“My name is Molly. I'm 36, single, live in Brooklyn, and work in publishing. I love gloomy Victorian novels, obscure Korean horror films, Premier League soccer, and knitting. I'm 5-foot-5, slim, with brown hair and brown eyes. I am looking for a serious relationship. I suffer from mental illness.”
That dating profile is going to get me nowhere.
Finally verging on being over a long-term, on-and-off relationship, I am both excited and terrified at the prospect of a new one. On one hand, I am the most self-confident I have ever been. On the other hand, the tangle of depression, anxiety, OCD, and borderline personality disorder in my head came fairly close to talking me into a swan dive off of a fifth-floor Paris balcony last week. (If you’ve never suffered from depression, it might sound nonsensical that I would do this at my most self-confident. If there’s one thing I know about depression, though, it’s that it’s devoid of logic, and you can feel your lowest and your highest all at once.)
It's been years since I've been faced with the question of when to tell someone promising, Hey, there’s maybe a few things you should know. My M.O. has long been to fess up immediately. This can come off as sort of romantic, in a Wuthering Heights, Lykke Li ballad kind of a way. But quickly guys realize that what might be absorbing on the page or on Spotify is both tiresome and scary in real life.
My dating history is checkered, to say the least. It's mostly a trail of intense but short-lived relationships, with a few regrettable one-night stands sprinkled here and there. A boy I met in grad school lasted a year, but we were too hot-tempered to coexist in the same air. A couple of unhappy years with someone back home who loved me when I did not love him. A good eight years were wasted on someone I dated briefly and became obsessed with once he ended it. It was the most tangible manifestation of my illness I’ve experienced, and it makes me sick to think about. Would anything have been different had I waited longer to tell these guys about my illness? It’s hard to say.
I am not ashamed of my condition. Or not exactly. I think there is still a lot more stigma than we admit, and every joke someone cracks about being “so OCD” makes it harder to explain that while you all think you’re totally cool with me being obsessive-compulsive, it’s a lot more than lining up pencils and touching the light switch. Men have broken up with me after getting only a glimpse of my worst looming on the horizon, and others have stayed with me through abhorrent behavior because they were afraid of what I might do if they left.
I have no qualms about someone seeing my cellulite, but I am afraid of him seeing my self-inflicted scars; I'm not sure I would trust a person who had caused herself such violence, so why should he trust me? I am getting ready to switch medications, which can be ugly. Can I—should I—invite someone along for the ride? I've seen how my illness affects my loved ones, and as much as I long for marriage and children, I often think everyone might be better off if I moved to a secluded fjord in Iceland and just sent postcards.
The logical side of me is a pretty decent person. She's thoughtful and shy, eats regular meals and goes out with her friends, reads books and likes making things. Someone might be interested in dating her. But the mentally ill side of me, like the springy snakes you stuff inside a joke can of nuts, is going to burst forth with a vengeance at some point, and she is no joke. She is hateful and self-pitying, withdrawn, listless, angry. She will try her best to hurt you, and lash out until she does. She'll tell you she wishes she were dead, that she's going to starve herself down to nothing. She will smother you long after you have begun to loathe each other and refuse to let you go. I can't imagine anyone asking her out, let alone thinking she’d be a good mother to their children.
Last year I went on a few dates with someone I met online, though I am leery of online dating. I belong in the Victorian age, when I could have carried out an epistolary courtship with a friend of my brother's, stationed abroad, and kept my secrets until we wed. It feels dishonest not to mention certain things to someone you’re trying to seduce, in the way I would feel dishonest not mentioning that I had a child or was missing a nose. I mustered the courage to meet only one person from the dating site. He was sweet and kind and seemed to like me. It could have gone further, but I would look at him across the table and think, My God, you've no idea what you're getting yourself into. I was doing a good job pretending to be normal, but there was no way I could keep it up. So I stopped answering his emails.
I'm afraid that if I meet someone I really like, I will let the whole story explode out of me before he's seen the better side, which is what I did last time. We crashed into each other, saying I love you within a week, naming the children we were never to have. From the beginning he saw me as a damaged waif in need of protection, and I let him. That dynamic became a chore for us both. I can’t say how much I regret this.
So what’s the answer? I would love to feel I could keep my mental illness under wraps until I was comfortable with someone, as if it were a hobby like collecting international Barbie dolls. But that seems both unfair and dangerous. Having a panic attack in front of someone unprepared is not great for building trust. With new friends, I try to rummage around conversationally in their own lives first, and then drop in a few details to see how they land. I am much better at picking friends than romantic partners, and nothing has ever gone terribly wrong with this approach. But somehow it doesn’t seem quite enough when you’re taking the first steps toward asking someone to love you for better or for worse. I come with more worse than most people, and it’s only fair that I’m honest about that.
My mother thinks I should keep my mouth shut as long as possible. Therapists are trained not to tell you exactly what to do, no matter how much I ask. I'm sure that self-help books are very helpful for some people, but I never make it much past the table of contents. I have seen dating websites for the mentally ill, and although I'm sure there is blessed relief in a partner who knows what you're going through from the get-go, I don’t think matching us up is a good idea. One of you needs to be able to get out of bed every morning and persuade the other to do the same. And as I know from dating a fellow depressive, I ironically have little patience for it.
So here I am, ready-ish to date. I feel time running out for a family, adding a charming dimension of desperation. All I can do is hope for the best, gingerly feel my way along, constantly remind myself to slow down and breathe, and not hurl myself headlong at the first half-decent man I meet. Possibly the worst effect my illness has on relationships is my inability to let go of something that is clearly not working. I must accept that what I want might not happen. Many people will not be interested in dealing with my illogical side, and it’s not their fault or mine. I must learn to let them go. In Other People, Martin Amis wrote: “Have you ever stayed in a place where you wanted someone who didn't want you? Well don't — Get out ...Get out as quickly as you can and don't come back. That's all I can say. That's all you can do.” That's pretty good advice.