Over the past three years, I’ve learned a lot about the ways in which my brain and body work. I’ve learned that the intense sadness and stress I dealt with in high school did, in fact, qualify as depression and anxiety, and that I could and should seek support for those things. I learned that the extreme physical and mental exhaustion I felt after completing a few days of “average” activities was not merely the consequence of my introversion, but a function of sensory overload, and that there were things I could do to cope with this sensitivity.
At the same time, I began dating two wonderful people who are still my partners. As I learned all of these things about myself and struggled to understand my needs and limits better, I also had to navigate what my new boundaries would mean for my relationship. One of my partners also deals with mental illness, and so we are able to support each other during our low periods and communicate while navigating our needs and abilities.
Having a partner who deals with similar issues (and another partner who is sympathetic and understanding) allows me to handle my various mental health issues without fearing rejection or impatience. Of course, this assurance doesn’t help all the time — one of the hallmarks of my anxiety and depression is their ability to tell me I’m a burden.
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And my disabilities do create limitations that affect my relationships. My sensory sensitivity, coupled with or exacerbated by my asexuality, sometimes makes me prickly when it comes to physical contact, including hugging and cuddling. It’s difficult having to get space from one of my partners because their physical closeness makes me feel like I am about to jump out of my skin. Having a lower threshold for noise and crowds means I often leave public spaces or social gatherings early or decline going to them altogether. And my depression and anxiety can mean I end up in my room for days or weeks at a time, unable to spend time with my partners because I feel so low.
There are some important ways I’ve learned to navigate these challenges and how they impact my relationships, however. Here are four tips for dating as a mentally ill, disabled, and/or neurodivergent person.
1. Communication is an important part of handling your limits
Being open and honest about my needs and limitations, even when I’m scared I’m asking too much or being a downer or burden, is vital to making sure we can navigate our ups and downs together.
One of my partners told me they don’t mind when I retreat to my room and take some time alone. They would just prefer if I could tell them I’m about to do so, as they find it difficult when I just disappear. They have no idea how I’m doing or when I’ll rejoin them.
When I’m feeling really depressed, or I’m so overwhelmed that I want space immediately, it can be hard to pause and find the energy and care to let my partners know how I’m feeling. But I’m learning to be better at communicating when I need space and how I’m doing, since I know my partners won’t judge me. They just want to know what’s going on with me and what I need, whether that be space or a hug.
2. Asking for reassurance, while difficult, strengthens your relationship(s)
My anxiety can often convince me I’ve done something terribly wrong and that my partners dislike me. Likewise, my depression can tell me I’m worthless and unloveable. With these feelings clamoring loudly for my attention, the part of me that knows they aren’t true is swamped. And asking my partners to remind me that I am good, that they do love me, feels almost impossible. It can feel like I’m forcing them to take care of me, or forcing them to say something they don’t really feel.
Sometimes, these feelings win, and I don’t ask my partners for reassurance. But more often now, I just turn to one of them and say, “Hey, I’m feeling anxious and like that thing I said two hours ago was stupid. Can you reassure me that it’s okay?”
3. Resist the impulse to feel guilty for practicing self-care
Another thing that has taken me a long time to learn is how to take time alone to do self-care and not feel guilty about it. When my partners really want to make dinner together and play a board game, but I need to go be alone in my room and watch a show, I can feel really guilty about disappointing them. But one of the hardest things I am learning is how not to take on my partners’ disappointment.
That’s not to say that I want to constantly ignore how my actions make others feel, but I have to learn that I can’t please everyone all the time and that it’s okay to make someone disappointed. I feel disappointed when a friend cancels, but I don’t hate them for it.
I’ve learned my whole life how to push myself past my limits in order to make someone else happy. In school, work, family, and friendships, I feared making people disappointed and worked to avoid that. Now that I am finally facing my disabilities and accepting the limitations they impose, I’m learning to accept that this model is not sustainable or healthy. Sometimes, this means canceling my plans and staying in bed when I just don’t have the energy or wherewithal for anything else.
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I also work to make sure being stuck in bed doesn’t happen all the time, through therapy, medication, coping skills, and self-care, among other tools. But when it does happen, I accept it and, instead of beating myself up for disappointing someone else, I focus on taking care of myself and feeling better.
4. Seek support outside your relationship
My partners and I can’t be there for each other 24/7. Especially when dealing with mental illness, creating a support network outside one or two people is incredibly important. No matter how much I love my partners, I can’t help them all the time. Sometimes, I’m dealing with my own mental illnesses and their effects, or sometimes I have too much else going on in my life to be able to focus on my partners. Whatever the reason, it’s essential to spread out your support needs.
This can be really difficult for many disabled or mentally ill people, as we are often seen as too difficult or too abnormal to be worth putting time and energy into. That is incredibly hard and can feed into the depression and feelings of worthlessness many of us deal with. But looking to one or two people to be all of our support can lead to burnout and the end of important relationships.
For myself, as a shy, sensory-sensitive introvert, making friends is very hard. I don’t do well in many of the social activities through which people make new friends. My idea of a good time with friends is having them over to watch a show or play a board game. The Internet has been an essential tool for me to reach out and seek support without the same kind of physical commitment necessary for face-to-face friendships.
In addition, I’ve sought out a therapist this past year and see my doctor often to talk about how I’m feeling and how my meds are working for me. These two professionals have made a big difference in my support system, even though we don’t have as “personal” of a relationship. I’ve found having a therapist that I feel I can say anything to, without worrying about what she thinks of me or whether I’ll say something bad or stupid, has been invaluable.
I’m lucky that I can access an affordable therapist and a doctor with my school insurance. Other people have to rely solely or more heavily on friend groups or online communities. But wherever we find support, it’s important to communicate and listen to our needs and limits — along with the needs and limits of our supportive friends.
I’ve learned many tools to take care of myself and my relationship while living with mental illness, disability, and neurodivergence. Even with the many skills I’ve learned, it’s not always easy. But through communication, reassurance, self-care, and support outside my relationship, I’ve improved my ability to take care of myself and keep my relationship strong.
[Headline image: The photograph features two people sitting on a park bench, one handing a pink balloon to the other. They are pictured from the neck down. The person on the left is wearing a black and white plaid shirt and tight jeans, while the person on the right wears a red, white, and black plaid shirt and loose jeans.]