“Sticking it in the Crazy” – Thoughts on Sex, Dating, and Mental Illness
Mental illness is, of course, a topic near and dear to my heart — and my mind, since I myself am clinically bipolar and have suffered throughout all of my remembered life from alternating periods of moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety. I am the “one in five”, that statistic that gets tossed around so much (although of course there are legitimate concerns with the metrics used to measure such statistics — not least that they require self-reporting, which many people will not do, fearing the stigma of “craziness”).
And, of course, I’m not the only person in my life who suffers from this sort of thing — I have friends, lovers, and family members who’ve been diagnosed, at one time or another, with disorders ranging from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder. Each deals with it in their own way: some are more private than others with the details of their lives and struggles, and some are more successful than others at blending in and appearing “normal” in everyday society. But they are unavoidably present, in all of our lives. You can’t just completely avoid 20% of the population, so we’ve all got a few “crazies” in our inner circles.
The Dating Question
One of the hardest things about being open and honest with the world regarding my own mental illness is dating. Just saying, “I’m bipolar” to a potential romantic interest can be enough to send some people running for the hills, wailing “why are all the hot ones crazy?” and shielding their genitals as though bipolar were an STI and could be caught from me. “Don’t stick your dick in crazy” (or the less gendered, “don’t stick it in crazy”, if you prefer), has become a well-known Internet meme and gets bandied about alongside so many other offensive little tidbits of “advice”.
Nevermind that I’m a very intelligent and self-aware person who works hard to manage and control my particular disorder; nevermind that I’ve spent years analyzing my own wants and needs when it comes to relationships and learning to compensate for my shortcomings at interpersonal interaction. No matter how hard I work at it, to some I’m still just a “crazy chick”, and that renders me completely undateable (or even outright untouchable). I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I have to “fix myself” before I should even consider a relationship — nevermind that bipolar disorder isn’t like a cold or a broken bone that can be “healed” with just a little time and attention, and that I’m going to be “crazy” for the rest of the foreseeable future.
I’m attractive, talented, intelligent, fun — a lot of very desirable traits. And those are all supposed to be overshadowed by a psychological diagnosis? No thank you.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges associated with dating the mentally ill. Especially when you get two of us together (and some of the most significant relationships in my life have been with other mentally ill individuals), it can be incredibly difficult, at times, to manage the extremes of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic flashbacks, dissociative periods — and then there’s the many unhealthy coping mechanisms that many of us may resort to in difficult times, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and reckless behaviours.
But these challenges do not have to be deal-breakers. People with mental illnesses, even severe ones, should not be relegated to a loveless existence or avoided like the plague. Because yes, there are challenges to be overcome, but there are challenges in every relationship. There are always going to be ways in which two personalities will not perfectly mesh, and topics or situations where one partner has very different feelings from the other. And being mentally ill does not make a person any less functional, intelligent, mature, or self-aware (actually I’d argue that the mentally ill among us are often the most self-aware, since we have to spend so much of our time analyzing and controlling our own behaviours).
Of course, not every mentally ill person is at a place in their life where they are ready to be dating — but then, not every supposedly “normal” person is at that place in their life, either. Plenty of relationships fall apart for reasons other than, “s/he’s crazy!”
Atypical Relationships and Desires
Another challenge that I often have to face in the dating world, independent from my diagnosis, is that the relationships I’m looking for are not “typical” ones. As someone who identifies as polyamorous, bisexual, and kinky, it can be very difficult to add “bipolar” to that list. Polyamory is already seen by many people as an indication of a “fear of commitment”, or even as a sign of mental illness in and of itself (people who keep multiple partners are quickly labeled as “nymphos” and “sex addicts”, whether or not the definition really fits). Bisexuality itself has often been characterized as a pathology, and (along with other non-normative sexualities) has been in the past something which was criminalized and punished. Kink is especially complicated, since it can be very difficult to explain to people the difference between self-harm and consensual BDSM, and within the kink community itself there is a strong prejudice against “crazy people”, who are often characterized as being “unsafe” to play with.
Many people are quick to blame my atypical desires on my bipolar disorder, as though my “craziness” is the perfect explanation for why I don’t want a husband, kids, and a house in the suburbs. “You like tying your partners to the bed and dripping hot wax all over their naked bodies? Ugh, that must be because you’re insane”. But this is an incredibly unhelpful (not to mention inaccurate) conclusion: by assuming that all kinky people are “insane” and that all “insane” people like doing weird things in bed, you unfairly stigmatize both groups.
This isn’t to say that my bipolar disorder doesn’t play some part in my desires and choices with regards to relationships — but it’s certainly not the only factor, nor even the most defining one. I prefer to seek casual, “friends-with-benefits” type relationships at this point in my life partially because I am not professionally settled, but also because I don’t feel emotionally ready for a connection of that sort, and my diagnosis is a factor in that choice. But this is not an unhealthy attitude to take: I’m being honest with myself and with my partners as to my desires and the reasons for them, and this makes for relationships that are open, honest, and very rewarding. And by exploring and indulging my sexuality, I’m learning more about myself (and how to deal with any potential future relationships that may be more “serious”) in a safe, consensual, and fun manner.
It’s not like I’d learn to be “more healthy” by just shutting myself away and being entirely celibate, after all. If we don’t push and challenge ourselves, we stagnate and fall into bad habits.
The Bad Stuff
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t difficulties in my relationships — especially in those with other mentally ill people. In the past, especially when I was much younger and didn’t yet know very well how to deal with my own issues, I’ve dealt with abuse (emotional and physical), being raped by a partner, abandonment, self-harm (by myself and by two partners), suicide threats and attempts (by a mentally ill partner), trying to manage being on medication (my own and three partners), breakdowns (mine and theirs), fights, spats, irrational displays, and many, many, many tearful encounters. I’ve ended a relationship because I didn’t feel he was dealing well with his mental illness and I was having too much trouble with trying to help. And I’ve been left for being “crazy”.
At the moment I have casual (or casual-ish) relationships with four people, three of whom have a diagnosis of some sort. And we’ve had conflicts — they’re inevitable. But we’re also learning to be giving and honest, and how to deal with those conflicts and problems when they arise. Because a relationship is not defined by whether or not you have issues (let’s face it: we all do), but by how you deal with those issues.
So … what have I learned from more than 10 years of being (and dating) “crazy”?
Know yourself. The more time that you spend getting to know yourself (and your diagnosis), the more books you read on psychology, the more time you spend with a therapist, the more work you put into making yourself a better person, the better you’ll be as a partner. This is true whether or not you’re mentally ill, but is especially important if you are. Understanding what triggers your “bad” periods, what emotional stimuli are difficult for you, the places where you have difficulty understanding “normal” people … this will all help you to deal better with the times when you’re just not quite “yourself”, and make it easier for your partner to love and deal with you.
Know your partner. If your partner has a mental illness, get to know everything you can about it. Ask them questions. Read books. Seek support groups. Learn all that you can, so that when the rough patches hit? You can understand what they’re going through, empathize with them, and help, rather than just being confused and afraid. Even if your partner is “normal”, you should spend time talking to them and getting to know them and figuring out what makes them tick, because it will help when you have conflicts — knowing how they react to, for example, a difficult emotional situation (grief, anger, etc) will help you to deal with and assist them when those situations arise.
Stop hiding. We spend too much time fearing the stigmas of mental illness. 20% of the population is going through something very similar. You are never, ever alone. By hiding away, you’re hiding from your support networks. You’re closing yourself off. You’re making yourself harder to connect to and to love. Saying “I’m bipolar” to people at an early stage in getting to know them might scare a few away, but it will make just as many people open up and welcome you all the more strongly, because they understand what you’re going through. And those are the ones you WANT to let in, so don’t hide from them.
Be honest. We all like to seem as though we’re in control, all of the time. But sometimes we’re not. And we need to acknowledge the times when we’re not having it easy, when we’re going through a rough patch or a “down” period. Because if we don’t recognize those times, we can’t fix them or deal with them properly.
Forgive more easily. It’s easy to take things personally, to see every conflict or difference of opinion or random happenstance in life as being directed specifically to hurt you. Stepping back, taking a breath, and choosing to act with love and forgiveness, goes a long way, because in 95% of cases? People aren’t acting deliberately to do harm. And even if they are, they probably have a reason that you don’t see. We can choose to live with more love, and we should do so.
Never, EVER, dismiss something or someone as “crazy”. Because there’s probably a very good reason for it, and you’re just not seeing it. And “crazy” isn’t irrelevant, or unimportant, or unlovable. “Crazy” is just as beautiful and wonderful as “sane”.