Dear Captain Awkward,
I am mentally ill, to date I have spent 23 days on involuntary psych holds. Most of this wasn’t warranted but that is a whole other thing. I am also a stand up comic and when I am hanging out with comedy peers everything is fair game and no one really shrinks from your dark stuff. You’ve been 5150ed me too lets compare notes. I am looking to date through online sites and assume that this dynamic is not universal. I like to get stuff out in the open as quickly as possible but is this something that warrants first date discloser? 2nd Date?
I haven’t even started replying to posts of people I am interested in yet and panicking over what to do when this comes up. Therapy and medication have helped a lot but being committed had me feeling like I am a piece of shit and not worthy of love for a long time. A large part of me just wants to never bring it up, but that doesn’t seem fair. I have PTSD and I want any potential partner to know why something might suddenly upset me out of the blue or cause me to immediately need to leave a certain environment or situation.
When I first started online dating back in Ye Olden Times, I used to use only very “flattering” close-ups of my face that sort of conveniently left out the part where I am a very fat woman. This tactic led to many people writing to me, lots of great conversations and flirting, and enthusiastic plans to meet up, at which time I would start to furiously hint and mention that I was “plus sized” or “curvy” or whatever ahead of the date. Hey, that nightmare scenario where you can see the other person’s whole face fall when they catch that first glimpse of you? That scenario happened to me, more than once. And yet I kept doing the same thing for a very long time before I learned that what I needed wasn’t to apologize for being fat or hide being fat or treat it like a weird afterthought, what I needed was to swiftly identify the people for whom that would be a dealbreaker and to stop wasting my time with them.
When I changed my profile picture to stuff like this:
…something interesting happened, namely MUCH COOLER PEOPLE STARTED WRITING TO ME, including my beloved Gentleman Caller. And I could relax as I got to know people and plan dates, because I wasn’t on edge wondering how they’d perceive me.
I wish I’d done it a decade sooner.
Mental illness isn’t always visible, and the fierce stigma surrounding mental illness means that disclosing it isn’t a cavalier or consequence-free thing. So it’s not exactly the same as posting a picture. Still, I wonder what would happen if you put something in your profile to the tune of “Hey, I have PTSD, and I tend to avoid ______ or leave ________ spaces pretty quickly if they get too ________. If you’re curious, I am happy to answer questions, but I wanted that out there so we aren’t planning our first date at a _______.” Maybe put that in your own funny words and see what happens.
The truth is that some people might see that sentence in a dating profile and pass you right by. They might be scared or put off by it, or they might be dealing with too much of their own stuff, and you’ll never really know why – it could be because you disclosed your condition, it could be because you like playing turn-based strategy games and eating ramen and they only like Rock Band and udon. The heart and the groin aren’t fair, and every single person who does online dating has to deal with the awkwardness of not knowing why people don’t write back or why a promising initial connection goes nowhere. It’s really easy for your jerkbrain to look to your vulnerable spots for the ironclad confirmation. However, I would argue that someone who can’t handle knowing that one fact about you isn’t the right audience for the rest of your story, and if they take themselves out of the running early on they are doing you a favor. Other people are going to dig your honesty and humor in talking about something so personal, and being vulnerable and real will help you find them.
I recently met someone who had the need to mention, more than once, that they “just don’t really understand mental illness.” Like, Every. Single. Time. I’ve seen them they made sure to say it, including when the context was my bipolar boyfriend getting out of the mental hospital a few days before and other people in the room full of close friends talking about some immediate & urgent mental health stuff going on in their lives and their families. The subtext of this person’s comments upon meeting us that day was “you are great, and I’d love to hang out with you, but… your boyfriend…???” and it’s like, oh buddy, you think you’re giving me a compliment because I could “pass” when my acutely ill partner could not, and you think you’re telling me about a shortcoming we have when really the shortcoming is in you and your sighs and goddamn eye-rolling. This person doesn’t have to “get” mental illness or ever talk about it, but they also don’t have to be in my life past the most nodding of acquaintances. So, including those details on your profile may attract unwanted attention or oblivious comments, and that will feel really crappy and you won’t enjoy it. If it happens, remind yourself, please, “This person just showed they are not cool enough to ride this ride.”
I can’t say this will work for you, but this is what my boyfriend and I did about disclosure: We did not put mental health stuff in our online ads, and while we talked about some serious stuff on the first date we mostly kept it light. Not because we were hiding anything or ashamed, just, why spill your entire guts to someone you’re not even sure you want to order a second beer with?
On the second date, which was a go-to-dinner-and-then-stay-up-all-night-talking sort of date after some furious texting, before any physical stuff happened, he said, “I want to tell you something…” and he told me about his bipolar disorder and let me know that I could ask him anything I wanted to about it. I told him I have depression. He carries some visible scars, and he told the basic story and he showed them to me so I wouldn’t be surprised by them. He kept most of the focus on the present and what it meant for him in the day to day. He said either at that moment or soon after that it was a very scary and vulnerable thing to talk about with me because he worried a lot about being rejected because of it, but by now he knew better than to get more involved with someone who didn’t know. Either one of us, at that time, could have pulled back, decided it was too much, too scary, too weird, too whatever. I’m glad every day that we didn’t, and I’m glad every day that he took the risk to just come out with it early. The scars made his illness more visible, and put more pressure on him to disclose, whereas I could have stayed quiet longer if I wanted, but to what end? By being brave and direct, he saved us both a lot of “When do I tell? Do I tell now? Howabout now?”
Everyone’s different, so I can’t give you a perfect strategy or system, but for more detailed descriptions/disclosures, maybe shoot on the timeline between “Hey, you’re neat” and “This thing we have going is maybe going to be A Thing.”
Sorry if I’m talking about my own life too much, Letter Writer, just, your question is really personal to me, and to the person I love, because “I found a psych place that takes our insurance” and “Did you remember to pack your meds?” are normal, routine conversations that are part of our lives together. You are not unloveable because: brain chemistry or because: trauma. You know this, I’m sure, from doing comedy: the best material comes from the most real material. So it is in love. If you are the kind of person who likes to just get things out in the open, keep being that kind of person as you date. You’re going to come across some people who don’t get you, but your honesty is going to reveal all the terrifyingly amazing folks like yourself who were hiding there in plain sight.