[Editor's note: Bipolar disorder can affect different people in different ways. Although this list represents only one experience, we hope you find some solace in knowing others might be going through what you are.]
1. Your experience will be different from other couples'.
My friends are brilliant. Unequivocally, unimaginably brilliant. I can pretty much talk to them about anything, too. But there have been times when I've shared chats about relationships that have made me feel alienated, sad, and lonely.
It's not their fault – it's just that the issues my boyfriend and I face aren't quite the same as the issues my non-mentally ill friends face with their partners. They've never, for example, had to deal with the aftermath of a psychotic episode. They've never sat a few feet away from their partner as they silently plot their suicide. Answering "What happened?" with "Well, it started when I thought someone had broken into our flat and planted some keys I swear I'd never seen before..." certainly isn't standard post-argument debrief fare.
These are things I can share with them, of course, and they're always understanding. And it's not to say the experiences of "regular" couples aren't important or valid, either. But, living with a debilitating mental illness, you may have to learn that the nuances and obstacles that you navigate are different to theirs.
2. Your partner will see the very worst of you (but also the best).
When I'm depressed, I'm incredibly irritable; when I'm manic, doubly so. If I'm low then everything seems like an insurmountable challenge – getting up to answer the door, going to the toilet, having a shower. I have no energy or drive to do anything other than lie face down in bed for days or weeks on end. So when my boyfriend tries to get me up and moving, or gently suggests that not showering for five days might not be my greatest idea ever, it's incredibly annoying and I often snap at him.
Mania is the opposite: It's him who's not keeping up with me, me who's doing the nagging and cajoling. It's not like he's even doing anything wrong, but when you're high on your own self-importance, then everything else just seems incredibly slow. I'm not using mental illness as an excuse for my lashing out, but it does go some way to explain it. And it just means that we have to make more of an effort to look after one another.
Learning self-care techniques to practise together can be really helpful here. They don't have to be huge gestures – in fact, the smaller the better. Helping someone with their impossible pile of washing up, running them a bath, or doing their laundry are all practical ways of helping someone feel a little bit better. And often you'll find the very best of someone in these tiny acts of patient, steady companionship.
3. Doubt is normal.
As anyone who's experienced it will tell you, mental illness is often characterised by almost impressively abundant amounts of self-loathing. You long to be like everybody else, long to worry about regular things and not be constantly monitoring your moods and feeling worthless. You tell yourself that you're useless, boring, dysfunctional, and broken, and that no amount of self-reflection, therapy, or medication will make you better again. You ask yourself: Why would anybody love you?
It's not so much the episodes themselves that fill me with doubt, but the aftermath – when I'm slightly more stable and have the time, headspace, and distance to look back and realise how ill I really was. And, at these points, I find it hard to believe that my partner would want to stay with me at all.
"If I'm so useless that I can't even get out of bed," I think to myself, "then why would anybody want to be with me? Why wouldn't they want to be with someone normal?"
Even though you know you have good qualities and know your partner unconditionally loves you, it can be exceptionally hard to stave off the nagging feeling that they'd much rather be with someone who could deal with things even slightly better. You get used to it with the help of affection, love, and reassurance, but it still buzzes in the background, needling at you in moments of weakness.
4. Sometimes – just sometimes – it can be kind of funny.
The day I realised I could actually make jokes about my mental illness was pretty revelatory. I can't even remember what I said, or even whether it was particularly funny (it probably wasn't), but realising I could treat my bipolar as flippantly as I did a bad date or an embarrassing 2009 Facebook status was really important in coming to terms with my mental health. It wasn't some lofty, terrifying thing that had ultimate power over me – it was just another part of my life I could use as inspiration for in-jokes and bad tweets.
Me and my boyfriend frequently joke about my bipolar and his anxiety disorder, and it's now one of the major ways we communicate about the way we're feeling. We're fairly unlikely to win any comedy awards for taking the piss out of psychosis, but it's a way of letting off steam, easing bipolar-induced tension, and showing each other that mental illness doesn't define or control us or our relationship.
5. It's almost as hard for them as it is for you.
It's easy to become introspective when you're going through a period of depression or mania, to get wrapped up in how you feel and what you're thinking. So it can be just as easy to forget that on the other side of your warped looking-glass is someone who loves you, someone who has to watch you suffering.
I'm not saying that caring for someone is as hard as experiencing mental illness, but it is important to remember that they're probably struggling, too. Having to watch you go through mental distress is pretty horrible – and that's without even mentioning the significant physical stresses that loved ones sometimes pick up from having to care for someone who's ill. If I can't get out of bed, my boyfriend has the unenviable task of coaxing me to get up, trying to get me to see a doctor, making me take my medication, getting me into the shower and off to work, tending to my emotional needs, looking after our cat, cooking dinner, doing the shopping...the list goes on. All of the tiny pieces of physical and emotional labour that are normally shared between us begin to weigh pretty heavily on his shoulders.
He's never once complained, nor been anything other than loving and understanding. So I have to make sure that understanding extends both ways.
6. You have to be open with your partner.
Being irritable, not wanting to have sex, or going on extravagant spending sprees are not necessarily symptoms of mental illness. But, for me, they sometimes are. Not telling past partners meant this behaviour was obfuscating, confusing; and when they realised I was ill, it also made them feel helpless.
A lot of people, when confronted with something incomprehensibly difficult or huge, will take a taciturn "just get on with it" approach. And in lots of ways this can be helpful – sometimes you do have to get on with your job or your relationship or your washing up, no matter what's going on with your mental health. But talking to the person you love about how you're coping with all of those things is key to "getting on with it". Not communicating about how I'm feeling has been a huge downfall in other relationships, especially as my behaviour became more and more erratic.
Now I try to express how I'm feeling to my partner – even when talking is the very last thing I want to do.
7. Illness doesn’t have to define your relationship.
I've spent so long thinking about my mental illness that, for a while, it came to define my whole character. I didn't know who I would be without it, didn't know where I ended and bipolar began. I had this intense, fatalistic relationship with my mental illness; it was symbiotic. And of course, that extended to all of my relationships too. I figured I was "crazy" – a word men often throw at unpredictable women at the best of times – and that every relationship I ever had would wilt and die in the shadow cast by my all-powerful bipolar.
I was wrong, obviously.
What defines my relationship is not, contrary to what I may have thought, the bad times. It's not the doubt, the arguments, the times I have to be looked after. It's cooking dinner together or watching Peep Show, crying with laughter when our cat falls off the bed: tiny moments that form a rich mosaic of intimacy. My relationship wouldn't be the same without my bipolar – but then, neither would I.