When I met my boyfriend, I had been diagnosed with bipolar for about four years, and in that four years, I had refused to date or even get close to anyone. I initially saw my bipolar as a death sentence, something that would repel everyone around me. So when I met A online, I was initially scared to get close to him. Luckily, we had many many miles between us, so I felt safe that I could be open with him, and if he rejected me (like I knew he would), it wouldn't hurt as much. I showed him my blog that had been charting my life with bipolar. I told him how bad it could be. I warned him, in no uncertain terms, what I could be like when my synapses weren't firing correctly. And weirdly, he was okay. He didn't run away. He asked questions. He tried to understand. He told me he accepted me for who I was, bad and good.
It's been four years since we met. We've been married for almost 2 years now, and our son celebrated his first birthday a few weeks ago. I still keep him up to speed on my disease – he knows when my doctor appointments are, and if I have had a med change. He takes our son to play when I have a difficult therapy appointment. He texts me in the middle of the day to see if I need to give him a status update on my mood. When I have a bad day, he doesn't try to 'fix' me, he just asks what I need. Sometimes I don't even know how he can help, but I at least appreciate that he has asked.
There are some things we do to help our partnership deal with my illness, and that might help you as well. So here are my top tips for approaching a new (or existing) relationship with a mental illness.
- Be honest. For someone to be with you fully, they need to know about your illness. It may be difficult, but if you want the relationship to work, be honest with them. You don't have to tell them your entire medical history on the first date (that would make for a very long dinner!), but you do owe it to them and to yourself to show them all the sides of you.
- Encourage them to ask questions. When it comes to understanding mental illness, there are no stupid questions! Be open and honest in your responses; it will help them see that your mental illness is just one small facet of the amazingness that is you!
- Keep your sense of humour. If I didn't take time to laugh with my husband at my illness, I would be far worse off. I know many times your illness is not at all funny, but on the times when you can smile in spite of it, DO IT!
- Everyone has issues. Remember, lots of people have chronic illnesses – diabetes, lupus, and the like. They get in and out of relationships, have families, and live their lives with their illness, not battling it. When I am feeling down, it's easy to think that my husband and child would be better off without me, but that's exactly when I need to reach out to them (and to my doctors) for support. No man is an island. We all need help from time to time, whether we are perfectly healthy, are going through a temporary bout of depression, or have a more severe/chronic form of mental illness. We're all in this together.
- And finally, if the relationship ends, do NOT immediately blame the illness. Millions of people break up with each other every year, and I sincerely doubt that all of them have mental illness. Therefore it stands to reason that people can grow apart for reasons that have nothing to do with being bipolar/depressed/etc. Sometimes things don't work out, and while it is sad, a person with a mental illness has to dust themselves off and move on just like every other person out there.
I hope you have a great Valentine's day, whether you are with someone or not, and that if and when you decide to enter a relationship, please remember that your mental illness is a part of you, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it. I may not like being bipolar, but I know it makes me, me. And as my husband and baby love me, warts and all, my bipolar must not be all that awful.