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My Experience With Virtual Dating and Mental Illness During COVID-19

In the tempestuous realm of love and romance, to be curt: I’ve got baggage. I have bipolar disorder and I am a recovering alcoholic. This is something I never reveal until the third or fourth date.

As the character of Mimi sings in the musical “RENT,” “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.” Well, I think I may have found it. And it happened via virtual dating during this global pandemic.

Ironically, I think virtual dating is more intimate than actual in-person dating. You get to know the person before hopping into bed. You chat while wearing your PJs. It’s completely insouciant. I can only speak for myself, but virtual dating felt safer and more secure than meeting in person. You easily let your guard down, revealing your true self from the convenience of your own home. There’s no pressure in a virtual date because you haven’t invested monetarily or traveled far to a meeting spot.

“Certainly some serious relationships will form through video right now,” Matthew Hussey, a dating coach who helps his 776,000 Instagram followers meet their match, told The New York Times. “At least with video both sight and sound are senses that are being affected. We hear tone, inflection, perceive awkward glances and shuffles. We come to know someone’s mannerisms. This is all so important in measuring both attraction and connection.”

I’ve been casually dating on and off since I got sober from alcohol and drugs in 2012. My toxic relationship with a fellow-alcoholic boyfriend of a couple of years ended the moment I decided to get clean and go to rehab, experiences that are all documented in my memoir The Bipolar Addict.

I haven’t had any long-term relationships since then, but I’ve kind of dated a couple of guys for a few months at a time. I met Josh on the dating site OK Cupid about two years ago. We went for coffee in my neighborhood in Chicago, which it turned out is his neighborhood too. He actually lives down the street from me — on the same street, even.

Josh is on the autism spectrum and, like myself, has bipolar disorder. This means that with the autism, he can have trouble interacting socially. And with the bipolar, it means we both experience emotions more intensely than the average Joe and we can feel extremely depressed on one side of the coin or manic on the other.

Cracking the autism code with Josh was fairly easy as — and this is only my instinct — I believe he felt more comfortable opening up to me, given the casual nature of virtual dating and the fact that we were chatting from the comfort of our own homes.

I like to say that Josh is a gentle soul. He is sensitive like me and he is truly one of the kindest people I have ever met. I asked him why he was so kind and he told me he was bullied a lot as a kid, “treated like garbage,” and he tries to treat people how he wants to be treated.

Music is my greatest passion in life, and for Josh, the case is the same. In fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially jazz and country, and can name on-demand a significant event related to music history for any year in the past century.

In his recent TEDx Talk on creativity and autism, when asked for a random year, an audience member shouted 1972. Josh recited from memory that 1972 was the year The Rolling Stones unleashed “Exile on Main Street,” Stevie Wonder released the album “Talking Book” with the song “Superstition,” and David Bowie came out with “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”

Finally I found, as Mimi says, matching baggage. When we met two years ago, I think I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship. We went out a few times but it eventually fizzled. Then I ran into him on the subway this winter. We became Facebook friends and started commenting on each others’ posts. We developed a nice rapport. We couldn’t hold hands or hug or kiss, obviously, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Instead, we flirted over text every day — we exchanged many a kiss emoji — and FaceTimed every few days.

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It was like an old-fashioned courtship. When we finally met in person, as lockdown rules began to downscale, it was like seeing a long-lost old friend again.

It’s so funny how much we have in common. When we get together, we always take turns playing DJ on my turntable. We watch music documentaries together like Ken Burns’ series “Country Music.” We trade gargantuan, esoteric mixtapes on Spotify, teaching each other about our various tastes. I made him a punk mixtape. He fashioned one on folk music for me. He gave me a deep dive into jazz. I filled him in on electro.

Josh is a fellow writer. He writes regularly for The Good Men Project and is a college writing composition tutor. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and nor do I.

And while this relationship is still very much in its infancy, it feels deeper than any relationship that could’ve germinated on the internet. It’s also comforting to know that I won’t be judged for having a bad mental health day, like I do usually about once a month.

Have I met my doppelgänger? Could be. It’s promising to experience some good things coming out of this pandemic. It has forced a surge in virtual dating, which can offer a deeper view of a person than the quotidian coffee or beer date. For us with baggage, it may offer a path to a fulfilling relationship at last. 

Getty Images illustration via ZOONO3