How To: Dating while Manic Depressive
Let me start this off by making two disclaimers.
The first is that I have Bipolar II Disorder, so I shift semi-frequently from Manic to Depressive. The second is that these are purely my experiences, everyone is different and everyone will find their own way-- however i strongly believe we need to start talking about why dating and intimacy is exceptionally difficult for the mentally ill.
I had my first manic episode in the middle of my first serious relationship. I was 20 at the time, and it was a long time coming. Throughout my teen years i had brushed the clear warning signs aside, assuming they were just the natural angst that comes with adolescence.
So here I was in 2nd year of university far away from home, in the first real relationship of my life, starting to forget how to eat or sleep or look anyone directly in the eye. Subsequently, my relationship became near impossible, my ability to maintain friendships dissolved, and i needed to come home to get help.
This was the start of a very long journey of self-care, that still ebbs and flows and is filled with achievements and failures.
These are the things I started to learn during therapy:
Caring for others' emotional health without being mentally stable is like having a broken leg and trying to carry someone on your back.
It is really hard to love someone else when you hate yourself.
Communication is your only saviour.
Here are some mistakes i made:
Expecting someone to know how to care for you without giving them the tools to do so is unfair and will only lead to disappointment.
Projecting all of the energy you should spend on caring for yourself into caring for someone else is not heroic or brave.
Recognize when you are taking advantage of or being taken advantage of. (note: this is particularly difficult as the line between healthy support and emotional abuse can become frail and thin).
It has been five years since that first episode. I have made some decisions I am proud of and have also made some huge mistakes. Here is where I have landed: I recognize that currently I am not in a space to be a good partner for someone, and need all my energy to care for myself. This is a difficult recognition, and has resulted in long bouts of loneliness. However, I have realized that it is not fair to myself or to someone else to be incredibly flippant, unable to express my needs and feelings, and be either completely reliant or 100% distant.
Here are some things i hope will come with time and hard work:
I will be able to stop feeling like my mental illness is an airborne disease that may infect others.
I will find a comfortable median between vulnerability and stability.
I will learn to be vocal about my needs, listen to theirs, and stop predicting failure before it exists.
This is difficult to write, and I am unsure that any of it will turn out the way I hope it to. I have definitely felt that I may be unable to achieve these things, and might spend the rest of my life alone, and I am certain I’m not the only one who has had this feeling. I think that collectively we need to start acknowledging that intimacy takes a tremendous amount of emotional labour, and that being mentally ill does not mean you can only exist in unstable relationships. When we’ve been taught over and over again in movies and novels to romanticize mental illness, it is really difficult not to follow that path that has been laid out before us.
From one hopeless romantic to another-- you deserve love, from yourself and from others. It may not look or smell or taste like the love you’ve been taught to seek, but it will be yours and it will be true and it will be just as important and beautiful as any other kind.
Maddie Alexander is an artist, wrtier, and arts facilitator work and living in Toronto. They obtained their BFA in Photography from OCAD University, and their practice deals with themes surrounding queer identity, mental illness and art for social change.