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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The Benchwarmer

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Being a benchwarmer ultimately led to my verbal commitment to Binghamton University my junior year of high school.

Though the gym was a comfortable seventy-three degrees, I shivered. Whistles chirped at odd intervals across the length of the gym. Cheering reverberated across the cold walls and snapped my attention back to the volleyball court in front of me. I tugged on my jersey’s sleeves until the ends were balled up in my slightly purple fists.

Brrr…

Self consciously, I sidestepped in front of the three teammates that clapped enthusiastically beside me. I sifted through the pile of warm up jackets on the chair adjacent to them until I spotted a label with a hastily written, “#13”.

That’s me, I thought.

The number didn’t stand a realistic chance of making the regular starting lineup sheet yet, but I felt a little flutter of pride all the same.

A few months earlier, I accepted an offer as an outside hitter on the top club volleyball team in the state of Wisconsin. Though I had experience as an integral part of my previous club and high school teams, I now found myself ridin’ the pine on a regular basis. Feeling deflated, I realized I had gotten accustomed to watching the sport I loved most from the sidelines.

***

My sophomore year at Binghamton University.


Being identified as a “benchwarmer” is not an easy concept for every athlete to learn. It doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen on a club volleyball team, twenty on a Division 1 team, or thirty on a professional team. It can be an intensely emotional experience, especially if communication between an athlete and coach breaks down.

After reminiscing about my club volleyball experience, I was curious to see how my colleagues’ experiences on the bench compared with mine. Admitting they weren’t always the star player or part of the starting lineup, many launched into personal recollections that included rejection, increased motivation, shame, confusion, and bitterness.

Even though I’ve been involved in athletics since the age of five, I never considered giving the psyche of the benchwarmer much thought. To me, it just seemed like a self-pity party I threw for myself on the sidelines as an angsty teen in high school. After more deliberation, I realized my time on the bench impacted my life more profoundly than I had previously given credit to.

The semifinal game at the America East Tournament. We won the championship game and received the automatic bid to go to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.


Two social psychologists from the University of Virginia had a similar interest into the psyche of the benchwarmer and decided to study the phenomena in more detail. In their article, “The Social Psychology of the Benchwarmer”, Robert J. Rotella and Douglas S. Newburg come to the conclusion that some benched athletes “may experience [an] identity crises, the impact of which may be long-lasting and far-reaching for them”. In their report, the psychologists also offer suggestions for athletes, coaches, and sport psychology consultants to help respond to these situations effectively.

Overall this article has great intentions which I can give credit for piquing my interest. On the flip side, the authors come to broad conclusions based on a small sample size of athletes from the late 1980s. It also may have been supplemental to mention the possibility of an athlete who can learn positive lessons while sitting the bench. As always, hindsight is 20/20.

While the combination of prolonged bench time and poor communication will not likely impact the athlete positively, a lack of playing time can serve as an opportunity for some athletes.

This in mind, I can find no better example than former Ohio State basketball player, Mark Titus (of blogsite Club Trillion). He scored nine points during his entire four-year career but established a way to become indispensable off the court. He served as a practice and “pump up” player to the starters that won an NCAA Championship. His book Don’t Put Me In Coach is hilarious account of his journey “from one end of the bench to the other”. I’d highly recommend it.

On a more personal level, my experience offered opportunities to learn valuable lessons that easily translated to the workplace. Now that I’m about three years removed from the volleyball court, I have the ability to see how my role as a benchwarmer during high school impacted my life on an athletic and personal level.

Signing day, my junior year of high school.


After spending time as a six-rotation, front row and practice player through both club and high school, I decided to verbally commit to a mid-major Division 1 school as a high school junior. Overjoyed, I verballed because there was an opening for a four-year starter at this prestigious university.

The offers I had from universities with more competitive volleyball programs didn’t offer a four-year starting position like Binghamton University (NY). Though it’s nice to be a part of a winning program, I decided I’d like to have an immediate impact as a freshman. Without my time on the sidelines, I can’t say with certainty I’d make the same decision again. This is definitely a positive takeaway I wish co-authors Rotella and Newburg took into account in their article.

During my later club volleyball years, sitting on the side was tough. I felt cheated and unimportant, but I will maintain those who coached me had valid reasons for playing others before me if I wasn’t on the court. To this day, I hold no bitterness towards any of the people who impacted my journey as a player, whether I played or not. Feeling like you’ve been rejected is a hard aspect to swallow, especially at the ripe old age of sixteen, but it’s something that offers countless opportunities to learn from.

Not only has my time on the bench impacted my life athletically, but also personally. It’s nice to be an integral part of a team, but it helps to learn humility and perseverance as a player. This translates well into the professional world and your coworkers (and anyone you encounter, quite honestly) will thank you.

Squad of 2013.


As my mother told me from a young age, you’ll find ninety-nine point nine percent of the time there will be someone out there more talented than you. Sometimes you’ll be the star, other times not. Whether this is true in the athletic, real world, or both, there can be many opportunities to grow from.

If I could go back in time and tell my 16-year-old self anything, it would be to 1.) stop using so much eyeliner, 2.) invest in Apple, and 3.) let this time on the bench serve as motivation, not a sign you’re not good enough.

This isn’t to say every coach will have reasonable cause for keeping one athlete on the bench as opposed to another. As I’m sure we’re all aware, coaches are also human. Some humans have better intentions than others, but sports have seasons that end. This lesson certainly comes in handy in the real world while dealing with difficult managers and bosses. As my college sports psych professor often claimed several times per class, “sports are a microcosm of society”.

I had to include this photo, grainy or not. I’m now living in Providence so it’s a small coincidence!


In the short term, riding the pine may seem disappointing. Long term, I can say it eventually made me a stronger person and helped determine where I’d be happiest during my undergraduate degree. It’s exciting to be a starter or to feel important, but there’s also a chance to grow while off the court. What you learn through athletics often translates well into the professional world. I can definitely vouch for this!

Whenever you’re feeling bummed out about playing time, just remember you have the power to make what you can out of a situation. Sports have seasons, seasons end, you grow older and your knees and back will sometimes fail you. It’s times like these when I appreciate the lessons I learned on the bench more than I could’ve realized when I was sixteen. Though a very slim amount of players can say they aspire to sit on the bench if given the chance to be on the court, it’s not always a bad place to be.

Ride that pine with pride, athletes!

#12 was my favorite player to play against. She now coaches at University of Albany.