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 My mood became withdrawn, and I was quicker to snap.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.