By Angela Villani
Navigating the online dating scene while in a pandemic is an interesting challenge, but there is an added layer of intrigue and struggle when you live with mental health symptoms. And in my case, that means bouts of hopelessness followed by bouts of anxiety, and the urge to isolate from others to avoid burdening them. My depression can leave me feeling like I’m sleepwalking through my day, regardless of how much coffee I’ve had.
People who I match with and eventually hear from see that I work as a mental health counselor and they commend me for “doing the lord’s work,” which makes my soul cringe. Then, they almost always ask what my motivation is for doing that work. I could say, “Well, after being bullied as a kid, experiencing an abusive relationship and being depressed and panicked for a long time, I tried to kill myself. That brought me to therapy for the first time and since then I have been hooked.” Instead, I usually say something about how I find people and behavior science to be fascinating, and that I have had my fair share of lived experience with mental illness. This is not a lie, just a half-truth.
I think of my experiences as being packed into a big, clunky suitcase that I haul with me wherever ago. This suitcase is kind of old and might be a little overstuffed, but it is mine to carry. Of course, everyone brings baggage into relationships — I just have a specific kind. But I have also learned to love and accept my life in spite of how heavy my suitcase can get.
Recently, while mindlessly scrolling on Instagram in an attempt to quell my overthinking, I came across a meme about a woman who believed that being her ugliest self on the first date was a good way to weed out lesser men. It made me wonder, what if I did this in online dating? Instead of showing up for a first date with unwashed hair and wearing sweatpants, what If I emptied my clunky suitcase of mental health baggage into my hinge profile? Could I, too, weed out the lesser men and find someone who will tolerate and even love my ugliest mental health days?
People on dating apps who are not in the mental health field seem to have a lot of assumptions about what mental health workers and people with mental health struggles are like. There are lots of assumptions around what I want as someone who is a mental health professional, as a partner, and as someone who gets really depressed sometimes. Guys sometimes think that because I am studying to be a therapist that this means I want to pick their brain or hear unsolicited secrets; this could not be further from the truth. I do not want my profession and my love life to have so much overlap that pillow talk becomes about his childhood trauma or his struggle to set boundaries at work (it is one thing to share, and it is another to share without boundaries). Most of all, I do not want people to assume that because I have depression that I am always numb, without any capacity for joy or emotional depth. Additionally, just because I appear calm and collected a lot of the time does not mean that my internal world is as well.
Why is it so hard to just ask questions? Some people are eager to discuss mental health at first, though that interest diminishes over time; my passion around my education and job becomes annoying. Some people talk about a hobby with heart in mouth, for me (right now) I speak this way about all things therapy and mental health.
I wonder, though, if my dating profile reflected my clunky suitcase, who would be weeded out, and who would I get to interact with (if anyone)? While some people can be disappointing in their capacity to understand mental health, other people can be pleasantly surprising.
It is no surprise to me that the person I have felt the most connection with so far also goes to therapy regularly. He has his own clunky suitcase that he carries.
On our first date he asked me about my desires, and while I scrambled to think of something both interesting and honest, I said that I wanted to play around with writing more. This sparked a conversation about this essay, where he caught a glimpse into my overstuffed suitcase.
(There was a second date… and a third.)
Angela Villani is a grad student at Regis College. She is working toward being a licensed mental health counselor and is a crazy plant lady (largely because she cannot have pets where she lives). She enjoys playing music and writing, and reading multiple books at the same time. Her goal in writing is to reflect on and process her own truth, and to maybe help someone else do the same.
Graphics by Mary Stathos
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