Love, Lust and the Black Dog
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 12, basically right when I was discovering my sexuality. I was immediately put on medication and my weird relationship with my sexuality started then. I was one of the last children I knew to lose my virginity- partially because I was deeply in love with one guy, but also because I wasn’t particularly rarin’ to go thanks to Zoloft and Lithium. Lithium also made me gain weight, something that made high school near unbearable.
I spent a lot of time in and out of institutions for troubled teenagers- places teeming with hormones out of control. But I noticed there were two types of kids- asexual ones, or ones who did sexual things in order to feel anything, anything at all. Not the healthiest way to relate to your pink bits! But it taught me a lot about sex and mental illness- and later, when I was dating lovers who struggled with OCD, severe depression, and bipolar, I had developed some ideas on things to try to make it work.
After reading this article about sex and mental illness, I wanted to address the point about the lack of information on how to negotiate sex and intimacy with people with physical disabilities, never mind people with mental health issues. I wanted to share my cheatsheet of what one can do to troubleshoot intimacy issues with some things I’ve learned on both sides of the bipolar/depression coin. Hopefully there are some tips here that can start you finding your own way out of the tunnel. None of this is a substitute for seeking professional help- but therapy once a week only goes so far, and day to day tips make it easier.
-Talk to a kink aware professional. This is applicable whether you’re the person with the mental health issue or if it’s your partner! Depression and anxiety are contagious, and it’s a really good idea to make sure you’re emotionally together while your partner gets the help they need. Plus, if you both go to therapy, there’s less of a stigma about it- it’s very easy when dealing with depression or anxiety to have issues with the idea of “needing” therapy, and thus not following through. Don’t try to take care of your struggling partner on your own.
-Consider making a list of red flags, interventions, and triggers. Triggers are things that make a day go from bad to worse- for me, for example, if I’m trying on clothes and they don’t fit well that can be a trigger, or if I can’t get in touch with a loved one when I want to talk. Red flags are ways you act that indicate you’re having a rough time, even if you’re not saying it- not getting out of your pajamas, say, or watching more than an hour of TV. Interventions are things you can do that may work to cheer you up- maybe listening to some music, or going for a bike ride, or writing a blog entry. When you have an idea about your red flags and your triggers, you can make a partner aware, and they can help remind you to use an intervention before things spiral.
-Take a look at your food intake. I’ve found that less caffeine, less red meat, less alcohol, and more veggies, more fish really helps my mental health. Try to limit snack foods away from empty calories like candy and crisps and move to trail mixes or pretzels- or, alternatively, pour a bowl of your snack food of choice (this helps prevent you from stress overeating). Consider making extra food and freezing some when you cook so there’s instant healthy meals available. Also talk to a doctor or nutritionist about vitamin supplements you might find useful. Eating irregularly or unhealthily can make a problem worse.
-Try to get out. It really helped me personally when I was depressed to have a habit of going for a walk with my partner after meals- even 15-20 minutes can get the heart going and keep you active. And the more activity you’re doing in a day, the more likely you are to keep your libido alive!
-Have some time apart to recharge. It can be exhausting trying to be social when sorting out your head, and it can be frustrating to feel trapped with someone going through this. Make sure both of you are getting time to regain some of your energy.
-Check out this essay, “The Spoon Theory”. Again, whether you’re the person fighting personal demons or the partner of someone engaged in that battle, this theory is a really great way to communicate what you’re able to do. When you can say “I’ve used up my spoons” and the other person knows what that means, it’s easier to negotiate and get the help you need.
-Read Healing Sex. Written to help survivors of sexual assault and their partners relearn how to relate to sensual touch, this book has a lot of tips on negotiation and patience. It really helped me communicate with my lovers what I needed and when, and offers a lot of workbook activities that help promote self-awareness.
-Also check out The Five Love Languages. In spite of it being written by a staunch Christian, I found this to be hugely helpful for communication- it gave me ideas on how to communicate love in ways my partner could recognize and accept, and what sort of love language I had, how I would know I was loved. When someone is struggling with their head, it’s helpful to have a clear idea of what you need and how to ask for it without being pushy. I found this book helpful for that.
-Discuss sexual/sensual activities you can do together… or do apart, and when/how to navigate that. When my libido is low it can really hurt my heart to walk in on my boy masturbating- it makes me feel like I’m failing. But at the same time if I don’t want to have sexual play he needs an outlet. We’ve negotiated things like him giving me a massage or running me a bath, or even wanking under my direction as a performance- it allows me to feel like a part of his sexual life even if I don’t want to have sex. Discussing these things can help prevent hurt feelings later. You can even make this sexy by making up a coupon book of things you feel comfortable with that are sensual or somewhat hedonistic in nature that you can share with your partner- I found that kind of pre-written thing to be really handy in indicating my level of ability.
-Remember that it may not just be a mental illness hurting your libido- many medications, from Prozac to birth control pills, can also negatively impact your sex drive. If you suspect that may be the case for you, advocate for yourself with your doctor to switch to something else.