I didn’t start seriously dating until halfway through college, after my first bipolar episode. So, I have never dated someone without having to address my bipolar disorder at some point. With my first relationship, for the first few months, I tried to hide my depression. When it was eventually brought up, I made it seem like it was just a part of my past, not something I would be battling again and again. I was in denial and not open to discuss it. I think that not being open about depression actually made it much harder on us. Now, my bipolar disorder diagnosis is not something I try to hide from who I date.
Through my experiences these past few years, I’ve created a list of do’s and dont’s when it comes to my mood disorder and dating:
1. Don’t assume that my emotions are some kind of “bipolar thing”.
I have a right to have a wide range of emotions without them being assessed as some feature of a mood disorder. I can be excited without being manic. I can be down without being depressed. I can be angry without it being due to the “irritability” feature of bipolar disorder. “Do you think you are manic? Are you depressed? Are you having an episode?” These questions can feel like attacks and make it seem like, despite my efforts, I’m not doing a good enough job at being “normal”. If you constantly assume that my emotional states are due to an illness, you are dismissing my feelings. I am a person, not a condition.
2. Don’t feel like you have to “fix” me.
I know that it can be hard to see someone you love struggling. However, it is not your job to “fix” me. I am not broken. I’ve been in a relationship before in which the boyfriend felt like he was failing me by not lifting me out of my depression. That’s not how it works. The perfect boyfriend or relationship does not cure depression. There is no cure. Instead, you can be supportive. You can listen when I need to talk, but don’t pressure me into explaining myself or my depression.
3. Take my condition seriously.
No, it is not the same as that one week you were sad after your dog died. Depression is not sadness. For me, depression is a terrifying condition, because it is an illness that may not seem like an illness at all, just a part of myself. It felt like I had been living in some happy, fake bubble all of my life and all of a sudden, I saw the world as it really was: dangerous, cruel, and terrifying. It’s not simply lack of happiness. It is lack of: energy, motivation, sleep, passion, concentration, and will to live. As much as I wish that having access to therapy and medicine was an “easy fix”, it is not. Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, not some phase that lasts a few weeks. If you ask me if I see a future with you, I’ll say no, because depression doesn’t allow me to even see a future for myself. If I don’t seem enthusiastic when I’m with you, please don’t take it personally. It’s exhausting to try to look and act normal or even happy in such a state.
4. Give me space.
Sometimes, I need space. It is that simple. That does not mean that I am mad at you or that we are on the verge of a breakup. When anxiety and depression feel suffocating, sometimes I need time and space. I don’t need constant messaging of “What’s wrong?”, “Let’s talk”, or “Are you mad at me? What did I do?”. That’s not helpful, even if it has good intentions. When I want to talk, I will. Don’t push me. However, if I keep pushing you away as a result of depression, don’t abandon me. Be patient, supportive, and kind.
5. Be honest.
If you see a problem, let me know. Sometimes, bipolar disorder comes with lowered self-awareness. I may not notice that my speech is pressured, my thoughts are going a little too fast, my goals are a bit unrealistic, and my self-esteem is through the roof. Hypomania or even mania can feel great, so I may not see the situation in the same way that others see it. However, mania is an emergency situation that can become suicidal or even psychotic. If you are someone I am dating, you may notice manic or depressive changes. Be sensitive in how you address your concerns.
Yes, mental illness adds another factor to the relationship, but it does not have to ruin it. Happiness in the relationship is possible. It takes sensitivity, patience, and love.