DISCLAIMER:I couldn’t quite figure out why collecting my thoughts to write this piece was proving to be far more difficult than I had anticipated. I realized there is an aspect of this topic that I can’t speak to…healthy relationships. Sure I could apply research findings and cliches, but I felt that would be hollow and not me. My hope here is to show solidarity and maybe offer some insight on how to avoid certain pitfalls.
It always amazes me how many people diagnosed with Bipolar have had such similar experiences with relationships. Yet while our experiences and out-comes may align so much, the hows and whys can be very different. Mostly, this divergence seems to stem from our relationship to our diagnosis.
Some of us are just ashamed. We guard the status of their mental health for as long as we can. Often, convincing ourselves the stranger turned lover need not ever know it at all. Just the word Bipolar could send them running, so why risk it? We know this is the quickest route to disaster, but we still hold onto false hope. It takes a lot of work, but if only we can stop people from leaving all the time.
Some of us can’t comprehend how anyone could last a single moment denying their Bipolar status and believing maybe no on will notice. I fall into this category. We are the socially awkward Bipolar crew. Why not get the potential rejection out of the way as soon as possible:
“By the way, I’m Bipolar. I take more pills than a geriatric patient with a heart condition, but the good news is I’ll keep you guessing.”
Yes, it’s important to fight stigma. However, just like a cancer patient wouldn’t announce the news while giving a speech at a wedding…time and place matter. We’ve also mastered the art of the single statement, awkward silence inducing, conversation killer:
“Oh! I have a funny story about that! Once I was in the hospital after a suicide attempt…”
The funny part of that story goes unheard as those around us are focused on the lead. But what we do best? We avoid letting people know who we really are by distracting them. Personally, this is my favorite go to when I’m nervous. I want to know everything about anyone else so no one can see just how boring I am. On the flip side, if it seems people have become curious about me, I go for shock value. Sex is usually a safe bet if I want to spark a conversation that won’t expose how boring I am. I mean who doesn’t have thoughts on the subject, right? I say things women “shouldn’t say” to complete strangers coupled with over-shares, just to keep my audience from realizing I don’t have anything to offer on the topic of daily life:
“No, I don’t work.”
“Yeah I never actually have money to go anywhere, so my summer was okay.”
“Oh, I missed that event because I slept that week.”
I’m sure there is a happy balance between these two ways of getting to know someone, I just haven’t negotiated it yet.
Still isn’t it great how those of us with Bipolar Disorder seem to initially connect with people easily, no matter our approach? Obviously, what’s mentioned above is fraught with generalizations and won’t apply to every person diagnosed with Bipolar. That said, chances are pretty good you’ve been able to make stronger connections with more people than those who aren’t coping with a mental illness. After all, why wouldn’t someone you meet enjoy talking about themselves with someone who’s just happy anyone is talking to them at all? One would think being able to build rapport with almost anyone would lead to a very busy social life, but then this is how it plays out for a lot of us…
Yay! Someone wants to hang out! Every-thing seems so easy. They can’t believe how intuitive, compassionate, and wise you are. Plus, so generous and already willing to give ’em the shirt off your back. It takes so little time for you to learn all about the new person in your life. Although, at this point they can’t say they know you equally as well.
Thus, the cycle begins:
Our “Honeymoon Period” is pretty much the time to keep what they know about us very surface level, just enough to keep them interested. It’s a fairly easy task as we distract them by making everything about them. Side note: sadly, this is why so many of us are preyed upon by narcissists, although they may eventually realize we are far more work than their average victims.
The next stage, I like to call the “Flood Gate” stage. As in, we’ve grown comfortable and have stifled ourselves for so long that we suddenly can’t stop sharing. If you’ve met someone that genuinely cares about you, they’ll actually be relieved and happy to see the real you. If not, potentially irritated things are no longer only about them, they may cut and run or (as a narcissist would) try to put you back in your corner. If ever there was a time to take control of the way you participate or decide if you even still want to participate in this relationship this would be it, mostly because this is usually when full disclosure occurs. Yes, you may have already mentioned your illness but it probably was almost in passing.
I have learned the hard way, more than once (I’m a slow learner), there is a very real communication breakdown that can occur at this stage. It’s truly a problem when you’re new partner just doesn’t get it. A sure indicator your partner isn’t picking up what you’re throwing down is an immediate response like:
“Thanks for telling me, no big deal, I think you’re great.”
“Well you’re lucky you met me then because I can really help you.”
“There’s nothing you could say to change my view of you.”
The problem? Either you haven’t explained enough or you’re not being heard. When someone your building a relationship with finds out you are suffering from any mental health condition, such as Bipolar, they must be made to realize you aren’t telling them something as benign as you bought a new hat. It needs to be abundantly clear you’re disclosing this because it won’t ever be just a “you problem”. If they want to be a part of your life, it’s a “we problem”. Not in the way the second, potential response above implies. You’re not looking to be saved or taken care of, but you’re Bipolar episodes will effect them. They will effect your relationship. It’s not something you will be quietly dealing with on your own when they aren’t around. If they get it, they’ll have questions. Hopefully, they’ll do some research and/or ask if you have any resources to share. Honestly, if they ask for time to process it’s a good thing. They are demonstrating some understanding of the gravity of the situation and a willingness to take the time to figure out how to proceed or if they even want to, shows they care. If they opt out, they’ve saved you a lot of heartache.
Should your new partner choose to stick around the “Tense” stage will begin, a time period difficult for even two healthy people attempting to navigate a relationship. Those of us with Bipolar add a layer of difficulty to the navigation. Likely we’ve had at least one episode by now, maybe more. However prepared they thought they were, we already knew they couldn’t be prepared enough. If you’re relationship survives this stage, you may have found the right person to have in your life. On the other hand, if your partner begins responding with questions and/or statements such as:
“Why can’t you just not?”
“I guess I just thought with me around you’d be able to control yourself better.”
“I mean I get it, but there really has to be a way for you to get better and stop these fits.”
Of course, there are the far more hostile comments:
“I don’t have time for this crap, call me when you’re sane again.”
“Take some more pills, because those ain’t working.”
“Well I’ve already told everyone you’re crazy, but good in bed.”
As much as we may want to keep hope alive, it’s a matter of theory being put into practice. The first set of responses may just be indicative of a need to adjust and become even more informed. Whether or not we should still remain hopeful kind of depends on the delivery and if the comments start to lessen over time. The hostile comments? Well If we were wise, we’d cut and run before the end of the cycle.
The end of the cycle, the final stage, the “Grand Finale” is usually painful, erratic, heartbreaking, and sometimes completely on us. For instance, the partner we chose may have survived all the stages and love us with their whole heart. They are supportive and even grounding. They are a threat to our carefully constructed walls and must go. Whoa! That escalated quickly, right? Did it really though? I mean most of us aren’t even cognizant of this thought as we begin to self-sabotage, pushing them away before they can abandon us like everyone else. Maybe just letting that insecurity rule us will be the very thing that makes it impossible for them to stick around. Really, how many times can someone explain to you that they aren’t going anywhere and reassure you they love you?”
Personally, I find this to be more depressing than the other potential outcome. The one where superiority and resentment become a problem. Neither feeling has to be something you’re partner is cognizant of, maybe they are even oblivious to the related behaviors they are displaying. Whether aware or unaware, subtly or overtly, behaving as if they know best or taking shots like, “oh it’s going to be one of these months, huh?” becomes passive abuse. Although not as depressing, this turn of events can be far more damaging. It can also lead to an extremely volatile situation. You may find your episodes are worsening, maybe they are becoming more frequent. You start to feel like less of a partner and more of a child. It will only get worse because the roles have been assigned and cemented now, you realy no longer have a voice. The fights can get ugly and the fear of abandonment really isn’t just fear. They have one foot out the door or they’re already gone.
I’d love to tell you, “You can fix this!” The truth is a lot of this isn’t because you have Bipolar Disorder. Sure it’s not ideal but that part is something within your control, in so far as you are the only one who can put the work in to manage your own illness. Reread. What’s the biggest problem here? It’s not even willful ignorance, necessarily. The reality is no matter how much we educate others or people educate themselves, it’s not going to help most. People who don’t have Bipolar Disorder can say they are “woke” and understand, but when they are confronted with someone struggling they can’t stop themselves from reverting back to their “sane people” logic. They can’t comprehend how society views “mind over matter” as a simple idiom, but for us it’s a very literal nightmare we live “brain over everything”. You can either take that as a reason to lose hope or you can take as a life line. I choose the latter. I like knowing that just because I am Bipolar doesn’t mean I’m always the problem and I always will be.