One of the most heartbreaking things about living with bipolar disorder is not knowing whether what you are experiencing in a romantic relationship is truly love, versus a manifestation of mania. Both feel euphoric, like a great whoosh of wind has picked you up and tossed you around playfully in its embrace. Both are precarious, and both can leave you shattered.
I realize many people have written about love and mania (and how to tell the difference between the two). Most of them are far more qualified than I to write about the clinical manifestations of each. Here, I offer a personal and, I hope, balanced perspective based on my own experiences with each.
In perhaps their most (in)famous song, my beloved Def Leppard declare, “Love is like a bomb.” It kind-of is, right? Its explosion upsets your world because, all of a sudden, it’s not just about you anymore:
What are WE doing this weekend? WE really need to explore this city when we’re able. I don’t like the way this new highway system affects US; it makes it more difficult, not easier, to get to each other.
Love is like a bomb and should be incorporated into your worldview in a way that leaves you empowered, not shattered. If you find yourself bleeding from picking up shards, it isn’t love. The people who love us reinforce our strengths and offer positive complements to our weaknesses. What I can’t do, you can do. What you can’t do alone, we do together. Our love doesn’t care whether we are complete dorks or mean girls; we can be free to be ourselves expressively and with power. You feel good. You feel strong. You are confident in your feelings because you know they are returned.
But love can become an obsession when we allow the other person to take up residence in our minds, dominating our waking thoughts, nightly dreams, and everything in between. Obsessiveness becomes a special concern for people living with mania. We become addicted to the euphoria that is love and don’t ever want to let go. We may even find ourselves ending other valued relationships, slacking off on the job, or doing other things to harm ourselves socially so we can elevate the person we love.
If you find yourself doing these things and you have bipolar disorder, you might be manic. This is especially true if you also feel “sped up,” have racing thoughts, or are acting impulsively.
Let’s talk about mania for a moment. Super quick review.
Mania is characterized by feelings of euphoria and irritability. You become extremely impulsive and may act without thinking something through. In my experience, you can be quite single-minded. That’s a GOOD thing for getting work done, because you are task-oriented and driven. That being said, there’s also a flight-of-fancy aspect to your behavior, where you may find yourself distracted by normally mundane things that suddenly become vastly fascinating. You think quickly (“rapid thoughts”) and may start to feel super paranoid (“my friends are trying to ruin my relationship”). That obsessive focus on your partner could actually be dangerous to both of you, even though it feels really good.
So, how do you tell the difference? It’s not simple.
Love is responsible.
Mania is reckless.
Mania destroys (self or others).
Love takes its time (which sucks, I know).
Mania rushes into things.
Love tries. And tries again.
Mania forces it. And continues forcing it.
I think it all comes down to trust and honesty. If you’ve lived with your bipolar disorder long enough, you know what mania feels like. You can trust yourself to identify it under normal circumstances. But when mania collides with love, it’s much more difficult to recognize the patterns of destruction because you feel so damned GOOD. I think the more self-aware we are, the greater our chances are of surviving this whirlwind. I believe only through honest self-assessment can we answer some of these questions:
- Have I rushed into this relationship?
- Am I destroying other things to see it through?
- What am I losing? Is it worth it?
- Am I obsessing to the point where it’s interfering with my ability to get things done?
- Am I being responsible? (e.g., with sex)
- Am I taking care of myself?
- What am I gaining?
In my opinion, if you can answer those questions honestly and assess where you are, and if your answers are satisfactory to you and others with whom you choose to share them (objective views are critical with bipolar disorder), you’re probably not manic. Of course, a good evaluative visit to a mental health care provider may be in order as well.
You have to trust yourself. Even if your bipolar disorder has gotten you into trouble in the past, you have to trust yourself now to know whether what you are experiencing is real. Equally crucially, you must trust the other person not to feed the mania and to be honest with you about what he or she is feeling. This agreement requires a long, frank discussion about your condition and what it may mean for both of you.
Love, like mania, is intense. Both require TLC and patience. It breaks my heart when people say love isn’t possible for people living with bipolar disorder. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we love more intensely, more deeply and fully, than others do because of our condition. Perhaps mania intensifies everything it touches such that, even when we aren’t acutely “manic,” we can still feel ecstatically alive in love.
You have to remember than mania isn’t all bad.
Handel wrote the exquisite “Messiah” in two weeks; people often say he was manic. Mania takes you to new levels of passion and creativity. Treatment for mania feels like it is crushing those qualities, which is why so many of us do not stay on our meds. I think passion and creativity seep from our very DNA, directing how we interpret our world and shaping our personalities. It’s all connected. And such ferocious passion drives us to feel love at a whole new level compared to our “normal” counterparts. It’s a factor for which you have to account, but it’s also a very deep blessing.
In the end, trust yourself. You’ll know if it’s love or mania. Never be afraid of love. Just enjoy the ride responsibly.
–Jaimie Hunter, PhD, MPH