By Freddie Cocker
Dating as a mental health ‘advocate’ (I don’t like this term but I have no appropriate alternate to use here) can be a tricky business at the best of times. The best decision I ever made was to talk openly about my mental health and put ALL of it out there, even the most stigmatised details that are probably quite difficult for other people to read, especially my loved ones. I have never regretted it once.
However, that doesn’t mean in the dating world it’s as smooth sailing – and the positives about being fully self-aware of how dark my mental health history is can mean I can have some trepidation about how I set my disclosure filters for potential partners.
On the surface, my mental health history and the list of experiences or traumas I’ve gone through is darkly funny in its breadth and depth: anxiety, bullying (social, verbal and two instances of cyber), PTSD, childhood sexual abuse (CSA), self-harm, substance abuse, one suicide attempt, many periods of suicidality, suicidal ideation, near-misses and one episode of psychosis.
When you add into that chronic cystic acne from the age of around 15 until 27 years old and body image issues, it’s no wonder it took me so long to emerge successfully out of a victimhood mentality, reconcile my inner child and change my attachment style from anxious-avoidant to secure (I hope that’s the case now at least).
The best female comedian in the business (in my opinion), Ms. Pat, said on an episode of The Joe Rogan podcast that if you can laugh about your pain, you own it and that’s the attitude I try to take in life generally. I never want to make others feel uncomfortable or that they have to tread on eggshells around me, so breaking the ice around it for them often puts them at ease, even if it’s a shock or surprise to hear what I’ve gone through at first in such brutal honesty from me.
In the dating world though, dumping that amount of previous trauma history on someone early on can be a lot for someone to take in, even if they are a very empathic and compassionate person. It might even be viewed to be unfair or potentially dangerous. If I mention Vent or even vaguely mention that I help others with their mental health in a romantic encounter, on a night out, or elsewhere, naturally, that person will express an interest and may even disclose their own mental health experiences to me.
What that can often lead to though is a complete change in dynamic where the flirting goes out the window and my mental health first aid training kicks in, especially when alcohol is involved! It can therefore be an interesting task trying to inject flirting back into that conversation when you’re now aware of the power dynamic and the vulnerability they’ve displayed to you and the support you’ve given them.
When it comes to disclosure filters, it’s more difficult to retain control of my own disclosure when you are (without trying to sound arrogant) a googleable person. So, even if I keep my mental health out of the picture early on, the person I am talking to could quite easily find me online and read my articles anyway (which has happened more often than you’d think!). A female guest on the podcast I run as part of Vent, called ‘The Just Checking In Podcast’, said that she disclosed that she had been raped to her now partner on their second date. At the time I found it hugely admirable, but also extremely brave! It makes complete sense that they are still together now but it’s not something I’d ever do myself for many reasons.
Working out when is the ‘right time’ to disclose parts or all of my mental health history is something I’ve found extremely difficult in the past. Even the thought process can trigger overthinking; do it too early and you could scare them off or take all of that fun and romance out of the early stage of the courting process, or do it later on and you put more pressure on yourself for that eventual moment of disclosure too.
The truth is, that for the right person, there probably isn’t ever a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ time; only the time that works for you which feels appropriate – and I probably need to tell myself that more often.
The added layer of trickiness here is that there are some scars from being sexually abused as a child that come into play during intimacy. This ranges from bodily reactions, anxieties, insecurities or preferences which I have written about. It’s quite hard to articulate those without sounding or feeling like a freak or generally making a situation or conversation pretty awkward, despite my best efforts. Thankfully, I’ve overcome the anxiety around having these scars now through therapy, but it doesn’t take away the anxiety around disclosing them in the first place.
The consolation to this is I have spoken to fellow survivors who have similar scars to me around intimacy and sex and I have tried to be as transparent as possible in my communication around this as a result going forward. I’ll not always get it right but then, who can in this romantic rat race of dating apps, ghosting and shrinking social circles?
I wanted to write this because, so often, the online mental health community can fall into two camps of advocacy when it comes to dating. There are those who are quite rightly openly effusive in their praise of their compassionate and empathic partners (male or female) when it comes to their mental health. They are their biggest supporters, the ones who pick them up when they are down and champion them in their personal lives away from their laptops.
There are also stories of unsupportive partners, even abusive ones, who have ridiculed or berated them for speaking about their mental health, and they have quite rightly removed those people from their lives.
What I see less of is this type of article: the ‘single pringles’ who have a lot of or all of their mental health story online and find navigating the dating world a little bit difficult at times.
I am of course speaking from a male perspective and I’m sure there are a litany of different anxieties and insecurities single, female mental health advocates experience too that I will never go through or be able to fully understand, but just speaking from my experience, as a male mental health advocate, it’s a world that provides just as much trepidation as it does potential fun.
Freddie Cocker is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.
This article was originally published on Soph Talks.