Did My Partner Leave Me Because of My Bipolar Disorder?

Editor’s Note: The following essay has changed the names and identifying information of some people involved.

As a queer, fat, Black and Jewish woman with bipolar disorder, I often wonder how my identities — especially my disability — have impacted my relationships. In recent moments of intense grief, I’ve thought about how symptoms of my disability informed my ex-partner’s decision to leave me.

My ex Ari and I fell in love in the fall of 2018. I had moved from my hometown of Berkeley, California, to my birthplace of London, England, that summer. I wanted to know if “crossing the pond” could work for me. Ari and I matched on a dating app. We met IRL one October night in a grungy neighborhood called Hackney Wick. I learned that she was also from the US, and we traded stories over questionable deep-fried appetizers: baby corn tempura and kewpie mayo, chips and malt vinegar. Ari was (and is) a bright, clever, elegant and beautiful woman. As soon as we met, she felt like home to me.

I disclosed my disability to Ari on our third date. We had eaten a sumptuous lunch at Ottelenghi on Upper Street and were walking the canal near Angel tube station. As we strolled, I told Ari I’d been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder as a teen (bipolar I disorder is diagnosed when someone has very severe manic episodes — which can sometimes develop into psychosis — coupled with experiences of both hypomania, a less severe form of mania, and/or depressive episodes). Ari asked me some follow up questions, and then the conversation moved on. Shortly after, we shared our first kiss, and few weeks later, we became girlfriends.

My plans to live in London fell through that winter. I returned to California and Ari followed. We U-Hauled. Less than one year later, COVID-19 hit. The early pandemic’s brutality spared neither Ari nor myself. We were attempting to manage the lack of boundaries that came with isolation while we were each working from home. As the pandemic progressed, one of my family members faced a severe medical emergency, which became chronic. We witnessed multiple days where wildfires blanketed Northern California in a dim and sickly orange glow. Meanwhile, our landlord was pursuing an illegal eviction against us.

These immense and compounding stressors began to aggravate me more and more. My mood became withdrawn, and I was quicker to snap. During that time, Ari became less and less open with me about her own worries. We made a cross-country move to be closer to family — both hers and mine — on the East Coast. When she dumped me soon after the move, I was in shock.

On a clammy New England summer night, Ari told me she was breaking up with me after we had had sex. I began to weep. I turned my body away from hers, pulling the sheet taut. I remember the sound of cicadas and the brackish smell of nearby salt water drifting through the dark bedroom’s open windows. Ari explained that she didn’t want marriage or children with me. We had talked about those subjects in an abstract way on and off over the years. When I pointed out that I would be willing to have a more concrete conversation about those topics, she said she wasn’t willing to make me compromise on what I “wanted.” She also said I’d been very “moody.”

Hearing her name moodiness as a reason to leave me seemed unfair, and a sense of helplessness overwhelmed me. Ari had known that my moods weren’t always within my control. If she were bothered by my moodiness, then there wasn’t much I could have done to change how the relationship ended — I always have and always will struggle with mood shifts. And in my mind, moodiness can’t be reduced to a mere symptom of my condition because my moods can’t be divorced from how I relate to myself and others.

For the duration of our relationship, Ari and I had regularly discussed how both bipolar disorder and my medication doses impacted my moods. I had attempted to taper off one of my meds six months before Ari left me. Ari had been the one to note how much more irritable I became when I was taking a smaller dose. When I’m irritable and when I’m in manic episodes or depressive periods, I often can’t see where I have landed on the spectrum of mood, so I rely on those close to me to give me visibility into how my moods change. I relied on Ari to read my mood when I couldn’t read it myself.

I believe that Ari did her best to try to calibrate my moods for my sake and for the sake of our relationship, but I don’t know that she was fully equipped to love someone who has this “invisible” disability. I realize that most people, Ari included, aren’t equipped with the tools to support someone like me. And while I understand, I also wish that there were more dialogue around disability that would go beyond superficial acknowledgments — I want dialogue that delves into what it’s like struggle with mental health and what it’s like to support someone who struggles.

Even I forget that I really can’t be expected to behave like someone who doesn’t have my condition. To “manage” my disability, the expectation is that I should try to act like someone who doesn’t have bipolar disorder. I don’t agree, but more often than not, my survival depends on conforming to that expectation. I can see how someone else could forget or not realize how much effort I have to put into “managing” my disability.

Although much of my pain in this breakup comes from grappling with the effects of my moods on this partnership, I can’t and don’t want to separate my moods from who I am. I am not me without my moods. I can accept that Ari may have left me because of my bipolar disorder, but I also know that bipolar disorder makes me the person I am, the person she loved.


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anneaxinn

Anne is an NYC-based writer from Berkeley who works in creative nonfiction/memoir, poetry, fiction, and critical writing. She writes about identity including topics of identity, relationships, race, sexuality, gender, class, queerness, illness, and nationality. Learn more about Anne on her website and follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

anneaxinn has written 1 article for us.

11 Comments

    • Ehmm maybe this is inappropriate to comment on…but…broke up with you right after sex? Is that a thing people do? Breaking up with a longterm and serious partner is terrible regardless, but that seems especially low.

      As for the disability stuff. Oof. I have severe depression and anxiety that has caused me all sorts of problems in life, and I’m sure has indirectly or directly caused breakups and other love life problems.

      I’ve come away with the feeling that there is, in fact, some kind of line with mental health. There is a “good enough”, and also a point where it isn’t, and where it really isn’t fair to a partner to be so down on myself, wracked with nerves, not optimistic enough, too irritable, or whatever other things symptoms might manifest as. But…what, exactly, is that line? I don’t know. Not being cruel to people, and hoping they don’t mind the other quirks, I guess.

      Despite this, I’ve still had people tell me I’m too negative if they know I struggle with depression. Or someone will say I’m too shy if I’ve used that in a casual relationship to play off anxiety. I think partially people find it easier to use words you’ve used yourself. To blame lack of interest on a soft ball you’ve thrown them that they can bat back at you, as opposed to just saying they aren’t attracted to you anymore or the spark has faded or (in the case of something more casual) there never was one.

      Other times, maybe it is the actual symptoms that form the foundation of what they couldn’t deal with.

      Maybe some of both. It feels so hard to tease out and I can’t imagine having so many other multiple marginalizations to also have to factor in and wonder, what if..?

      • Felt this one hard. My ex met me 6 months before I got diagnosed after getting hospitalized with a manic episode. After living together during pandemic he said he wanted to live separately until I was “better” from a 2 year long depressive episode. It feels sad to think that you had someone who supported you only to realize they’re waiting for your mood to go away. If I only it was that easy.

  1. “I also wish that there were more dialogue around disability that would go beyond superficial acknowledgments — I want dialogue that delves into what it’s like struggle with mental health and what it’s like to support someone who struggles.”

    Yes, 100%.

    I’ve been in Ari’s shoes, albeit with different diagnoses in the mix, and it’s just hard and heartbreaking for everyone. Given the focus of this piece I won’t say much from the supporter side, but just want to offer a lot of compassion.

    • You are so right….I too would love to see a whole series of personal essays delving deeply into peoples’ stories and in particular their own unique strategies for coping.

      I have been putting off adding a comment because it is hard to fully address in any meaningful way in a comment. Although, later today I will make a short comment, trying in my own awkward and clumsy way to comment on the issues.

  2. I really love this, especially the powerful last line.

    This part also really resonated, even though my diagnoses/disabilities differ from your: “To ‘manage’ my disability, the expectation is that I should try to act like someone who doesn’t have bipolar disorder. I don’t agree, but more often than not, my survival depends on conforming to that expectation.” Thank you for putting this into words.

  3. Anneaxinn thanks for writing this article. It’s a subject that is so misunderstood both within the medical / psychiatric communities as well as in the general public. There is a misconception that these disorders can be cured and it is just a matter of taking your meds. Nothing is further from the truth. Meds help manage but don’t eliminate the symptoms.

    I have had depression for decades and while meds help prevent the worst of the hellish downward spiral that saps every bit of my energy and happiness, there are daily highs and lows and only a few days a year where I actually “feel good”. I manage daily with my own strategies and tools (THC is one of them, admission in spirit of 4/20 day).

    Any partner who understands this is a real keeper and I am lucky that I have a lifelong partner, former nurse, who understands this better than anybody I have ever run across in the medical / psychiatric community.

    This being said my depressive disorder is both the very best and the very worst of me. It has given me great empathy, compassion and love for others and has greatly enhanced my creativity in music, writing and technology (15+ patents). At the worst, I don’t have the energy to get out of bed, eat or watch tv.

    Anneaxinn wishing you all the best and love, Christina.

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