I’m a third generation bipolar person. I’ve exhibited both manic and depressive episodes since I was a child (a controversial diagnosis). Today, I’m going to write about my experiences of sex and mania. Not all bipolar people experience manic episodes. These are my experiences, I do not wish or intend to speak for anyone but myself. The advice I give at the end of this article is based solely on my own experience. If you should decide that I am speaking for everyone with bipolar disorder that is on you.
When I see mania talked about, if at all, it is most frequently treated as the positive inverse of depression, like a sublime upswing of happiness and elation.
Some folks express how they wish they had manic episodes because they think this is what it is. This is not how I have experienced mania. There may be people who have.
Medical health professionals, on the other hand, tend to treat mania as extremely dangerous and something to be avoided at all costs. Mostly because it is marked by an upswing in energy in conjunction with a tendency toward delusion. Energy and delusions in tandem can be extraordinarily dangerous. You are more likely to harm yourself, they’ve said to me, because you might actually have the energy to kill yourself.
As you can imagine, this is super encouraging (Only no. And sometimes, because of this, I become terrified of energy because I conflate it with suicide risk. Shitty.)
I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time, but those medical ideas are still in my head. I often feel like I’m trying to outrun or desperately avoid mania. Writing about it, I’ve thought, will only bring an episode on. What I’ve learned is that I can’t outrun them, and I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about mania and sexuality and I wanted to share what I know.
These two configurations of mania (as happy/wonderful or the most dangerous thing that can happen to you) lead to, I believe, a general silence around mania as something people experience. Especially when it comes to sex. Neither grasp my experiences of it. It feels to me more like a supreme and unending agitation, irritability, and aggression. It feels like my entire body is covered in paper cuts. It feels like I’m trying to escape from my skin. Like I’m trying to flee myself from inside myself. I feel not necessarily like I *can* do any and everything, it feels like I must.
When it comes to how this has impacted my sexuality and how I have sex, the most dangerous part of a manic episode is that I get to this place where I would do anything to make it stop. I don’t like who I become when I’m manic very much. While I might even welcome one after a major depressive episode just for the energy itself, I become aggressive, easy to anger, and sometimes I feel like a monster. This is how we are portrayed after all, but more on that in a minute.
When I say I would do anything to make it stop, it takes one primary form: I disregard my own boundaries and my own basic human dignity in hopes that it would quell my symptoms. I see only the storm of energy and aggression and skin crawling and I NEED it to go away. Sex, unfortunately, is one of the ways I’ve tried to make it stop. When I was deep into rapid cycling in my early twenties, I, on top of disregarding my boundaries, also romanticized not having any. I thought that not having boundaries made me some wildly liberated person. It wasn’t until I explored BDSM that I began to get a grasp on what my boundaries were and are and how to fully articulate them.
But because I fall prey to respectability politics (the idea that I shouldn’t talk about my struggle with honoring my boundaries because it will make ALL bipolar people look bad, etc), I find it hard to really confront my relationship to mania. Especially this notion that I disregarded my own boundaries. I don’t want to play into stereotypes about the sexuality of bipolar women. I don’t. But at the same time, I need to say this. Manic episodes effected my ability to hold and honor my own boundaries.
Bipolar women are often hypersexualized. I often fear that my sexuality (kinky, sex toy reviewer, all of that) will be read as merely a pathological extension of my disorder. I fear this because it’s happened. Too many times for me to count. On top of that, it’s hard, if not impossible, to separate the elements that make up my sexual life. The behaviors I’m talking about here are lumped into a form of hyper-sexual disfunction. People in my life have equated the way I have sex with pathology, including my kink, my perfomativity (which no, is not the opposite of authentic), and my passion for sex and sexuality as a part of my disorder. This is unfair, ignorant, and dangerous. It only furthers the silence around the relationship of sex and mania.
Learning to set boundaries and understanding that disregarding them will not stop the episode, but really on send me into a shame spiral that will only makes things worse was a process that took years. It’s still something that I deal with.
What also helped was having people in my life who knew about my propensity for mania who could recognize it and be there WITH me (not FOR me, not trying to cure or fix) was a big part of becoming more comfortable with it. I do not like when medical professionals take the “AVOID AT ALL COSTS YOU WILL DIE” approach, I think it can actually cause more harm than good. For some of us, mania is a part of how we navigate daily life. Learning to manage has been more helpful then their approach which, in my experience, was to attempt to completely numb me and render me incapable of doing any type of work.
Additionally, it can sometimes be hard to recognize when I’m having an episode. Delusional thinking can be a part of this and the shittiest part of a delusion? There’s no real way of knowing every time you are having one. So I told people in my life whom I trusted (and trusted deeply, again people love to hypersexualize and slut shame bipolar people especially women and feminine people of all genders) the tell-tale signs that one was either happening or about to come. For me, these looked like this: rapid speech (I’m talking MUCH faster than I do usually. These folks have seen me enough to know the difference), I stop eating, I’m not my usual ambitious self as I seem to think I can do something extreme in a short period of time, I don’t seem to hold attention very well, I’m acting outside of my integrity or boundaries (They are not making guesses about this based on their own. They actively know what my boundaries and integrity look like).
So how might you help someone experiences mania?
DO: Listen and recognize without judgement
Nonjudgment is an ACTIVE practice. It is something that *takes* practice. It is something that is learned and exercised. Just because you have liberal political ideas does not mean that you’ve developed a practice of nonjudgement. When these friends would recognize my symptoms, they did not use this as an excuse to judge me or my behavior. They said things like
“You seem to be at the start of an episode what can WE do” (This brought them into the moment with me. Not “I can fix this” or being annoyed with the fact that it is happening).
Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. “I feel sorry for you” should be avoided (See the collected works of Brene Brown).
DO NOT: Trade their sexual stories without their consent
This is not okay to do to anyone at any time. But, as I mentioned earlier, the entirety of my sexual experiences or identity is not solely a response to my disorder. People LOVE to trade other people’s sexual stories like some kind of currency and because bipolar folks are often hypersexualized it makes them more vulnerable to this inexcusable practice.
Case in point: the “crazy bipolar ex-girlfriend” is a trope and one I don’t want to hear about. It’s common for people to dish out bipolar women’s sexual stories as a part of this trope. DO shut it down when it comes up in your life.
DO: Help them set their own boundaries when they want to and on their terms free from your preconceived idea of what “normal” sexuality is
It can be hard, especially if you’ve been told by medical professionals, by family, by the media, by assholes on social media that you are not entitled to boundaries because you have an illness/disability. I did not give said friends free reign to call me delusional every time I brought up something that was complicated or hard. I did not give them free reign to call me delusional at all. This was the beginning of boundaries for me.
When I go to the doctor (when I have money and access to do so), every checkup I’m asked the same question: am I experiencing delusions? Which makes me chuckle, to be honest. Like how would I even know that? So I asked friends if I could come to them with details about my material life (the facts, what I know for sure) and how I felt about them. They wouldn’t diagnose the situation as much as bear witness to it and help me sort through the details so I could actively communicate what was going on.
DO NOT: Talk about eggshells and how you have to walk on them
I’m going to call the “I have to walk on eggshells” or “I have to treat you like you’re fragile” thing that (abusive) people do what it is: Gaslighting. Kitty Stryker has written about gaslighting more in depth and I encourage you to read her writing especially if you’re trying to dismantle your own ableism. Like trading other’s sexual stories without their consent, this is not something you should do to anyone, but bipolar folks are more vulnerable to gaslighting.
(Side-note: Most of us already know that experiencing mania is not an excuse for bad behavior. Don’t take advantage of this by aligning all behavior you disapprove of as an extension of the person’s illness.)
The basic premise of gaslighting is this: a person tries to manipulate and convince you that your experience is not the “real” or “true” one. As one might imagine, people who physically suffer from clinical/psychological delusions are more suspeptible to gaslighting. It’s easier to manipulate someone into thinking they are delusional if they’ve been disagnosed as being delusional. But just because a person has had manic episodes does not mean that they cannot qualify their own experiences, their own life, and have very real feelings about their life and experiences.
Because here’s the rub, people:
Accomodating or making space for someone’s disability is not censorship or a restriction on your ability to “express your real feelings.” I’m going to say that again: Accomodating or making space for someone’s disability is not censorship or a restriction on your ability to express your “real feelings.”
If you feel this way, you are not the right person to hold space for a bipolar person or a person with any form or type of disability.
I’m not trying to dismiss or overlook how difficult it can be to be close or have a relationship with a person suffering from mental illness. As I said, I’m third generation. I both have bipolar disorder and was raised by someone with it. It can be hard, but there are resources, like support groups, for folks struggling with that particular issue. This would be a better and more productive way to handle your frustration and to communicate in a productive manner.
And really what is this statement about? It implicitly says, “If you could just get better, I would be able to stomp around your life however I pleased.” Which even if I could, no. Most times I found this tactic in people who wanted to act like asshole but felt like they couldn’t because: mental illness. Those people can really fuck off.
DO: Share resources if you have them (without condescension or disgust)
Advising your manic friend to “take time off” or “find a new doctor” isn’t the best route. Taking time off implies that they have both 1) the money to do so 2) a safe space they can go to (again more money) to take said time off. Many do not have this. “Find a new/better/different doctor” is also problematic. It again implies access that many do not have. Moreover even the best, most sex-positive doctor in the world probably won’t “cure” you. Trying to think of ways to “make it stop” is not only hurtful, it’s not possible.
Instead, doing some compassionate, informed research and finding resources to share might be more useful. If your friend thinks trying a meditative or grounding practice, ask if you can join them. This helps normalize the conversation and again brings you “with” instead of “for.” But most of all recognize this: they are the experts on their own bodies and experiences. Period. They can speak to what they need better than you can. Full stop.
So, uh, yeah, this is what I had to say about sex and mania for now. Take care, friends.