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