I think the worst feeling I have ever experienced is knowing that I’m alone in the world and beyond hope. Even when I’ve had people in my life who cared about me, there have been times when I’ve felt trapped in my own mind, unable to form connections or accept love. At times like that, it seems like the more I want someone, the more likely I am to push them away. It’s impossible for me to believe that anyone could want me.
Today is World Mental Health Day. More than 350 million people across the globe are affected by depression and less than 10% get treatment, despite the existence of effective treatment options. An additional 100 million people world-wide suffer from other mental health disorders. Without mental health, there is no health. And mental health is imperative for a healthy sex life.
I’ve struggled with Bipolar Disorder since my early teens. Suicide attempts and wild behavior colored my formative years. I wasn’t diagnosed until things reached critical mass when I was 21. At that time I was also experiencing intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to eat without throwing up or sleep without terrible nightmares.
More recently, after the birth of my last child, I found myself drowning in Post-Partum Depression.
I don’t let these things define who I am or limit how I live my life, but they’ve presented huge obstacles to overcome. In particular, each of these conditions has affected my ability to have the kind of sex I want.
I actually prefer the term Manic Depression because it’s much more clear. People with Bipolar experience mood shifts between wild euphoria and bottomless depression. Mania has often kind of scared me because I feel out of control. I think faster than anyone can keep up with. My sex drive totally kicks in. I feel super turned on all of the time and I crave risky behavior. I want to do crazy things that push my limits. While I’ve never gone this far, it is definitely a time when I feel I could take on the whole football team. I don’t have good boundaries or decision making skills when I’m manic. When I was younger I would often violate relationship agreements in a fit of mania. Since then I’ve learned to be responsible for myself all of the time, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take advantage of a manic state for some hot sex!
Depression can be extremely hard because it is so insidious. Depression steals my self-esteem and I don’t even realize it. I just feel ugly, slow, and pathetic. It’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Every step is like wading through a swamp of oatmeal. I try harder when I’m depressed, present more, dress up and wear more makeup. I often feel very little desire in this state. Sometimes, though, I can use sex to try to circumnavigate the numbness. What I really want is to be loved and held, but I don’t feel capable of being loved. When we do make contact, it can be very sweet and life-affirming.
When someone lives through a horrific experience, the experience can get put away in the brain as raw data (sights, smells, sounds, etc.) and not as the kind of processed stories we normally have as memories. Later, if something happens to bring that event up again, it literally seems to be happening all over again, right now. It feels real and immediate. This is what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is about. When people who have PTSD react, it can seem totally irrational, until you look at it in the context of the original trauma.
Because my PTSD has been around childhood abuse and rape, I spent many evenings in my early 20’s starting off feeling sexy in bed and ending up naked hiding in the closet shivering.
Post-Partum Mood Disorder
Post-Partum Mood Disorder is a constellation of mental health disorders brought on by the extreme shift in hormones following the birth of a baby. Mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents can all experience it. Depression and anxiety are its most common forms.
PPMD is particularly troubling because having a baby is already a stressful and isolating time. I was lucky because when I had my youngest four years ago, I had the support of a poly family. Still, it was a difficult time, during which I gained about 40 pounds, was afraid to be alone with the baby, and feared abandonment constantly. I know that I had sex during this time, but I don’t really remember it. I had body and attachment issues. It was hard to be me, but I wanted to use sex to make sure that people would still love me. It was all I could do to get from moment to moment and day to day. I joined OKCupid for some positive feedback.
What you can do
If you believe that you are suffering from a mental health disorder, or even if you just want to make changes in how you interact in your relationships and improve your sex life, the first thing to do is talk to your doctor or a public health clinic. Get a referral for a therapist and someone who can help you assess if medications might help you. There are many alternatives to medicine, but this is not a bad place to start, especially if you have been living under this cloud for years. It is important to have both pieces: medication and talk therapy. Medication can change the chemical imbalance that’s happening in your body and therapy can help you figure out how to change the patterns in your life that are problematic.
Not all health care providers are created the same. Make sure to find people that you can trust and talk to easily. Don’t be afraid to decide that your provider is not working for you and find another. This person is going to be a vital member of your health team – make it right. Also, own your care. It’s hard to be assertive when you don’t feel strong, but please speak up if you don’t agree with a diagnosis or care plan. Passively agreeing to something you won’t do is just a waste of time. Own your health care!
I have been able to do amazing things by taking Lithium regularly and working hard in therapy. I have been able to minimize the impact of both mania and depression. I’ve worked through debilitating anxiety, learned how to have healthier relationships, and come to feel better about my body. I’ve even been able to work through the PTSD memories so as to see them as a cohesive story and put them away like regular memories. It’s a lot of work, and things are still hard sometimes, but I have hope. I know that these are things I am doing to have the life I want.
What you can do for someone you love
Loving someone who lives with a mental health disorder is challenging. They may not want your help and you need to respect that. If they do want you to help, do what you can to understand that their actions do not reflect on you. For example, when one of my partners is unhappy, I tend to feel like I’ve done something wrong. I try not to take that on, but instead to address the unhappy feeling in a caring and supportive manner. For someone who’s life is seriously out of control however, you may need to step in. Do some research. Find a doctor and a therapist. Go with your loved one to the appointments.
Find ways to connect with each other. Sex might be a good way to be close. For some people sex transcends the mood disorder. For many, many people though, sex becomes next to impossible. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need love and affection. Don’t give up. Find ways to be close to each other anyway, that are comfortable for both of you. Go for a walk and hold hands. Brush each other’s hair. Cook together. Read a story aloud. Write them a love letter. When things are hard, write a list of all of the reasons you fell in love. If you really need to find sexual outlet somewhere else, have a frank and honest conversation. Find a way to do it respectfully.
Make sure that you take good care of yourself. You are important too.
Remember that it will get better.
Because it will get better. Somewhere along the way I forgot to count the minutes. Then I forgot that I was barely getting through each day. Things got better. I get sick and tired of working on my stuff all of the time, but it makes a huge difference. Every day I get stronger.
I don’t generally make a big deal about my mental health issues. When I was young I was told not to let anyone know because I would be stigmatized. I think that’s crap. Everyone has their issues and so few people ever seek help. If just one person reads this and it changes how they think about mental health, I will be happy. Maybe you are that one person. Are you tired of how hard you have to work to make it through the day? What if you could use that energy for other things, things that bring you joy? What if addressing your mental health issues could let you have the kind of sex you want to have? Is it worth it now? Don’t give up hope.