“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
No high can last forever; the elated bliss of romantic love is no different. Relationships with those suffering from a mental health conditions can be even more fleeting. Both parties struggle with a shifting landscape of serotonin and dopamine, and the results are tragic if proper medication and a dedication to therapy are not applied. Here is my experience with being in relationships with those suffering from bipolar disorder. We will look at some of the facts, but this is not a detached clinical study. It’s my story of what that looked like in real life. Love and mania are two chemical states often difficult to distinguish from one another. My former therapist used the term “the clean car smell” to describe the chemical high of early relationships so many become addicted to. For good reason, orgasms release a powerful mix of oxytocin and vasopressin, creating an attachment to a person similar to attachment formed with any street drug. This leads many to believe they could be in love after having sex, and making casual sex not so casual.
The “love” chemicals cause symptoms similar to those in a manic state. There is a decreased need for sleep, loss of appetite, hyper-sexuality and form of “magical” or grandiose thinking. This leads to looking past the red flags in favor of an idealized romantic version of who you want them to be. After my recent divorce from someone with bipolar disorder, I interviewed several women with bipolar to try to gain a greater understanding of what happened. The majority of the more self-aware sufferers of bipolar with years of experience with this condition stated that they are cautious with relationships because they know it can trigger a worse manic state.
So why did it happen? As a recovering addict, I turned to the fourth step of the 12 step model for answers. When it comes to the 12 step model, I frequently part ways with the more Judeo-Christian aspects of that program, but the personal inventory of the 4th step proved to be a useful tool. It’s an eye-opening process of putting pen to paper to examine life patterns. What it showed was the part I often play in my choice of partners. My ex-wife was only one of many bi-polar women I have had in my life. This makes sense, due to the fact I have my own struggles with a major depressive disorder. Depending on the doctor, some might even call it bipolar depression. The lines are blurred and diagnosis can be varied, bipolar two doesn’t have as extreme highs as bipolar one, and is a milder form of elation. I have not been attracted to “normal” people, they can’t always relate or empathize with my struggles. I find cubicle-dwelling sheeple unattractive. In looking at my patterns, the dating pool centered around the arts community, service industry, bar business and even adult entertainment professions. These cater to substance abusers as well as the mentally ill due to the flexible schedule and rapid fire social environments. High stimulus environments are often sought by bipolar individuals. They flirt with elevated feelings, forming their own love/hate relationships when it comes to manic swings.
My wife and I started off more casual. After having spent most of my life in the kink community, my track record was better with with polyamory. The early days held more fire and higher euphoria heavy on the bdsm-centered activities. Later in pre-marital counselling, it came out she was in a manic swing when we met. This lines up with other symptoms such as a rapid string of jobs in a short period of time. The path she wanted life to go in shifted in a similar compulsive fashion. I have witnessed this in previous relationships with other bi-polar women. There is the attitude of finally finding purpose. This time it will be different than all the other times they quit their jobs for the next sudden passion project. This inspiration can be real. It fueled many of the great creative minds, but is best tempered with balance to see projects to fruition. Kurt Cobain might have been bi-polar, but he showed up to band practice and the studio with two other musicians or we would never have smelled his teen spirit.
Medication is only one part of the solution. Therapy and a system of checks and balances to maintain healthy lifestyle choices are vital. There is no magic pill. Medication only creates a more manageable state. After that, it’s up to the individual to take the needed actions to set in motion a daily basis for self care. The bdsm-fueled clean car smell got its first wake up call when my ex-wife became pregnant. She decided to go off her meds. We were then faced with what coping skills we had in place. We re-evaluated the model of the relationship, after waking up one morning to find my things on the porch and no communication from her until a week later when she came out of hiding. She realized some of her insecurities were due to the fact that all along she wanted a more conventional monogamous relationship. I decided to give monogamy a shot. I had only society’s media model of what this should look like. I think love is more of a verb than a chemical. It was finding the courage to change and try something different, because at the time I could not imagine my life without her. This marked the doorway we passed through from chemically-infused love to a more mature state of saying, “We know we are flawed, sick people, but we want to do our best together on this journey” – this made marriage the next logical step.
The chaos of life bounced off of us. Love was the sanest decision we made at the time. It required a lot of self work and communication. I went back on my medication and began more intensive therapy. We came from families without a healthy model of what a relationship should look like. Mental health issues were not topics of dinner table conversation, instead they kept neatly in the dark corners of the past. Exposed to family dynamics that were co-dependent at best and abusive toxic nightmares at worst, healthy marriage was not something we were going to be able to find on Mapquest. Our first wedding date was set for Halloween. The planning overwhelmed her. This stress took us to premarital counselling. We ended up setting the date to December and eloped to Disney so Mickey could handle the details. Now the clean car smell centered around the idea of a new life. Our plan was after graduation, she would attend grad school. I would put my career in a holding pattern in case we needed to relocate for this with the intention of planning a family after. As a psych major, she watched hours of movies showing the long term side effects of her medication. This convinced her to wean herself off them. She told her doctor she wanted to lower herself to the lowest possible dose. So in her final semester that process began.
One observation made in other bipolar relationships is that mania creeps up when self-care is slowly abandoned. Eventually, the brakes come off for a full speed race. It starts in a logical manner. They begin to research things regarding the path of their new inspiration. This takes a more compulsive tone with them staying up all night and spending most of their free time in this pursuit. Her new direction became rather than sticking to the plan, she would get a 9 to 5 job in the corporate world. She began thinking it would require lasering off her tattoos. The new identity she took on looked little like the person I fell in love with. I became someone who fit into this model, as I did not waver in my path of choosing to embrace creativity. She resented this fact, since she no longer found the time to be creative. I told her this was her choice and the compromise that comes with selling oneself out for a paycheck. Then came the night I rescheduled band practice in order to have a date night where she brought up divorce. The reasons varied, justification was supported by compulsive studies to send another manic state into place. I accepted the fact I can not force anyone to see the consequences of not taking their medication properly. The most difficult thing is watching someone in the grips of the grandiose state of the disease. It seems to them like a moment of clarity, though we know this is going to be followed by a harrowing crash.
Bipolar disorder doesn’t make you unlovable. It does require balance at the sake of sacrificing the thrill of the highs. It requires a contingency plan. What do I do when you are like this? And how are you going to be responsible for your actions, because they affect my life as well? They are not easy questions. Relationships are hard for even healthy people. Now social media puts them on a stage for scrutiny. We make them disposable with a swipe to the left or right. What is real and what is chemical? At the end of the day, it comes down to choosing the other person every day when you wake up, no matter the other factors. Looking back, I can see I chose my wife up until I signed the divorce papers. Love is crazy. It is in these crazy moments of discomfort that we learn the most. If it wasn’t for the flood of chemicals on the front end, perhaps we would not find ourselves growing out of our comfort zones. I’m grateful for the hard, painful lessons I learned. They inspired me to embark on this healing journey. If you can relate to my story, know that with a little work there are resources out there for you. We just have to pull the pain from the shadows we prefer to tuck it away into and start the conversation. Only then can the stigma of mental illness diminish and we can see no matter how sick we are, we are in this together.