it's complicated

Knowing I’m Bipolar Made Me Better at Dating

Photo: J.V. Aranda

When most people think of bipolar disorder, they’re thinking of bipolar 1. I know I used to, anyway. I thought of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, sweet and soft-spoken one moment, harsh and abusive the next. I thought of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; I thought of Jim Carrey in The Mask. I (mistakenly) thought bipolar 1 looked like the intense highs and lows depicted in these films, and that bipolar 1 and 2 were pretty much the same. To me back then, being bipolar meant having two different personalities.

But I was just me. There was only one of me, a woman who worked in a tumultuous, creative industry and had student loans to pay, which meant I worked a lot. Most weekdays, I would stay up writing until 3 a.m., then roll out of bed at 6; most weekends, I would crash so hard that I’d barely leave my bed. I’d had anxiety since I was a kid, so I thought this was just that plus a strong work ethic. And then last year, I met a doctor who gently disagreed. These were symptoms, she said, of bipolar 2.

It’s an illness associated with milder manifestations of mania, clinically known as hypomania: for me, it was my racing thoughts, rapid speech, never feeling tired, and intense anxiety. (Compare that to the manic behaviors linked to bipolar 1, such as excessive spending, risky sexual behavior, or substance abuse.) Bipolar 2 can make you feel like you’re being swept down a river, desperately trying to cling onto something steady. For me, that something was always a person.

Even when dating casually, I dated monogamously. Dating was black-and-white: either we were nothing, or he was my everything. Having a monogamous partner felt instrumental to my survival; I needed it. I couldn’t fathom living an entire life without having someone to call for backup, in case things took a turn for the worse. I didn’t feel like I was strong enough to do anything alone. Even so, whenever I did end up in a monogamous relationship, my anxiety would ruin it. Is he going to leave me? Does he still like me? What if our relationship ends, what would happen to me then? My brain spit out questions like these like a paper ribbon from a 1920s stock ticker.

And then, the diagnosis. The psychiatrist who told me I had bipolar 2 gave me a common prescription for the disorder, Lamictal. I took it, and for the first time in 30 years — my entire life — I stopped experiencing anxiety. I had fewer low days; I slept better; I stopped working myself to the bone.

Untreated bipolar 2 kept me stuck in thought processes that limited me from flexibility and, ultimately, happiness, because I was hell-bent on creating some sort of stability in my life. But treating my bipolar 2 had me feeling stable on my own, like I knew how to take care of myself.

When I saw the psychiatrist, I was in the midst of a bad breakup, one that left me with nowhere to live. I decided to drive across the country on my own for a year, with a vague plan to live in a half-dozen cities for one or two months at a time. Being on the right medication and this change in my living situation changed everything about the way I dated: Because I knew my time in each place was so limited, dating one person at a time didn’t feel like the right choice.

At the same time, I sought the support of multiple friends and family, instead of looking for this kind of connection only in my romantic life. There’s something so steadying in knowing your emotional support can be found in multiple places, instead of a single source; I no longer feel tied to confiding in, venting to, and dating one person in particular.

When you already don’t feel “normal,” the cultural messaging and societal pressure to be partnered is heightened: all you want to do is to fit in. Eventually, I will date monogamously again. When I’m ready, I will look for someone with empathy and kindness who can support me when I’m acutely feeling the symptoms of bipolar 2, which is rare but happens from time to time. But that person won’t be my everything.

Knowing I’m Bipolar Made Me Better at Dating