It’s Friday evening, and I’m bright with espresso and a couple of glasses of wine. I’m feeling good, laughing with my friends and obnoxiously flirting with the bartender. I decide he’s kind of cute, and I decide I’m pretty charming, so I scribble down my number and slip it across the sticky bar as I leave.
For the next two days, I’m overwhelmed by a despair I can’t explain. My brain feels cobwebbed, my limbs heavy. I can’t bring myself to put on proper clothes or move from bed. When the bartender texts me, the idea of engaging in witty banter feels exhausting. What’s the point, I think. So I don’t reply.
Dating is hard. It requires a lot of energy and optimism. You have to make yourself vulnerable, take risks and bounce back from disappointment. It’s a delicate balancing act of being generous and seeing the best in people, and being strong enough to walk away when you’re not getting what you need.
I do need to know that the person I love will support me if I get badly depressed again. That when I’m at my worst, they’ll think I’m worth waiting for, and be strong enough for me to lean on.
Getting out there can be tiring enough when you’re healthy and feeling good. When you have a mental illness, it can feel pretty impossible.
Like so many people, I live with chronic depression and anxiety. There are times when it’s bad, and just getting through the day and functioning enough to pass as human is a marathon effort. I feel slow and heavy, but also fragile. I feel volatile, like a bundle of frayed, sputtering wires held together by skin. It aches and a lot of the time I don’t know why. It feels like it will never stop.
There are also times when I’m pretty healthy, and I feel strong and vibrant and in control. Even then, it’s always there. It’s a darkness simmering somewhere inside me, always threatening to drag me down. There are spores of it in the air around me. It disguises itself as insomnia, and as a thick, endless fatigue.
Dating is always a bit of an acting exercise at first. You want to seem sparkly, confident, positive – all the best parts of yourself, turned up to eleven. When mood and energy are against you, it can sometimes feel like you have to trick people into falling for you.
The question is always: how much of your darkness do you reveal, and when?
The question is always: how much of your darkness do you reveal, and when? Too soon and you might scare them off. Too late and it feels like you’re hiding something. And the more important question: will this person react the way you need them to?
Everyone with a mental illness knows that twist of the knife when you’re told you just need to stop getting so upset about things. As common as depression and anxiety are, plenty of people still don’t really get that it’s more than just feeling sad or stressed. And when that dismissive response comes from someone who’s important to you, it can make you feel pretty alone.
You can’t make someone empathise, but you can do your best to be honest and explain your reality. There’s a difference between someone who doesn’t get it and is just a jerk about it, and someone who doesn’t get it but wants to. If you like someone, you have to take that risk and give them a chance to understand.
A harder thing I’ve learnt though, is that even when someone really believes they’re okay with you having a mental illness, they might not necessarily be okay with you actually having symptoms of it.
I found this out once, two years into a relationship. I had a career crisis and fell into a gloomy depression, and suddenly my boyfriend wasn’t really there. I wasn’t fun to be around. I needed a lot of sleep, was always in danger of dissolving into tears, didn’t really want to go to the pub with his friends. And so pretty quickly, he decided he’d fallen out of love with me, and found a less complicated girl instead.
I don’t blame him. He didn’t understand what I was going through, and in the end he just didn’t really love me enough to try. But it taught me a lot about what I need.
I don’t need anyone to be my saviour, to try to fix me. I’m strong and capable and take care of myself. But I do need to know that the person I love will support me if I get badly depressed again. That when I’m at my worst, they’ll think I’m worth waiting for, and be strong enough for me to lean on.
I’m slowly learning to believe in that kind of love. And more importantly, I’m slowly learning to believe that I deserve it.
Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 19 September on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.