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I ‘ve decided that it might be time to venture back into the dating zoo. A few weeks ago I sat down to write an online dating profile and thought ‘How hard can it be?’ After all, I’m old enough to know what my interests are (I like books, especially when they’re in colour order), to embrace my quirks (the words ‘beverage’ and ‘platter’ make me physically cringe) and to accept that someone with kids is more likely to understand my single mum status than someone without.
I breezed through the facts and figures stuff (and no, I never lie about my age or being just shy of 5ft 2; every pot has a lid) but discovered that the ‘About me’ part wasn’t so easy. I’m sure it wasn’t this tricky last time. I’d even go so far as to say it was fun. Then again, that was before my complicated life became even more complicated with the discovery that I had type II bipolar affective disorder (Mind statistics say there are 1-3 in every 100 who have the condition).
Having been diagnosed in 2012, I’ve had time to get over the shock of it and to try and accept that whilst it’s part of me it’s not my core defining feature. But as I filled in my profile I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What about prospective dates? When they find out about it, will they be more circumspect?’
When I was newly divorced in early 2010, I briefly saw a man who, on our first date, blurted out that he had type I bipolar. I immediately thought, ‘Well, this one isn’t going to have legs’ and made a mental note to see it as a bit of fun and nothing more. Imagining that he was going to be more trouble than he was worth, I buried the relationship before it had even died. So I know that prejudice exists on the dating scene – I dished some of it out myself.
The friend who I filled the form out with suggested not saying anything about my condition until I really know the person. Trouble is I’ve written about it widely so that with just a few pointers (my email address, for example) any cover would be blown.
In order to avoid this I’d be venturing into the realms of fake names, separate email addresses and widespread subterfuge in a bid to hide what’s really going on. White lies I can handle by way of kindness but this feels like a whole different level of deceit. Not just that, but let’s say I manage to pull it off. My single friend girls’ nights out are replete with stories of dates who say they are one thing but turn out to be something else (most often someone else’s boyfriend or even husband). I know how crushed they’ve been by duplicity; I hardly feel inclined to become one of those rogues myself.
So I keep the information under my jaunty hat and we are getting on like the proverbial house on fire; at some stage I will have to reveal what’s going on with my health. Even if I don’t, the pills I take each night, come rain or shine, may be something of a giveaway. As actress and bipolar sufferer Carrie Fisher said of her own medication regime, ‘This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day. It’s like being a diabetic.’ Except that it’s not like diabetes, is it?
Another friend suggested that it’d be no worse than telling a potential date that I had heart disease. I disagree. If your heart isn’t functioning properly, it isn’t seen as your fault (even if you’ve smoked 40 a day for 40 years). But if your brain chemistry is letting you down, people struggle to work out how to be sympathetic and not downright scared (mental health campaigners are in a constant battle to get mental health parity of esteem with physical health; there’s still a long way to go).
I heard of one doctor who, when he was dating, would look in his date’s bathroom cabinet to see what lurked inside. I’m guessing that insulin was fine but psychiatric meds an unequivocal deal-breaker. I met a friend of a friend who is a London socialite and party arranger who said to me, ‘Why is a woman like you single?! I know lots of amazing single men. You should come to one of my dinner parties.’ When I told her about my condition, the invitation evaporated and instead she said: ‘It’s going to be hard for you to find someone, but when you do they’ll be a real gem.’
In some senses her ‘there-there’ attitude was absolutely spot-on. In the same way that I decided not to give that date a chance five years ago because he was honest enough to tell me he had bipolar, I can only assume that the world is full of cautious (even judgemental) people with just a smattering of open-hearted good ‘uns. That’s why people like me wonder whether – when it comes to dating – there’s much hope, even though one in four people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives.
A survey by mental health charity Time to Change found that three-quarters (75 per cent) of people living with a mental health problem would feel scared telling their partner about it for the first time. One in 10 respondents said it took them over a year to finally tell a new partner about their mental illness. Perhaps that’s why websites like NoLongerLonely.com (an ‘online social community for adults with mental illness’) exist. I tried that once but my foray didn’t last long. Although it represented an immediate place of acceptance, it also made me feel that I was having to define myself by my illness. (I also couldn’t think where you arrange to go on a date with a man with agoraphobia when tells you he has trouble leaving his house.) Another time I went on a date with someone with the same condition as me. We spent the whole date talking about medication on some kind of loop. On the one hand it was really interesting but on the other hand it made me think, ‘Has it really come to this?’
I went on a ‘normal’ dating site and had some lively conversations with some interesting men which fizzled out when we swapped email addresses and phone numbers. I met up with one and told him about my bipolar and just a few days later he told me he’d got back with his ex-. I have no idea if that was true or not. Another was, ironically, a psychiatrist so I told him I wrote about mental health. Having been really engaging at first, I never heard from him again. (I’m guessing the last thing he wanted was to take his work home with him…)
Now, permit me a moment of self-promotion. I think I’ve got a lot to bring to the table. I’m a (mostly) great mum to a nine-year-old who is superb company and won’t put frogs in your trainers, I own my own home & am dabbling in the scary world of property development, I’ve got stuff to talk about (I’ve worked for national newspapers and contributed to ‘Dear Stranger’, a Penguin anthology alongside Caitlin Moran, Alain de Botton & other luminaries.) And I’m not looking for the father of my children (done that) or someone to save or rescue me. I have also had long-term relationships with some lovely people so I’m not entirely hopeless on that front.
I hold my hand up to getting immensely, intensely sad and extremely anxious at times. But I probably have more strategies in place to cope with these mood states than any ‘normal’ person does. Not only that, but years of soul-searching, slaying demons and trying to work out what makes me tick have, I like to think, given me the empathy, fortitude and humour to be a pretty good companion as you venture through life, whether you’re my child, friend or partner. Also, in many ways I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones – I’m aware of my health limitations, rather than walking around in denial.
So what are people like me to do? Tell or not tell? Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Woking says: “The overwhelming consensus of the patient population I work with, and with which I agree, is to be upfront about a mental illness pretty early on, but not to define yourself by it. Prospective partners may need some explanation as to what the diagnosis means, what the illness consists of, and how they can help – when to offer support, or when to give space.
“In fact, sometimes patients want to have their partners or friends in the room with them when they’re meeting me, so that the friends can better understand the sort of treatment they’re having – and that it’s very normal, and there’s nothing mysterious going on.
“It just helps to normalise the whole experience, and puts the focus on effectively managing the condition, rather than reacting passively to the condition, or worse, being a victim of the condition.”
In a Huffington Post blog entitled ‘Should you date someone with a mental illness?’, life coach and mental health advocate Danny Baker concludes that if someone is stable, has their condition under control and is actively working to keep themselves well, they shouldn’t be stigmatised. He says: “If the person you’ve just started dating discloses to you that they have a mental illness, don’t stigmatise them and immediately end the relationship.
“Instead, read up on their illness so that you know more about it, and ask them how they’re handling it. Ask them how far along the road to recovery they are. Ask them what they’re doing to try and get better. From there, you’ll be able to better decide how you want to proceed with the relationship.”
But that’s all very well when the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As such, I’ve decided not to take the whole thing so seriously and to realise that perhaps that friend was right about the ‘real gem’.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to wait to meet someone ‘organically’ – you know, reaching for the same ready meal in M&S or driving into the back of someone’s car and finding out, in the midst of your ire, that you really rather like each other. Maybe that way I’ll find someone who accepts me for me and isn’t fazed by a label I’ve picked up along the way.