Making the Beast With Two Backs... with the Black Dog
I’m quite possibly crazy.
It’s been suggested I have lots of things- severe depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder. I don’t really subscribe to any of those except, perhaps, bipolar- anyway, whatever I have, I’m pretty good at managing it most of the time. Or so I tell myself- I mean, I do still have impulsive tendencies, both on the manic and depressed sides of the spectrum. Still, generally I’m at a level state- a bit more panicky than others, maybe, but functional, even happy.
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! It taught me a lot about sex and mental illness. I knew I needed to develop some ideas on things to try to make it work in a healthier way.
When I first started having sex with more than one person, I was very uncomfortable with my weight, had scars on my arms from cutting, and was generally trying to fuck my way to better self esteem. I desperately wanted to be accepted and told I was pretty, because I didn’t believe it. My depression was like a haze through which I saw everything, including sex, and it took some intensity to make it break through the clouds. For me at least, depression went either of two unhealthy ways- never wanting to have sex, or lots of promiscuous, numb sex with people in a quest to find meaning and self-worth through orgasms. It didn’t really work.
Then there was a period of time where I was struggling with flashbacks and couldn’t stand to be erotically touched. That went on for 6 months at least, though I begrudgingly allowed myself to be touched sexually even when I wasn’t in the mood after that 6 months. I’m still twitchy about sexual touch sometimes- it can occasionally feel demanding, or serve to remind me that I can’t cum like other people, making me feel inadequate.
Even today there are days when sexual energy drains me beyond belief, and days when it leaves me singing in my blood. And it’s very hard to anticipate which is which, even now, when most of the offer effects of an unstable mood are behind me.
In relationships, I’ve noticed is that I am a rescuer, or perhaps just a wallower. Oh god yes. I am attracted to people who are like me- potentially mentalists. They tend to seem like my people- artistic, politically frustrated, sexually experimental, interested in the macabre. I fall for people who are like shelter cats- in need of a little more love and care to make them feel safe. Skittish people, sometimes, or people who will strike out when scared. Sometimes it works out ok- the girlfriend who needs lots of alone time to build up her energy is happy for me to go out and see other people, for example. Sometimes it doesn’t- the poly-curious girl who has a poor body image and anxiety disorder can struggle to put herself out there and meet people, or the long distance depressed boyfriend can struggle to accept their lover having other local lovers. It’s easy as it stands for jealousy to cause anxiety and/or self-blame, but it becomes potentially a minefield when you add emotional instability to that.
This means I’ve had a lot of experience on both sides of the vibrator of sex and mentalism.
Struggling with mental health issues in a “sex positive” community can be really difficult. The continuous loud declarations of hatred for “baggage” or “drama” can lead to people who have trauma histories or depression feeling isolated and unwanted, or like they have to hide their issues to fit in. There’s not a lot of open, friendly, accepting discussion on this, something I find really troublesome. Sex and kink are fun, sure, but both also lead to us relating to our emotional states sometimes very differently- we might be triggered by a specific word said in a scene, for example, or fall into a depression when orgasm is impossible to achieve. This, too, is part of being sex positive, in my opinion- welcoming and talking about when things are difficult.
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.