Canada·First Person

Romance when you're bipolar is a challenge. But I'm figuring it out

Dating with bipolar disorder can be a whirlwind of emotions but it’s teaching me to be a better partner, writes Ann Marie Elpa.

The ups and downs of dating are quite literal episodes for me

An illustration of a rollercoaster with a heart in the landscape background. The ups and downs of dating are quite literal when you’re bipolar, writes Ann Marie Elpa. (Allison Cake/CBC)

This First Person column is written by Ann Marie Elpa who lives with bipolar II disorder. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Dating in your early twenties has its ups and downs. For me, those ups and downs are perhaps more literal. 

I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder earlier this year after a string of mental health episodes. 

Most people experience their first episode in their late teens to early twenties. I had mine in the kitchen of my sorority house one random day while making dinner. It was a swarm of unwelcome thoughts and disturbing thoughts that I couldn't shut off: disappointing the people I cared about, being a terrible person, fearing that someone was out to ruin me, unworthy of love. 

Initially, I was misdiagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression which meant I didn't know the warning signs of my actual mental health condition. 

So it was perhaps unsurprising that I went on an impulsive brunch date with someone I had just matched with on a dating app the previous night after exchanging a mere four messages. That relationship lasted for two very intense weeks. I frequently went over to his condo and became intimate too quickly. 

The intensity concerned my roommates, especially as the holidays rolled around and I tried to incorporate him in my plans. I wish I knew that this intensity was not normal toward someone I had known only for two weeks and that perhaps it pointed to something larger that I needed to sort within myself. 

Dating post-diagnosis was slightly different. 

I finally had a name for my mental illness, which not only gave me some clarity on how to manage my symptoms but also allowed me to access the proper treatment and medication. 

You never know how someone might react or if they would understand what living with a lifelong disorder is like. There were times I couldn't get out of bed and had to cancel a date last minute, much to the chagrin of the other person. 

When I disclosed my bipolar diagnosis to someone on our first date at a sushi restaurant, he seemed to listen.

"So it's pretty much mood swings," he said. 

Yes, but it's a little more complicated than just mood swings. 

An illustration of a woman with different emotional expressions. Ann Marie Elpa writes that her first episode of bipolar II was a swarm of unwelcome thoughts and disturbing thoughts that she couldn’t shut off. (Allison Cake/CBC)

Living with bipolar II means experiencing fluctuations between hypomanic and depressive episodes that get in the way of my personal and professional life. These episodes are characterized by abnormally elevated mood, unusual levels of productivity, a decreased need for sleep, and impulsivity — especially when it comes to dating. 

But he seemed to be OK with it, so I didn't push.

Things progressed rather quickly. We made travel plans to Vancouver, texted frequently back and forth, and planned future dates to anime conventions the next year. 

And just as quickly, things took a turn for the worse. We had just come back from a comic convention when I felt an incoming wave of explosive emotions. Suddenly I just didn't feel the energy to keep up with someone I was falling head over heels for and I just wanted to escape from reality. 

I'm not ashamed of my diagnosis, but upon reflection, it was a mistake to disclose something that made me so vulnerable when I was still coming to terms with it myself. 

Even though I had shared my diagnosis on my first date, I don't think he realized the reality of what it was like to date someone with a bipolar diagnosis until that moment. After an uncomfortable conversation, we never saw each other or spoke ever again. 

Even today, the hardest part about dating for me while bipolar is the stigma, especially when having "the conversation." While it's great to have an understanding, supportive partner, I know I need to look after myself first. 

My bipolar diagnosis has made me accountable to my own emotions. I regularly attend therapy sessions, maintain a consistent sleep schedule and take my mood stabilizers. 

After going into therapy, I'm more in control because I have techniques I can use such as breathing (counting to 10 when I have an impulse), identifying triggers and taking preventative measures such as limiting credit card purchases and my phone usage. This has translated into making less impulsive decisions in my dating life as well. 

I'm still trying to find that balance of when and with whom I share my diagnosis. Hopefully, this makes me a better partner. 

But above all, I've learned that living with bipolar disorder does not make me any less deserving of giving and receiving love. Many of us long for intimacy and to one day share our lives with someone just as much as anyone else — we just need to find the best way to express it for ourselves.

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Ann Marie Elpa

Freelance contributor

Ann Marie Elpa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in English and Book and Media Studies. Her work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Refinery29 and HuffPost.