About a year ago, I went back to a guy’s apartment at the end of a long, gin-soaked first date. As he fetched us some beers from the fridge, I rambled about my stalled career, my lack of motivation, and how much I hated my body.
He handed me a bottle, smiling in that polite are-you-done kind of way, and I tried my best to wrap it up in a neat bow.
“So, yeah. I guess I’m just, kind of… really, really sad a lot.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I should strategize about how to repair the damage. I sounded needy, melodramatic, and overshare-y — none of which are qualities I’d ever thought I would project on a date, let alone a first date. Typically, I would’ve laughed it off easily or backtracked with a self-deprecating joke. But I didn’t have the energy. And the reason I didn’t, I realized in that moment, was because my major depressive disorder had entered an active phase.
For the past few months, the only time I’d actually shower, wear anything other than sweatpants, or answer any texts was when I was getting ready for a date. It provided me with a clear (and, by the way, entirely unhealthy) motivation: If I can successfully convince this person that I’m cool, smart, completely fine, and not a massive failure that everyone hates, then maybe it’s actually true. And this wasn’t new to me. I’d been dealing with my diagnosis and taking medication since I was in high school. Yet I had been unable or unwilling to admit to myself that I was in the midst of another active episode.
The onset of depression, as well as the mood disorder itself, can be much sneakier than a quick Google of the symptoms would suggest. One common misconception is that nobody who is legitimately suffering from depression can even get out of bed, let alone go on dates.
“I’ve had clients who clearly presented as depressed but didn’t have the insight or awareness to use the word,” says Jennifer Aull, a therapist at North Brooklyn Family Therapy. “And even when people are aware that this [affects] them, they don’t want to stop their whole lives every time it happens. So they make a huge effort to keep doing day-to-day things.”
It’s surprisingly common to avoid the people who know you best when you’re in a depressive state, says Aull. Your depressed brain is telling you that your friends are sick of you and your endless problems; dating, because it generally involves meeting strangers or at least people you don’t know well, feels like a much lower-stakes way to force yourself to leave the house and feel at least semi-productive socially.
Celina, 22, says that her clinical depression and resulting anxiety has prevented her from reaching out to friends before. But she’s used dating as a coping mechanism and distraction in the past. “I would get in this anxious mindset where I felt like I needed to maintain a network of men just so I had options for the future,” she says.
As a result, she fell into a cycle: “I’d meet someone I actually liked, then I’d ghost them when I realized, shit, this isn’t fixing what’s hurting.” Then her conscience would kick in and she’d message the other person, apologizing and trying to explain herself.
Eventually, Celina realized that using other people as disposable distractions was as unfair to her dates as it was to herself. “I was venting to this guy and not really listening to him… and if the situation was reversed, I’d find that so off-putting. People like that aren’t pleasant to be around.”
Then there’s the self-medicating elephant in the room: drinking on dates. If you’re depressed and most of your dating life happens in bars, you might be using booze as a crutch. “Drinking can and does often help people break out of negative thought patterns in the moment, but even by the next day, you’ll probably feel the depressant element [of alcohol] kicking in,” says Aull. Studies also show that commonly prescribed SSRIs like Zoloft, Prozac, and Lexapro can substantially affect your alcohol tolerance.
Substances aside, untreated depression sometimes makes people vulnerable to self-flagellation — and desperate for fixes. “At my absolute lowest, emotionally and mentally, I hated myself. I had no self-worth, and I was incredibly insecure,” says Mackenzie, 24, whose major depressive episode lasted through her senior year of college. Instead of consulting a psychiatrist or a therapist, she threw herself completely into dating: “I just wanted someone or something to distract me from the [negative] thoughts, or maybe even heal me in some way.” She constantly worried that her depression would be a turn-off, was terrified of seeming overly needy or aggressive, and her overt insecurity attracted the opposite of what she was looking for. “I ended up letting some toxic people into my life, and it took me in an even more negative direction.”
“Often people [with depression] choose someone they feel won’t reject them because they’re in a dark headspace, and that’s not necessarily someone they would have chosen to be with otherwise,” says Aull.
Ultimately, both Mackenzie and Celina have become aware that depression isn’t something that can be fixed externally, even in the short-term. “You have to make the decision to go to a doctor or go to therapy,” says Mackenzie. “You can’t hope a relationship will take it all away.”
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.