Most of the time, living with bipolar disorder is uneventful. As long as I take my medications and check in with my therapist regularly, I’m able to keep my symptoms under control and avoid potential flare-ups of depression and extreme mood swings. Managing my mental health is usually more of a routine than an ongoing crisis, but I still have bad days, bad weeks, and even the occasional bad month where I don’t feel like I can be around people and want to disappear completely, or feel like I can’t stop moving and refuse to go to sleep. When that happens, it can interfere with my work life, friendships and—as you can imagine—completely sabotage my dating life.
Bipolar disorder causes drastic and unusual shifts in mood, activity level, and energy. For many, it’ll include recurring cycles of depression and mania, often described as extreme highs and lows, explains Kelly Campbell, a professor of psychology at California State University San Bernardino.
These symptoms can be particularly challenging when it comes to dating, especially early on in a relationship or when meeting someone new, she tells me. The fluctuating moods and periods of depression that are linked to bipolar disorder might also come off as flakiness and disinterest, and a potential partner might easily take these seemingly mixed messages to heart. Telling a date you’ll have to cancel (because you’re feeling hopeless or haven’t left the house in days, even though last week you were fine) can make a person feel like you’re blowing them off.
And if you do tell them the truth about why you’re cancelling, a date might assume that “people with bipolar are crazy, have multiple personalities, are constantly suicidal, or manipulative,” even though many people with bipolar are relatively stable, says Carrie Bearden, professor of psychology at UCLA.
And then there's the other end of the spectrum: “The tendency toward impulsivity could lead to early sexual initiation, which comes with certain risks as well.” Coming on too strong can make a new relationship burn out quickly—and though there’s nothing wrong a spur-of-the-moment hook-up after a first date with a Tinder match—Campbell says there’s a greater risk the connection will “dissolve very early.”
In the past, when I haven’t taken my medications, my Tinder matches have expired or former dates moved on when I was suddenly too depressed to answer texts or meet for drinks. Other times, I couldn’t stop talking to or texting with them because my racing thoughts wouldn’t quiet down or let me sleep. For me, dating with bipolar is sometimes illustrated in an exhausting cycle of feeling like a jerk because I was sad, then feeling sad because I was a jerk and bailed. Sometimes, there’s the added layer of then wanting to overcorrect by smothering the person with attention.
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That being said, dating while with bipolar doesn’t mean every relationship is doomed. I’ve found—and experts confirm—that strong communication is key, regardless of how challenging that might be to practice. Having honest conversation with a new partner about living with mental health issues can help to avoid hurt feelings and confusion, Campbell says. “Once a partner is aware of their condition, they can serve as an ally and help their loved one stay on track with a treatment plan.”
As long as I take my medications and keep going to therapy, bipolar does not get to define my entire personality. However, one of the scariest parts of dating with bipolar is actually telling a date about it. “People with bipolar disorder might encounter negative reactions when disclosing their condition,” Campbell says. Disclosing too soon can feel like a massive overshare, and it’s generally not the kind of information you’d want to talk about on a first date for fear of scaring a potential partner away.
The decision to tell a person you’re interested in that you’re bipolar is a very tough one, she says, yet the downside of not disclosing that information soon enough is the person could feel betrayed, or like you’re hiding something from them. Still, whether you tell a potential partner on the third date or three months into a new relationship, there’s no way to predict how he or she might react—and that can be terrifying.
Rejection sucks, and being rejected by someone you really like for something you can’t control feels even worse. “Even if someone is well-meaning, they may not have the reaction you’re looking for,” Bearden says. “People have good intentions and try to be supportive, but they may not know the right way to respond.”
Thankfully, Campbell says that talking about mental health issues can be a conversation that happens naturally. “Our disclosures should be reciprocal, meaning that one person should not be doing all the talking and disclosing,” Campbell says. “As your date or partner starts to reveal personal things to you, you may do the same.” Pay attention to how they respond to personal disclosures, she advises. If they respond in a validating, accepting manner, these are signs that they’re not consumed by negative stigma surrounding the disorder and that they could be a supportive partner.
Once you get past the potentially awkward disclosure hump, Campbell recommends filling your partner in on your treatment plan and what you need when you’re feeling depressed or anxious. It’s also helpful to create a strategy for dealing with flare-ups and bad days so your partner knows what they can do to help. “Tell the person how you’d like to be treated, and how you want that person to behave under those circumstances,” Bearden adds.
The fear of disclosure doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I’m more comfortable sharing my experiences with my partner because fortunately, he's comfortable discussing his mental health with me. We’ve gotten to know each other slowly and gradually. Casual talks about depression, medications, and going to therapy happened organically and very early on—they’re parts of our lives that we both consider routine and typically uneventful.
We’re able to check in and let each other know if we’re struggling and after a good amount of practice, I’m able to be honest when my thoughts and emotions feel overwhelming or when I haven’t been following my mental health care routine. Knowing I don’t have to hide part of my life from someone I’m dating helps me feel stabilized and supported, even when I’m not at my best.
This article originally appeared on Tonic.