TALKING THERAPY
08/02/2019 2:29 PM IST | Updated 30/09/2019 7:57 PM IST

Can I Date After A Mental Health Diagnosis? Yes, With Love And Joy

A 28-year-old mental health activist talks about where sex, sexuality and desire intersect with mental illness.

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The following is an account of a conversation between the author and a mental health activist. Read more from Second Thoughts, our series on mental health here.

I was diagnosed Type 1 bipolar when I was 19. Even before I was formally diagnosed, everyone was clear something was up. There were a couple of things that happened at the same time—there was this business of bipolarity, and then on the other side, I knew I was queer. In sum, I was a young person, simply figuring out what desire and sexuality meant in the first place.

When I was 19, I was head over heels in love with someone two years older. In college, we were always around each other. It was really one of those grand loves. I’d say the romanticisation of the body began then. I was seeing her when I was diagnosed. I did talk to her, but I feel I didn’t talk to her enough. I was defensive, and there was also a sense of shame.

Queerness for me is inextricable from my mental health. There is a certain amount of shame attached to being a young queer woman, but my college in the US was thankfully a welcoming space. I was able to escape the anxiety and despair that shaming brings. Shame is usually associated with sex, sexuality or sexual orientation. For me, though, shame was far more strongly directed towards my mental health.

My mental illness made me as queer as my queerness did.

When a psychiatrist told me I was bipolar, I was glad I could put a name to my condition. But the world, I soon realised, was not built for people who are mentally ill. There is always this question—if you were not mentally ill, who could you have potentially been?

I was occupied with a lot of that shame. Coupled with my inability to articulate my thoughts and feelings, that shame shut me down. I could not reconcile the image of who I was supposed to be with what was happening to me. My entire life people have been telling me I was brilliant, so I began feeling I was not delivering on that brilliance. I was being told I was so different, but I wanted to know why I wasn’t being able to do ‘different’ well.

My intimate relationships were affected at the time; for me intimacy hinged on whether I felt safe or not. I failed to realise it was, of course, not my partner’s responsibility to make me feel safe. The truth is I never felt safe in a world that viewed people with mental illnesses in a certain way. As a teenager or as someone in my very early 20s, the only way I knew how to deal with these fears was to have a chip on my shoulder. That took a lot away from my intimate relationships. As I approach my 30s, I am now not defensive.

It has taken me a decade to get all this out of my system.

In the same way that I can’t see mania as being hypersexual, I can’t see depression as being desireless.

WHEN DESIRE BREAKS THROUGH

Conventionally, one thinks that for those who are bipolar, hypersexuality is a symptom of their mania. I find this hilarious because one of the ‘symptoms’ of queerness, when it was ‘diagnosed’ way back, was hypersexuality. That misplaced view, characterised queerness as an ‘illness’ that supposedly had a cure. Moreover, if I participate in a kink community, which I am a part of, that would also be considered a sign of hypersexuality.

So, at this juncture, you ask, “Which part of this is mania? Also, which part of this is a way to identify, incarcerate and institutionalise people at the margins?” Similarly, my delusions of grandeur are not restricted to my mania. I can have those and a severe imposter syndrome at the same time.

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Representative image.

People tend to see bipolarity as ups and downs, which it is. I think ‘wanting’, for instance, is most affected when I am depressed. During depression or lows, I can’t process anything that’s external. Everything goes on inside my head. I shut down. In a straightforward sense, depression curbs my ability to relate, so I am both over-feeling and unable to feel at the same time. What people don’t understand is that depression has variants: My ups and downs can co-exist. I have been very happy and very depressed at the same time because fundamentally, I do believe I am a joyful person.

Sometimes when depressed, I feel I can hang on to one thing and fixate on that. I do have a habit of fixating. My head picks up something and then I just don’t let it go. In those moments, that fixation can be desire. It’s that little adrenaline rush. It’s not that this little something that will make your depression go away, but it’s something that offers you a break. One assumes that desire is impacted negatively by depression, but to think that having less desire is bad is such a flawed and peculiar belief.

In the same way that I can’t see mania as being hypersexual, I can’t see depression as being desireless.

Let’s talk about sex and desire in a way that can be fun, without running away from complexities.

For a year-and-a-half, I went through a bout of unipolar depression. That had never happened. I was in a really bad place, but I’d spend a lot of time chatting online with my current partner, who I’d just met. There would be these endless nights of not being able to sleep. I underwent acute sleep paralysis. I used to wake up with my bedclothes drenched with sweat. I was panicked and depressed at that time, but when I would get a message on Google Chat, I would find my break. I remember feeling relief for a sudden five minutes. That little sound of the Google update would break through the fog every time.         

A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety in addition to bipolarity. More than mania, anxiety affects sexuality more. I’m very enthusiastic about desire, but when I’m anxious, I cannot always feel it. Through the filter of anxiety, my self-perception changes. Anxiety has a lot to do with doubting the self. Everything collapses into a spiral of panic. I can’t process desire the way I do.   

TALKING ABOUT SEX, PRACTICALLY

We should talk more about the joy of desire, particularly in the context of mental health.

It isn’t as if it is impossible to date, after a diagnosis.

Rather than focussing on what can go wrong, let’s talk about wants and happiness, about finding welcoming partnerships about building families, kinship, friends and peer support groups.

Let’s talk about sex and desire in a way that can be fun, without running away from complexities.

While there’s no doubt that I can communicate, I often tell people that 90 percent of what I’m thinking is going on inside my head. I know how to say appropriate things about mental health, about consent, about sex. I know how to talk about sexual orientation. But, I have to admit, that when it comes to an intimate partner or even a one-night stand for that matter, I end up internalising a lot of what I feel and think. When conversations move from the public realm to the personal space, I find a lot of that conviction dissipate.

I do feel I have gotten better at negotiating the world, though. I am more aware of when a crash is coming. I know when the world starts moving out of focus. I know when to step back. In the same way, I know that when I am going through something, I should speak my partner, even if it’s an inability to think. In an intimate relationship, a partner can well think they’ve caused your mood.

If it weren’t for joyful desire, I wouldn’t know what a safe, happy, non-manic high would feel like. You know desire is good when you look at someone and feel an adrenaline rush. Desire can be complicated, but it can also be very simple. It gives me a space to feel joy and to enact it. I am better at articulating sexual desire and articulating queerness. I have even gotten better at negotiating and articulating mental health and its issues. I have found the words to speak of my desire — it is harder than you may imagine. But more than intimacy, I have learnt to survive better, and I have learnt to fight a little harder.

Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light, a bipolar memoir.

This article is part of Second Thoughts, a series on mental health in India. Write to us here: secondthoughts@huffpost.in

If you or someone you know needs help, mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).