Thursday 19 May 2016

MHAW: Bipolar in Love, Navigating a Relationship While Living with a Mood Disorder

Bethany shares her experience of dealing with bipolar disorder whilst holding a relationship together.
- Bethany Lipka

My relationships have always been tumultuous, and an on-again, off-again pattern has defined almost every relationship I've had since I started dating at age 14. 

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (type 2) at age 24, this dating pattern suddenly made a lot of sense. Looking back, I could clearly see that hypomanic-me was capable of being happily in love, while depressed-me projected all of my negative self-perceptions onto my partner. “You don’t really love me”, “you think I’m stupid”, “just leave”, are all things I have said to people who absolutely did love me, who thought I was smart and funny, and who wanted to be with me. 

So after my diagnosis I felt relieved that I had finally identified this disordered pattern of thinking and behavior, so that I could prevent it in the future. I was in a relationship at the time (of the off, then on-again variety), and I thought that I finally had the information I needed to make sure things stayed stable. No more relationship drama, problem solved!

Easier said than done. 

I found myself falling into old habits pretty quickly. A decade-long pattern is hard to break. It’s been three years now since my diagnosis, and breaking this pattern is still something I work on every day. I constantly combat the lies that my own brain tells me about my self-worth (namely, the lack thereof). And I have to be critical of every emotional perception that I have, to determine whether it’s rooted in reality, or illness. It is challenging. It is a lot of work. But it has paid off. 

The same partner that I was with at the time I was diagnosed is now my wife. Over years, we’ve developed a pretty good system of weathering my many ups and downs. I have three tips from our experiences that may come in handy if you are in a relationship and you – or your partner – are living with a mood disorder: 

1) Talk. Talk a lot. If you are feeling low and don’t feel like talking: leave notes, send texts, write emails. But keep the lines of communication open. When your mood state (our your partner’s) is an ever-shifting thing, you need to keep your partner posted on how you are doing. No one is a mind reader. 

2) Arguments are rarely about what they’re about. This is true in all relationships, but especially for couples where someone struggles with mood variability. Sometimes “this” is really about “that”. Sometimes “I’m mad you forgot to take the garbage out” is really about “I haven’t slept in three days and my anxiety is so bad that I feel like I’m falling out of an airplane”. Try to discern the difference, and get to the root of things. 

3) Practice self-care. This advice is particularly important for the partner of someone living with a mood disorder. You are often thrown into the caregiver role, and being a caregiver can be exhausting. Take time to reboot, whatever that means for you (exercise, a good book, a long bath). You can’t run on empty, and trying to do so will put your own mental health at risk, as well as your relationship.  

Relationships are always hard, and if you are living with a mood disorder they are even harder. But having a person to help you navigate life with your illness can be one of the best possible things for your mental health, making it well worth the effort. 

For more information on finding support click here.

For more information on supporting a friend or a partner click here.

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