Can you trust your feelings?

Lately, due to my partner’s and my struggles with depression, respectively and as a couple, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the impact that mood has on relationships, but also your own feelings.

As someone with Bipolar Affective Disorder, with lived experienced of shifting from the most intense anguish and hopelessness you could possibly imagine and feeling suicidal to the point of actively planning this permanent way out (even carrying the plan out – unsuccessfully – a few times in my youth) and having such tunnel vision that suicide is the only thing in front of me, to the very next day waking up with the kind of sunny disposition you see portrayed in movies when a character has had a near death experience, physically feeling hundreds of kilos lighter and noticing things around me like I’m seeing them and their beauty for the first time and actually laughing to myself because I seriously can’t believe I forgot how wonderful the world is.

Both of those states, and the feelings and thoughts triggered by those states, are real and valid. But they are not permanent. 

I know I’ve already copy-pasted that Stephen Fry quote about mood being like the weather in at least five different places on this website already, but it’s just such an accurate metaphor. Whether they come and go rapidly, whether they take on more extreme and intense shapes due to a mood disorder or external circumstances, or whether they’re just sort there because you’re more stable overall, feelings and moods are temporary and ever-shifting states of being. They do not define us. They do not own us. And, more importantly, they will pass. 

Knowing this, especially about myself, I have worked long and hard on restraining my impulses to make sudden life-altering decisions. Because, regardless of what mood I’m in when those impulses strike, I know that the impulse behind the decision is being influenced by fleeting feelings and so can’t be trusted. Whether the impulse is to move to another country, start a business, jump in front of a train, end a relationship, quit a job, buy a motorcycle or a lipstick, it doesn’t matter. However strongly I feel about it, I always need to remind myself that this feeling is going to pass, either in the next few minutes or in the next few days and if it does I will most likely regret the decision. If it doesn’t pass, I can always come back to it.

(This, by the way, is especially important as a suicide prevention method. Anyone who’s struggled with suicidal thoughts will tell you that, whilst you’re in it, you can’t see any other way out or focus on anything else. The very idea of not doing it, is so difficult and would require such soul-drenching strength that you simply don’t have at that moment because you’re running on empty as it is, so not doing it, simply isn’t an option. Waiting to do it, is. And if you can only wait, get yourself safe and hold off on the plan just for a bit, you give yourself the breathing space and time needed to accumulate the strength to get yourself out of the pit… Check out the Resources page for more info on Suicide Prevention, if this has struck a chord with you!

But, if I can’t trust my negative feelings about my relationship whilst I’m depressed, if I know that my partner and I both project our depressions (and other moods) onto things in our lives, including our relationship, and the fact that we’re unhappy right now when we’re both depressed, is something to ignore and wait out, then how about the positive feelings? 

The truth is, I met my partner at the beginning of the most intense hypomanic episode of my life. This episode lasted about five months, the first five months of this relationship, so how can I be sure that I really fell in love? What if it was just the hypomania talking the whole time? 

Hypomania at its best (read: most manageable) is a fast-paced state of constant euphoria and excitement, where you feel generally twitterpated, inspired and energized, with racing thoughts and ideas and hypersexual libido. When you’re hypomanic you just want to make new friends, create countless creative masterpieces and have multiple orgasms. The last thing you want to do is slow down, in any sense of the term. The idea of sleep, or rather lying down in bed incapable of sleeping whilst your head is spinning with all the impulses and ideas you’re forced to ignore because it’s a certain time of day, is akin to torture (and anyone who tries to force you to undergo this torture will trigger an avalanche of frustration, sometimes even rage…)

The way I see it, this stronger-than-ever hypomania set the scene for me to put myself out there and meet someone. The small inkling of something I felt for this one guy in particular, that I didn’t feel for any of the other people I went on first dates with in the short span of time when I was dating, was then amplified by that same hypomania, causing me to go from mild curiosity to full-on infatuation in less than an hour, and then from early-days-infatuation to full-blown passion within a week.

Naturally, having never experienced these types of feelings for anyone ever before, romantically or sexually, I assumed it was the connection between the two of us that was special, and the relationship itself was charged with this overwhelming array of hitherto unexperienced emotions. At the time, this freaked me out more than anything and it caused me a lot of stress and anxiety, and it also exacerbated the hypomanic symptoms I was already experiencing, such as insomnia and lack of appetite to the point where I lost around 18 kilos in just a few months. When people at work commented on my weight loss and asked me how I did it, I said I fell in love. 

But did I?

What is falling in love, anyway? 

If infatuation, like any other feeling that can be a symptom of a mood episode, is unreliable, could I really trust my feelings for my partner?

Well, at the time I didn’t. Not until we’d passed the six month mark… By then the hypomania was gone, but the anxiety still going strong, if not stronger. I was experiencing mixed states for the first time in my life and the idea of what would happen to my feelings for this guy, and to our relationship now that I was heading for depression, was terrifying. And the closer I felt depression getting, the more anxious I got and the more frequent my suicidal thoughts got as well. 

So did my feelings change when my mood did? 

Yes and no. I was no longer infatuated, and even though I still felt extremely attracted to my partner and my libido was still very much in party mode, I would say my passion that had been on a solid ten during my hypomanic months, had dwindled down to a six or seven, sometimes eight if it was a particularly good day. Being the anxious over-thinker that I am, and this being my first ever serious relationship, I did analyse this a lot, for quite a long time (well, long in Ida time anyway) and eventually came to the conclusion that I did still love my partner, just as much if not more than before. 

It took me a while longer to decide whether or not I should trust it. And I can tell you now, that I do. As difficult as this road has been, I can tell you honestly that I love my partner and the reason I know I can trust it, is because love isn’t just feeling, like infatuation and happiness and sadness. It’s also a verb. Love is caring for someone, and being cared for. Love is wanting to be in someone’s life and have them in yours, even when the infatuation wears off. Or, as can be the case when you have a mood disorder, when you’re simply depressed and going through the motions, wishing you were a skunk so you could hibernate until spring.