I Believed Romance Was Off-Limits Because Of My Mental Illness. Not Anymore.
A few years ago, I found myself in a bathroom stall furiously trying to remove a Bumble sticker from a sanitary product bin. I’m not sure how much time I spent there ― pants around my ankles ― picking away, but by the time I left the stall, the sticker looked like it had been clawed by a wild animal.
I remember being enraged that there was no place I could go ― not even a college library’s bathroom ― where I wouldn’t be reminded that I was single. Worse, I believed that as a woman with a bipolar 1 diagnosis, no one in his or her right mind would ever want to date me.
I remember receiving my diagnosis clearly; it was May 2014. I was 33 years old. I was seated across from a man I’d never met before, after being involuntarily hospitalized. One way to get involuntarily hospitalized, I discovered, is by attempting to flee the ER, wearing only a hospital gown and men’s tube socks, possessing the sudden belief that humans can fly.
My sister took me to the ER after I announced on Facebook that I had a very important meeting with then-President Barack Obama; we were going to discuss health care. I was uniquely qualified to talk about health care because, I was, hello, mentally ill. Who better to chat with him about the gaps in coverage?
The man, my doctor, tried to explain that Obama wasn’t coming.
“You have bipolar 1,” he said flatly. Instantly offended, I told him I was certainly not bipolar; my life just sucked. While hospitalized, I’d lost my job and internship, and I would soon be homeless. My previous diagnosis had been clinical depression and I didn’t want to accept something more severe.
He brought up that I had taken off all my clothes the night before in the hospital’s common room.
“Performance art,” I shrugged. What I didn’t explain was that I believed, in that moment, that I had to be in my birthday suit in order to be reborn the female Jesus Christ.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit how long it took me to accept my diagnosis ― six years. I thought my involuntary hospitalization was a one-time fluke until I started to experience symptoms again in February, triggered by the stress of winter storm Uri.
I thought to myself: “Maybe it’s time to learn about this thing I have.” Unable to focus enough to read, I listened to audiobooks. I learned that people with bipolar 1 experience manic phases (at least one) that can include psychosis and delusions. My manic episode lasted two months ― during that time I went three weeks without sleeping and believed that the hospital I was committed to was actual purgatory.
Because bipolar 1 disorder has a genetic component, I asked my mom about our family history. My grandmother, it turned out, liked to dress up like Liberace and ― without having had a single music lesson in her life ― “play” the piano. When my aunt was a teenager, she wholeheartedly believed that David Cassidy was in love with her. She swore they would meet up on the beach, and that he drew a heart in the sand with their initials.
Dressing up in wigs and pounding on the piano sounded fun, but my aunt’s flights of fancy deeply worried me. In my research, I learned that being in love, with all its euphoric goodness, can trigger or coincide with bipolar episodes. So, too, can heartbreak. This only added to my fear that I might never be mentally fit to be in a romantic relationship.
Indeed, one of the scariest movies I ever saw wasn’t a horror flick but a French film called ”He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not.” Angélique, an art student, played by Audrey Tautou, falls in love with a doctor, whom viewers assume reciprocates her feelings. The film’s perspective shifts, Angélique is committed to a psych ward, and it becomes clear that she’s suffering from erotomania ― the belief that someone is in love with you when they are not, which falls under the delusion category in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5.
The final scene in the film is unforgettable. After her release from the hospital, a nurse moves a bookshelf and discovers that Angélique has made an artful portrait of her amour out of all the meds she did not take. That film scared me shitless because at 40, my only romantic relationships have involved unrequited loves that played out like vivid movies in my head.
In high school, I was madly in love with Danny, a Skinny Puppy-loving punk at my high school.
The most “romantic” and goth thing I did was gift Danny the razor blade I used for cutting my forearms, because only he could give me a reason to live. Not surprisingly, rumors spread quickly that I was a psycho, a word that would greatly affect how I saw myself long term. By the time I turned 17, I had been hospitalized three times; I’m deeply grateful that I was so bad at attempting suicide.
None of this bodes well for a dating profile.
In December 2020, I started attending support groups on Zoom through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Not only did the group help me to come to terms with my diagnosis, but it was a huge relief to finally find people who understood what it’s like to live with a mental illness. I’d been in therapy on and off for years, but it never offered what I didn’t know I needed most ― a sense of community.
I was deeply touched when others raised the subject of dating and relationships. I heard questions aloud that had been rolling around in my head for years: When do you tell someone you have a mental illness? How do you cope if they react negatively? What about the kid thing? Is it OK to date someone with the same diagnosis as you? One question I badly wanted to contribute was: What if your medications totally kill your sex drive?
I noticed this side effect six years ago after I was stabilized on a tolerable cocktail of meds. I didn’t find anyone attractive anymore. I began to experience what I called “my one horny day” a month. I’d notice a slight tingling that I recognized as arousal and then realize, “Must be my horny day.”
Staying out of hospitals was worth not having a sex drive but it did add to the belief that I might never be in a “normal” relationship, let alone a relationship at all.
A few months ago, something shifted for me when I found myself crushing on a support group member. He was kind, a good listener, and had a nice strong jaw. The feeling was faint but I started to think about how much trust and vulnerability factor in when attempting pretty much anything new ― especially dating. It’s not that I pictured myself falling in love with this person, but it planted the seed that such a thing was possible.
The truth is some days I feel like I’m fighting for my life. Just a few weeks ago, I didn’t sleep for four days. Today, it felt excruciating to put one leg into a pair of sweatpants, realizing I still had the other leg to go. When I think about my hierarchy of needs, it’s food, water, shelter, meds and shampooed hair. From there, I build upward into social support: friends, family, peer support groups and counseling.
You can probably sense how far I have to travel. That doesn’t mean I’m not putting in the work to challenge my fears.
My first step has been to break the silence, to admit that I am lonely. My second step has been to grow the relationships I already have, and feel my heart wake up a bit. My third step is to imagine the sort of partner I want in my life. What qualities do they have? What are my deal breakers? Would this person be willing to call my doctor if I wake up and announce that I’m in the CIA?
I’m working hard to imagine a partner who would love me despite the fact that I take heavily sedating meds, hit the hay at 7:30 p.m. sharp and wake up 11 hours later still tired. I’m prone to “checks” ― getting 10 minutes down the road only to be convinced I left the stove on, and there’s a 50% chance that I’ll be found up on a ladder, checking air vents for hidden cameras.
But I’ve always hated that saying: You can’t love someone else until you love yourself. This past year, I’ve learned that I don’t have to wait until I’ve become some sort of perfect, self-loving, sound-of-mind, confident, relationship-ready person because that person doesn’t exist ― anywhere ― so I’m taking small steps when I can. I’m a work in progress, as most of us are, and if that’s the case, my chances for finding love are actually pretty good.
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