Dating for (Mentally Ill) Dummies

It wasn’t my best date, but it wasn’t my worst either. He showed up, unlike my first date ever in college. That was a plus.

He was sweet, I knew that much, but I found myself straining to find common ground amidst lengthy, awkward pauses. Tense crossed legs, vigorous nodding (don’t dissociate, damn it), I gripped a cold fizzy beer in my right hand like the lifeline I knew it was. Feigning interest, I propped my chin in my hand and noticed that his eyes flicked towards my now-exposed wrist. Self-consciously, I jerked my arm off the high-top table and back into my lap.

We needed a distraction. He had mentioned salsa dancing in passing earlier, so I drained my IPA in ten seconds and vaulted myself off my chair, date in tow. The poor guy probably thought he was gonna lay the pipe that night.

After a ten minute Uber ride, we flashed our IDs and a quick smile to the bouncer and entered a sticky-floored bar in downtown Cambridge. Shaking my head when asked for another drink, my date and I hit the dance floor. Under the flickering lights and gyrating, sweaty bodies, a bridal party from my college’s hometown screamed at my arrival and asked if I was dancing with my husband.

Grinning like an idiot, I smacked her shoulder and yelled, “HE’S MY BOO” over the pounding bass. Whipping my hair around like a banshee, I fumbled with my date’s shirt buttons and unceremoniously unbuttoned his shirt in the middle of the dance floor. An hour later, I soberly drove him to his house and dumped him off on the curb. I hope he didn’t see me exchanging numbers with that Julian kid earlier. Gawd, being manic was so great.

The dates I’ve had are few and far in between, but it’s safe to say that between myself and my friends, we have a few stories to tell.

If “getting out there” and “meeting up with hawt singles” on apps is what gets us millennials off our phones, off our asses, and into the arms of that girl/guy who had a puppy in photo number three, then so be it. I used to balk at the thought of exchanging messages through an app only to meet a rando in a bar, but now I have learned to embrace it for what it does and the purpose it truly serves (meeting people!).

Dating is hard. I often find myself wondering how the hell two people can mutually agree to see one another after a first date. Through many (MANY. I’m a HAWT piece of a**!) trials and errors, these meet ups have taught me to live in the moment and chill out a little bit. Not every Tom, Dick, or Harry will be your potential husband. What they will be is a potentially good time, so offer to split the beer, get to know the human next to you, and enjoy being in the moment.

Easier said than done though, right?

It used to be a lot harder. As I’ve described in previous posts, I’ve had a somewhat abnormal dating past life due to several factors, the largest being my mental health.

After a particularly ugly break up in high school, I was confronted with parts of my illness I was in no capacity and had no idea how to control. I became angry, frustrated, and increasingly negative while in the throes of my anguish- but most of all, I became scared. Scared of myself, scared that I was unable to control my mood, and scared I was unworthy of loving someone or being loved in return. Undiagnosed and not treating with a psychiatrist or therapist at the time, I had convinced myself at the age of eighteen that I couldn’t be trusted to date or see anyone until I “fixed” myself. Unfortunately, this delusion continued on through college.

As you may be well aware of (but I was not at the time), mental illnesses aren’t something you can “heal” or “get over”. It’s a bit harder than just taking your Prozac, drinking water, and reading up on the latest edition of “Dating For Mentally Ill Dummies”. Mental illnesses are for life. For some, myself included, it’s sometimes just a matter of learning how to properly cope and find ways to be successful despite maladaptive learned behaviors and thinking patterns.

In hindsight, I spent years (yes, years!) too afraid and discouraged to put myself out there and go on dates, worried I’d become obsessive, manipulative, and insecure like I had been in high school. What I failed to accept until recently is that I’m no longer the girl I used to be.

Now that I’m cognizant of the fact I’m better equipped to handle what life throws at me, I decided to make some changes and take some risks this past year. I know I’m far from the functioning capacity of one who has not struggled with a mental health disorder, but I understand it should not inhibit my pursuit of happiness and self-discovery. With this in mind, I accepted that dating would be an uphill climb, but one I was willing to undertake. Life is simply too short to close oneself off to pathways just because they may be painful and difficult.

***

I’m not unaware of the shock that has passed across some of my dates’ faces as they see the deep purple scars on my arms, a visible talisman of inner turmoil from my past. For some, my mental health been a deal breaker. For others, it’s served as a topic of conversation that has led to unexpected common ground.

It’s a road divided. My mental illnesses serve as a fork in the road where I know only one of two routes may be chosen after my illnesses been revealed. Either we will see one another again, or we will part ways contingent on this reality.

This fork in the road used to worry me, but I’ve learned to let go. I have nothing to apologize for, I have nothing to hide. My mental illnesses are something I will have for the remainder of my life and whoever I end up with will be well aware of this. As long as I’m working on getting better, I see no reason why they should be thought of as having a negative impact on my dating life.

So although it’s taken me years to build up the courage to go on dates, I couldn’t be happier I finally took the chance. I can’t expect (and don’t expect) every date to end perfectly or even well. I’m becoming better at dealing with rejection, though it sometimes hurts more deeply than I know it should. I’m a work in progress. I’m better off learning how to deal with the ups and downs of dating now rather than avoiding it altogether because I’m worried something will go awry- because things always do.

The more dates I go on, the more I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing- even through heartbreak. I’ve never characterized myself as someone who is resourceful, but now I’m forcing myself to deal with my mental illnesses head on instead of avoiding them. Becoming comfortable in a fluctuating state of disquietude doesn’t allow growth and I’m learning to embrace this, however scary it seems. And so far, it’s been a painful, yet wonderful road filled with lessons I’m beyond grateful to continue learning.

 

 

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Hometown

Senior pictures are a huge deal in the Midwest. Killin’ it.

It was the perfect sized town to grow up in.

A sign boasted “POPULATION: 25,501” if you took exit 132 off Highway 41. It hadn’t been updated since 2010. Neenah was growing slightly each year.

If you continued down Main Street, you’d run smack-dab into one of the oldest parts of the city. Bar and grill restaurants would slowly give way to million-dollar mansions on East Wisconsin Avenue if you continued towards Lake Winnebago.

Across the street at Riverside Park, kids would dance in the fountain during the hot summer months. Winter brought subzero temperatures. A few brave souls would walk the winding paths, breath visible in the bitter air, admiring the ethereal beauty of the frozen ice shoves.

My family would sometimes parade our boat around the marina in June, gliding softly through the water. Sailboats bobbed lazily, gently straining against their buoys. The hospital stood proudly on the shore, proclaiming the name of a wealthy businessman’s daughter.

I had been born there in 1992. I left in 2016.

***

When I came home from college for the summer, I’d aimlessly drive down the country roads. At about 6pm, I knew the streets would become bathed in gold light.

The sky seemed bigger back home. It always did.

Cornfields blurred on either side of my Ford Fusion. Sunlight streamed through the windows, the AC blasting, my family’s newly acquired golden retriever sitting shotgun. Her loose hair swirled around the car.

I turned up the radio. 101.1 FM spun an overplayed hit from a few summers ago. I didn’t care. I turned up the volume anyway. I loved my hometown.

I couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else.

***

I left for New York in the summer of 2011. The night before, my best friend dropped me off at my house. We spent twenty minutes crying, sitting in her Chevy Impala on my driveway.

Will you come visit me? Yes. Let’s keep in touch. Of course! Volleyball will be weird without you. I knowwww. Let me know if you meet any boys! Ugh, same for you. I hope.

Tears mingled with watery smiles.

I had a long trip ahead of me, in both distance and maturity.

I’d return the next summer a vaguely different person, but I had no indication of this while I sobbed and embraced my friend.

We’d spent nearly every day together from Junior year until now. After college started, our days together were few and far between.

But every time we got back in touch, it was like we’d never left our hometown.

***

In Wisconsin, the horizon line is finite.

Upstate New York is different.

Mountains burst through the soil, boldly reaching to the heavens. Clouds often tangle themselves within the trees; firmament interlacing with earth.

What had seemed so far out of reach in Wisconsin was now within grasp. I felt as though I could touch the sky.

***

Senior year of high school finally arrived.

Let’s get a picture of the Resch Center and hang it up in the team room. Yeah, then we can tape it up on the wall as motivation for the State Tournament. I don’t think the underclassmen get how badly we want this. It’s our last year, we just have to beat Fondy. I’ll see if I can find a picture. Sounds good. I’ll get tape. What time is practice again? It’s at four-thirty. I’ll count the volleyballs to make sure we have them all before we do dynamic warm up.

The photo of the Resch Center never made it up in the team room that year.

It was my fourth year on Varsity and we had a young squad. Four seniors. Our libero left the year before to play in the Big East Conference.

We practiced Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. Matches were on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:30pm. Occasionally, we’d have weekend tournaments.

The dedication was there. We had heart.

I wore my jersey with pride. Rocket red and white. 

R, R-O, R-O-C-K. K, K-E, K-E-T-S.

My parents belted out the same cheer a couple decades before me. My mom had been in pom-poms. Class of ‘85. My dad probably skipped out on school assemblies to go burn rubber in the senior parking lot. Class of ‘80.

I picked the number thirteen freshman year. I had last dibs. The jersey was far too big for me, but I was ecstatic. I was the first freshman to make varsity under the head coach who had taken over the program in 1998.

We didn’t make it to the state tournament senior year. Our rival, Fond du Lac, won in four games. I’d never made it beyond sectional finals, the last step before the state tournament.

I didn’t cry. We had come so close.

While one athletic career ended, a new one would begin.

***

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” blared. Fans heckled me as I warmed up in the harsh light of Rec Hall.

Bright white banners hung limply above, undisturbed by the excitement below. Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Ohio State…

The crowd rose, roaring in approval as the number one seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament jogged in.

Our coach told us not to give Penn State the satisfaction of watching them warm up. But it was impossible. They were mechanical. It was everything we aspired to be.

And they had no idea who the hell we were.

Binghamton? Losing record. Must be an automatic bid.

I now wore number three across my back and chest. Number thirteen had already been taken. And green, I decided, was so not my color.

Two years later, I fixed that very statement across my graduation cap.

I had that Binghamton Bearcat pride, but I was still a Neenah Rocket at heart. My small town pride permeated who I was and how I identified my actions.

Do you live next to a farm? Yeah, within walking distance. I bet you go cow-tipping in your spare time. Oh, all the time. Do you like cheese? Cheese curds are the best.

I took a deep, shaky, breath and listened as the Penn State’s starting lineup was called.

***

I still went to basketball games with my parents and siblings when I returned home for winter break. My brother had been on Varsity and could dunk. My sister joined me on the volleyball team her sophomore year. Teachers knew my family and called us by our last name.

It would get confusing when we all joined track that spring.

Running was not my gig. That was fine. I remembered liking high jump in middle school and decided to give it a try my final year of high school.

That June, I made the lateral trek across the state to La Crosse for Track and Field State Finals.

For the last time, I wore my Rocket uniform. A small Neenah “N” was embroidered onto my shorts. High jump offered a low-pressure alternative to volleyball.

I finished 7th.

Not bad for joining the team a few months prior.

***

The people are just different out east. How so? I don’t know…they just are. I’ve heard the people in Midwest are nicer. Yeah, that’s true in some ways. Is Wisconsin west of the Mississippi? Did you really just ask that? Yeah. It’s east of the Mississippi. Wow. Is it like Fargo? What? The show. Is it like the show Fargo? That took place in North Dakota. Oh.

***

Nearly everyone had access to a boat at home. Either you did, your friend did, or a friend of a friend did.

Minnesota prides themselves for being the “land of a thousand lakes”. Wisconsin has thousands more.

I grew up around the water and learned to swim at a young age. My dad taught my siblings and I how to sail and would occasionally let us steer our power boat through slow no wake zones. We’d later brag to our friends.

While at a family friend’s cottage, I pulled our Sunfish sailboat back to shore after the wind died out in the middle of the lake.

Though our parents could’ve easily tugged us back to the dock, I insisted. I tied a small knot around the clip of my life jacket and steadily sliced my arms and legs through the clear water. My friends cheered me on from the cockpit.

Summer days were often spent on the lake. Any lake. We’d go tubing, water skiing, fishing, and swimming for hours until the sun began to sink behind the trees. Slightly sunburnt and tired from the day, we’d plop into folding chairs by the fire at night, stuffing our faces with walking tacos.

If we were lucky, our parents would let us stay up late playing Ghost in the Graveyard or Kick the Can. After we were hushed into silence, we’d lie on our backs, trying to spot satellites and shooting stars.

Miles away from city lights, we could easily the detail of the Milky Way. I taught myself to recognize the Little Dipper, Big Dipper, and Orion’s Belt.

I could still recall the constellations nine years later as I drifted quietly in Round Lake. Surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains, I gazed up at the night sky. Some of my innocence had been lost since I’d left Wisconsin. Slightly drunk, my hands fanned out beside me to keep me afloat in water. The lake reflected the heavens overhead.

I was in a trance. Though I’d changed in remarkable ways over the last decade, Orion’s belt still glittered above me, unchanged.

Tears trailed down my cheeks silently into the black water.

I had never felt so infinite.

***

It was the perfect time to leave.

A sign proclaimed, “POPULATION: 179,154” once I hit Interstate 44 in North Providence. I didn’t remember seeing this sign last time I visited in 2011.

I continued on 44, stealing glances around me.

Urban. An unfamiliar skyline reached to a hazy stretch of sky in front of me. A left, a right, and one last left.

Jittery, I finally parked my Ford Escape and vault myself eagerly out onto the hot pavement.

I left my hometown in 2016. I started my new life that same year.

***

The more I return home, the more I accept that I’ve outgrown Neenah.

I pass my high school, remembering the times I roamed the hallways during ten minute passing periods. I ran sprints on the track out back and had soccer tryouts on the field scores of feet away. I walked across the stage in the Ron Einerson Fieldhouse for graduation like my parents before me. Class of ‘11.

The cornfields are still there too. They remain unchanged, much like the constellations that light the night sky, no matter where I am. 

I’ll always call it my hometown.

The “Nah”.

Kween.