Everyone brings baggage to a relationship but in the beginning, most of us shove it in the overhead compartment and focus on the cute guy across the table and his stupid puns. You go on a first date and drink a vodka and soda and talk about your jobs. You go on a second date and eat sushi and talk about whatever’s trending on Twitter. You go on a third date and a fourth date and meet his friends. So when do you tell him you have clinical anxiety?
Here’s the thing: you don’t have to. Your mental health is your business and your business only. Here’s the other thing: if someone’s becoming important in your life, they need to know you. Knowing you means knowing all of you, even the messy, anxious parts.
Dean* was the first person I dated after being diagnosed with anxiety. I started seeing him a year after I started seeing a therapist. Admitting to myself that I had anxiety and needed to seek professional help was its own years-long struggle. I swallowed it year after year and shoved my shaking hands in my back pocket. After I got treatment, things started to slowly get easier. I knew I would have anxiety for the rest of my life, but now I also knew that I could deal with it and still lead a beautiful, full life. Things would be okay.
Dean and I were hanging out for three weeks when I took my yearly summer trip to New York to see my family. We weren’t serious at that point— I mean, it had been less than a month. But, I knew I liked him and I knew we had potential as something real. And for me, that meant that I had to be upfront about my life.
Part of accepting that I had anxiety was deciding to be open- and vulnerable— about the diagnosis. I started writing about it online and told my friends about my therapist. I decided not to hide it because if I was hiding it, then it would’ve been something to be ashamed of and it’s not. Honestly, I was scared about other people’s reactions but I decided to capitalize on that age-old advice of faking it until you make it. I would be fearless with the truth about my anxiety and in time, maybe I would truly feel that fearlessness.
After three weeks of hanging out with Dean in our home state, I sat in a bar with my best friend in New York. We talked and laughed and drank until the edges of the world turned blurry. Dean texted me, my phone buzzing in the pocket of my dress. We texted, flirting and joking, about unimportant things.
But, armed with a little bit of liquid courage, I decided that I was sure of three things. 1) I liked Dean. 2) I had anxiety and would have it for the rest of my life. 3) If things were going to progress between us, he had to know this about me. It was enough of my daily life— with therapy appointments and occasional panic attacks and anxiety spirals— that it would be hard to hide if he would be around. And besides, I didn’t want to hide it.
In some dark corner of my brain, I also felt like he should know before he really fell for me. What if he felt cheated later, like I’d lied about who I was? What if he saw my first panic attack and decided it was too much? It was better to know upfront if he could handle it then find out later. If you’d asked me that night whether I thought he’d have a positive or negative reaction, I would’ve given it 50-50 odds. A coin toss. If it lands on heads, he’s supportive and understanding and wants to move forward. If it lands on tails, he’s one of those people who thinks anxiety can be cured by eating more vegetables or he’s too freaked out by the prospect of a girlfriend with a mental illness. Either way, at least I would know.
So, like the true millennial I am, I took my phone out and typed a message into the blue light. “so, I know we just started seeing each other, but I feel like I need to tell you something before it goes further – I have anxiety – and most of the time, it’s fine and I’m in therapy and stuff but sometimes it’s really hard. I’m going to have it forever and it’ll be under control sometimes and it’ll be harder other times. I wanted to tell you know cause it’s not something everyone is used to or wants to deal with and if you don’t want to go forward, I totally understand and wouldn’t blame you but either way, thought you should know”.
I took a deep breath and hit send then promptly tossed my phone across the room. I was really, really nervous. Although I had only recently been diagnosed, I had suffered from anxiety for years and the boyfriend I had before Dean had been dismissive of the issue. He didn’t think mental health issues were “real” and believed I just had to try harder to overcome my anxiety. It took me longer than it should have to get treatment because I was scared of reactions like his. So, despite my nonchalant language, there was something at stake in this tipsy text conversation with Dean. Would a guy ever be able to accept me, anxiety and all?
My phone buzzed. I hesitantly crossed the room and saw Dean’s name flashing on the screen. I opened the text. “I really appreciate you telling me that. I’ve never experienced anxiety so I can’t completely relate but I’ll do my best to be there for you. And yes, I do wanna keep doing this :)”.
I laughed with relief. The coin toss had landed on heads. And years later, Dean has stuck by his word. He makes sure I go to my doctor’s appointments and take the necessary medication. He now has a feel for when an anxiety attack is coming and he knows how to help when they arrive. It took a moment of courage for me to tell him about my disorder but now, I have someone who helps me carry that burden.
So, tell him when you’re ready. Tell him through a text message or a letter or face-to-face. Tell him even if you’re not sure how he’ll react. Because how he does will tell you what you need to know about him.