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Dating & Disclosure: When Do You Talk Disabilities, Trauma or Mental Illness?

Hi Christan,

How do singles talk about physical.pain and activity limitations? As I get older I find that I can not keep up with friends who push themselves physically or don't take pain medications to function.

I wanted to post this before tonight's free Dating, Disclosure & Disabilities Zoom Discussion. RSVP here.

The first thing I'll do is direct you to a recent Dateology podcast my co-host Sarah and I recorded where we discuss this very topic. Sarah is especially informed about navigating these very conversations.

As I've mentioned previously, I was diagnosed with chronic depression in 2015. One by-product of my depression is chronic fatigue. Medication helps, but as you know, it's not a cure. This means I have to schedule my life in a way that allows me to participate or conduct certain activities without powering down, so to speak. In a recent workshop, I actually had to inform attendees that I was struggling with some brain fog because I was having difficulty remembering certain information from my presentation. It happens. They were all incredibly supportive and understood. I can't record our podcast later than 5pm because after that, my brain is absolute mush. (Keep in mind I usually have to take a cat nap before hand.) Sarah, because she's awesome and informed, understands and works around my schedule.

In my experience, how people react to news of a chronic condition is all in how it is presented. At dinner one night, my date noticed I was yawning incessantly. He asked if I wanted to go home. We'd been dating a little over a month at the time, so he knew I wasn't being rude. I assured him I was fine and told him I had depression and that, normally, all I needed was a mid-afternoon disco nap, but that specific day was busy and I wasn't able to rest. He once again suggested we could order take-out, and I declined, re-stating this was normal and something I push through all the time. And that was that. He, too, knows we have to schedule things earlier than usual and that I'll never be that person who stays out until midnight. Or even eleven.

It is what it is, but that's not all there is to me. I am not my depression just like you are not your chronic pain. It's just something you and I co-exist with every day, an aspect of our life but not the totality of it. That's how you need to talk about it when you explain certain challenges you face. Here's how to do that:

Be informed - No matter what the condition is - chronic illness, mental illness, even an STI - know what's involved, know your limitations, and know how to manage it. If you sound like you have this under control, people will trust that you know how much you can do.

Choose an organic moment to talk - I've become friends with a woman that lives in my building. We're both dog moms, so we'd often stop and chat when we were taking our pups for a walk. That progressed to frequent texting and hanging out in her apartment, talking. Last week, she caught me in an off moment where I broke down in tears. I was tired due to being under tremendous stress. She asked if I was okay and I explained that, because of my depression, this sometimes happened when I was exhausted. I much prefer authentic moments like that to share something sensitive than to make it "a thing." Because, really, mental illness and physical disabilities are not "a thing." They are conditions that are common, treatable and manageable. Sarah corrected me once when I said people should "admit" certain illnesses or disabilities in their profile. That was the wrong word choice. To admit or confess something implies you've done something wrong or that what you're sharing is bad. If you address a chronic/invisible illness or traumatic experience in a way where it feels like a confession, people will take it as such.

Make sure they've earned your trust - Because my neighbor and I had gotten to know each other over time, we'd built an intimacy that made me feel safe to open up to her. I've never felt compelled to reveal I have depression to people because, well, I don't owe anybody that information unless I feel it might infringe upon our relationship. I also prefer that people have a fuller picture of who I am so that they don't define me in a way I do not define myself. I'm also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. That, too, is something I address when I feel the other person will receive that news respectfully and without judgment. The only reason I write about it here is because I feel I aptly demonstrate there's so much more to me than trauma or mental illness.

Don't be ashamed - If you frame your illness or history of trauma in a shameful way, people will pick up on that. Nobody asks to endure trauma or experience an illness. You didn't commit a crime. If anything, you survived a major challenge. That's to be applauded.

Understand that you've been living with this information long enough to adjust, but others are hearing it for the first time - Even the most evolved and compassionate person might feel overwhelmed when hearing about your history of illness or trauma. That's okay, as long as they aren't disrespectful or treat you like you're contaminated in some way. You don't need that kind of reaction, nor do you want to risk being re-traumatized or stressed in a way that could cause any kind of flare up.

The TL;DR version: Get to know someone and let them get to know you. Make sure they've earned your friendship and trust. Then, when a situation arises where you feel you can't participate in something due to your chronic pain, just explain why and suggest an alternative, possibly less strenuous, activity. They'll either understand or they won't.

For those on the other side of these conversations, please keep these pointers in mind:

Don't ask easily Google-able questions - If you want to know how someone with an illness or disability approaches every-day activities, look it up. It's not on them to perform the emotional labor.

Don't be condescending - I really want to stress that people with disabilities, a history of trauma or invisible illness have dealt with some pretty unimaginable stuff. We got this. It's nice that you want to be empathetic, but don't treat us like we're fragile. We're more emotionally resilient than your average person. We've had to be.

Ditch your Savior complex - To reiterate what I said above, we are not wounded birds in need of saving. We are not projects. Do not enter into a relationship with us thinking you can fix us. We are not broken and this is not a Hallmark movie.

Don't say you need to think or process this news - It's not about you, my friend. We tell you these things as a courtesy or to help you understand us better. Be grateful that someone thinks enough of you to open up like that.

Trust that we know what we can handle - People with disabilities or invisible illnesses have gotten through life just fine, thank you very much. If they didn't feel they could navigate certain situations, they wouldn't participate in them. Follow their lead.

I hope this helps.

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