Last summer, when my boyfriend watched me sleep on a hospital gurney, I realized we had to have a real talk about my mental health.
A manic episode had left me delusional and paranoid — and in the ER for a day. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, and I’m glad to have had my partner by my side.
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that causes abrupt and unusual shifts in mood, energy, and the ability to perform day-to-day tasks, wasn’t really a surprise. My ups and downs are visible to anyone who knows me well. They’ve affected my relationships. But, interestingly enough, I’d never had an actual conversation with a past partner about it.
It’s been months since my trip to the hospital, and I finally feel like I’m on the same page as my partner now that I have a diagnosis, am getting professional help, and know how to talk about it. It’s been tough and taken time, but opening up about my disorder has promoted healthy communication and created the opportunity to debunk any misconceptions.
If you are dating someone with bipolar disorder, keep these points in mind.
We need open lines of communication about how to work through our highs and lows.
It’s wise to talk about an emergency plan when your partner is baseline and most capable of having that conversation. “It’s important to discuss how a partner can handle the episodes and what works and what does not,” says psychiatrist James Luzano, M.D. “[There] is likely anxiety within both partners about not feeling prepared or able to handle an episode. This only underlines the importance of having plans and approaches identified and considered.”
I deeply value his support, but I also recognize that my mental illness is not his responsibility.
Once someone is in the throes of a manic episode, they might, like I do, feel euphoric, energetic, and deny that there is an issue. “Symptoms of mania include impulsivity, risky behavior, racing thoughts, rapid speech, decreased need for sleep, euphoria, irritability, and increased self-esteem,” says psychiatrist Sarah Mourra, M.D.
I was abusing substances and, after days of little to no sleep, reached a breaking point. When I started seriously questioning reality, my partner brought me to the ER, where doctors gave me valium and an IV for dehydration. I woke up in a calmer state but had to work on controlling my hypomania for the next few weeks.
My partner had never seen me like that before and was deeply concerned. We talked about how I could actively take steps to protect myself. This included reminding myself to stay at home and to minimize the risk of doing anything irrational, limiting my alcohol and substance use, trying desperately to get enough (or any) sleep, and making myself eat regularly.
Now, in times like these, my partner knows to follow up with me to ensure I’m taking care of myself, to contact my sister if I’m struggling and he can’t be there to help, and how to talk me down if I start freaking out.
We’ve also discussed how he should take care of himself and know when to draw a line in attempting to help me. I deeply value his support, but I also recognize that my mental illness is not his responsibility. I want him to be mentally healthy, too, and that means practicing self-care and establishing boundaries.
We have specific triggers, and if helps if you’re mindful of them.
As I alluded to earlier, for me, substance abuse can lead to an episode. When I don’t take care of myself and instead self-medicate, I can slip deeper and deeper into mania. Another trigger for me is experiencing a lot of change at once — this can include moving to a new city, starting a new job, and meeting a bunch of new people.
For Daisy, 26, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 15, triggers include big stressors like breakups or fights, not being able to sleep, money problems, major environmental or weather shifts, and people talking about death and other sensitive topics.
“A partner can do a lot with little effort by knowing that these things can make you spiral and knowing how to acknowledge, reassure, and re-navigate you,” she says. “The smallest de-escalation tactic can do a lot when you’re panicking and can often save you from totally going into a manic spiral.”
Luzano agrees. “A discussion [with a partner] of what may be a specific risk factor would be helpful so that both people are aware and can work together [to avoid] it.”
We may require some serious alone time when we are depressed.
I consider myself a pretty social person, but when I’m depressed — a state I find myself in more often than mania, which is common for those with bipolar disorder — I don’t always have the energy to go out. There are times when I just really need to be alone, and I’ll hole up for a few days. I make sure to communicate this to my partner.
Jeff*, 34, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his late teens, is the same way. “I’m sometimes antisocial, so when my partner wants to go out, I stay home. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out, but sometimes, because of the disorder, I don’t feel like it. I’ve always been carefree about my partner going out without me.”
Daisy, too, finds bipolar disorder tires her out and leads to bailing on plans.
“Either I cancel or am relieved when other people cancel,” she says. “I constantly feel bad because I don’t want people to think it’s about them or that I don’t want to see them. It’s always about me and how I feel. I just can’t handle being ‘on.’”
“[When depressed, people with bipolar disorder] may have difficulty mustering the energy or motivation to date, socially isolate themselves, or feel overly pessimistic and disengaged from the individuals who they are spending time with,” confirms Mourra.
For Thomas*, 25, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018, the key to maintaining a healthy relationship is setting proper boundaries and realistic expectations.
“If you know that you [are dealing with an episode], just tell the person that a little time and space is all you really need,” he says.
We are capable of loving, healthy relationships.
Like other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder is often stigmatized and misunderstood. Those of us with the disorder have our highs and lows, but we will return to baseline (or an otherwise happy place) with the right treatment plan. This can include medication, therapy, structured activities, self-care, and overall healthy living. It helps to have a support system.
Luzano says that like with any illness, such as diabetes or hypertension, it is the responsibility of the person dealing with bipolar disorder to engage in treatment as needed. When that’s in the works, dating is the same for them as it is for anyone else.
“I’m still a fully rounded, capable person with many wonderful characteristics and love to offer,” says Daisy. “Having bipolar disorder is just one of many things about me and it’s not even the most interesting.”
Once you figure out how to interact with us during the highs and lows, learn about our triggers, and respect our alone time, it gets easier. That’s certainly been the case for my partner and me. Despite some challenges, I like to think we are proof that it’s absolutely possible to have a healthy, loving, and emotionally fulfilling relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.
Luzano says it best: “When in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder, just the same as in a relationship with anyone, you should strive to treat that person with love, respect, and empathy.”
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
*Names have been changed.