People...I'm bummed. Like, right now as I'm sitting and writing this, I’m feeling pretty damn depressed. This isn't unusual for me, since it’s still fucking cold and dark, and that’s usually when my sadness reaches peak levels. But you know what’s hard to do when you’re depressed? Dating. Of course, I have the luxury of a primary partner who is there for me when I’m depressed, so this isn’t the same as being depressed and dating while single. People who do that, they’re the real heroes.
To help explain what dating with depression is like, I’m going to have to explain a theory. Some of you might be familiar with it already, so I apologise if I butcher it too badly.
In 2003 a woman by the name of Christine Miserandino wrote an essay called “The Spoon Theory” which described her answer to the question “What is it like to live with lupus”. The theory has since been adopted to describe what living with chronic illness or mental illness is like. It goes something like this...
Imagine that at the start of every day you’re given a set number of spoons. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s 10. Lucky you, you now have 10 spoons. Now breakdown how many tasks you might need to complete in an average day. Perhaps it’s something like, get up, go to work, email that client, have a meeting with your boss, submit a finance report, finish your paperwork, go home, cook dinner, go to bed. If we allocate each of these tasks a spoon, you’re burning through 9 spoons a day.
Not too bad right? But what about if you have depression? For me, my day looks like this; wake up, open phone and complete emotional labour of replying to any and all communications missed through the evening because if I don’t I’ll have anxiety, go to the toilet and hope that I haven’t got intestinal distress from anxiety, have a shower and try not to think about the things that will make this worse, have breakdown in front of mirror because the outside of my body doesn’t match the inside of my brain, make decision about what to wear while trying to convince myself that I’m not so hideous that I should be banned from leaving the house completely, actually put clothes on while trying not to fall into trap of focusing on how clothes physically feel on my body because it makes my skin crawl, leave bedroom and face prospect of interacting with partner or realising how messy the house is and how I desperately need to do something to fix it right now because I don’t want to come home to a place that looks like this even though I don’t have time and I’m running late because I hit snooze twice because I didn’t want to wake up and that alone was a minor existential crisis. That is also 9 spoons. Just getting close to leaving my house each morning is about the equivalent of an entire day’s worth of effort for a neurotypical, healthy person.
The reason this is an important distinction to make is because from the outside, if you’re looking at my life as though I’m a “normal” person (and because I’m high functioning and able-bodied, I look incredibly normal) you’re going to wonder why everything seems so hard for me. And at this point it’s VERY easy to start describing me as lazy, or pessimistic, or just bad. Because you think I’m just a normal person who complains a lot about completing simple tasks, or just doesn’t bother doing them.
Yesterday I called in sick to work because I looked across the room at where my pants were and I knew I couldn’t make it that far without bursting into tears, falling to the floor and pathetically trying to crawl my way out of the house on all fours. So instead I went back to bed and slept until 1pm and finally felt able to face the world. That's what self care sometimes looks like for me. Sometimes this kind of breakdown happens when I'm trying to leave the house to go on a date. My brain says "Hell no" while the rest of me is like "Dude, come on, we have to do this." If I force it, I end up a sobbing mess. If I cancel, I end up with crippling anxiety about how the person I've cancelled on now hates me.
If it helps, in my head I’ve renamed “spoons” to “fucks”. I only have set amount of fucks to give on any particular day, and once I’ve run out of fucks to give, I just have to stop and rest and replenish my supply of fucks. But to avoid confusion with actual intercourse, let’s stick with spoons for now.
The interesting thing about spoon theory when you’re in an open or poly relationship is that emotional labour also requires spoons. So if your primary partner needs to talk about some relationship ground rules, or wants advice on a person that they’re dating you’ll be sacrificing some of your spoons. If you’re dating people and they want to see a movie with you, or take you to dinner, or even just come over and have crazy sex, it all costs spoons. And to be fair, for most of us in relationships like this we will happily give these spoons! We give spoons left, right and centre, to everyone that we’re dating (and to our friends and family as well). Because what’s the point of dating if you’re not going to be supportive of the people you’re seeing? But my point is, when you already have a low spoon count because of the cost of basic tasks, it can be that much more difficult when you’re trying to keep multiple partners happy. Time spent comforting one partner might mean having to cancel a date with someone else. Or worse, your own depression might have left you exhausted so that you're not able to be there for people you care about when you really need to. And that'll make you feel just great about yourself.
This can be even more difficult if you’re actively pursuing other partners as well. Trying to go on dates when you have depression is some next level shit. Your whole body is telling you that you’re exhausted, overwhelmed and under-prepared. If you’re super lucky, your depression probably has a great friend called self-loathing, and so as you look through your closet for something to wear, a voice in your head will pipe up and say “Yes, but you look terrible in everything because you’re a fat, disgusting waste of space.” At this point you will genuinely begin to wonder why you put yourself through this. If you have a primary partner you'll remind yourself that you could just not date anyone else. If you don’t have a primary partner, you’ll remind yourself of all the times you’ve been happy without one. Depression is very good at taking away all motivation for doing anything.
The other friend that depression often brings along is a little something called Executive Dysfunction. If you haven’t heard the term before, allow me to explain, because chances are you’ve experienced it before. In some ways ED is like locked in syndrome - where everyone thinks you’re brain dead, but you’re actually completely aware of what’s going on. So imagine you’re on your phone, browsing social media, and you realise that you’re running late for work. So you go, okay, I need to go to work. I need to get up. I need to stop looking at the phone. But instead of doing any of this, you just keep scrolling through your phone. Consciously you know what you need to do, but your body won’t actually follow through. It’s not that your body doesn’t work, because you can still scratch your nose, hit “like” on a post, or drink from your cup of coffee. But it’s like the part of you that responds to urgency and things that need to get done is just AWOL. I have spent time just blankly staring out of my lounge window at seagulls, and been completely aware of the fact that I was meant to be at work an hour ago, but been unable to do anything about it. ED is often the root cause of procrastination, where you know you need to get an email written and might even feel mild panic about doing it, but you just...don’t.
So planning a date, replying to messages, leaving the house, all the things that go along with dating other people, all run the risk of being completely derailed by ED.
A lot of people think that depression is a complete and total sadness. Sometimes it is, but more often than not it's an absence of emotion. You just feel...nothing. You know that feeling you get when you meet a new person and you’re just so excited by them that your whole body feels like it’s filled with fireworks each time you see their name pop up on your phone? Feelings like that are what compels us to date. It’s the energy, the excitement, the chemistry of meeting new and interesting people who enjoy the same things we do. So when depression takes away the emotion, the excitement, the desire for sex, the passion and the romance...well it might as well be a business meeting. Someone I was utterly compelled by a week ago suddenly becomes this chore I have to deal with. I need to reply to their messages, I need to find a way to string them along until my excitement for them returns, or I need to break up with them because I feel like I’ll never be interested in them again. Because I’m emotionally dead inside all of a sudden. The worst part is you don’t know how long it’s going to last. So you have no idea if breaking up with them is the right thing to do, or if a month from now when your feelings return you’ll be devastated by what you discarded.
Dating while depressed is not an enjoyable experience. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and you’ll meet someone you can explain it to, who will have the patience to stick with you while you go through it all. But sometimes you just have to let go of people who might otherwise have been perfect for you. For single people, the hardest part is explaining how hard it is. Making people understand that what you’re going through is fucking hard, and every date that you make it on is a victory in and of itself.
For people in poly or open relationships though, the challenge is explaining to people why you keep trying. If you have a primary partner, or even if you have casual partners, people will point to them and say “Look, you have love or sex, or companionship, why keep doing it if it’s so hard?” And there’s no really easy answer for this. Except that having depression requires that we always keep doing the things that are hard.
Having depression means getting out of bed when your whole body is pleading with you to just let it stop. It means going to work, when all you want to do is howl. It means spending time with your family when all you can think about is just being alone with the thoughts in your head. Every day with depression means doing the things that are hard. Dating while depressed might be hard, but just like getting out of bed, making it to work, or seeing friends, it can also be the most rewarding experience. It can be our achievement for the week. And sometimes, with the right person, it will be the moment that keeps rewarding us for years to come.