Most healthy adults have some sort of desire for sexual contact with another human. Of course, sex can be intimate, emotionally fulfilling and lots of fun. But for some with mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, sex can also be a trigger of or a symptom of an episode. That’s why I practiced abstinence at one point in my life.
The Connection Between Abstinence And Bipolar Disorder Starts With Mania
Before I became abstinent, I’d had a major depression diagnosis for several years and always thought that my diagnosis was the reason for my behavior. Then something changed. I’d ended a “friends with benefits” relationship with someone who I really wanted to date and it threw me for a loop. I decided that I could get sexual fulfillment elsewhere; I didn’t need him. I began to pursue non-committed sexual relationships wherever I could find them. Eventually, I found myself focusing on the pursuit of sexual partners rather than any kind of relationship, enjoyment — or any other social outlet. I knew there was a problem when I slipped into a very deep depression and had to enter a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
At first, I didn’t believe my sexual activity had anything to do with my mental illness. I’ve always been a very sexual person; when in a relationship, I require frequent sexual attention to be fulfilled. Sensing a surge in my sexual appetite wasn’t really a big deal for me. What I thought at the time was that I was a healthy, responsible woman, and I have permission to have sex with anyone I choose. What I didn’t know at the time was that hypersexuality — having an acutely increased sex drive and interest in sex — was a symptom of bipolar mania.
Living With Abstinence And Bipolar Disorder
I made the decision to become abstinent when I left the hospital. I wanted to eliminate any triggers of my newly-diagnosed bipolar disorder in order to spur my recovery. From a practical level, it was easy not to have sex. I wasn’t in a relationship, I felt better, and I was taking mood stabilizers to lessen the possibility of another manic episode. I’d also decided not to date, further removing sexual temptation from my life. But from a physical level, I still missed sex and the possibility of having it. Instead of focusing on what I was missing, I decided to put my attention towards therapy and self-improvement.
My newfound focus on personal development was easy to maintain until I was met with romantic opportunities. A few men called me for dates, men I’d dated before and those who’d merely been sexual conquests. It was difficult for me to explain to them that I’d become abstinent. Perhaps I’d done such a good job of justifying commitment-free sex to various men that they couldn’t believe that I’d abstain from it. Telling them that I’d been in the hospital, that the freewheeling sexual liberation they once witnessed was a symptom rather than a decision, seemed to convince them of my commitment to the lifestyle.
The hardest thing about not having sex, though, was making the decision about when to start having it again. After a few years (yes years), I was comfortable with my mental illness recovery and not sure that I even wanted to re-enter the world of dating and sex. I was like a dieter who was afraid that the first bite of dessert would make me want to eat the whole cake. Still, I was sure that I didn’t want to spend my life alone, and that meant dating. My first date after becoming abstinent was with someone I met on an online dating site. My first sexual partner, a few years later, was someone I’d known for 10 years and whom I already cared a great deal about. Though I had the usual amount of anxiety about each of those events, I was able to discern that neither would trigger a manic or depressive episode.
From then on, I’ve focused on making sure that I’m well-adjusted enough to weather the emotions involved in dating and having sex. When I’m not, I consciously take myself out of social circulation so that I can regain my footing. Usually, I work through my issues in therapy, or with some emotion regulation exercises I’ve learned through the years. And then, when I’m feeling more stable and have my feelings in control, I can enjoy companionship of any kind, and pursue emotional and sexual fulfillment along with emotional health.
Tracey Lloyd lives in Harlem, where she fights her cat for access to the keyboard. You can find more of her experiences living with bipolar disorder on her personal blog, My Polar Opposite.