Am I 'Allowed' to Have Bipolar and Be In Love?
If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
Now, I’ve never been fortunate enough to date myself romantically, but I have bared witness to all of my relationships up until this point in my life and there is at least one strong conclusion I’ve drawn from observing my partners: dating me is probably a nightmare.
I first want to define what I mean by “dating me,” which is a term I loosely use to describe guys I admire from afar with fantasy to the men whose hands are down my pants and then taking me out for dinner. It’s hard to define relationships that are always in a transient, often-muddled state. Probably because I have yet to find the right one. Like mountain climbers who brought just enough gear but didn’t even look out for the weather. I often refer to my overall mental health as my climate and my current mood as my weather. Some days I’m feeling great overall, but moments later I can barely be talking. Underneath it all and braided throughout, I believe I am a pretty incredible, kind and funny person. I might even dare say smart and delightful, but those things are quite frequently overshadowed. Despite my mental illnesses, I cannot accept that love is impossible for me.
To date someone with any sort of ailment or tendency that isn’t considered “part of the norm” takes patience and curiosity, vulnerability and honesty. Invisible disabilities must seem like imaginary friends to people who are not inflicted with them or adjacent to someone who is. I know this because most of my relationships have been missing this basket full of character traits, in one way or another. I cannot imagine the unknown eggshells that those around me must walk on in order to “keep the peace.” Recently, I started describing my personality like an abrasive pad on a sponge. Absolutely abrasive, no doubt. But on the other side is a soft, cushy sponge willing to take it all. My bipolar disorder is no doubt destructive for both myself and my partner (and any employers, friends, family and anyone else I interact with). I’m not throwing bricks into glass windows, but I can unintentionally ruin your day because my switch flips unbeknownst to me and suddenly I’m showing you a side to me you will wish never fades away or you pray ends immediately. Either way, you’re usually scared. More frequently now, I am encountering mixed episodes — the garbage disposal of dealing with bipolar disorder.
Can I blame my terrible dating record solely on my mental health? No, not completely, of course not. But it absolutely played a part in my decision-making, my willingness to put up with nonsensical and abusive behavior both physically and emotionally. If I can barely tolerate my episodes, how and why would someone else? My battle with anxiety and low self-esteem does not take this lightly. I used to joke that I must marry a baggage boy, for I am carrying too much luggage. But I do not find that the case any longer, as I have rifled through my duffles of douche bags and have figured out it’s not about them, it’s been about unpacking me. So I must do everything in my capacity to manage my mental health. And I do fervently. Logically, if I do the work, things should fall into place. I have yet to find a place though, so what have I learned so far about trying to find real love while living with mental illnesses?
Although it is not who I am and does not define me, it wholeheartedly takes a toll on how I approach every day and everyone. I am not ashamed of my multiple diagnoses, but I am aware of them and to be totally present in any relationship, I must be my true self. Even if that self can go off the rails any which way whenever it wants to.
People I know and see who are in love look at each other in a special way; even when it’s over something mundane, there’s a strong shared glance that says more than just, “look at that.” I want that look! I’ve been told it takes time, like anything. And practice. Having bipolar I with rapid cycling along with agoraphobia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) doesn’t make leaving the house easy, and in the pandemic, it is nearly impossible but I’m still trying to get on dating apps to try to, at least, connect. So why am I such a nightmare?
When I’m depressed, I isolate myself. I wear the same outfit for days and barely walk my dog. It takes the utmost willpower to get out of bed to just pee. I am able to take everything personally. I cancel plans I desperately want to be a part of. I ache all over, physically and intensely. Your words of encouragement make me want to glue your mouth shut. Trust me, I am drinking water! I have intrusive thoughts so evil and exaggerated, so startling, that I’ll never fully be able to really tell you what is on my mind when I start suddenly acting scared. I can sleep through entire days, order enough takeout to put me in debt and not think of another single thought. I am not upset with you because you cannot understand and for that, you might judge me. I want you to get into bed with me and squeeze it all out like I’m your toothpaste but filled with cement made from negative feelings, when in actuality I need you to yank me out of bed and out of my head, into something more productive and positive. I need you to talk to me and ask me if I am OK. Dating someone when I am depressed feels selfish and needy. I want your attention otherwise I feel like I am innately unworthy and a waste of space. I am a lot — already, understandably a kind of tornado for someone to take on.
But I’m multidimensional and it’s out of my hands when my mood changes and I become manic or have a grueling mixed episode (a dangerous state in which a person has symptoms of both mania and depression, giving them just enough energy to accomplish the scary things they’ve ruminated on). When I am experiencing my mania, there is a limitless to it, a quickness, a neurological rave rushing through my body. When I am manic, I feel my entire nervous system working in overdrive, each pathway lighting up, constricting and convulsing. I am infinitely more talkative, sometimes leaving very little room in the conversation for you at all. I’ll stop to ask you things occasionally but only to be polite and return back to whatever nonlinear lingo I was spewing. But I don’t clock that in the moment. It’s a whole different type of person to ask you to learn to love. I won’t be able to sleep for days or weeks, I involuntarily stop eating and any time you insist on either of these habits, I push back because it is simply impossible. I’ll eat a single cracker to appease you, but I still have to force it down. This behavior also makes you worry. I cannot imagine the frustration and toll that takes on someone else. You spend the night in my bed but I stay awake on the couch writing, rambling or doing some sort of project until sunrise. I won’t want breakfast but you’ll be starving. You’ll insist we eat, I’ll waste your money on something I didn’t want to order in the first place but I can see how scary I am acting through your eyes. Regardless of the state I am in, I feel raw and want you to see me — not through the grimy film of my mental illness.
So take the depression and put it in a blender with my mania and you have yourself a mixed episode — berries, blades and all. I’ve been experiencing these more frequently lately and simply put, they are usually hell and/or a quick hospital visit. It’s odd to be able to write about something and conceptually know that it is my brain and body dragging me through it all. Because in the moment, it feels like nothing ever mattered and nothing ever will. My mixed episodes are filled with intrusive thoughts, paranoia, absurd inventions, depressive thinking, disco music with enough chutzpah to keep me awake for a week. It is in these episodes I am most dangerous to myself and to my relationships. I can be a bad person despite my only intentions not to be. I’ll plan vacations to far-off islands and put down deposits I can’t pay for. I’ll have sex with you or whomever like I’m on a lot of cocaine, and if offered, chances are I will do some too. I am reckless. I drive too fast. I am afraid of nothing and everything at the same time. I am both blissfully aware and unaware; I am a living nightmare. And we are both wide awake.
If I haven’t made my case yet, I realize dealing with my rapid cycling bipolar I is already a plateful, especially for a new partner and especially for anyone who is essential in my life. But of course, my C-PTSD has to come out and play, because traumas can be triggered by so many things. We can be hanging out on your couch and instantly I am sobbing, trying to catch my breath so I don’t have a panic attack. I keep checking to see if someone is walking behind us and start taking audible, deep and dramatic breaths. I double-check the front door lock twice every time we leave. You’ve noticed. I feel embarrassed. In these times, you do not know how to console me or what is even happening. How could you, unless I had communicated it prior. This is one of the trickier parts of dating for me because I am personally so open and vulnerable about mental health and what that looks like, but to speak to someone about my own assorted traumas is a whole new level. In past relationships, mainly when I have spoken too soon, I have taken two approaches: I say nothing about my PTSD and panic disorder and just hope really hard that nothing bad happens. Or, tell them vaguely something might happen, so I might have a panic attack, but I don’t know what that something might be or where it comes from and again, I just hope that nothing happens. Neither has been very successful.
I think there is an art and a rooted honesty in telling someone at the right time about something so sensitive. I’ve never gone into full detail with anyone, even men I’ve dated over the course of months, who have experienced all kinds of episodes with me. Because I have given them the broader details and triggers, learning that whatever I feel safe enough saying is enough. But I can’t imagine dating me, like a human landmine that you’re just getting to know.
It’s an obvious challenge that takes acceptance and risk. It doesn’t present itself immediately. Invisible disabilities rarely do, hence “invisible.” For all you know, I am as functional as a Malibu Barbie. And some days I am! But we all have mental health so why is it any different when mine is just more apparent and sometimes more extreme? People should feel their feelings and share them! That is not up for debate. So, what do I really need? I need someone to be able to ask me what to do when they are unsure about any given situation. I need someone who only offers their help if they truly want to give it to me. I need them to be confident that there is enough safe space for us both to exist within. Most importantly, I need them to know how to take healthy space in order to properly take care of themselves, while also not leaving me to wonder if they are gone forever. I need them to be brutally honest and vulnerable. If that is you then please apply. Sue me for wanting some true love and intentional attention; for adhering to my truest self and upholding my boundaries. It’s taken me years to admit that that is what I want. And for me? That is no longer my nightmare. That in itself is a dream!
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash