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Anita Rao 0:00
Anxiety and depression have been my companions for much of my adulthood. In some seasons, when I'm going to consistent therapy and on medication that's working well, things are smooth sailing. But in other seasons, ruminating thoughts or feelings of heaviness stay with me through many moments of the day, shaping how I show up in my life and my relationships. When I'm at work or with friends, it's easier to compartmentalize and pour my energy into being a certain version of myself. But when it's just me and my partner, the facade often crumbles, and I have to confront my mental health head on. Figuring out how to do that work within the context of a romantic relationship is hard and ongoing work. It's setting boundaries, making agreements and then holding each other to them, even on the days when it feels hard.

This is Embodied, our show about sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

A mental health diagnosis can affect many aspects of romance, intimacy and partnership. Today, we'll talk about that specifically through the lens of bipolar disorder.

April Mansilla 1:22
One of the most important things that we've learned about navigating bipolar disorder in our marriage for me was accepting responsibility for my bipolar, taking my medication and being accountable for everything I had done.

Miguel Mansilla 1:36
And for me, it was mainly me being supportive, obviously, but celebrating the small wins. Not every day was going to be a good day. But when we did have a few happy moments there, we celebrated them.

Anita Rao 1:48
That's married couple April and Miguel Mansilla. Like April, writer and mental health advocate Michelle Yang has lived with bipolar disorder for much of her life. She's written about the myriad ways that diagnosis has shaped her search for self-love, friendship. and romance. Michelle, welcome to Embodied!

Michelle Yang 2:05
Thank you so much.

Anita Rao 2:06
So you've traced your early experiences of anxiety and depression back to when you were really young, a kid in elementary school who felt depressed and had trouble sleeping at times. Can you tell me about some of those early memories of being aware that you were struggling and how you made sense of that as a kid?

Michelle Yang 2:23
Yeah, I mean, I remember always being a very sensitive child and being told that I was a very sensitive child, and I'm an empath. And I remember not being able to fall asleep at night while the rest of the family is sleeping and just being awake for hours. And actually, you know, when the severe anxiety and depression started, I would say not until I emigrated when I was 9. My family emigrated from South Korea, and I didn't speak any English, none of my other family members spoke any English. So that was really hard. And I remember crying myself to sleep and just experiencing a very high level of anxiety.

Anita Rao 3:03
What was your family's attitude about mental health growing up? You were new immigrants in this country and I'm sure moving through a lot. But what kind of conversations did you all have about that?

Michelle Yang 3:13
It was kind of a not, not a thing, right? I remember the very earliest mention of depression, overhearing a conversation my dad was having with other adults was that, "Oh, so-and-so is supposed to have depression, but I don't believe it, because just look at the way her eyes light up when she's playing mahjong." And I'm just like, even as a kid, for some reason, I knew that that's not how it worked. You know, that just because a person can be alert during mahjong, that doesn't mean that we can negate her experience as someone who's living with depression.

Anita Rao 3:52
So you had these early experiences of knowing that you weren't sleeping, crying yourself to sleep some evenings, but you were a really high-achieving student. As you went through high school, you were involved in tons of extracurriculars, you know, kind of on the surface, you, you really had it all together. How did this exterior of being so high-performing shape how people were responding to you and your mental health struggles?

Michelle Yang 4:17
Yes, I truly believe that it was the model minority myth that prevented me from getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and therefore, you know, allowing me to find the treatment that I needed earlier, because I was doing so well, because on paper, I had straight A's. So since as a kid in the 90s, people just thought, "Oh, she's fine." Even though when teachers and administrators could see that something was clearly wrong, there was also an aspect of cultural sensitivity that was big back then, where people kind of glossed over things and didn't ask many questions. And on the other hand, my parents -- I went to my parents and asked them, I begged them to take me to a mental health doctor, because I was suffering so severely from depression and anxiety and to a point where I experience hallucinations and psychosis because I was going through a prolonged periods where I couldn't sleep. And my dad's reaction -- because as an immigrant, he didn't trust the system -- was that if they took me to see a doctor, that it would be on my permanent record, and that I wouldn't be able to get into college no matter how good my grades are, and that if word got out, no one would marry me, and that my life would be over. And so imagine hearing this at age 16 and how heavy that was, because already I was feeling a lot of deep shame about what I was experiencing, not understanding why this was happening to me. And then trying to go to adults for help and just being denied and being even adding to my fears and stigma.

Anita Rao 6:00
So you had that experience in high school of then kind of really internalizing the stigma around what you were going through, distancing yourself from it in a lot of ways. But at a point in college, things really came to a head. You decided to study abroad in China, and it was during this trip that you had your first really intense experience of psychosis, which you mentioned. And that's a common symptom of bipolar disorder. What do you remember feeling in your mind and in your body during that first really intense experience?

Michelle Yang 6:30
Oh, it was terrifying. Right after I arrived in China, 9/11 happened, and just my mental health was not in a good place at all. And towards the end of the program, I was stressed out about finals, final projects and things and it went from depression to mania, and then to psychosis after a while of not sleeping. I just remembered thinking that I was going to die, and that I needed to do what I can before I died for the people I loved. And so I remember really kind of taking a lot of risks at the end there. I took an overnight train to a different province. I took black market cabs because I didn't know they were black market, because I was not in the right headspace. I did not have my wherewithal at all.

Anita Rao 7:21
So that episode in China led you to a period of hospitalization back in the States, in which you were diagnosed with bipolar I. And there are several types of bipolar disorder, but bipolar I and II are the most common. You have bipolar I, which is defined by having longer and more intense manic episodes than bipolar II. Can you talk a bit more about the process of diagnosis for you and the defining features of bipolar I that you've experienced?

Michelle Yang 7:54
Yes. So I mean, I've had prolonged mania, which is how my condition can be diagnosed as bipolar I. I've had psychosis many times in my life when, you know, it's usually led by long periods of not being able to sleep. You know, at first, when I came back from China, the psychiatrist actually first thought it might be major depressive disorder, because that can also lead to psychosis. And he prescribed a antidepressant. But that, of course, sent me into a manic episode. And that's often how a lot of people are diagnosed with bipolar is, unfortunately, you have to be your own guinea pig. And so he had to then adjust the diagnosis. And I was put on a mood stabiliser instead, which has worked really well for me for over two decades, which I really count myself very fortunate for.

Anita Rao 8:50
You've written an essay or a couple of personal essays, but one in the Huffington Post in particular, where you talk about how even though you got a diagnosis, you found a medication that really worked for you, it has still been a really long road to recover from the internalized stigma that you experience and really confronting that in your relationships with your family and with other people in your life. Can you talk to me about confronting that stigma and what that looked like after you got the diagnosis?

Michelle Yang 9:18
Absolutely. So as we discussed earlier, I was -- always been a really high-achieving student, I went to college on this really prestigious scholarship. I worked really hard in my parents' restaurant. And so when I got this bipolar diagnosis, even though I struggled with it for many years, knowing that now I have this label, I didn't know if it was going to be a death sentence. You know, I didn't know anybody else who went to see a therapist. I didn't know anyone else with this condition or any mental health condition that was diagnosed. So I carried a lot of shame. A lot of that stigma was internalized, and I thought I had to keep it a secret. I thought that if people found out that they wouldn't want to be my friend anymore, they wouldn't love me anymore. No one would hire me. I believed -- I bought into all that. And so as a result, I kept it a secret for nearly two decades. It wasn't until my late 30s, until you read that Huffington Post piece that I wrote, was the first time I came out publicly with my bipolar disorder. And the reason I did that was because I realized I couldn't hide anymore, it was killing my self-esteem. I knew that I was fearing that if I disclosed my condition, it would be career-limiting. But my lack of self-esteem was already career-limiting. It has been so freeing to be able to finally, in my late 30s and onward, live life as my full self instead of hiding a part of myself.

Anita Rao 11:00
Finding that freedom to be yourself is life-changing and has a big impact on how you show up in relationships. We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll meet Michelle's husband Bob and find out what they've learned about taking care of their mental health together. Stay with us.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao. It's not easy opening up about mental health, even when it's to someone you love. Three people told us about their experiences navigating bipolar disorder in a marriage.

April Mansilla 11:35
How we've navigated bipolar disorder is we haven't made our whole marriage about bipolar disorder. It's about all the other things in between.

Miguel Mansilla 11:44
And supporting one another. I didn't have all the answers to April's questions, and she wasn't able to calm every one of my worries either. But just by listening and letting each other express our feelings, that was big enough.

DJ Chuang 11:56
My wife of 29 years has been very supportive of me by not leaving me, by not overreacting to my symptoms when I have them. And while I'm not able to talk with her directly sometimes when I'm super depressed, I have given her permission to speak into my life when she notices that I'm either depressed, or behaving strangely, or being manic. So having honesty and support has been really helpful and supportive to my mental health in my marriage.

April Mansilla 12:47
What I found for supporting each other is not relying on Miguel for my mental health. I found that really hard especially at the beginning. But now, like separating the two, that Miguel is not my doctor, he's not my care team. He's my husband, and I have to respect him as that.

Miguel Mansilla 13:07
And I had to learn a lot about being patient, where we're not always gonna have great days. But we've learned together how to work through the tough moments and enjoy the good ones.

April Mansilla 13:22
And you can't always expect a caregiver to 100% understand what you're going through or what it feels like to be bipolar. And so it is, it's really about being patient with each other and trying to see where each one comes from.

Anita Rao 13:46
Like April, Miguel and DJ described, we can't always be in our loved one's head. So how do you learn to best communicate with a partner about a diagnosis like bipolar? We've been talking with writer Michelle Yang about her bipolar disorder experience. And I'd like to now introduce her husband Bob Zammit. Bob, welcome to Embodied.

Bob Zammit 14:05
Thanks for having me.

Anita Rao 14:06
So you and Michelle have been together since 2008. Tell me about how the two of you first met and started dating.

Bob Zammit 14:14
Yeah, we were -- this is a relatively cool first date, I have to say. I think if you have a really strong first date, you hope it works out because you don't want to have to top it later. But we were both grad students in the business school at the University of Washington. And so for spring break, we had elected to both go on a trip to India, and we were in Mumbai on a Friday night with time to spare, and a bold Michelle Yang invited me to the premiere of a Bollywood movie which is a big happening. We took a rickshaw with no doors through bustling streets and watched a three hour movie entirely in a language we did not speak and there were no subtitles. So it was very memorable and a great introduction.

Anita Rao 14:59
I love it. So that was a trip, Michelle, I know that was challenging at times for you. Obviously, when you are in a foreign country, your sleep can be really disrupted, you're in a different time zone, you had to be really cautious of your medication regimen. And you began to get some similar kind of feelings to when you had had that severe manic episode in China that we talked about that led to your diagnosis. Can you talk to me about being in that headspace while you were also kind of in this exciting start of a new relationship? And how did you make sense of those two things?

Michelle Yang 15:33
Yeah, it was really hard. Because yeah, you're falling in love. So you already you have this high -- natural high feeling of meeting someone new and being really excited. And, and I'm like, "Oh, my god, is this actually working out? The person I like, actually likes me back," you know, feeling. But at the same time, yeah, having trouble sleeping, moving every couple of days. I was also on malaria medication, which has since been banned from the market. And so I was having these side effects. And it was really, yeah, bad for my mental health. And it was really hard to find my footing again. And and when I came back to the States after the trip, I really struggled. I actually missed the first two weeks of the spring quarter when we returned. Yeah, I was terrified that Bob would not want to be with me if he found out that I lived with bipolar. And yet I felt like I couldn't not tell him, right. So I told him right away, and I was terrified that, that it would mean the end.

Anita Rao 16:35
Bob, take me to that time for you, some of those early conversations that you and Michelle had. And what did you kind of both learn and unlearn? I know there's a lot of existing stigma and narratives people have about what something like bipolar can look like.

Bob Zammit 16:52
Yeah, you're right. And in my specific case, of course, it's also an exciting time for me to and at first, you know, you're falling very deeply for somebody who then disappears for a while you can make the wrong assumptions about why she's hard to reach. But no, when she disclosed, I think, in my case, because there is some history of bipolar disorder. In my family, I kind of made a different mistake. I think that the mistake I made was thinking I knew what this was all about. Because I underestimated the diversity of reactions and how this was different for different people. And I thought, "I can handle this," like almost cavalier. Like, I just thought I had seen it all because of loved ones that lived with it. So I will say that, you know, Michelle, as she described before, like deals with psychosis, which is a really intimidating symptom, but also she manages it far better than anyone else. I've never seen anyone handle their mental health regimen with such clarity and focus and success. So, you know, I think I was right that this was going to be okay. But I also underestimated the hard parts, how hard they would be. To be honest, I think worse than that, I'm kind of embarrassed to look back and say that, when she was having those feelings around like, can we be equal partners now that you know that I deal with this? I was all in. But I think my early and sort of primitive sense of what this meant was, "So you take care of this." Equality meant like, you'll handle this, and it just won't be an issue. When life eventually made it an issue -- of course it was going to -- I can be almost as embarrassed to remember that in the months after some hard times, I probably overcorrected and thought I needed to be much more hands-on than was appropriate and threw things off in the other direction. So it's trial and error as so many things in a relationship are. And it that's really been the process of unlearning the comfort zone I thought I had established and just learning what this means for her and for us.

Anita Rao 18:48
That's so interesting you say that, because I think it can be really common in a romantic relationship to kind of find that balance between wanting a partner to know what's going on with you, but not wanting them to see everything through the lens of your mental health and not overcorrect like you mentioned. Michelle, I'm curious about what it's been like for you two to kind of establish agreements around that, like when Bob steps in and when he kind of takes a backseat and the role that you want him to play.

Michelle Yang 19:16
Yeah, I mean, before we move on to that I do want to add to the last part, where when I did tell him after India, and I was so terrified, he said something to me that really gave me strength. What he told me was that you are worth fighting for. And his belief in me lent me so much strength in a time that I needed it very badly. And, and I think I always kind of go back to my -- that moment when life gets hard, right. And then back to your question. That's been a real learning curve for us because of my internalized stigma too. Because I was like, on a need-to-know basis with most people, I was in denial about it, where I was like, "I've got this taken care of, you know, I'm an A student, I'm going to be an A plus student too at taking care of my mental health." And so I never miss my medication. I'm always doing therapy and my healing work, I don't drink alcohol, I'm, you know, making sure I get enough sleep. So doing all of these things means that by and large, I am pretty well, but there are some times life has extenuating circumstances that you cannot foresee. And crises will arise, whether or not you have bipolar disorder. But when you do live bipolar disorder, the way you can handle it is maybe different than a person who doesn't live with a severe mental health condition. And so in those instances, I do need extra help from Bob. And a lot has been just learning through the course of our relationship. It wasn't until around the birth of our son over 10 years ago now that Bob has a clear like, list of contacts. So of my psychiatrist, my therapist, my PCP, you know, just like, what to do, and maybe Bob can add more to this topic.

Bob Zammit 21:15
I mean, just that, just that, I think, because of that initial, that sort of original sin where I thought, "She's got this," but from what we've experienced, like it is going to be an us thing. And as so many things in a committed relationship are. She'll live with us the rest of her life, and I want to be with her through all of it, which means it's something for me to think about, too.

Anita Rao 21:37
You mentioned that you all have a 10-year-old son. And there's evidence to suggest that bipolar has a genetic component. It seems like you both have family histories that include bipolar disorder. How did you all talk about that as a couple when you were deciding to have kids? Bob?

Bob Zammit 21:54
You know, for us deciding to, not having the family that we've talked about wasn't something we seriously entertained. I mean, I think that we -- emboldened by the life we had built, it just felt like we have so much to offer. We already loved the child that didn't exist. I just think for us, it was something that we knew we were going to, going to do the work to make it plausible. I mean, I have a genetic cancer risk factors. And that didn't stop us from bringing a family into the world either, right? It's like, for us the issue is awareness and vigilance and openness. And I do understand and respect those who are hesitant to do this. But for us, we just, it felt like life was too important for us to be cowed out of fulfilling it.

Michelle Yang 22:03
And I will say that we did talk seriously about adoption as well, early on. I used to work in adoption. And you know, as the person who is giving birth biologically, yeah, we, we did discuss all the risks at length. But, you know, bipolar disorder is, although the cause of it isn't 100% understood, everybody can agree that it's both nature and nurture. And what we discussed and how we parent is that although we can't control the biological side of it, the nature side of it, what we can control is the nurture. And how we raise our son is in a completely different parenting philosophy, you know, in a different, like, very calm and peaceful environment, you know, and he has a lot of the support that Bob and I didn't have when we were growing up.

Anita Rao 23:40
What conversations have you all had with him about mental health and bipolar in particular? And how do you hope that he grows up kind of thinking about mental health? Michelle?

Michelle Yang 23:52
Yeah, I mean, we're pretty open with our child about mental health because yeah, he's very mental health literate, I would say. He's heard me practice, you know, my advocacy work when I give my talks, and he knows that both mom and dad go to see our professional listeners. So that therapy is, yeah, therapy is not stigmatized at all. So we're modeling how to have good mental health. Yeah, so none of these words, none of these vocabulary is new to him. And so he has the tools, he knows he can ask us for help. He knows that if he needs to talk to someone that is not mom or dad, that that is available.

Anita Rao 24:37
I'm curious, Bob, for you, Michelle mentioned you both, you know, going to therapy, both taking an active role in thinking about your mental health. What has shifted for you since watching her go through this journey and share her experience so publicly in terms of how you take care and think of your own mental health?

Bob Zammit 24:58
I think profoundly, to be honest. I mean, the only analog would be, we lost my father a few years back from a cancer diagnosis that we all wish could have been caught sooner. And like a lot of folks, we take our physical health for granted until we can't, and then that something changes in us. So today I am, I take full advantage of every resource for cancer screening, and, you know, it changed things for me. I became so much more aware without being obsessed in an unhealthy way. There's like, yes, you must be vigilant, these risks exist. And watching Michelle just live the life we've lived together has made mental health real for me. It's just not something that you're -- that's optional. Like we all have some physical health profile, and we all have a mental health profile that's worth taking care of. So I did become engaged in therapy years back. And it has been tremendous for me, and I feel very much the same way. I get my cancer screening, and I go to therapy, because I want to be a healthy, whole person. And for me, I take advantage of a local group that meets monthly for folks who are the loved ones of folks dealing with severe mental health. And that's really grounding too, I get a lot out of that every month from folks of different situations, both being reminded how different our situations are, but the commonalities of what it's okay to feel sometimes. I think that that is a real strength in in sharing those experiences. As far as her openness and being out, it has only made it easier to advocate, right, because I think it creates a connection. My coworkers are aware that that block on my calendar is a therapy appointment. And it's like, I just try to do the little things that an ally can do, right, like, let's normalize, let's talk about the words we use. You know, it's very trendy to say crazy when that's not something that's comfortable in our house. That's something our son knows not to do. So when you have this personal connection, it's easier to find the words to advocate inside a really supportive workspace, "Hey, that I don't love that. Can we change it?" And just find the support that says, "Yeah, absolutely." And make those little changes that, hopefully -- I mean, I always have our son in mind -- creating an environment where he'll be happier. And that's, I think, for all parents what we're trying to do.

Anita Rao 27:16
I love that. And I know, I mean, you all have been very intentional in your family unit to be open and to really destigmatize mental health. But in many Asian American communities, it is still pretty stigmatized. I know this is something I navigate with my own South Asian family context, some struggles of, kind of, thinking about mental health not as something to kind of brace against, or to kind of grit your way through. And, Michelle, you've thought a lot about this. And have had a variety of experiences navigating this throughout your life. And one of the things you write about that I think is really interesting is the need to separate trauma from culture. I would love for you to talk a little bit more about that, and how you define that separation in your own life and your own experience.

Michelle Yang 28:01
Yeah, I mean, for most of my life, I embraced trauma as culture because that's the way that I was taught. You know, I grew up in a home that believed in corporal punishment, and that it was culture. I definitely want to heal so that we don't have another generation of trauma that is misunderstood as culture. And, you know, in my experience of growing up ethnic Chinese American immigrant from Korea, there's a lot of intergenerational trauma in my family. You know, my grandparents left northern China because of famine. And then when they arrived in South Korea, they lived through Japanese occupation. And they lived through the Korean War. And then my parents were born shortly after the Korean War when the country was still devastated. And so they never had the chance to heal. And the fact that, you know, I can heal now, you know, now, finally, it's my generation. And it's not until our generation that we're not living in survival mode. We're not -- you know, my parents are still even though they're in the U.S. and should be living a peaceful life, I do see them and they're constantly fight or flight at the smallest things, because they haven't healed from the trauma that they grew up with. And that got passed on to me, unfortunately, but I will refuse to pass it on to our child, right. And I'm very conscious about that, and how I separate culture and trauma in myself, it took a long time to do, because I wanted to believe my parents did the best they could. I also bought into the belief that trauma was culture, but for me to love myself fully, it was the same kind of like, finding myself process of when I found the strength and the voice of being a mental health advocate that I, like, I needed to separate the trauma from the culture because I want to love my culture, I do love my culture. I reject the idea that trauma and pain is part of my culture because it is not. The two are very separate things. I can take a lot of pride in who I am, where I come from and my culture, and not have the pain and the war, the violence be a part of that.

Anita Rao 30:26
I love talking with couples and hearing how folks learn and grow with each other across life and difference. But what is it like to navigate a stigmatized mental illness like bipolar disorder when starting a new relationship? We're going to dive into the dating scene with a writer who has bipolar II disorder just after this break.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao, and you're listening to our conversation today about bipolar disorder and relationships. We've been talking about bipolar disorder in the context of long-term partnership. But what is it like to open up about a bipolar diagnosis at the start of a new relationship?

Noah Dyson 31:10
Having a bipolar diagnosis has impacted my relationships by making it difficult whether or not I can trust that a person will want to stay my romantic partner if I have a manic or even a depressive episode. There is this underlying fear that I'll be too much for a person and that they would leave in my time of need.

Ella Finch 31:41
I would never want to be in a committed relationship where my partner doesn't know I have bipolar. But it's also not something I want to bring up until I feel really safe with someone. I'll disclose that, like, I've had depression in the past and then see how they react to that. Or very often like, they bring up some kind of mental health struggle themselves. And that kind of gives me a temperature gauge in terms of what their perspectives are on mental health.

Noah Dyson 32:15
To support my mental health during crises looks like understanding what your boundaries are, what your limitations are, that you're not a therapist, you're not a psychiatrist, that you are my partner. So seek out resources, seek out help, connect, be a support, sometimes just having your presence there while I'm struggling through depression.

Ella Finch 32:38
One time I had a partner who said that they would be there for everything no matter what. And then I started getting sick and entering an episode, and then that partner decided that wasn't for them. And for a while, I then thought, "I need the most stable, most mentally healthy partner ever." But I found a partner who has had their own mental health struggles and therefore can, like, deeply empathize with certain aspects of my mental illness. And so just finding that person who understands has really helped me enter this really healthy, stable, fulfilling relationship.

Anita Rao 33:27
One person with a lot of experience talking about bipolar disorder, dating and relationships is Hannah Blum. For three years, Hannah was a regular on the healthy place YouTube channel, sharing advice and stories about her experience with bipolar II disorder.

Montage of Hannah Blum on YouTube 33:44
Hey, guys, it's Hannah. Thanks for tuning in. Okay, so we're going to talk about friendship today. Hey, guys, it's Hannah. I'm going on a date tonight. So I figured it would also be a great time to talk about dating and bipolar disorder and share three tips. So we're gonna continue this conversation throughout many videos, relationships dating. I look forward to seeing you next Monday at 9 a.m.

Anita Rao 34:09
Hannah Blum is with me now. Hey, Hannah, welcome to Embodied.

Hannah Blum 34:13
Thank you so much for having me.

Anita Rao 34:15
So you were diagnosed with bipolar II at the age of 20. We heard Michelle talking about her experiences of a bipolar I diagnosis. We mentioned a bit about how bipolar II is different in that it's more defined by the major depressive episodes. I've heard you describe bipolar as a roller coaster that constantly goes up and down. You don't ever get off it but you manage the speed. I love that description. I'd love for you to talk more about that and how you've learned to best manage that speed since your diagnosis.

Hannah Blum 34:47
Yes. I think the biggest thing is that every day is so different. I think emotional regulation is constant. You know if I begin to get overly anxious, making sure that I keep it to a level where I don't put myself in a situation where I kind of tip over and I harm myself or I break my phone or something like, more extreme. But it's there every day, sometimes in a beautiful way, sometimes not so much. But I think the whole roller coaster idea and using that sort of visual for it, it helps make it a little bit more tangible, if that makes sense. And also accepting the fact that, you know, there it is, I have to learn to manage it.

Anita Rao 35:42
Yeah. I'd love to talk a little bit about your experience talking about bipolar in a dating context. We heard about it in a more long-term relationship and in a marriage, but what is it like for you to talk about it in the early stages of dating? How do you manage that?

Hannah Blum 35:59
Yes, so I am a dater. I love dating -- well, sometimes -- but when I began to accept it, and kind of build my confidence as an advocate, as an artist, as a writer, I was also researching and learning about stigma, the structure of it, where it comes from. I was able to speak on it and bring it up more confidently and a little bit boldly. You know, there was a dating situation, I wasn't as public, but the person did not know. And after about two dates, the way I approached it was, "Hey, look, I have bipolar II disorder. I want to let you know. It will probably come out at some point. It's a core root of my writing, of my art. It is something I have accepted, that I cope with, that I have learned to take care of myself. And if that is a problem for you, then we cannot be together." And I say it with a lot of confidence, because I always think the way you say something really kind of determines the way the person will react, you know. They were kind of like, "Oh, okay." You know, instead of me feeling like the underdog or feeling like I was going to be rejected, I'm letting them know what it is, that they can ask me questions. But I do not leave space for being criticized or feeling bad, you know, I take a really bold stance. If they're not cool with it from the beginning, then it will not work out.

Anita Rao 37:44
How much direction do you give people about how you want to be supported by them once you've kind of made it public and you all are beginning a relationship? How much of a role do you want them to play in supporting your mental health?

Hannah Blum 37:57
I have become accustomed really to being on my own. And what that comes with is learning to take care of myself, picking myself up when I have those moments, really having to work to get out of it a lot of times alone. And so when it comes to the way the people can show up regarding my bipolar disorder, is simply acceptance of it. Acceptance of the fact that there will be weekends where I just want to stay in and write or sleep or rest. And they can always approach me, they can always talk to me. But what I really, really stand by and ask for that has become a problem in my other relationships is being shamed. And when I say being shamed, I mean, if I'm having that moment, someone like I've dealt with in the past, we come in and go, "Hey, what's wrong with you? We've got a party to go to tonight," and and "Come on, you got to snap out of this," like, "Why are you sleeping so much?" And that, that is very disheartening and hard. So I think the way a person can show up for me, they don't have to understand every area of it. They don't have to be 100% well-versed. They just have to support me as an individual and grow with me in that area, because it's a significant factor in my life.

Anita Rao 39:35
You mentioned rejection, and you've talked a lot about rejection in relationships and how your experience with bipolar disorder has sometimes made you push people away because you fear that they might reject you, and you've really kind of worked through some of your own narratives about rejection. What are some of the strategies that you have for working through those feelings when they start to come up for you?

Hannah Blum 39:59
Yeah, so when I begin to feel rejected and you know, maybe for some people listening, they have felt like they opened themselves up about bipolar, and then they got rejected. It's, it's very crushing. Even today, I get nervous when a person googles me or I, you know, am from a dating app, and if I don't hear from them, even me, as confident as I am, I'll be like, "Oh my God, did they see my Instagram, and they're like, 'Oh, she has bipolar disorder.'" But basically, I have recognized that what another person believes about bipolar, about me, is a reflection of them. And they're validated to believe whatever they want about it. But I also have the right and the ability to believe what I want to believe, in making the choice to look at that narrative that I'm creating to say, all of these negative thoughts, you know, self-hate, he rejected me because of this, no one's gonna want me, and kind of, I, like, close my eyes, and I picture it outside of me. And understanding that that's a narrative being created off of anxiety, not off of truth.

Anita Rao 41:22
You've talked before about being in relationships where every interaction was read through the lens of your diagnosis, and we talked about that earlier with Michelle and Bob, I'm curious what advice you'd give to the partner of someone with bipolar disorder who wants to support their partner's mental health, but isn't sure how to navigate those changes in their mood or emotions to know exactly the best and most supportive way to respond?

Hannah Blum 41:48
Yeah, so I think that, first of all, asking the person, "How can I best support you? What do you need?" That's one thing, but sometimes they're, they might say, "Oh, I don't need anything, you know, I'm fine. I can do this on my own." But then you see it showing up, and then you really don't know where to go from there. And like, one of the biggest things that I'm a believer in is the advocacy side of understanding the severity of stigma and breaking those barriers down within yourself, becoming an advocate for your partner as well in understanding what they go through, in the sense of the stigma that they're facing. The reason why these feelings might be coming up that they might hide, because they feel so ashamed. Also, I think a huge thing is just giving them the space to be in their feelings, to be who they are, to cry, to hurt, without overdoing it and trying to fix them. I think there's a lot of people that want to fix. And that can be very difficult to navigate if you're going in with the idea that you need to fix someone.

Anita Rao 43:07
I know that an important part of your process, since getting your diagnosis has been to kind of turn the tables on friends and family and ask them about their experience of watching you go through difficult periods, go through ups and downs. Could you take us maybe into one of those conversations and why you think having those kinds of conversations is important?

Hannah Blum 43:28
Yeah, I can give you a really good example that actually recently I was talking about is, so in college is when I had basically my mental health breakdown around the age of 20. That's when I became involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and got my diagnosis of bipolar. Well, during that time in college, I had my best friends who are still like my sisters today. I just saw them on a trip. And they were impacted by that. They had a friend going through this, they didn't know what to do. And they really had to come together to figure out, you know what the next step was, and I mean, I'm thinking to myself, we were 18, 19 years old. That's very difficult to do. And they did, and they came together. Years later, I'd say about eight years later, we kind of had a reunion, and one night, we went out and we came back to the house. And I could tell that two of the girls, they love me so much. And they were feeling a type of way. And I had never really given any of my friends there the space to talk about what they went through. But in that moment, I did, and you know, they were breaking down, telling me actually about things that had occurred that I wasn't aware of. And so they were able to express themselves and I was able to express themselves and it kind of made space for kind of these flowers to bloom and for us to get a better understanding of each other. So I think opening the space for your partner or anybody to to talk about it and be open, it will help you grow. You just don't want to take it too personally.

Anita Rao 45:07
I'd love to close talking about how bipolar disorder has influenced your sense of self. And to introduce that topic, I want to share a reflection that we have from a writer named Ella Finch, who talked with one of our producers in advance of the show about the parallels that she sees between her bisexual identity and bipolar disorder. So let's listen to that.

Ella Finch 45:30
The negative stereotype is if you're bipolar, you're either always depressed or in a manic or hypomanic episode. And the negative stereotype about bisexuality is like, you're either just straight and you're into girls for attention, or you're actually a lesbian who just can't commit. Whereas I found both of them, you're usually in the middle. Like, usually, I'm stable, I'm feeling good. And with my sexuality, I like men, I like woman, I like nonbinary, folks. I'm not just at one extreme or another. They're just smaller parts of me that make up the whole.

Anita Rao 46:08
So there's this idea that Ella is talking about that bipolar is a part of your identity, but not the whole thing. And I am curious about how you think about that question. Like how much does bipolar disorder define or not define you?

Hannah Blum 46:24
Yeah, so bipolar disorder, definitely, it doesn't necessarily define me. If anything, society is the one that, like, makes it define me. But it is a significant part of who I am. I believe that it's a significant part of my ability to connect with people emotionally, to really see people for what they're going through. And I know that every one is different, but I don't want to live my life hating this condition I have and being able to have the vessel of art and writing has helped me connect the two, and you know, kind of see the beauty in it as well as acknowledging the difficulties.

Anita Rao 47:10
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast, consider our contribution at now.

Check out our show notes to learn more about everyone we talked to you today. We've linked Hannah's new poetry book "Oh Mind, Where Have You Gone Today?", as well as information about Michelle's upcoming memoir "Phoenix Girl: How a Fat Asian with Bipolar Found Love." Special thanks also this week to April and Miguel Mansilla, DJ Chuang, Noah Dyson and Ella Finch for contributing to this week's show.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Paige Miranda also produces for our show and Jenni Lawson is our technical director. Quilla wrote our theme music.

And this week we'd like to say goodbye to our social media intern Skylar Chadwick. She has done an amazing job heading up our social for the past year and has created some beautiful content for us. Whether it's an infographic outlining the history of BDSM or a TikTok video showcasing the work of young death care professionals, she nails it every time. Skylar, we will miss you.

If any of y'all have thoughts after listening to this episode, we would love to hear them. Leave us a voice note in our virtual mailbox SpeakPipe. You can find that link in the show notes. We'd also love if you wrote us a review and let us know why you listen to this podcast, or text your favorite episode to a friend. We so appreciate your support.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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