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Love Rollercoaster


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At the end of my first date with Sara, she moved in with me.

You might think the date was extraordinary. It wasn't. We'd gone to a Hollywood hamburger stand and gabbed about bands and writers for four hours. Until that night, we'd only spoken on the phone a few times. It didn't matter. By the time the ice in my soda had melted, I'd fallen in love.

Sara was twenty-seven, and what people used to call a wag: smart, quick-witted, encyclopedic. She could recount every failed Everest expedition in mesmerizing detail — the sort of a talent I would expect of a rock climber, not someone who'd never gone camping. I kept wondering why no one had snapped her up. Then I found out.

promotion

"There's something you should know about me," she said, a couple of hours into the date. "I hope it doesn't scare you off."

Panicked thoughts raced through my mind. A jealous ex? An STD? I tried to remember if I'd sipped from her drink.

"I'm bipolar," she said.

"Good," I replied.

This was the odd humor Sara and I had already established, but I wasn't entirely joking. I'd had several close bipolar friends, and had once been in a long-term relationship with a bipolar woman, Nyla, whom I still consider the smartest person I've ever met. From a distance, I'd seen how much energy it took Nyla to keep her episodes under control: weekly doctor's visits, blood tests, complicated regimens of medications.

And yet for all their problems, my bipolar buddies had always kept things interesting. Take my friend Jerome, hired one summer to drive a van full of rich and annoying European teenagers across the country. Somewhere in the Midwest, without telling the kids or his employer or anyone else where he was going, he simply got out at a gas station and walked away. "I was bored," he told me. Irresponsible, yes, but hilarious.

I didn't hear Sara's story until later, but it didn't have many funny parts. Her condition was rooted in a childhood depression that began when her father died suddenly of stomach cancer. At eighteen, she enrolled in the Ivy

"Of the two of us," I told her as we lay happily in bed, "I must be the crazier one."

League university she'd dreamt of attending since childhood, and within a semester, was incapacitated by depression; she dropped out and returned to L.A. Suicide attempts followed. Then came her diagnosis, and years of experimenting with different psychiatric drugs until her doctors found the magic combination. Sidelined for years, she was finally looking forward again: doing PR for a record label and working part-time toward her bachelor's degree.

How could you not admire such a person? When I looked at Sara, I felt inspiration, not pity. And even though I'm not the type to plunge quickly into relationships, I was convinced I was in love. I invited her back to my place. Aside from a quick trip to clean out her studio apartment a few weeks later, she never went home.

"Of the two of us," I told her as we lay happily in bed, "I must be the crazier one."

Nine months later I stood over her pale, unconscious body, frantically dialing 911 for the first time in my life.




You could compile an entire book of quotes comparing love to madness. But of all the psychological issues in the DSM-IV, only one really resembles the experience of love. "An illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure," writes Dr. Kay Jamison in one of the most famous memoirs of bipolar illness, An Unquiet Mind. It's easy to confuse love with mania, Jamison says. The trouble is that love is fleeting. There's no cure for bipolar.

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, which is a mild form of mania characterized by enviable productivity, can lead to what is called a "mixed state," in which the bipolar individual is both miserable and energetic enough to do something about it. Before Nyla had found an effective combination of meds, she drove halfway across the country in a mixed state, buying expensive clothes and jewelry for herself, with the goal of committing suicide when she reached California. Fortunately, her mania dissipated before she made it there.

Like such behavior, love is nonsensical. All relationships suffer from irrationality, which is why they can be particularly susceptible to the ups and downs of bipolar. The most obvious problem is the wild swings in libido: one week your partner wants sex all the time — maybe too often — and the next they've got the sexual impulses of a Buddhist monk. With both Nyla and Sara, I never knew what sort of response my advances would receive. And after sex, when I thought we'd both enjoyed ourselves, sometimes Sara would burst into tears. "What's wrong?" I'd whisper, to which she'd cryptically reply, "I feel overwhelmed."

Sara's life was a constant battle against entropy. While most of us are bored by too much routine, Sara was obsessive about hers, and as her boyfriend, I found myself joining her in it. I, who have never liked TV, started watching hours of it with her every night. Infatuated with cleaning products, Sara taught me the joys of repetitive household maintenance. It took her all day to clean the bathroom, and when she was done, she would begin all over again. "It's better than watching TV, isn't it?" she'd say, as if these predictable tasks were the only options.

Our relationship became defined by obsessive routine, something that might normally have made me feel antsy and restless. But because Sara clung to the structure so fervently, I followed her lead. I began to drop off the social map. The parameters of our life together drew further and further inward, until we were living in a tiny, airtight box created by the quirks of her disorder. I became not only her enabler, but her progeny as well.


        

  

Commentarium (32 Comments)

Jan 28 08 - 6:23am
sm

I've been on nerve for three years and have never sent feedback.

This story? I had to.

Wonderful stuff, very well written. Thanks very much, Justin.

Jan 28 08 - 11:39am
NM

Just a thought--the off-label use of certain anticonvulsants for bipolar disorder is not scary. It's saved my life, as well as that of countless others.
Most off-label uses are neither frightening nor lucrative lies created by big pharma. Rather, many of them are happy accidents: heart medicine becomes Viagra, Wellbutrin (as Xyban) helps people quit smoking.
Check out crazymeds.org, a well-researched blog/information source on psychiatric medications.

Jan 28 08 - 7:43pm
????

Justin, I dated a girl with BPD last year, and leaving her was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- it's a really complicated story, and I still haven't been on a date since. Everything just hurts too much. I guess I'm just grateful to know that I'm not alone. Thank you.

Jan 29 08 - 7:01am
CLS

As one who has bipolar disorder, I read this with interest, yet it left me feeling doomed to be alone. Everyone is attracted to me in the beginning; as was written, it's always interesting. Two failed marriages and countless relationships later, I wonder if choosing to stay single would not be a better outcome for all.

Jun 26 11 - 7:00am
gaby

Id suggested you to read You can heal your life by Louise Hay and think about why we choose painful relashionship. Gaby from Buenos Aires

Jan 30 08 - 1:42am
TL

I've been dating a bipolar man for two and a half years. We're very happy and plan to get married soon. So there are some relationships that work! I couldn't tell you why his illness doesn't affect our relationship much, but I suspect it's because he never had full-blown manic episodes and he never had suicidal tendencies.

Jan 29 08 - 2:44pm
DL

Thank you, Justin.
Thank you.

Your story speaks to my predicament, and it's no small thing that you made me tear up at my desk. Thank you for writing this article, and helping to remind me what the perspective of hindsight can look like. I wish you well.

Cheers,

Jan 29 08 - 6:17pm
WW

First - saying "bipolar" is like saying "cancer". There are many, many different flavors. Some can be treated with medication + therapy and the person will be in "remission" for the rest of their lives. Some are, unfortunately, fatal because treatment (talk and meds) simply isn't sophisticated enough yet.

Lumping all bipolar people together is doing millions of people a disservice. I was diagnosed bipolar and frankly articles like this, run alone, make me angry. If Nerve is going to run a disparaging and hopeless article like this (which is completely valid because it is one person's genuine experience) then an accompanying article, a success story if you will should also be offered. But as the author here suggests - it wouldn't be as sensational - it wouldn't have the "lookie lou" effect of a car accident and likely wouldn't get 1/4 of the reads.

Please, please keep in mind "bipolar" is a catch all phrase, like "cancer" - treatment can be very,very effective depending on the situation.

p.s.In my opinion a responsible person, with any mental illness in a close, loving relationship will respect their partner enough to give written permission for the partner to talk to their doctor(s). Yes, this takes a high level of trust, but if you are close enough it is worth it. It lowers fear/stress a great deal. A good doctor will have no issues telling the partner if whatever they are expressing or asking about is going too far. A loved partner deserved this kind of security - the ability to express concerns to a doctor if they ever feel the need. Or perhaps I am lucky enough to have a respectful doctor and partner.

Jan 29 08 - 7:25pm
nw

its so hard for me to read a story like that and not get angry. not all bipolar people are the same. i have been medicated for almost 7 years now and have had my ups and downs, but i am nothing like i was before medication. i try to give myself a break. im human. i have good days and i have bad days. but being bipolar doesnt make me damaged goods, but reading stories like this always makes me feel that way.

Jan 29 08 - 8:07pm
LC

At the end of this article, you claim you broke up with Sara because you "wanted there to be more." I have only the flawed perspective of an outsider, but I think that, if you can characterize a person whom you once loved as nothing but an illness, you're the one who's lacking.

Jan 29 08 - 10:38pm
cc

I am left feeling so bad after reading this. I am bi polar...have been my whole life. I, after many years of different medications and doctors, am stable and happy. I am one of the most well adjusted people amongst my friends. Yes I am in therapy twice a week and yes I take "scary" medications- anti seizure included- but this article makes it sound like all bi polars are a heart beat away from suicide. I haven't thought of suicide in 7 years. I have a great job and a bright future. And I am bi polar. It is a small part of who I am. My personality has nothing to do with my disease. If a man isn't going to date me because of my mental illness- well it's his loss, because i see nothing but a happy healthy marriage in my future.

Jan 30 08 - 12:36am
KN

I want to thank you for this very informative piece on what it is like to be in love with a bi-polar person. My husband of the past 7 years has put up with all kinds of mess. From me spending the last 2 dollars to me organizing the pantry in alphabetical order.

I wish that more people understood that being bi-polar doesn't exactly make a person loony, it's just hard to make sense out of daily life sometimes.

Jan 30 08 - 3:46am
rjs

Interesting the entire story talked about her disorder. At least she recognized it as such at attempted within the limits of her abilities to do something about it. The burning question that came up for me was "when will the author take a look in the mirror and come to the fact that he is of equal ill health as his lady friend" ?

Yes you are a wonderful writer BUT.... you move in with a person after the first date and then continue for months to fall into her unhealthy world the entire time knowing you were doing so? Cleaning the bathroom with her ? Watching hours of TV? Letting your friends fall away?

I feel sorry for her, I feel pity for you. You sit back and observe and cast aspersions as if your diligent research justifies your ridiculous actions.

But alas I am sure there are medications for you as well. Since you researched the topic so diligently I am sure you came a cross one or two that would be useful for you.

One more observation is that I don't see how this could help anyone except yourself. It came across as you venting, or maybe justify you own enabling of your friends sickness. Possibly a diversion from your own neuro chemical imbalance.

But as I said you are a darn good writer...

Jan 30 08 - 11:45pm
as

i think that there are many, many varieties of bipolar. it can vary from seasonal cycling in moods to having hallucinations, mania, and delusions. i would hope that readers do not take from this story that every woman with bipolar will behave as this ex did. i have bipolar and i certainly do not! i feel like there is so much stigma with the label "bipolar" -- this piece probably adds to it. with every illness, the person who is ill has some degree of personal responsibility and coping skills. i take my medication, keep my dr. appointments, and re-adjust treatment as necessary. in a lot of ways, it is like diabetes. sometimes, i feel it getting out of whack and i take care of it, it is always there, but it is manageable and treatable. don't generalize all people with bipolar by this experience.

Feb 01 08 - 3:39am
CEA

I think some of my fellow feedbackers didn't really get what you were writing. I also believe that some are writing from a pedestal they built for themselves once they started reading Nerve. Each of them had their interpretation of your article. Some of them were even gracious enough to allow you a point of view. Let them continue to look down, while failing to notice the clouds getting in the way, distorting their view.

I didn't think your article was biased in any way. However, I am a biased reader because I've been married to a bipolar woman for 14 years. My experience is nothing extreme like yours, but we've had our share of ups and downs. Compared to Sara, my wife is mildly bipolar, but challenging nonetheless. There's definitely nothing I would share with the critics of this site, so I commend you on your bravery. None of them connected on what you were feeling in your relationship with Sara. I sure did. I've questioned the relationship several times based on her condition...and just like any other marriage I've questioned our relationship based on my individual happiness, too.

Feb 03 08 - 12:16pm
GR

I found it informative and valuable, having been involved with a bipolar for 20 years.

Feb 04 08 - 2:24pm
Kali

It is very hard to have a relationship with someone who chooses to define themselves by their illness, be it mental or physical. As cold as this may sound, I think my mother's happiest day was the day she was diagnosed with cancer, because she could finally be the victim she was desperate to be. Its not wrong to want a person to be more than the sum of their symptoms.

Feb 04 08 - 10:44pm
LW

Genuine, well-articulated article, man...but bipolar disorder is only one of a million forms of dysfunction, labelled or otherwise. No matter how carefully we hide or how appropriately we use social convention as a mask, each of us has our own brand of unique fucked-up-ness. Different cultural periods place a different value on each dysfunction; in Victorian England, for example, it would have been considered pathological for a woman to actively pursue certain careers. She would have been medically treated for it, even hospitalized, had she persisted. There are behaviors in our culture that we lump roughly under "normal" that are highly destructive, such as blatant drama-mongering. And yet, behavior associated with BPD does tear people apart; labels can be a handy way of getting a grip on an obvious problem. It's a conundrum, isn't it? I certainly have no answers, and I appreciate the fact that your article attempted to refrain from pat answers too. Nicely done.

Feb 05 08 - 2:46am
fyt

You're one of the worst sorts of people. It must have taken all of your reserves of craft and delusion to portray yourself as the victim here. If only the world had more saints like you: you who are so understanding, patient, and kind enough to have to put up with someone like that, someone as ill as that. Did you really think that if your story was well-researched enough, with enough concessions to personal regret, that you would be able to hide the fact that you were, in the end (and in the beginning), so selfish and self-serving; that any objective viewpoint would see that the blame and failings were yours and wholly yours? Hindsight is no excuse, but you do not use hindsight to excuse yourself or apologize: but to prove some point that is ultimately flawed because the facts are 1. You let her move in with you after a few hours 2. You let her obsessions flourish because it was easier that way 3. You let her alone because confrontation would be a sign of courage and faith on your part 4. You use the term "caregiver" as if you ever properly cared for you.

Feb 09 08 - 5:22am
ym

"Love Rollercoaster" is exactly what i called my relationship with my boyfriend who i recently left. Hes bipolar, was medicated then unmedicated... medicated then unmedicated, also an alcoholic. You went thru pretty much what i did for a little over a year and it was incredibly hard to watch him in his ups and downs. I was walking on eggshells most of the time. I didn't want to give up but it started getting out of control. I dont think you should be scared of the person you love so i had to go.

Feb 26 08 - 1:29pm
AC

I can't tell you how happy I am that you wrote this.
Thank you so much.

Mar 25 08 - 11:17am
BC

My ex-wife is bi-polar, as is the woman I later had a serious relationship with for six years. They are both very interesting, intelligent exciting women, and I loved them . However, the emotional swings can be stressful for you both, as this story relates.

BPs seem to have a problem with dealing with strong emotions, and in my limited experience try to avoid them. Medication does seem to help - I'd probably still be with the ex if she had been diagnosed and treated sooner than after 16 years of marriage.

After 25 years of trying to work within someone else's handicap (on top of my own imperfections), I hope that my next relationship is free of this challenge.

May 19 08 - 12:19pm
GJ

Enjoyed the article - just as others said the style was superb. People who have bipolar illness range from treated + healthy, through treated + symptomatic, to untreated (or off meds). Unfortunately, the media portrays sensational stories of those who are untreated or still highly symptomatic. For many of us with the illness the only significant symptoms are denial of health insurance and the overwhelming stigma. If we don't choose to reveal our condition, most of our friends and even many of our romantic partners never know.

May 23 08 - 7:14pm
KSK

What a great story ! Last year I ended a relationship with the most wonderful person I have ever met in my life. Unfortunately her illness prevented me from seeing a future with her and my children. I don't believe I will ever again meet anyone like her and my recent realationship was marred by her memories. There are so many times I want to call her and try again, but as a friend quated to me: " No matter how mant times you try to refridgerate sour milk it still will stay soured" Was my realtionship sour? Never, and I always remember the good times and have forgotten the endless hours in the emergncy room, disturbing phone calls or abusive chatter. I miss her more than anyone can imagine. My friends and family think I "nuts' to want to contact her and just see how she is doing. Will I do this? No, but it will be hard to find anyone to replace the beautiful mments we spent together.

Thanks for your article...

May 23 08 - 7:17pm
KSK

What a great story ! Last year I ended a relationship with the most wonderful person I have ever met in my life. Unfortunately her illness prevented me from seeing a future with her and my children. I don't believe I will ever again meet anyone like her and my recent relationship was marred by her memories. There are so many times I want to call her and try again, but as a friend quoted to me: " No matter how many times you try to refridgerate sour milk it still will stay soured" Was my realtionship sour? Never, and I will always remember the good times and have forgotten the endless hours in the emergency room, disturbing phone calls or abusive chatter. I miss her more than anyone can imagine. My friends and family think I'm "nuts' to want to contact her and just see how she is doing. Will I do this? No, but it will be hard to find anyone to replace the beautiful moments we spent together.

Thanks for your article...

Jul 05 08 - 7:50am
TDP

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I suffer from bipolar disorder. I have gone through great links to learn to live it.

The following is a true. BUt do not allow stereotypes. My name is Tommy D. Phillipe

and I think a counterpoint should be included. They are the numbered paragraghs.

Love Rollercoaster
Dating with bipolar disorder.
by Justin Clark
January 28, 2008

At the end of my first date with Sara, she moved in with me.

You might think the date was extraordinary. It wasn't. We'd gone to a Hollywood

hamburger stand and gabbed about bands and writers for four hours. Until that night,

we'd only spoken on the phone a few times. It didn't matter. By the time the ice in my

soda had melted, I'd fallen in love.

Sara was twenty-seven, and what people used to call a wag: smart, quick-witted,

encyclopedic. She could recount every failed Everest expedition in mesmerizing detail

Oct 10 08 - 1:16am
jh

wow. i am so glad you wrote that. i am experiencing signs of mania at 21 and used to be something so different. i am trying to learn everything i can so that one day i too can fall in love and not ruin it. thank you for sharing your story.

Nov 06 08 - 10:43pm

Wow, amazing article... I have been off and on with a girl that is bipolar and it has been an extremely painfull rollercoaster as I love this girl with everything I have but I know I have to let her go and after reading This it has given me the confidence to do so.

Nov 09 09 - 11:07pm
ASA

I can understand the popsicle thing.

It is very difficult for me to keep to a healthy eating plan. I'm very picky. I have no patience for food preparation - though, I have no patience for anything unless I'm doing it in an obsessive way...so when I'm on a healthy eating kick, it's fine, but once that ends, ice cream is my favorite thing. I have intense sugar cravings that are very difficult to fight off and even seem to induce some sort of hypomania.

Apparently this is common in people with bipolar, as well as more general carb cravings - I would take french fries and potato planks over ice cream any day, but ice cream, for obvious reasons, is much easier to get to.

I would certainly have appreciated someone helping me to eat better all the time, since I have so much difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks if I'm not doing it obsessively. It would not be something I resented. Having someone to encourage me to go on everyday runs or walks would be nice too.

But I'm not trying to get into a relationship so I can have a personal trainer/nutritionist/cheerleader. I don't feel that's fair. I don't know at what point I'll stop feeling that it's unfair to pursue a relationship with anyone.

May 07 10 - 1:18am
low cost links

Cool page.

Mar 06 11 - 11:13pm
Nicole from CA

Wonderful post Justin. I have been dating a guy for the past 1 1/2 years with bipolar disorder and your post struck a chord with me. For the majority of our relationship I haven't even given his disorder a second thought- perhaps it was because we were still in our "honeymoon phase." However, he's become hypomanic over the last 2 months and I don't think I'm strong enough to deal with how its affecting us for much longer. I really thought he was "the one" just a few months in. I don't know what changed, exactly... I just don't find little to no joy when we're together anymore.
When doing an internet search on bipolar disorder, almost all websites on "dating someone with bipolar disorder" emphasize the need for the non-bipolar partner to go above and beyond the regular requirements of a relationship to understand the disorder (which I agree with) and to put their own feelings aside so they can be there constantly for the person (don't agree with). I feel as if a healthy relationship involves equal effort and I don't want to be the one keeping things afloat, nor do I want to lose myself in someone else who ultimately doesn't notice how much time and work I put into "us". It can be so incredibly frustrating being with someone who can be so irrational, goofy, distracted, and scatterbrained. On the other hand, he's incredibly brilliant, impeccably organized, generally even-tempered, has a good sense of humor, and has a good heart. When we get along we're like two peas in a pod. But when things aren't good they're awful. I'm too hard-headed and too much of a catch to let someone bring me so far down with them. I don't even feel like we have our own moods anymore. It's become "our" mood because he's brought me down with him.
How to end it, I don't know. There isn't one particular event or one quirk of his that I could justify as the reason it probably should end. It's the accumulation of the small things- his variable moods and my subsequent insecurity as a consequence. Thank you for writing this, though. You have made things much more clear for me.

Jun 26 11 - 7:18am
gaby

Same for me bad moments more than good ones...and his harsh tongue..enough! I read you can Heal your Life by Louise Hay and open my eyes. We have only one life and deserve to life with happiness. Wish this could help