Posted by Evangeline Bee, November 7, 2011
“Can I take you out for dinner sometime?” He asked, slowly raising his eyes from the floor to look at me. I smiled. “Yes…” I stepped a little closer. “But I think I should warn you, I’m pretty weird.” I wonder what he must have thought after I told him this on the first day we met. Girl, you have no idea what weird is.
When I first started dating him I didn’t know much about bipolar disorder. I think most of the general public is highly ignorant of mental illness. As we first started seeing each other everything seemed wonderful. We could talk for hours without tiring, we made each other laugh, we spent way too much time together, forgot time. Early on he confided in me about his illness. Later he explained that he had felt different about me from the very beginning. He felt comfortable, he wanted to trust me.
I think we all want to be loved for all of who we are and despite our disabilities or regrets. I took the information about his illness well. It didn’t worry me greatly. Why? Probably because I was naive, I didn’t know what that confession truly implied, and because I was already beginning to fall under the spell of our “young love.” I understood bipolar disorder involved extreme moods, sharp ups and downs, with little stability. I didn’t know how dangerous the lows could be, and I definitely didn’t know how dangerous the highs could be. The first uncomfortable signs he began to reveal were the secrets of his past.
He began to confess things to me slowly. Each date I would hear something new and difficult to absorb. It required me to be especially understanding and non-judgmental. He told me about manic episodes; running across freeways without a glance left or right. He talked about going bankrupt at 20, racing cars on the highway, crashing his BMW because of reckless driving. He told me about smashing a friend’s car for no good reason, eating 10 slices of cheesecake in one sitting, a fixation with sex, and even paying for it. He admitted obsessions with women he couldn’t have, inappropriate thoughts, sleeping on the floor of friends’ houses. These things were all part of manic moods. I had no idea how erratic and irrational one becomes in a manic state.
Why did he confess all this to me? Why not just keep some things in the past? I asked him this a few times but it was hard to answer. I think it was a mix of causes. He told me he was very cautious about being honest, it had always been hard to speak about the past. Most people have a very negative perception about mental disorders. He explained that many people judged him before getting to know him, even if they didn’t have much knowledge about bipolar disorder. He says people often expect him to suddenly get violent or go mad. Relationships with girls have never worked, because as soon as he starts to act strange or reveal himself they would want out, saying something like, “You’re a nice guy, but you’re just too much to take on.” or “It’s nice that you take me out to expensive restaurants and buy me nice things, but what will people think? I just need someone a little more stable.”
Where you come from really does matter. I’m a small town girl, 18 when I met him, impressionable, open, curious, trusting and naive. My parents were open minded and saw life as more of an adventure then a formula or business plan. Money, arrogance, fancy cars, conventionality does not impress me, well not as much as honesty, uniqueness and intrigue. Yes, if he had told me about his sordid past all at once then I might have not been able to digest it. Yet, he slowly divulged. I was able to do some research on my own and get a better understanding. I realized that many of the behaviors were similar to others with bipolar – obsession with sex, inappropriate thoughts, recklessness, spending money you don’t have, anxiety. People in manic states can also have hallucinations, delusions that they are superhuman, an inability to focus on one thing, genius and insomnia. These were symptoms of a sick brain not a disturbed personality. He was also very clear about the fact that when these things had happened he had not been on medication. He began experiencing strong symptoms when he was 16, at first his mother thought he was just troubled, doctors gave him wrong diagnosis – OCD? Schizophrenia? Depression? In 2007, at 20 his episodes were at their worst. It took a while before he was diagnosed and then able to find a mixture of pills that worked for him. This is also common for most people suffering from this disorder or any metal disorder for that matter.
My acceptance of him and the things he said was most likely welcoming and relieving. It probably motivated him to say more, to have more of himself exposed and accepted. This dynamic inspired me to be honest as well, and of course he has been incredibly understanding and patient with me. Although my problems aren’t as great as his, he doesn’t diminish my feelings. There are definitely ugly things about bipolar but the man he has become now at 24 is also very beautiful. He does not like that he is dependent on drugs yet he impresses me with his responsibility concerning medication, he knows medication is not temporary.
He also told me about the darker side of bipolar – the depression and self-loathing. It sounds dramatic and that’s exactly what bipolar is. I’m constantly accusing him of being “sooo dramatic!” But even on medication that is how the world or even small irritants seem to him at times; DRAMATIC. Before the medication he thought about suicide many times. The only thing that stopped him was the idea that it would hurt his family. He said he threatened his mother and insulted her in ways that disgust him now. Sometimes he would just black out. He would lie in bed for days, never change clothes, shower, or eat. For a while his grandmother would check in on him each night to make sure he was okay. I shudder at these stories; I take both his hands in mine and pull him close. I have felt depression, sadness, hopelessness but never the way he has. It all comes down to chemicals in our brain, a little too much, or not quite enough of this or that. Neurotransmitters going rebel. It is amazing how huge of an impact such small particles can have.
Other than the stories, his moods seemed pretty even to me. It wasn’t until he started getting attached to me that I started to get worried. I was learning about triggers, reading books and Googling. He was also very open to answering my many questions about how it worked for him. There are a lot of similarities between those with bipolar, but everyone feels different effects and reactions. Even though he takes his medications, if stressful things trigger him (especially momentous things) then it can still cause a mood cycling. It usually starts with irritation at small things, or annoyance without much provocation. This is the beginning of a manic mood. This leads to more erratic behavior and irrational thinking, which eventually turns into depression. He says that when this begins it is hard for him to tell but his mother is very helpful in warning him. He then goes to his psychiatrist and explains how he is feeling and asks if there is a new med or mix he should try.
I felt relieved hearing this yet I now understood that there was still a possibility for him to cycle. We ended up having a very heated and intense discussion about attachment. I told him I couldn’t promise to always be there for him, I couldn’t promise that I wouldn’t need to leave and find my own path someday. I am only 19 (18 then) and have so much life to live, so many opportunities and experience to find. He nodded when I said this but wasn’t taking it very well.
“What’s going to happen if I leave you?” I asked, scared but very serious. He was quiet and then answered with an I don’t know. I knew this would only get worse with time. The consequences would be more serious than with someone who didn’t have the illness. If I broke it off before we got to serious it would be hard, but not horrible. I wondered how my leaving would affect him. If the girl you’ve loved for the past three or four years leaves you, how hugely triggering would that be to someone with bipolar? Would that put you in hospital, would it be fatal? This seems dramatic but bipolar is all about dramatic. Was I being foolish to fear this? I finally asked him if my fears were practical. “Yes.”
YES? YES! This was too much pressure. Would I be pressured to stay in a relationship for fear that I might put my boyfriend in the hospital.
“I don’t know if I can be with you…I can’t be held, this is so much pressure, responsibility.”
“Yes.” He said softly putting his head in his hands. “You’re right, you don’t deserve that.”
What’s a girl to do?
“I never expected to be loved, to find someone who would be willing to stay. My mother even hints at it from time to time. I am a burden no matter how responsible I try to be. No matter how hard I try to overcome this it will always follow me.” he kept his face hidden.
Sooo dramatic! But how could I expect anything less. It wasn’t fair, Life isn’t fair but I have to believe that no matter how unfair we can all find happiness. Troubles in life are what allow you to grow and find beauty in darkness. No matter how scary this was, this was an adventure, an opportunity to believe in someone and make a difference in someone’s life. I had to believe that if I chose to leave it would be ok. That even if our relationship didn’t last it would still meaningful, he would learn that he could be loved, he was not useless or hopeless, and that happiness was possible.
I put my hand on his thigh. He looked up at me. I told him it would be alright, that I couldn’t make any promises about the future but that together we could make this work. I kissed him, and whispered in his ear, “The bipolar does scare me, but the bipolar is not you. You are not this illness and you are worth the effort. You are wonderful and you make me happy, so let’s give this a try.”
I feel it has been worth it. We have come across struggles but I have never felt used or pulled back. People who love and know him have made a point to tell me that I have changed him. They say I changed his life and his attitude. He smiles all the time and laughs, makes jokes and has finally come around to believing in some kind of life purpose. When I met him he did not believe in a God, spirituality, or any sort of “meaning of life.” I have read a lot about what can be important in improving stability for people with bipolar. Having a focus is important, it provides a feeling of meaning and significance for a person and how they spend their time. Exercise keeps you physically healthy and produces chemicals that make you feel happy. Support from family, friends and a lover allow a feeling of being loved and excepted, it encourages self-care and self-acceptance. Eating healthy keeps your body healthy and decreases chemical instability in the brain. Spirituality is also specified by many sources as an important factor in being happy and stable when dealing with bipolar (or not) and helps create a sense of meaning and satisfaction in life.
I tell him about what I read and learn, and he comments and fills in the blanks about what he knows and experienced. I read him books I find significant and helpful. He gives me novels that he read and appreciated. His mother bought me books I asked for after doing research online: Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and The Up And Down Life: The Truth About Bipolar Disorder—the Good, the Bad, and the Funny.
He wants to become a Psychiatrist and go to medical school. He is still working on his B.A., somewhat behind from past struggles but has now applied to Berkeley. I undoubtedly believe in him. I remind him every day how lucky he is despite his difficult past and the burden he must always carry.
I think one of the hardest strains I have experienced thus far (being in the position of companion and lover) is lack of understanding and the discouragement from others. Others put him down and imply they are disappointed with my choice to be with him. I do understand where they are coming from and some of it is valid, but it is still very stressful. People judge without much information. As in all cases of prejudice, just being associated with the subject will bring about negative criticism. The idea is that I have a lot going for me, I’m smart, attractive, focused, I deserve to be with someone better. I get it, but don’t I also deserve to be with someone who loves deeply, who has a maturity that can only come from great suffering, who is willing to always be there for me whether I decide to be a lover or just a friend, someone I love, someone who needs to be seen for who he is not what problems he has.
Recently he was asked to leave his home. He lives with his sick grandmother and his grandfather. His grandmother for a mixture of reasons and her own unhappiness, asked him to leave her house the day before his birthday. He was kicked out. All he could afford at the time was a hostel. Being the couple we are – young, in-love for the first time, silly, can’t keep away from each other – I asked him to please take me with him, rent me a bed at the hostel for a few days. I knew he could use the support. Feeling pushed away by your family is not easy for anyone let alone those who are easily triggered. I also just wanted to be near him as much as possible. He agreed eagerly. I was giving him support at a hard time, when he was feeling alone. Having me with him also transformed this uncomfortable situation into an interesting vacation. Creating good out of a hurtful situation, or at least that’s how I saw it. Although he was stressed, I could still make him smile just by being me and being there.
That wasn’t how my stepparents saw it. I have been living with my stepparents while going to school (about a year now). They know about my relationship, I am very honest and try to be very respectful. I realized after staying the first night in the hostel that they weren’t too fond of him. Not because he drank, took drugs, wore baggy pants, was part of a rock band, painted his nails black, or ever hurt me (none of which he does) but because he is bipolar. They saw this situation as a foreshadowing of worse things to come. I understand their fear, they are only worried about me. In some ways they are right, there are always going to be difficulties in a relationship with someone who has bipolar. Things he does or will do may make me cry or strain me yet isn’t that true with any real relationship? Everyone has to deal with problems. I am not bipolar but I am very emotional and I am a bit embarrassed to admit he has spent hours being patient with me while I went through emotional, teenage tantrums (“brattiness” as he calls it).
He has driven 30 min just to jump start my car, stood in the rain holding up my hood trying to fix my radiator. He has driven to my house at 11 pm to bring me comfort food when I wasn’t feeling good. Spent days trying to get financial aid for me so I could afford my college classes. He deals with my problems, my emotions, my obsession with body image, my nagging and I think he is worth the effort it takes to deal with his problems. Yet my stepparents told me not to stay at the hostel with him, it was bad for both of us. They said I was hindering him from fixing his “homeless situation”. When I told he would have to stay at the hostel alone even though he had already paid for my bed, he took it hard. This depressed him. Me leaving scared him. Staying at a hostel he couldn’t afford because he was kicked out and just lost his job (because of staff cuts not any mistake on his part) had frightened and stressed him. After I told him I couldn’t be there for him he didn’t respond at all, and I started to cry. I knew me leaving was just another punch after he was already down.
What happens when someone with bipolar gets triggered? Well I can tell you what happened when my someone with bipolar got triggered. He sort of drifted away. It was like although I was talking to him he couldn’t hear a thing I was saying. He just kept saying “I don’t care anymore, I just don’t care. That’s what I feel like, you know? Like I just don’t care if I get hit by a car or have to sleep on the street.” I cried and cried because nothing I said seemed to bring him back. He stepped out of the car we were sitting in and began walking away. Where? I don’t know, and I wasn’t going to wait and see. I jumped out of the car and clung to him as tight as I could. “I love you!” I said, “Please stop!” This worked. He looked down at me and he was back.
“I’m so sorry.” He said. He calmed down and we talked for a few hours. He admitted that what had scared him the most was thinking he was going to lose me. He thought that since my dad didn’t approve and because this situation was only proving the fact that he was a failure, that I would decide to leave. He thought that I would suggest we need a break until he got stable. I told him that no matter who disapproved I wasn’t going to leave until it was MY choice. I told him I wanted him, I wanted him healthy, safe and alive. Although he was less animated for the next few weeks, he reunited with his grandmother and never fell into any real cycling. I was so proud of us. I get why my stepparents did what they did but I am still upset about what my dad said to me after the incident.
My dad told me that my boyfriend would never be able to take care of me, “I would meet lots of other men in my life, he wasn’t the only one. You are going to be able to do so much more with your life than he will. I don’t want you to give up your dreams for… I mean I know you care about him and it would be good for him to have a friend like you but he’s always going to have a lot of problems and issues.”
A friend. Alright some of what he was saying made sense but it wasn’t as if I had decided to marry this guy. It hurts to hear someone talk about the man you love that way. It hurts to hear them imply you should no longer be with this person.
There is still a lot for me to learn and experience in this relationship but I’ve gain a lot of insight from it so far. I’d love to know more about what others have experienced. It feels great to know you’re not alone in this, that many people have experienced some of the same stigma. I guess in conclusion what I would like to share is that having bipolar is not hopeless. It may take time and effort to be in a relationship with someone suffering from bipolar but it can be very worth it. Loved ones need to remember that we are not responsible for mood swings. We cannot always make them happy and it is not our job but we can be there to support them and I think that’s enough. As long as those with the illness are responsible about talking with their doctor and taking medication, I think a relationship is very possible. I constantly tell my boyfriend that he can be loved and he deserves to be. He constantly tells me I am smart, beautiful and amazing.
Many people will disapprove and won’t be understanding but that has to be okay too. Most of the time people who are not accepted are just afraid or worried. You cannot fight ignorance with anger but you can educate. I believe strongly that education is the answer to almost every problem. The less educated people are about anything the less compassionate, open or appropriate they will behave. Mental illness is not curable but it can be managed. I believe that as a lover you can be there for your someone without losing yourself. I love him and I feel that we both take care of each other, we provide stability for each other. I’m very young and any advice would be greatly appreciated.
To read more, visit my blog Affairs of an Unusual Mind and Honest Heart.