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Published: June 21, 2021

What it's like to date when you have depression

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) around the same time I started dating.

The best way I can describe it is that it's like Depression Plus, with extended episodes, and premium access to all my deepest, darkest thoughts.

Receiving this diagnosis in my mid-teens, that fragile time in my life when I was graduating from mirror to human mouth, was rough.

It was like knowing I was going to have to compete in the Olympics one day, but learning I'm naturally inclined to be terrible at every single sport. The last time I tried to throw a shot putt, I broke my pinky toe.

The last time I tried to go out with someone, I broke it off before we could have our first date, because I was in the middle of a depressive episode and certain they could never actually like me.

A common condition

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in seven Australians will experience depression at least once in our lifetimes, and from personal data I've collected by looking at my Twitter feed over the past year, that number has likely risen.

It's been difficult sometimes to differentiate between symptoms of depression and simply living in 2021. Rarely leaving the house, for example, has been normalised, which on the plus side makes me feel like less of a weirdo.

"There's a difference between feeling down, and feeling depressed," psychologist Smruthy Nair tells me.

She explains that you can have bad days, but "if those days turn into weeks, it could be a problem".

She says to look at whether or not your mood is "impacting your functioning", or, in other words, if I'm generally a person who showers every day and I've realised half way through writing an article about depression that I haven't showered in three days, that's a sign I should maybe chat with my therapist. And also, go have a shower.

Other symptoms of depression include not caring about anything and not wanting to do stuff. As you can probably imagine, this isn't conducive to building a healthy dating life, or having a dating life at all.

Dating again? A few words of advice

The most common piece of advice I've been given about dating with depression is "don't".

This is also the most annoying piece of advice, because for a lot of us there is no "cure", there's no straight path to wellness, there's no avocado smoothie we can drink to chase our blues away.

Learning to live with depression takes time, and way more work than I ever anticipated. Which means if I take this advice, I might never get laid again — a terrifying prospect I refuse to entertain.

Ms Nair says this kind of advice can come from a place of stigma.

"People might look at a depressed person as fragile, someone to handle with kid gloves," she says.

This isn't exactly an ideal disposition if you're entering the thunder-dome, which is what I call any bar a new Tinder date invites me to.

But this idea that people living with mental illness are incapable of building a romantic life is archaic, according to Ms Nair.

"It's about listening to yourself, and figuring out what feels right for you," she says.

A lot of the dating advice Nair gives for people with depression is advice she'd give to anyone.

She suggests taking small steps.

"Lots of people date their friends, or take themselves on a date as a warm up," she says.

I personally can't think of anything more depressing than taking myself on a date, but I also appreciate the sentiment behind practicing with someone who can't dump me.

But if I'm not dating myself, Ms Nair reminds me that I could be dating another person, who might come with their own fun set of complicated life stuff.

"You can't control the other person," she says, and I certainly can't control how they might react if I tell them about my depression. "But if they react badly," she offers, ominously, "that can be a helpful red flag."

Remember, there's no 'pressure' to date if you're not ready

I ask her when is a good time to tell a date that I have depression, and she tells me it's a case-by-case thing.

She says the real question is: "do you have the energy to answer their questions and guide them through if they struggle with it?"

I don't even have the energy to answer that, so I ask instead if there's something I should consider more if I choose to start dating again.

"An often-forgotten part of this conversation is how our identities affect our depression," she tells me.

"We're given this rom-com heteronormative standard of what dating is, but the reality is so different — you might be queer, or a-sexual, or an immigrant … add depression to that, and there's a lot to unpack."

As a bisexual woman, I've been met with a lot of stigma from dates before I even get a chance to casually bring up my mental health. Not to get too bleak in an article about depression, but I've dealt with everything from people refusing to date me outright, to abuse inside a relationship, both after confiding my sexuality.

This is why Ms Nair says our identities can't be ignored when it comes to our mental health.

"We all need to be more realistic about who we are and where we're at," she says.

This also means cutting ourselves some slack. "Why the pressure to date?" Ms Nair laughs.

She tells me the piece of advice she'd offer anyone thinking about dating with depression: "Ask yourself first, are you setting aside enough time to nourish your sense of self?"

And with that, I'm gonna go take a bubble bath.

The Australia Talks National Survey asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how your answers compare.

On iview, watch the Australia Talks TV special, as hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain take you through the key findings and explore the survey with some of Australia's best-loved celebrities.

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