now -- is the opportunity I'm presented with. Does it sound like one you think could be beneficial and manageable for me?
  • What, if anything, do you think I need to accept I can't do right now in terms of relationships? What do you think I can do?
  • How do you think I need to go about starting to date differently -- if you do think I need to do anything differently -- than someone without my condition might?
  • What are things you think I'd need someone I'm dating to be able to handle and manage when it comes to me, and vice-versa? What kinds of people might not be a great fit? (For example, I'd imagine someone who already has a hard time trusting people would probably be a poor fit.)
  • If you do think it's okay for me to try dating right now, can we come up with some tools and check-ins together so I can feel more confident, and less fearful, about trying this?

Once you have that information, I'd then take a look at how you feel in general when it comes to feeling up to dating. After all, figuring out if we're ready to date in general, and then in the right headspace right now, or with a given person, to do that, is something for everyone to do, not just someone with mental illness.

For instance, you voice what sounds like a big fear of rejection. That's understandable, but if we're going to start dating, rejection -- or even people just taking a pass on being with us at some point -- is something that's always going to be a possibility; something we will always need to be up to dealing with, because it could always happen. I'd also do a self-check on how able you feel to take a pass on someone's interest or not move things forward when that's not really what you want: if and when someone feels like someone dating them would be doing them some monumental favor, it can be all too easy to have a hard time setting limits and boundaries. Pursuing intimate relationships likely to be healthy involves the self-esteem of everyone involved being in a good place: we've got to think well of and value ourselves as much as we do others, have some measure of resilience, and not be in the spot where we're so emotionally hungry, we'll eat anything, if you catch my drift.

Sometimes we're in the right places in ways like that for dating or more serious relationships, sometimes we're just not. Sometimes, too, we'll meet someone awesome, have great chemistry, and have an interest in exploring things further, but the timing is just off. It might be a bad time because we don't feel up to possible rejection, because they're in a last, tough year of school, because someone is in the thick of a family crisis. And if and when that happens, everything else can be golden, but we might -- or they might -- take a pass and maybe just try again later when the timing is better.

By all means, I'd also consult your guts: what's your instinct about all of this? Our intuitive feelings are feelings we can usually trust and do well giving a lot of weight to.

That all said, is this a close friend? It sounds like he is. I wonder if you've thought about telling him about your illness regardless?

Like you already voiced, having mental illness can make a person feel isolated, and all the more so if it's something you're not sharing with any friends so that you've got them as an extra support sometimes, or just feel like your friends really know you. Keeping this a secret from everyone also might be making those feelings of shame feel a lot bigger than they would without the silence.

Having at least one trusted friend who you can tell about this, and who knows about this, would probably be very good for you. This has got to feel like a pretty big burden to carry around without support outside your family and therapist. It might be that the simplest (which is not to say the easiest, or magically not at all scary for you) answer to all of this is to tell this guy either way. Another option, if you have more than this one friend, might be to first try telling a different -- but still deeply trusted -- friend about this first, rather than starting with a disclosure to someone where there's romantic interest, too, since that can obviously bump up the pressure and the fears around telling considerably.

If you do decide to share this information with this guy, and, in alignment with some of your fears here, it turns out he either can't handle that information, or decides he isn't okay dating you because of your illness, I want to tell you something.

I know, and you know, that this is something you can't separate from yourself. In other words, it's part of who you are, it doesn't live neatly in some box separate from you. But not only is this something that is more of who you are than anything else -- you're a whole, big person made up of lots of things, not just your illness -- someone else's reaction to it, if they feel afraid, intimidated, or even really negative, also isn't just about you.

Someone who decides that they either feel they can't or just don't want to deal with dating you because of your illness, specifically, is a lot like someone deciding they don't want to or can't handle being with someone who, for example, has a serious physical illness or has had some big trauma in their past. Sure, that's about those things, but it's also about the other person.

Not everyone is always going to be up to extra or specific challenges with a relationship, and that's at least as much about them as it is about you. I hear and understand that you feel negatively about yourself because of this, but I'd encourage you to try and own those feelings as your own and not assume that someone who didn't want to date you because of your condition think the things about you and it that you do. Someone who pans on dating you when they know about this, and because of this, may well not think any of those things. Those are your thoughts and feelings, but they may not be theirs.

They might instead be thinking things like, "That sounds like I'm going to have to spend time educating myself about this, and I don't feel like I have that time," or "I'm really worried that it's something I won't be able to handle, and I might hurt this already vulnerable person," or "I really wanted something more light, this feels heavy right from the start," or "If myself and her family and therapist are the only people who know, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get what I need in terms of support or help I might need with parts of this. I get why she keeps it very private, but I don't know if that would work for me." They might pan because of your illness because they have one of their own to deal with, and someone else's feels like too much right now, or because they have someone in their family with mental illness and feel like they can only deal with that one right now. The point is, there are so very many reasons this might be an issues for someone if it is, so many different things they might think, and none of them may be about being disgusted or frightened by you.

It's tough, I know, to walk into parts of life feeling like a person who is "more work" than other people without illness might be or might seem to be. You probably would really like to be someone someone like this could come to feeling like things could be light right from the onset. Let's be real: it does suck, especially since you probably know, I hope you know, that any relationship with anyone can be challenging, or "more work," or that something with anyone could seem to be light fare and wind up not being that at all. There's really no denying that that feeling or perception stinks.

At the same time, someone might take a pass on pursuing a relationship with us for any number of reasons: this is just one. And if you do try to pursue something with this guy and it doesn't progress or wind up happening after all, it might be because of your mental illness and his feelings about it, but it might be for any other number of reasons, like him realizing maybe he didn't have the feelings he thought he did (or YOU realizing that), you two finding out you're just a better fit as non-romantic friends, one or both of you discovering you don't have enough time for a dating relationships, radically different politics or ideas about relationships, or one of you finding out that the other absolutely cannot stand your very favorite thing in the world.

By all means, I think taking the time to assess all of this as best you can first is a good move on your part, and I certainly do think it's a big thing to think about and carefully consider, and not just for the other person's sake, but for your own. You also need to take care of you. But it also isn't all of who you are, nor is it the only potential thing that could cause a relationship conflict or someone to take a pass. So, in the case that this is something you really want to pursue, your therapist is on board, too, and you feel up to dating, period (again, mental illness or no), and with this particular person, I don't see any reason not to pursue it.

I wish you the very best, and will leave you with some extra links that might help you out:

written 01 Oct 2012 . updated 01 Oct 2012

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