This week we’re going to look at the whens and hows of telling poly partners about mental illness. If you don’t have mental illness yourself, stick around because we are also going to be talking about the best ways to respond when a partner tells you about their mental illness.
Opening Up About Mental Illness
When to Open Up About Mental Illness
Much like telling someone you are poly, opening up about mental illness is a very personal thing. I tend to favor telling people as soon as possible, up to including it in my dating profiles. Anyone who is scared off by my baggage isn’t someone I want to date anyway.
Sadly, the completely undeserved stigma and shame associated with mental illness can make it hard to open up about. Especially if it means opening up to someone you are really attracted to, who may drop you like a hot potato as soon as you tell them.
My suggested guidelines on opening up would be as follows:
- If there is any chance of a panic attack or other crisis interrupting a first date, they need to know ahead of time.
- If you have reason to believe your illness will have a large impact on any relationship or ongoing interaction, they need to know shortly after the first date.
- If you have reason to believe your illness will not have a large impact on a relationship—for instance if you’ve been in poly relationships before and never had significant problems, and your illness is well enough managed that it does have a large effect on your daily life—you can just let it come up naturally in conversation.
How Do You Open Up? And How Much Do You Share?
The most important thing you can do is be matter-of-fact about it. Don’t apologize for your illness. Don’t make a big production of it. Just say:
- So you know, I get panic attacks. When I get hit with one I freeze up and start shaking and moaning. If that does happen while we’re out, please just give me space and it’ll pass in a few minutes. (Or “please call my doctor” or “please just hold me for a bit” or whatever it is they can do to help—most people hate feeling helpless when someone they care about/are interested in is hurting. Letting them know what to expect and what they can do to make it better helps a lot.)
- Hey, I really enjoyed our date last night, and I’d like to do it again… You too? Great! Look, um, the next time we get together I should probably tell you a bit about my anxiety disorder. I don’t want to scare you off, but it does cause problems sometimes.
- Yeah, I’d love to go to the carnival with you, just let me grab my meds… Yeah, crowds freak me out sometimes, so I have an as-needed anti-anxiety I take when I’m getting overwhelmed.
Simple and to the point. If they ask questions, you can either answer or say you aren’t comfortable talking about it right then. If the questions are important things your date/partner/potential lover should know, but you aren’t up to answering them immediately, just suggest a better time.
- Would you mind waiting until we can sit down together?
- Can I send you an email with all the details, talking about it makes me anxious. Ironic, right?
- How about we set aside time tomorrow for me to answer all your questions—we don’t want to be late for dinner.
When Someone Opens Up About Their Mental Illness
Listen without Assumptions
It can be hard to keep your mouth shut and your mind open sometimes—and that doesn’t just apply to mental illness—but it can be vitally important. Sometimes things you think are supportive, like how you understand about panic attacks, your brother got PTSD while in the army, prevent you from hearing about the person right in front of you. And just because the best thing to do for your brother was give him a wide berth and let him bring himself down, doesn’t mean the person in front of you doesn’t do better being wrapped in a blanket and held until the shakes pass. Maybe the meds your aunt took had massive side effects and caused more problems than they helped, but those same meds might be the only thing able to help the person in front of you, and they’ve been on them for 10 years with minimal side effects.
Stigma against mental illness is an even worse assumption. After the intro post for this series went up, and Clementine opened up about her very personal and very difficult experience, someone posted on Reddit “This is why I could never date someone with mental illness.”
Now, I fully get not being able to date a specific person because their mental illness causes needs beyond your ability to meet or cope with. But to take Clementine’s story and use it to paint a broad brush across everyone with mental illness? Leaving aside the way it is completely dismissive and erases the entire point of Clementine’s post, it is wrong and prejudiced to dismiss all mentally ill people with one sweeping condemnation.
If you do have a knee jerk reaction about not being able to date someone with mental illness, please sit on it. Listen, learn about the person in front of you (as opposed to the caricature in your head) and move forward on that basis.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
When they are done telling you what they need to tell you, it is okay to ask questions if you have them. You can also share your own experiences if you can do it in a way that doesn’t erase their experience. “When my brother has panic attacks, this helps him. Does it help you also?” Is great. “I know how to deal with panic attacks because my brother has them” falls under “Lose the assumptions” above.
Some questions you might want to ask include:
- What kinds of things trigger you?
- Are there any signs I should watch for to tell me you are having a problem?
- What can I do to help if you get triggered?
Don’t feel like you need to ask questions—sometimes it’s better to learn more over time. And if the person you’re talking with isn’t comfortable answering questions immediately, don’t pressure them. They told you what they feel you need to know, and there will be time later to get the answers you want.
What if I really can’t deal with this?
I called mental illness baggage above, and some might see that as further stigmatizing people who are mentally ill. The thing is, we all have baggage. Part of my baggage is my children, my ongoing custody case, and the fact that I am very publicly out as poly. Any or all of those things may make me the wrong person for you to get involved with. Baggage isn’t necessary the bad stuff, but it is the stuff we carry with us. I heard once that the good relationship is one where your baggage and your partner’s baggage fit together easily.
Everyone’s mental illness is different. My mental illnesses put a lot less overt pressure on a relationship than Clementine’s, but cause a lot of complications in the sexual aspect of a relationship. My partner Michael deal with illnesses that require a great deal of emotional and practical support from the people around him (mostly me, but also his friends, other partners, family, etc.).
Just like not everyone would be able to date me because I am so blatantly out and they can’t risk being outed, not everyone would be able to be in a relationship with me because someone with a very high libido might not be able to deal with the challenges my mental illnesses create in having a healthy sex life. And not everyone has the mental resources, patience, and flexibility to deal with the way Clementine’s C-PTSD triggers feelings of jealousy and support her as she works through them. And a lot of people aren’t able to give Michael the emotional support he needs as he battles with his illnesses.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
If someone opens up about their mental illness, and you realize that either you will not be able to meet their needs, or they will not be able to meet your needs, that is okay! Not everyone fits well together, and there is nothing wrong with saying a few dates (or even a few years) in “This isn’t working for me. I like you, but I don’t think this relationship can meet my needs. No one’s fault, just things not fitting right.”
If you think you won’t be able to meet their needs, then tell them that. Explain what you can offer and what you can’t, and let them decide if what you can offer is enough, or if it will only leave them frustrated and needing more.
Should go without saying, but:
Whatever you do, do not say or imply that a mental illness makes someone “damaged,” unfit for a relationship, or an unhealthy person to be around. Not only is this cruel and highly damaging to someone already struggling with emotional or mental problems, but it is false. Just because they don’t fit in a relationship with you, or you can’t have a healthy relationship with them, doesn’t mean there aren’t other people out there who do fit with them.
This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.