It was the first time I told a date directly about my mental illness at the beginning of a relationship.
My first real date was with Bryant. I was a junior in high school, and I met him, a senior, in marching band. Yes, it was as geeky as it sounds. He hung around me a lot during band practice every Saturday, and he had the kind of body that middle-aged women fantasize about.
Bryant hung around me and my friend Rachel. I was so clueless about dating that I couldn’t tell he was interested in me instead of my tall, gorgeous, self-assured friend. Eventually, he asked me out, and my parents let me drive us to Red Lobster in my 1986 Renault Encore. This was after we’d kissed on the dancefloor at Rachel’s quinceanera. He smelled of masculinity and cocoa butter.
Having bipolar had made me rejection-averse, and I’d begun playing out scenarios of spinsterhood or of seemingly promising relationships that ended when my paramour learned the truth about me. Because my depressed mind convinced me that I was broken and unworthy of love, I believed it.
The lighting was bright in the restaurant, and we talked about the upcoming parade and the kinds of movies we liked. My Dad had given me money before I left the house, and my Mom had told me that I always needed enough money to pay my own way or boys would expect something. This would be one of many dates in which I wouldn’t let Bryant treat me for anything. That pattern continued into my senior year, even though Bryant had entered the Air Force reserves and had a job.
We probably each ate a seafood platter of some sort and shared a dessert, as I still thought that girls shouldn’t eat in front of boys they liked. After dinner, I rinsed my mouth and chewed mints in the bathroom so he’d think that my breath always smelled of sweet freshness even after a fish dinner.
I drove Bryant back home after we ate, and we made out in my car for long enough for me to worry if my parents were worried about me. We agreed to talk every night on the phone and to make plans for another date. I broke up with him after less than a year while baking a cake for my cousin’s birthday.
It turned out that I didn’t like him as much as the idea of him, and I’d reached my limit.
Eight years later, he still blamed me for breaking up with him and ruining his life.
Thuan was a year behind me in college, but we met while working a class reunion the summer before my senior year. We got along very well, laughing at each other’s jokes and talking about music by Edith Piaf and The Eagles. We spent all of our free time during the reunion together but lost touch over the summer.
At the campus bookstore the following term, I bumped into Thuan in the English literature section. We caught each other up on our summers, and he asked me if I’d like to go out for ice cream the following Saturday night. I happily agreed, and we set a place and time for what I believed was our first official date.
Thuan was someone for whom I had a genuine affection, and I was excited to hang out with him again. I was also excited that I had a date since I’d been dateless throughout college. I was also excited about having a one-bedroom apartment off campus to myself in case the date turned physical. I vacuumed the carpet just in case.
The night before Thuan and I were to go out, I spent the evening smoking pot and drinking with a schoolmate who’d already graduated. We cavorted through the Gothic architecture of our campus on a meandering sojourn for Indian food. I had a severe case of the giggles, and my eyelids drooped, which has always been my tell for being stoned. My group ran into Thuan and his group at a three-way intersection downtown, everyone at least getting into their cups. We talked for a minute, our respective social cohorts waiting in impatience and mock indifference.
“I’m excited about our date tomorrow,” he told me before we parted.
My inebriation had made me uncharacteristically effusive. “Me too,” I responded, placing my hand on his shoulder and perching on the balls of my feet to kiss him on the cheek. Through the haze, I could see Thuan smile and give a look of mild intrigue. I bounced down the street towards my friends and proceeded to leave an Indian meal on the table uneaten because I was too high to stop laughing or hold my head up.
The next night, I was still excited about meeting Thuan for coffee. In fact, I’d been excited about everything all day.
I’d done some reading that morning, a Saturday, and I’d met my cousin in town for brunch. She was, incidentally, the same cousin for whom I baked a cake while dumping Bryant. When she left, I went to work on a play I was producing in the Theater Studies department.I’d climbed a few ladders, moved some paint cans, and had a meeting with the show’s director and set designer. I hadn’t stopped all day and was equally boundless while skip-walking down Elm Street.
I had a brief thought about whether I could be high 24 hours after smoking marijuana. It didn’t seem biologically possible, but I felt unlike myself in the best way possible. Usually talkative, I was ebullient. Prone to nap on Saturday afternoons, I kept my energy up for a whole day, even with fitful sleep the night before. Typically a sharp thinker, I felt like my thoughts now came with lightning speed.
Thuan and I kissed hello in front of the local ice cream establishment, picked out our cones, and chose a round table near the middle of the store. We talked as before, but I jumped on his sentences, my words seeming to fall from my lips before I knew they were there. Thuan looked confused because even I could tell that my behavior was out of character.
I tried to slow myself down, but I sounded overly excited and somewhat bullyish. He neared the end of his small cup, and I could tell that his interest in me had faded. I was so wired that my mind refused to register the disappointment. Thuan gave me a flabby-armed hug when we parted, and surprisingly, I never ran into him again.
I wasn’t anxious that night; it turned out to be a hypomanic bipolar episode, though I wouldn’t understand that for another 15 years.
During the tenth year of an undefined friendship with some dating and benefits thrown in, Robert and I lived in the same city and had decided to date like adults. After a year or so together, we grew apart. Rather, he became less attentive, and I said, “I love you.” But we were still a couple — or so I thought — when my birthday rolled around.
Robert and I seemed incapable of finalizing a plan to celebrate my birthday at an outdoor dancing series. We’d always enjoyed ballroom dancing together, and I’d decided that the upcoming event would be the perfect place for a date.
I wanted to buy the tickets that day, and Robert drug his feet deciding which day he wanted to go. We completed a litany of text messages and a few brief phone calls before deciding on the Wednesday event. He’d been laid off for six months, but still had a year’s worth of savings to support himself.
I’d taken off work to deal with a crippling bout of depression. I was well enough to leave the house thirty-percent of the time, but 30% wasn’t enough for work, and I still had periods of uncontrolled tears and brain fog.
He met me at my apartment a few hours before our date. We hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks, so we chatted in my living room for about an hour. I asked him to produce my obligatory birthday card, but he hadn’t gotten one. Something was different. We weren’t connecting, which was atypical of the whole of our relationship. I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t know where to look, so he kissed me, and we went into the bedroom to make love. He was distracted and didn’t finish, saying that he was worried about the time and that we should get ready to leave.
We took a subway to the event location. Since we were earlier than we expected, we stood around feeling uncomfortable with each other. I racked my brain about what the matter could be, settling on concern over finances and professional direction. In spite of my depression, I was still an available and agreeable girlfriend. I made sure that he wasn’t inconvenienced at all by my mood or my social withdrawal.
He was the first man I ever told about my condition, and I wanted to keep him in case I couldn’t find another man to accept my mental illness.
Once the band took the stage, Robert and I engrossed ourselves in the dance lesson, incorporating Latin moves into a swing dance routine we’d practiced the year we met.Though we moved well together, our flame had become a dying ember, and I felt a wall between us as strongly as if it had risen from the flagstone beneath our feet. He held me in his embrace, but his eyes looked elsewhere. Halfway through the first set, I told him that my dancing shoes hurt my feet and that I’d be okay to leave.
I was half lying.
Dinner followed dancing, and we focused on our food instead of each other. No touching, not much talking. The air around us was that of a deflated balloon, flat and limp.
Hours before, I’d been happy to see Robert, excited that we’d get to spend the evening and the night together. But at that dinner, I just wanted to go home. My depressed brain told me that I’d pushed him away, that of course I messed up a relationship that I wanted to continue since I was bad at dating and my longest boyfriend had stuck around for only 18 months.Negative thoughts settled into the ruts worn in my brain by bipolar depression, and they stuck around until Robert said goodnight at the sidewalk and left in the direction of the closest parking garage.
A week later, I caught Robert in a lie, and he broke up with me so that he could see a mutual friend with whom he’d become “really close” in the previous six months. I couldn’t hear what he said to me over the sound of keening tears and thoughts of unworthiness, brokenness, and despair.
He’ll never see the $2000 I borrowed from him because we don’t speak. He married the mutual friend.
“I need to talk to you about something very serious,” I told Steven on our second date. He looked at me, concern in his eyes.
“Go ahead; I’m listening,” was his answer, and I was glad for the seeming vote of approval. I looked down, suddenly engrossed in the way my fingers toyed with the base of my wine glass.I looked away from him for a second as I screwed up my courage and tried to smooth my breathing so that I could utter my confession.
It was the first time I told a date directly about my mental illness at the beginning of a relationship.
“Uh…I have bipolar disorder?” I never ended a sentence on an unnecessary question. I was nervous. “Yeah, and I just wanted you to know because we said that we liked each other and you should know what you’re agreeing to.” I took a sip of water, as my mouth had become dry from the tannic wine and jitters.
“Was that the serious thing you had to tell me?” Steven seemed incredulous that I’d consider my bipolar diagnosis “serious.” To me, it was a very big deal since I was telling him something I’d only recently started to admit to my family, let alone to someone I’d known for a week and wanted to kiss.
“There’s no reason to worry about that. Don’t look so scared!” He looked into my eyes and touched my hand with those words, and I let out my breath.
I wasn’t really as relieved that Steven didn’t care about my disease as much as I was relieved that I’d actually gone through with my plan. I wasn’t usually good at expressing myself. I didn’t usually ask for whatever I wanted in a romantic relationship. I was going out on the first date after my longest depressive episode, and I was letting him know that I might relapse or need to check out emotionally or be a little needy.
I was proud of myself for finally being in touch enough with my thoughts and feelings to talk about them. Having bipolar had made me rejection-averse, and I’d begun playing out scenarios of spinsterhood or of seemingly promising relationships that ended when my paramour learned the truth about me. Because my depressed mind convinced me that I was broken and unworthy of love, I believed it. But I’d had a positive experience telling my truth, and it bolstered my confidence in expressing myself.
I told Steven that I’d been hospitalized. He was accepting and offered to listen to me talk about it that night or any time I wanted. It was dark, and our pillow talk had turned decidedly serious.
I cried, because any intense emotion made me cry since I’d let them out. As I fell asleep on his chest, I smiled through my tears, decades of truth and disclosures ready to be spoken.
Learning about my mental illness has been an exercise in self-definition, the way I’ve defined myself becoming most evident through my romantic relationships. I was bold and confident when my mind was healthy, but shame about my mental illness made me feel broken and unworthy to assert myself with others. When my mental illness was out of control, I behaved erratically with the men in my life and ignored the signs of depression and mania. I lied to myself and other people, and those lies kept me from accepting my disease and making healthy connections.
But once I learned how to discuss my bipolar disorder, I stopped defining myself by my illness and started talking about my emotions as well as my struggles.
It’s still hard sometimes to tell a boyfriend when I’m feeling depressed or to initiate the dreaded relationship conversation.
But knowing that I’m dating someone who knows and understands my emotional history reassures me that I’m getting better — and getting better at being honest.
Tracey is a writer, a marketer, a feminist and a sarcastic smartypants. She lives in New York City and writes mostly about relationships, mental health and all the intersections of her identity. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Elle and The Establishment. Follow Tracey on Twitter.