When should you tell a date about your diagnosis? Should you even tell them at all? Will they think of you differently once they know?
This past fall, the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) 2023 Spoken Word Poetry (ENG373) course inspired me to construct a slam poem about the experienced stigmas surrounding my bipolar disorder II diagnosis. “The Great & Terrible Manic Depressive” possessed a circus theme, voiced by a sardonic ringleader exhibiting the Bipolar Freakshow—by exploiting common fictions of the disorder often accepted as fact.
Such examples are riddled across Google’s search engine, amongst a lineup of humiliating, dehumanizing questions:
…How can you identify a bipolar?
…What does a bipolar look like?
…Do bipolar people feel empathy or remorse?
…Can living with a bipolar person make you crazy?
Stigma plays an insidious role throughout the lives of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder (BD). It’s deeply seeded throughout pivotal areas of our lives, feeds on low self-esteem, and if germinated—becomes the cause of debilitating depression.
Often the source that deciphers whether we’re considered “employable” or “dateable,” the power of stigma limits our rights to attain employment (affecting the ability to retain food and shelter) or whether we are fit to be in a relationship (determining inclusion to love). Depressing, right?
This claim might sound like a stretch, but as someone who has been terminated twice from successful employment the moment I disclosed my disability, I’m here to tell you: the repercussions of stigma associated with BD are precarious.
Ironically, disinformation spread about BD is perpetuated by neurotypicals, simply because they are so conditioned to social class privilege they can’t—or aren’t willing to—understand the physical impact words hold hostage over people’s lives.
Instead, fear-based urban legends about us “bipolars” are gobbled up by those who’d rather read a juicy monster story than educate themselves on less tantalizing facts about a medical condition. People’s symptoms and conditions of BD vary drastically across a broad spectrum. Yet, our condition is limited to being either villainized or romanticized. In either direction, it becomes fictionalized.
Often associated with the contrasting personality elements of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, people imagine being “bipolar” entails erratically swinging between the poles of mania and depression. That we have a good and evil side that can switch on a dime. While I often compare BD to being the unique coincidence of both sides of a coin, Stevenson’s character struggles with multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder.
The imagery of Jekyll and Hyde continues to be used synonymously with BD. While an incorrect association, I often use this example because it proves that the strength of a narrative can outweigh reality.
Romanticized, the creative artistic aspect associated with our condition can be alluring and attractive. Who would turn down a painting picnic with the genius of Vincent Van Gogh? Or a private screening of The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe?
Passionate, moody characters are immortalized as leading love interests in Brontë novels or objectified as a one-night stand in paperback harlequin romance. Moods are mysterious. Passion is rare. Together, they’re a delicious treat if handcrafted into a perfectly curated fantasy.
…Is it worth dating someone with bipolar disorder?
…Can a bipolar be faithful?
As a writer, speaking directly to you as a willing reader, we can already agree that words influence our viewpoints. Words can be malicious weapons of mass destruction or the catalyst and conduit to self-empowerment. Universally, words are power. How you label someone is life changing. If I could impart a single takeaway from this article, let it be the need to change the way the public refers to people with BD.
BD is not a noun! We are not bipolar, just like someone with cancer isn’t cancer. Altering the use of this single word changes the insinuation of monstrosity and dehumanization imposed on “The Great & Terrible Manic Depressive.”
Neurotypicals often construct fear-based assessments to judge the risks of dating someone with a mental disability, attempting to lump people in with their condition, instead of respectfully treating them like a human with a sense of agency.
Dating in a World of Neurotypicals
We live in a disconnected society, lacking personal engagement and value for relationships. The most empathetic people I know live with BD, depression, and anxiety, which are also conditions that leave people vulnerable to being mistreated.
BD is a condition that is part of me, not my identity. While I’m no longer ashamed of this, facing an uneducated public in the dating scene is like walking into a lion’s den. In a world measured by success, it’s easy to slip into believing you’re the underdog in romantic relationships.
Marriage & Toxic Expectations
When diagnosed in 2011, I was heading into what turned out to be a short marriage. Medications necessary for my stability became a source of weight gain and temporary cognitive function issues. Where beauty and success were imperative to my husband, he enforced a plan, hoping to counteract my diagnoses with an aggressive work-out regime and limiting my food intake by eliminating my access to groceries. Despite his generous salary, we ate only what he acquired from his work cafeteria at Google.
Attempting to fulfill a “Trophy Wife Checklist” came at the expense of my treatment plan and mental health. When it became apparent that I couldn’t be fixed, that became a deal breaker for my husband, who resented being “stuck with someone no longer the mental, physical, or social equal” he believed he deserved.
Divorced, Dating, & Divulging a Diagnosis
After facing personal obstacles involving a deeply conditioned lack of self-value, I came to terms that my diagnosis hardly rendered me deficient. I discovered the foreign sensation of self-confidence after embracing my differences.
Yet, as a young lady with a diagnosis and divorce already under my belt, I felt self-conscious that people would assume I had undesirable emotional baggage. Dating, after all, is the literal act of judging a book by its title and cover.
So, I decided to engage my dates with upfront conversations, being honest about my diagnosis. I wanted nothing less than unbiased acceptance and believed this tactic would siphon out those with predetermined prejudices.
Little did I realize exposing that level of personal information to strangers was incredibly dangerous, making me vulnerable to social predators specifically seeking someone with a weakness that could be exploited.
My next relationship resulted in four years of domestic and financial abuse. Of course, it didn’t start that way. After revealing my bipolar diagnoses on our first date, I was shocked and thrilled by his genuine acceptance. He confided in understanding the disorder’s nature intimately, specifically because his mother was also diagnosed with BD. Small world.
This shared bond created instant intimacy between us. We empathized and supported each other’s struggles. Overnight, he was love-bombing and asking to move into my apartment. He made me gourmet Italian dinners and encouraged I ate large healthy portions. Every morning, he brought a fresh cup of coffee to my bedside, to help start the labored process of waking up from heavy tranquilizing medications.
Things were moving too fast, but I ignored the red flags. I didn’t realize how insecure I still was about my diagnosis, convinced a complex mood disorder rendered me an undesirable partner to most. I wanted to believe in love and held on to the possibility that I could find someone who understood and loved me unconditionally.
The Subtle Art of Gaslighting
When he started gaslighting me, it was easy to do. As someone I respected for never using my condition against me, I trusted anything he challenged me with.
To get away with cheating, gambling, drug addictions, stealing my money, and pawning my jewelry, he used my disorder against me, and had me deeply questioning my own sanity. Well-oiled in the art of manipulation, he insisted these wild accusations were clearly bipolar-prompted delusional ways of thinking. I was manipulated to question myself and my sanity.
Learning to Love Yourself
After the nature of these relationships, I took a step back from dating. Not only to give myself time to heal, but to develop genuine self-love. I created a beautiful, healthy home for myself. I’m a student thriving at UTM. And at the end of the day, I love my own company. When I’m ready to start dating again, I’ll be approaching it differently.
Self-love and self-acceptance are so important when it comes to dating with BD. It’s important to remember that challenges are inevitable in romantic relationships, regardless of if you or your partner has a mental health condition or not. Everyone has issues!
Dating experiences teach you a lot about yourself. I truly believe individuals with any mental health condition can add depth and understanding to another person’s life. Everyone benefits from getting to know someone who is unlike them.
I’ve learnt a lot from the men I’ve been romantically involved with, specifically the ones who’ve treated me poorly. From those experiences, I discovered the depth of insecurities attached to my mental illness, and recognized the extent of abuse I endured was because I believed this made me broken and I wasn’t worth loving.
Dating advice I wish someone had given me?
- Ensure you are genuinely confident in yourself. Don’t go into it assuming you’re the underdog because you live with a mental health condition. Subconsciously, you’ll accept poor behaviour because you don’t believe you deserve better.
- It isn’t necessary for you to reveal your diagnosis up front, or at all. Let them get to know your character over considerable time before discussing your condition.
- Your condition isn’t a dark, looming secret. You don’t owe anyone a part of yourself you don’t want to give. When you feel ready, believe that the other person deserves to hear about that part of your life.
- Know that you are a capable, unique individual, with something special to add to another person’s life. Remind yourself of that, daily. Go into dating feeling proud of your differences.