Why mental illness, for me, is about relationships, relationships, relationships

A woman wearing black sits at a cafe desk. A black and white picture hangs on the green wall behind her. To the right, there are plants and lanterns.

No other aspect of a mentally ill life is as tightly knotted as this.

My sister once told me that the litmus test of my life as a mentally ill person would be based on my relationships. Not functionality, like the psychiatrists say; not work, like the rehabilitation system says; not happiness, like the psychologists say; and certainly not legacy, despite legacies like Sylvia Plath’s and Virginia Woolf’s.

I suppose this is where I should disclaim, ‘Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big believer in functionality (well, at least I try to brush my teeth once a day), work (in my case, the less said about that the better), happiness (this at least I can say I truly believe in) and legacy (my psychiatrist told me not to have biological kids because bipolar can be hereditary).’ And it’s true, these things are important. But, unsurprisingly, love conquers all.

By love I don’t just mean Shah Rukh bleeding from the nose and sticking his hand out of a moving train while Kajol runs after it. I mean family, extended family, friends, friends’ friends, spouses, partners, lovers, fuckbuddies, colleagues, social media friends, doorstep and street acquaintances, and penpals. (I once shamelessly tried to get myself out of a pen-friendship by revealing that I was bipolar and pleading inability to reply to mails. I didn’t deserve the compassionate response I got or the periodic inquiries after my ‘illness’ ever since.)

Let’s start with dating. Online dating, since I’ve rarely done any other kind. I’ve been on online dating sites since 2014. After a while on these sites you tend to develop your own personal filtering system, a little assembly line through which you process people and if they come out at the other end without too many toothpaste tube caps screwed on wrong, you start to invest in them (as friends, lovers or both). At first I decided that at an early-ish point in this assembly line I had to tell people I’m bipolar. Too early or too late wouldn’t do. It had to be at the right time. And then I had to let them decide for themselves what they wanted from me.

Now, the immediate reactions were varied and sometimes entertaining. So far I’ve gotten only one reaction of complete silence. Some of the responses have been: ‘What does that mean?’, ‘But you’re taking medication?’, ‘Girls with issues are wild in bed’(my personal favourite), and ‘Oh okay.’ Sometimes I’ve gotten sympathy. Sometimes I’ve had to tell the poor person, while he pats his pockets desperately for a response, that I don’t need one.

But the long-term responses usually followed a vague, not-quite-clear trend: eschewing romance and focusing on friendship and/or sex instead. (If I had an antidepressant pill for every time I’ve been friend-zoned, I’d be a happy person.)

This is why I used to say that bipolar was a green for casual sex, amber for friendship and red for romance. But I don’t say that much any longer because as I gain experience with online dating and offline friendships, the responses become more and more varied and the hierarchical structure of these categories has begun to break down in my mind – because they’ve begun to blur into each other.

So I’ve stopped carefully injecting  my happy announcement at a calculated moment on the assembly line. Instead, on my OKCupid profile, where I earlier had a cloaked reference to the utterly bipolar Tigger from the Winnie-the-Pooh books, I now just say straight out that I’m bipolar and let the chips fall where they may. And they often fall towards conversations, or if I’m lucky, friendships (with a sexual angle – or not). And I’ve been quite lucky so far.

That brings me to friends. Not fuckbuddies or friends I made online, but people whom I met offline through other friends, whom I met through further ‘offline people’. Here, for me, the question is not how to make mental illness a ‘by the way’ in order to present myself as normal, as it is in online dating. Instead, the question is made tricky by friends who untiringly, repeatedly accept my account of my experience of mental illness without challenging it much, who give me the space to be mentally ill in whatever way I want, and in fact bat it back to me in ping-pong banter.

If I present myself to them as someone who doesn’t bathe much because of mental illness (and I don’t), they kindly make jokes around it. The way I see it is: by doing these things, they are treating me as a subject, not an object – which is really difficult to do with a mentally ill person. So if I have friends who consistently offer me my subjectivity as a mentally ill person, who feed me more and more fishing line but never reel it in, the tricky, sticky question is how to give them their subjectivity in the midst of my, er, solipsistic chaos (read ‘self-involvement’).

If I have friends who take me to NIMHANS in the middle of the night on off-days, how can I give them their equivalent of a cozy casualty ward space in return? How can I make them forget all about it in a conversation with me on on-days, so that they can live inside their own skins instead of worrying about my reactions?

The answer is, I’m not good enough at relationships, at relating, to do so. But here’s the good news: I don’t have to do so. Yes, I’ve drawn a line in the sand and constructed a wall of emotional blackmail along it at which they must yield (and now you see why my sister talked about relationships being central to mental illness – short answer, it’s murky, and long answer later).

Beyond this wall, they must either wrest their subjectivity however they can, by force if necessary, or give up on it – because I am ashamed to say I won’t give it to them. That’s a pre-requisite to being my friend. And they’ve done one or the other so far. (A friend of mine recently refused to be cowed or blackmailed while I was having a panic attack – this was a completely new experience that 2017 brought me.) So I don’t have to worry about them. Which makes me lucky all over again.

Speaking of luck: family is where the excreta at the heart of mental illness and relationships can be found. The murkiness starts with emotional blackmail, which doesn’t even have to be explicit. A single suicide attempt can easily hold a family hostage for 13 years – and it has in my case.

One fine September day in 2004, my parents, who generally employed the usual calculated amount of resistance that parents use with their teenage children, became terrified, helpless enablers overnight. And I don’t only mean ‘enablers’ in the pejorative sense, although, yes, that too – I mean that they literally enabled my survival year after year, and still do.

But family doesn’t just mean parents. Over the next few years my sister was forced to learn to hold on to her subjectivity no matter what my mood was or how anxious it made her – and she has firmly done so ever since, even though I seldom acknowledge her as a subject. This is the greatest gift a caregiver can give a mentally ill person – dear caregiver, please get a life.

The murkiness doesn’t end there though. Psychiatric medication, for me, is less about functionality, work, happiness or legacy, and more about relationships. Medication helps me, yes, but it also keeps me alive for my family (I am not particularly striving to stay alive for my own sake).

I in turn am held hostage by their need for me not to die prematurely. Plus, medication relieves them of worry to a large extent. I’ve always known this, but I re-learned it the hard way when I went off my meds this year. For weeks my family was bound to me tightly by worry. When I restarted medication, those bonds became looser, the atmosphere became lighter.

But everyone knows about the zombie-fying effects of medication. I won’t go into that here, but let’s just say it’s a compromise that I find hard to make. Who am I making it for? Myself, or my family, or both? If I’m doing it for my family, that’s a pretty large burden to lay on them. And so the murkiness thickens. Each party is held hostage by the other.

No other aspect of a mentally ill life is as tightly knotted as this – not functionality, not work, not the need for happiness and not legacy. So yes, relationships are the basis of my life’s litmus test. And familial relationships are clearly the biggest of all litmus tests.

Can I unlearn the ways in which I currently deal with my family – ways that seem set in granite? The answer, in turn, lies with my mental health – when I’m ‘better’, the talons of my mood swings loosen their grip on my family. And that’s the only possible motivation, in a world devoid of motivation, to get better.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal