The popular caricature of the disease — people swinging rapidly between happiness and sadness — isn’t the whole story. Most of us may have been unhappy enough at one time or another to recognize a fit of depression, but the other half of the disease (the mania that leads to everything from religious fervor to shopaholism to insatiable libido) is much harder to fathom. For instance, hypomania, a mild form of mania characterized by enviable productivity, can lead to what is called a “mixed episode,” in which the bipolar individual is both miserable and energetic enough to do something about it.
This probably isn’t how most people picture bipolar disorder. Yet despite this, more people than ever think they know what bipolar is — a mixed blessing for those who suffer from it. This is partially thanks to the ubiquity of advertisements for medications like Abilify and Zyprexa, and partially due to diagnoses, which have doubled over the last decade. Eight out of ten Americans think they know what bipolar disorder is. The high-school teacher convicted of seducing her fourteen-year-old student, has employed the bipolar defense. (Heard this all the way from the UK) And if they don’t trumpet it as the explanation for their misdeeds, media experts are happy to do so on their behalf. Without ever having met her, Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow all but diagnosed Britney Spears on air that month. “I would put on the list of possibilities a mood disorder like bipolar,” he said, further cementing it as the official catch-all for crazy people.
“There is never a story or scene with healthy, happy bipolars because even though that type comprises the bulk of the population, it doesn’t sell and isn’t exciting,” says a bipolar woman who maintains a blog about bipolar disorder called Weird Cake. “Top this off with sensational misinformation from people like Oprah, and you build a population that fears us and looks for us in dark corners.”
As a result, half of all adults say they wouldn’t date a bipolar person. Ninety percent of marriages involving a bipolar person end in divorce, but I figured that statistic applied to couples who were ill-informed about the illness, people who weren’t prepared to meet it head-on. I also ascribed the figure to reporting bias: there were plenty of people out there who were bipolar and lived drama-free lives, and thus never made it into the statistics.
Even in the most even-keeled people, dating can be a crisis between ideality and reality. We’re constantly told that the key to successful dating is to be yourself. However, “when you have a psychiatric illness, it’s a part of you,” says a bipolar Brit who keeps a pseudonymous blog: Social Anxiety and Bipolar Diary of Annie. “You cannot tell where your personality ends and the illness begins.” Therefore this develops a bit of a problem.
Locating this gulf between personality and illness often falls to the significant other. “I find it difficult to realize when my daydreams cross a line into unhealthy hypomania,” says Annie. “This is where I rely on my friends to put me right and stop me from getting carried away.”
The lack of professional supervision means people in relationships with bipolar individuals must step outside the normal boundaries. Such actions have saved lives; they’ve also violated trust, and in the end, I found myself unable to tell where the line separating those two requirements was.
Which is why some bipolar people prefer to date others with the same disorder. Some people are tired of being misunderstood by a population generally unfamiliar with this condition. But even for someone with a similar illness, another person’s mental health is not an easy thing to be responsible for, and Leftwich says even he isn’t sure he would use his own website right now. “Personally, I’m in a frame of mind where I’m not sure I want someone with a mental illness,” he says.
On the other hand, an issue like bipolar disorder may encourage a healthy sense of compassion. When twenty-eight-year-old software engineer Jil told her husband about her illness on their very first date, she was happy that he seemed a little bewildered and had lots of questions — it meant he cared. “I also wanted to be a better person because of him, and when I feel no other reason to swallow those pills that stabilize my mood, I do it for his sake, not just my own,” says Jil.
I have my own theory about relationships with the bipolar: the successful ones are those in which the relationship simply isn’t in competition with the disease. Some seem to regard the illness as a more intimate part of them than anyone could ever understand — not just a profoundly affecting experience, the way other serious diseases are, but almost the entire essence of their existence. In the end, more people simply wanted there to be more.