Memoir

Am I Falling in Love or Having a Manic Episode?

I’m bipolar, and when I started to feel that familiar mix of attraction, infatuation and intensity, I had to stop and ask, ‘is this real?’

Am I Falling in Love or Having a Manic Episode?

As Barys and I stood chatting on the sidewalk outside my rental apartment in Minsk, I willed myself not to touch his plaid shirt, sure it was as soft as it looked. His warm brown eyes met mine, and I lost track of the conversation. I had just arrived in Belarus for work, and I’d met Barys only a few minutes ago, when he’d introduced himself as the translator for the manager of my accommodations. I already felt his pull on me — a pull stronger than really made sense.

“Do you want to go on a walk? I can show you the city.” I realized Barys was still talking to me, and I refocused my gaze on his lips.

“Sure,” I said.

Over the next three days, we found ourselves on Ferris wheels, pedal boats, and picnic blankets in the park. Barys showed me his favorite places in Minsk, had me try his favorite foods, and I adopted them as my favorites too, with unquestioning adoration. It wasn’t long before I realized I was falling in love. He asked me questions with a hyperfocused interest I found mesmerizing. He acted protectively, blocking a drunk man we came across on the street, but not possessively, always respecting my time and boundaries. Plus, he was unfailingly honest — so when he turned to me and said, staring me straight in the eyes, “you know, you’re a really special person,” I believed him.

While with Barys, I lost track of the regular cycle of sleeping and waking. The first night Barys and I slept together, we stayed up talking until past dawn. I told him story after story about my life, the words tumbling from my mouth in rapid succession like coins from a vending machine. The second night we slept together, we did not sleep at all. I bounced on the bed like a toddler, twirled in circles in my socks, hyper-energetic even as I wondered: Why wasn’t I exhausted?

Love is as much chemical as romantic. Harvard Medical School professors and couples therapists Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds say that, at first, our bodies produce increased levels of stress hormones, triggering feelings of anxiety and preoccupation. Serotonin levels drop, causing shifts in our appetite and mood, as well as bouts of obsessive rumination. Dopamine production increases, and our sensory experience sharpens: The sky seems bluer, the grass greener. Norepinephrine makes us alert, giddy, even euphoric, and we might experience difficulty sleeping.

After three days with Barys in Minsk, I returned home to Boston. Despite spending most of my time with him, I had still managed to write the article I’d originally traveled there to research. It seemed my creative energy had no limits.

Upon parting, Barys had hugged me, but he’d also said, “I don’t think we’re going to see each other again.” By the time the plane touched down, though, I had already started intensely daydreaming about ways to get back to him: I could return to Minsk on assignment, vacation there with a friend, even move there to learn Russian. At the time, it simply seemed like I was overflowing with the kind of hope inherent to infatuation, to new love. But I was more confident in these possibilities than made sense — was I really going to move continents for a guy? At the time, I didn’t question these reckless, gut-driven daydreams.

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The first night I spent apart from Barys, I barely slept. I barely slept that week, that month. My irritability and single-minded focus on this new guy, as I redirected every conversation back to him, distanced me from my friends. I exercised obsessively. I stayed up well past midnight and woke up before dawn. I jerked out of bed and started writing stories, dozens of pages at a time, getting down every last detail of my time with Barys. I hardly stopped for breath. I told myself I was in the throes of new love, and this kind of boundless energy was to be expected. But unlike the other times I’d fallen in love, this time something about the falling part felt different.

When I was 15 years old, I once stayed awake for five nights straight — while learning to drive, writing scholarship applications, and going on long, predawn runs. At the same time, I surfed a tsunami of overconfidence, believing I could do anything, and I was certain that the wave would never slam me into the shoreline. Until it did, in fact, crash down on me. I sunk into a deep depression of lethargy and suicidal ideation and world-dimming hopelessness. Then the cycle repeated.

At 19, when I saw a psychiatrist during an especially intense depression, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My symptoms were textbook. I started taking medication, and my mood stabilized. But my treatment isn’t a perfect science. Since the original diagnosis, there have been dosages to be managed, symptoms to track, and psychiatrists to visit.

At my first therapy appointment after I met Barys, I sat down on the edge of a brown leather couch and leaned forward, away from the textured pillows that normally left patterns on my back. I tried to tell my therapist about Barys, excited to share, but she stopped me, frowning.

“Do you realize how quickly you’re talking?” she asked.

I laughed and thrummed my fingers against my knee.

“Have you been sleeping enough?” she asked. “Have you been taking your medication?”

In fact, while with Barys, distracted and off my usual schedule, I had skipped several doses of the bipolar medication I was meant to take twice daily. I had felt invincible, superhuman for those few days. Medication? Who needed it? Certainly not me, I had told myself.

When I met Barys I was 25 and had been taking the same medication for six years. Numerous experts have found that 25 is the approximate age that the brain finishes developing and reaches maturation — a final adjustment of sorts. My doctors had warned me that hitting my mid-20s might mean a shift in my brain that would require a change in my psychiatric medication.

They were right. And perhaps compounded by all of the skipped doses from my time with Barys, and all of the nights of missed sleep, I was well off track.

“You’re experiencing all the symptoms of a manic episode,” my therapist said.

While manic, chemical changes occur in the body, linked to a variety of neurotransmitters. These shifts are responsible for the behavioral changes that accompany a manic episode — the same altered state of mind and body I was experiencing so intensely. A manic episode affects not just our mood but also our judgment, energy and ability to be rational. Euphoria, distractibility and racing thoughts are common. Isn’t this more or less what being in love looks like too? Weren’t the behavioral changes my therapist was noting also the same “symptoms” as early-stage infatuation? Though the research isn’t conclusive yet, a number of studies suggest that changes in serotonin are linked to both mania and infatuation. It may be more than just a matter of similar symptoms: The brain changes that lead to these two states may look similar too. Was I experiencing a manic episode, or was I falling for Barys?

I slumped back onto the cushion behind me, questioning my hope, my feelings, my — what I was now seeing as — excessive confidence that our fling would build into something more. I had wondered if the intensity of the change in my behavior meant I’d simply never liked someone this much. But I realized in that moment that it might have been something else.

I spent months after meeting Barys trying to stabilize on a new medication. The whole time, I messaged him, anguishing over the phrasing of each text, pacing back and forth waiting restlessly for his replies. As my medication continued to fail me and I sunk into a depressive episode, I noticed that my antsy energy over every one of our interactions online was giving way to all-consuming distress at any slight or delay in response. Our communications hadn’t changed, only which way my mood swung in reaction.

For months I woke up every morning exhausted. I looked at knives, razors and train tracks, feeling like they were my only options. But as I tried to deal with the depression through therapy, physical exercise and social support, part of me still felt hope for the future of my relationship with Barys. Feeling so low should have made me give up on our relationship, which was, objectively, doomed, since we lived thousands of miles and an ocean apart. Instead, when it came to Barys, I believed that we would see each other again. I wondered if my hope, persistent even in the absence of mania, even under the weight of depression, meant that my feelings for him were real. Or had those feelings been too tied to my unstable mental state when we first met to trust?

Eventually, my new medication kicked in and my mood began to even out. Getting out of bed was no longer an insurmountable challenge. By that point, my communication with Barys, hindered by language obstacles and time zone differences, had become sporadic. One day my phone pinged with a Facebook message. I folded the page of the book I was reading to mark my spot, and unlocked the screen. Barys had texted me a brief update about his life. But instead of immediately drafting a response, coming up with something engaging to tell him about my own life, something to keep our communication alive, I marked the message as read, locked the screen, and picked my book back up. It took me weeks to write him back, because I was nearly convinced that my infatuation with him hadn’t been real, that my romantic feelings were just a collection of symptoms. As my ability to think rationally returned, I reasoned with myself: I would not see Barys again.

Months passed, and Barys slipped to the back of my mind. I focused on work, grad school applications, and preventive mental-health care: getting enough sleep, exercise, and social exposure, sticking with my meds and staying on top of meetings with my therapist. My stabilized mood meant it was safe to travel again, and soon I found myself planning a work trip to England. The thought of being back on Barys’s side of the Atlantic made me question what had happened with him to begin with. Now that I was more stable, I wondered whether I might be able to find the answers that had eluded me from afar, if I might better understand my feelings for him, past and present — if only I could see him again. The night before my trip, I typed out a message offering to visit him on my free weekend in Europe, and hit send.

My first night in London, jetlagged and out of bed at 2 a.m., I got a response. “Sure,” he wrote back. Unfueled, my feelings had faded over time. But at the sight of his text, the first in many months, I felt a ripple run through me: Anxiety? Excitement? Over the next few days, with the prospect of actually seeing him again front of mind, I found myself slipping back into daydreams about him. I still couldn’t tell if I had real feelings for him, though. I knew that some of my wandering thoughts had more to do with getting closure over our whirlwind time together than making progress toward some sort of shared future. Still, I was curious what I would feel when I saw him again.

Days later I flew back to Belarus. I stood outside my rental apartment — a different one than where we had first met — on the sidewalk in Minsk, bundled up against the frigid February cold, waiting for him. And in the final moments leading up to our reunion, I asked myself for the first time: Had he been interested in medicated me or manic me? Could he possibly have been interested in simply me?

What I discovered surprised me. I saw him emerge from a cloud of snow, and I recognized in myself the exact same feeling of attraction, infatuation, intensity that I’d had after meeting him for the first time, when I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch that soft plaid shirt. My mood was stable from a bipolar standpoint, but still I felt his pull on me.

But something else surprised me even more. I invited him upstairs, out of the cold. I expected him to kiss me. But instead, Barys sat me down on the edge of my bed and, twisting his fingers together nervously, told me, “I know I invited you to visit me, but I’m not interested in being with anyone right now. I just want to be friends.”

I felt my stomach clench and a wave of nausea run through me. Though his words were, in a way, heartbreaking, that feeling of heartbreak confirmed that I’d had, and did have, real feelings for him. Though the “relationship” never even got off the ground, his words stung.

On the other hand, his rejection made me realize that, even taking into account my bipolar brain, my love life was, and could continue to be, just the same as anybody else’s: the infatuation, the rejection, the chance of, eventually, finding somebody who loved me as much as I loved them.

This relationship turned out just like many — most — others, mental illness or not: A boy didn’t love me back.

I left Belarus that second time in a state of calm I hadn’t experienced since before I’d met Barys nearly a year earlier. I wasn’t manic or depressed, and with rejection fresh in my mind, I wouldn’t even say I was in love anymore — I had already started to see it had been more spark than flame. I was back to where I was before Barys, both psychiatrically and emotionally. The sensation of stability felt good.

I’m not sure if I will fall in love again anytime soon, or if I will experience another bipolar episode. I’m not sure what comes next for me. But like many relationships, in the end, the real insight was about my brain — myself — and didn’t have much to do with the boy at all.