As a sufferer’s relationship with food becomes disordered, it may cause difficulties in their relationships with people. I was diagnosed with depression and anorexia when I was at uni.
At the same time I developed a relationship a man who quickly became my husband. I didn’t love myself. But, I thought, if I could love someone else, that could fill the gap.
I was very ill throughout our relationship and it was very hard for him to see someone he loved in such pain. He played the part of my carer on many occasions; unless carefully managed, this does not make for a good, healthy or equal, relationship. He tried to support me, but I had multiple admissions to hospital when acutely unwell and this took its toll on him.
Within a few years, he couldn’t cope with me or my illness any longer and during one of my hospital admissions, he asked for a divorce.
No matter how I feel about him, our relationship, what he did or didn’t do, the truth is, my illness had a negative impact. As I fought my way to recovery over the proceeding year, I vowed this would never happen again. Relationships are very tricky when mentally ill. It’s important to remember that we are not our illness, but it’s a part of us and our history that we can’t change.
There has to be a balance, some understanding of mental illness from a prospective partner is helpful but, I’m afraid to say, there are some people out there who want to date someone with an illness – and this is dangerous.
I decided I did not want my mental illness to be central to my next relationship. I got to a point in my recovery where I needed to start exploring relationships in order to restore my faith in men. I was in a bit of a difficult position and had to get the timing right, too soon and my eating disorder would still be too dominant, leave it too long and my recovery would be delayed. I don’t really have any tips about how to get the timing right but I decided to try online dating as it felt like something I could dabble in without too much commitment.
So, do you put your mental health status in your online profile? I had a few things in mind. Primarily, I wanted to be honest but I didn’t want to give it too much importance: I wanted to stop people who weren’t going to be understanding or empathetic getting in contact; I didn’t want to waste my time with them And I didn’t want to attract people who wanted to parent me or look after me In the end, I said that I’d been out of work for a while, due to ‘health issues’ and left it at that. I met a few people for drinks, one person I met a few times, but that wasn’t to be.
The next person I met, Steve, and I bonded immediately, we had a lot in common and something seemed to ‘click’ as they say. So, how do I address the mental health side of things? At our first date, we met for a drink and just chatted, it was a fairly short date but we chatted freely and easily and I thought this was a very good sign.
Steve suggested a meal for our second date and I was up for it… at least I thought I was. I’d picked the venue for our first date so I suggested Steve pick the venue for the meal. As I drove home from our first date, I felt a tingle of excitement, could this be ‘the one’?
But I started to worry that I wasn’t ready for the challenges of eating out; I’d not eaten with anyone other than my family for years and I’d not eaten out in a long time.
Should I just go ahead with it and hope I could manage it, risking a panic attack and ruining my chances with Steve, or should I ask for us to do something different?
I realised, if I could come up with a compromise, I might be able to challenge myself but not push myself too far, too fast. With trepidation, worried I’d scare him off, I emailed Steve ‘with hope this doesn’t put you off’.
Although I still wanted Steve to pick the venue, I asked if he could choose somewhere I could pick a salad, I felt if the food was safe, I could tackle the challenges of eating out and eating with someone new. In my email I explained I’d been struggling with an eating disorder but I was well on the road to recovery and the last thing I wanted was for my disordered behaviour to impact any new relationship.
I waited nervously for Steve’s reply and when it came I couldn’t believe how understanding he was. Steve let me know he had no experience of eating disorders but he instinctively knew it would be sensible if I just took one challenge at a time; he suggested he cook something light for us at his house.
I could hardly believe that he’d made such an understanding suggestion. Maybe I’m lucky, but this taught me it is best to be honest.
I worried if I put it off, the ‘news’ about my mental health history would get bigger and bigger; the risk would be that we’d fall for each other and then he’d feel there was no way out, even if he thought he couldn’t cope with it. Since then, Steve’s become my husband and we’ve faced a lot of eating disorder related challenges together.
Every time, the key has been for us to talk about it (something my first husband I and didn’t do). I think it’s a good idea to let any potential partners know at a fairly early stage; for me, there’s quite a high likelihood that I will have periods of ill health in the future so, to be blunt, I think it’s important to be honest and up front about what they’re letting themselves in for.