I could tell my dad meant business. He and my live-in boyfriend, Mark, were leaning toward each other, deep in serious conversation. I caught Dad's eye as I approached the restaurant table. He leaned back and smiled in greeting. Mark, obviously ruffled by the conversation, jumped up and quickly kissed me before leaving for work.
"What was that about?" I asked, as I sat and took a sip of the untouched Coke Mark had left on the table.
"We were having a chat about your future. I want to be sure he takes care of you if you choose to get married."
I raised my eyebrows in question.
"I want to make sure he knows how important it is that you stay well. Paying for your psychiatrist, making sure you take your meds, supporting you so you don't get overwhelmed with stress. Those sort of things."
That was 15 years ago. To this day I find it funny — and weird — that the entire father–to–future-son-in-law conversation focused on my bipolar disorder. My dad meant well; after watching me struggle throughout my teen years, flipping out during stressful times, and having to walk me through many a meltdown, he wanted to be sure that the next man in my life was equal to the task.
Had the circumstances of my mental health been different, I imagine this conversation would be more focused on my partner's financial worthiness, fidelity pledges, and the general "take care of my little girl" topics. But circumstances were what they were. I was bipolar. It was the elephant in the room that people were scared to speak directly to yet unable to not consider in each interaction with me.
My bipolar disorder colored every relationship I had during that time. My family's constant hovering and caring through concern, the eggshells my friends learned to walk on, the forewarnings to my future spouse. It was the filter that people saw me through. Truthfully, at that time, it was the filter I saw myself through as well.
That's the thing with diagnoses; they become a living, breathing entity unto themselves — so much so that each relationship is a strange threesome between the two people and the diagnosis itself. You don't just interact with the person anymore; you interact with them as a cancer patient, clinically depressed individual, person with PTSD ...
Real and spontaneous connections are difficult. Anticipations of upsets hinder freedom of expression. Drama-filled moments suck the life out of the room. Unpredictable lash-outs create hurt feelings and barriers to intimacy. The individuals look at each other through the fog of diagnosis — unable to see the other or the situation clearly.
In the end, I never married Mark. We were two young lovers who eventually grew apart. Over the next 15 years, emboldened by an amazing holistic psychiatrist, I challenged myself to explore who I was beyond the label of "bipolar." Along this journey, my perception of myself began to change dramatically.
We have all heard that the most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves. I have found this to be a profound truth. Since I saw myself through the filter of bipolar and put that definition of myself first in my interactions, others had no choice but to follow. I would be angry that people would relate to me through my diagnosis, but I really wasn't giving them any other choice.
As I developed more life-affirming aspects of myself and gained the inner strength to stop choosing destructive behaviors, the diagnosis faded into the background. I was able to show up more and more as me — and the kinky threesome of me, my relationship partner, and my diagnosis began to evolve into more direct and authentic connections.
I told this story recently to a friend. She asked if the next father–to–future-son-in-law conversation would play out the same way. I laughed as I acknowledged that no, it would definitely be different, if it took place at all. I don't see myself as bipolar. Neither do my parents. Neither do the people in my life. After all the years of therapy, seeking, growth, and change, I am no longer bipolar Lauren. I'm just Lauren. The filter is gone.
I have cultivated a trust in myself, an ability to thrive in this world and a strong knowing of me beyond the diagnosis. Gradually this new perspective of myself spread to those in my life. The caring through concern has turned into enthusiasm at watching me create a life that makes me happy. The tiptoeing to avoid a possible upset has turned into direct and intimate communications. And the hovering to ensure my safety has turned into giving me plenty of room to spread my wings and fly.
As Dad said to me recently, "Lauren, you've got this." My heart lifted and my lips spread into a broad smile as I happily reported, "Yes, Dad, I do."