Head Over Feels: The anxiety of dating with a mental illness

In the fourth grade, I had my first panic attack—at least, the first one I remember. It happened at a softball game. I worked myself up to the verge of tears because of some irrational fear of becoming sick. I had no reason to be so distressed, but I was. Since then, I’ve experienced panic attacks and anxiety triggered by almost anything, even something as illogical as potentially falling ill in the future.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental illness. My mental illness never impacted me on an interpersonal level until I started dating my high school boyfriend, Brian.

However, I have never dated a person with a mental illness like mine.

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I didn’t receive an official diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder or take prescribed medication until age 18. When I was dating Brian, my anxiety remained undiagnosed. But growing up with an undiagnosed mental illness didn’t feel strange—it felt normal. I never saw myself as unstable or overemotional. However, when the relationship began, I felt terrified of abandonment, overwhelmed by life, and in need of constant validation. This made me clingy—at least according to Brian. I tried to explain my anxiety to him, but he perceived it as craziness.

On a larger scale than just Brian and me, society trivializes women’s mental health and chalks it up to women being overemotional. Popular media doesn’t help this. Women in the spotlight who struggle with mental illness fall victim to aggrandizement by tabloids and other media outlets.

Earlier this month, Selena Gomez was hospitalized following an emotional breakdown due to depression and anxiety. When the story went public, journalists and Twitter users alike speculated her breakdown was caused by her long-term ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber’s engagement to Hailey Baldwin. An unnamed source close to Gomez was quoted in People calling her a “delicate flower.”

These commentators minimized Gomez’s mental health, only viewing it in relation to a former boyfriend. On the contrary, men are lauded by the media for opening up about mental illness. For example, Pete Davidson is seen as a vocal figure and advocate for being public about his experience with borderline personality disorder.

While I think Davidson should be praised for being so public, Gomez should be as well. Gomez’s hospitalization was sensationalized and plastered on the front of tabloid magazines, while Davidson’s story was relayed as a tale of heroism. Anyone struggling with a mental illness should be heard and their journey should be respected, regardless of gender.

According to NAMI, “Women overall [appear] to be less likely than men to be supported by partners when dealing with mental health conditions.”

This terrifies me. Exhibiting mental illness in front of a romantic partner is scary for anyone, but especially for women. If I do so, a partner who doesn’t understand me might think I’m crazy, and if he thinks I’m crazy, he’ll leave me.

I experienced a situation like this with my ex-boyfriend Chad. During my freshman year of college, I was diagnosed with depression and started therapy. I wanted to avoid the disconnect that happened between me and Brian, so when I felt the relationship growing serious, I disclosed my history of mental illness to Chad.

For the first few months of our relationship, my mental health remained relatively stable. Nevertheless, once I returned to school for sophomore year, my anxiety and depression peaked. A few weeks into the semester, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by classes, work, and extracurriculars. I called Chad to discuss how I felt. He told me to “just take a break and don’t go to your meeting.”

I couldn’t do that. The only thing more overwhelming than my schedule is my fear of failure. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t grasp why I cared so much about skipping a meeting.

Disconnect due to my mental illness caused our first real argument. He knew I struggled with mental illness, but he never saw it up close and I think it scared him. I don’t think we ultimately broke up because of this, but it made our relationship more tense and caused disagreements.

Both my anxiety and depression come in waves. A lot of the time, I feel fine. Then, I go through rough patches like one toward the end of my relationship with Chad. I felt as if I was crazy because that’s what I’ve been told to think. Women are labeled as overdramatic when they express any kind of emotion, and having a mental illness only amplifies that stereotype. I tried so hard not to become a “crazy ex-girlfriend” because my partner didn’t understand me.

I don’t wish a mental illness on Brian or Chad, but it’s frustrating to know that they would never truly empathize. I, like other women in this situation, just want my mental state to be taken seriously and not written off as craziness.

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