Freelance journalist Marissa Charles was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 11 years ago.
In a frank, honest account of the realities of living and dating with the condition, here she discusses the difficulties of opening up to a new partner about her suicide attempt, and why we all need to talk more about mental health.
It was a moment I’d been semi-dreading for weeks. I say ‘semi’ because if he dug deep enough and did his Google homework, my new beau would easily find an old blog of mine and then he would know – I have bipolar disorder.
I hadn’t mentioned it before because it’s not like telling someone you have diabetes or that you’re colour-blind. The list of symptoms alone feels embarrassing. Without treatment, there can be huge shifts in mood, from manic highs to crippling lows. In the grip of the former, you may have delusions of grandeur, go on spending sprees, need little sleep and engage in risky sex to feed your rampant libido. The latter can be deadly – days lost to sleep, or worse, lives expunged by suicide.
What you’re telling someone is you have a condition where all of the above could happen (in some cases, again) if you don’t take your meds. And stress can trigger those symptoms even if you are medicated.
But he clearly didn’t know, because he didn’t mention it and seemed quite happy sitting across from me at my local Mexican restaurant, as we waited on our fajitas, me on my second Margarita.
Read more: “Did I inherit my mum’s depression?”
And then it came up. I genuinely cannot remember how, but he asked me a question and I inwardly rolled my eyes because I knew the moment had come (a little earlier than I’d hoped), and I said: “It’s because I had a nervous breakdown and I have bipolar.”
Nothing. He didn’t get up, throw some money on the table, make his excuses and hurry out. His eyes didn’t widen. He didn’t even flinch. He just said, “OK.” I think I may have asked him if he wasn’t scared. When I honestly say I can’t remember his exact answer, it’s because he was nonplussed. He seemed, despite my worrying, just as keen on me as he did five minutes before.
On the surface I was relieved. Deep inside, I thought, ‘Is this guy for real?’ No normal person would just shrug off the fact that the woman they’ve been dating for the past three weeks has a mental illness, surely.
Although bipolar disorder is the newer, sexier term for manic depression, it’s still a mental illness – a chemical imbalance in the brain.
The Bipolar Foundation states that the condition affects up to 2.4 million people in the UK. And it can be life-threatening. According to NHS Choices, those with it are 20 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Well-known people with bipolar include Catherine Zeta Jones, Stephen Fry, Demi Lovato and the late Carrie Fisher.
It might be a common condition, but there still seems to be shame around admitting you live with it – and so dating can be a thorny issue.
When I was first diagnosed I asked my then-psychiatrist when he thought I should mention it to potential boyfriends. He said, “Well, not on the first date.” I have to confess that until now, there had been no one serious enough for me to even have that conversation with. It’s not exactly something you mention to a man you're having a roll in the hay with because you’re in the grip of a manic-fuelled hypersexual phase. How do you say, “I’m only fucking you right now because I feel like I'm crawling out of my skin and the only thing that can assuage my lust is a non-judgemental warm body that I barely know and, tag, you’re it”?
But this romance had legs and I knew the conversation was inevitable. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s response was positive. Ten days after we had The Talk, we were in bed when he asked me to tell him about my nervous breakdown: another hurdle I was dreading. My breakdown was messy and partly explains why I’d been terrified of getting close to any man.
On New Year's Eve night 2005 in Sri Lanka, I’d had a vicious row with a love interest via texts. I got drunk and attempted to do something I’d secretly been planning in my head for months – to walk into the ocean until it swallowed me whole. I’d wanted to do it where I lived in California, but the opportunity here was ripe for the taking.
Minutes into 2006 I waded into the Indian Ocean. I stopped in my tracks when the water came up to my waist, and froze. I used my mobile to call a friend who begged me to meet her at my hotel. I did. Six hours later, on the way to Colombo Airport in a taxi, I had yet another text message argument and I snapped. I threw myself out of the moving car into oncoming traffic and ran. By the grace of God I wasn't hit, just bruised and banged up with a sprained arm and an ankle that would later swell to three times its size.
Six weeks later, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. Finally, I understood why I’d been feeling suicidal for months, why I couldn’t sleep, why I was perpetually horny and acting out sexually, why I needed alcohol to take the edge off when my body was jittery and my mouth couldn’t keep up with my racing thoughts.
Surely if I told my boyfriend this story he’d run away? In bed, he held me as I flinched while recalling it. I was ready for what would happen next; I wouldn’t have blamed him if a cacophony of alarm bells went off in his head. But later, as he left my house to say goodbye, he hugged me, looked me dead in the eyes with some concern and said: “If you ever feel that way again you can always talk to me about it. Don't be afraid.”
I felt peace, more than relief. I know I’m blessed. Dating someone with bipolar can be a daunting prospect. There is nothing glamorous or neat about the condition. It’s messy. Fortunately, my man is mature enough to know that, like diabetes or any number of health issues, with the right medication and a healthy lifestyle my condition is manageable.
Telling someone you have bipolar should be as easy as saying you have diabetes. Often it isn’t. I believe talking more about mental health is an important way to combat that. I’m glad that I was upfront about it, that I dropped it into conversation over fajitas and a Margarita, because while bipolar doesn’t define me, it is part of who I am. And there should be no shame in that.
The charity Mind campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding of mental health issues. Visit mind.org.uk for advice and support.
For further information on bipolar disorder, visit nhs.uk.