Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Ask Sahaj is a series from The Lily with Sahaj Kaur Kohli, a therapist-in-training and advice columnist. She answers questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please send her an email.

Dear Sahaj,

When is the right time to disclose my anxiety/obsessive-compulsive disorder to a person I’m talking to? I feel like I need to share it early, because it’s a big part of how I manage relationships and navigate my everyday life. I also realize it’s not something everyone wants to take on or “deal” with. I literally just told a guy I had a “doctors appt” on Tuesday night and couldn’t go on a second date then (I really just have therapy). He replied and said, “Wow, your doctor’s office is open pretty late.” For some reason I feel weird telling him about it all so soon. But it’s also something I’m not ashamed of.

I’ve been in therapy since about 5th grade. I’ve come a long way since then and can truly manage my anxiety to a point where strangers would describe me as bubbly, outgoing and social. My anxiety primarily comes out as keeping a set routine/wanting control/planning/cleaning. So a lot of the time men I date think I’m very carefree and spontaneous after a few dates, but I truly still feel the need to stare at the pillows on my bed for 15 minutes every morning to make sure they’re straight.

I know the right person will like me for me, and it won’t matter, but I also don’t want to dump a ton of information on someone who may not need to know all this right now.

— When’s the right time?

Dating with a mental illness is much more common than one might think. However, there is no perfect moment or a set timeline for when to tell someone that you are in therapy or that you are struggling with a mental illness.

Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)
Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)

I’m glad to hear you don’t feel ashamed about your anxiety. But not feeling ashamed is not the same as feeling totally comfortable. Since you are able to manage your anxiety due to years of professional care (kudos to you by the way), it may feel like you should show up as this person who has it all together rather than someone who is healthy and whole and struggles with mental health issues. It sounds to me like being called “bubbly,” “carefree,” or “spontaneous” makes you feel pressure to always show up that way. Consider that you are bubbly, carefree, and spontaneous and you have specific behaviors and needs.

You are not your anxiety, but rather, your anxiety informs who you are. It’s normal to not want to be defined by your mental illness. Yet it sounds like you are struggling with showing up wholly as your authentic self on recent dates you’ve been on. Remember that for many of us, first dates often consist of two people showing up as their best selves to impress their date or maximize chances of finding what they are looking for.

Knowing that the right partner will like you for you doesn’t change the worry or fear you feel about sharing your mental illness with dates. Finding the right partner means finding someone you feel safe with and someone who you want to share the personal and intimate details of your life with, and this can take time. Not everyone deserves to be privy to this information because unfortunately, not everyone will be considerate, compassionate or kind about it.

Dating can be awkward. Broaching conversations around mental health can be tricky. This is why it’s essential to get to know the other person and determine how you feel around them and if you even want to move the relationship forward. Getting on the same page about intentions and compatibility will allow you to filter out those dates who may not be worthy of knowing about your anxiety or OCD right off the bat.

It can be exhausting as someone who struggles with their mental health to have to advocate or explain it in a new relationship. If you are dating new people often, it may be a detriment to your mental health to choose to share this on a first date, but if you are dating one person regularly, then it could be beneficial to disclose your anxiety/OCD.

There may be some telltale signs you should share this information. For instance, if you are neglecting the management of your mental health to show up as one version of yourself with a date and it’s taking a toll on you, you may need to share this information to remain healthy.

It’s also important to gain clarity on why you want to share this information, which can help you decide when to do it. Do you feel like it allows you to show up more authentically? Did something in the conversation prompt your desire? Are you looking for support or are you ready to deepen the relationship with this person?

Alternatively, natural conversations may provide clues to whether you would want to share your own mental health struggles with your date.

Broach conversations around mental health by bringing up something news- or pop culture-related. For instance, you could ask if they watched the Olympics or the latest Naomi Osaka documentary on Netflix. You will learn a lot about your date by noticing the way they respond or react in these conversations. Are they making offensive jokes? Are they being critical or demeaning, or are they being compassionate and kind?

Consider how comfortable you are talking about yourself with this person: Do they ask questions about you and seem curious to learn more? Share a micro disclosure and something less personal than details about your mental health, like a struggle you had in the past at work or with a friend. How does your date respond? How does it feel to be vulnerable with them? Do you feel supported and heard?

With societal and cultural misconceptions around mental health, it makes sense why you are nervous to share that you had a therapy appointment with a recent date. If the relationship progresses, consider dropping it in a follow-up conversation. People go to therapy for many different reasons and sharing this general detail could help you learn more about how the other person responds and feels about mental health care altogether without you having to share specific details about your own.

Intimacy and deepening a relationship are a two-way street. Ultimately, you want to be with someone who supports your mental health — regardless of what your struggles are. Letting a person in on your rituals or mental health symptoms allows them to care for, and understand, you in more meaningful ways.

So when you are ready to share more intimate details about your mental health and your struggles, see it as an opportunity to deepen the relationship with this person. Yes, there is always a chance that you may get hurt, but ultimately, you will know that you did what was right for you. After all, talking about the hard stuff requires good communication and makes for a healthy relationship, which is the goal, right?

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