I'm a "Psycho Ex-Girlfriend" According to My Exes, But That's Only Half the Story

I'm under medical treatment for a rare mental illness that affects 0.1-0.3% of the population. Chemical romance makes me unpredictable.
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Mollie Garnes
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I'm under medical treatment for a rare mental illness that affects 0.1-0.3% of the population. Chemical romance makes me unpredictable.

"Are you sharing this information as a medical diagnosis or as a legal disclaimer?" 

I'm at work when the message pops up. A few hours earlier, I'd updated my OkCupid profile to include disclosure of my illness. While I grew up entrenched in the attitudes of the elite,  it wasn't my only experience with unspoken taboos. I'm under medical treatment for a rare mental illness that affects 0.1-0.3% of the population — schizoaffective disorder. It's exhibited by symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. On my profile, I was specific. I listed triggers and why my last relationship broke off.

From a potential date's perspective, it's startling to scroll through hobbies and interests and suddenly find a diagnosis. I couldn't blame this guy for asking an insulting but necessary question that boiled down to are you dangerous? Unlike in my previous relationships, I'd chosen to disclose early in hopes it would filter the search. Others with mental illnesses have embraced this approach as well. In a recent article, psychotherapist Meg Batterson describes disclosing a disorder as a "litmus test." 

By the time I read his comment, I'd accepted my red flags as limiting.

I've been medically stable for eighteen months. Stability has a different definition for me than it might for you and especially for those I date. It helps to keep expectations clear from the get-go. Stability means I pay my own bills, keep a consistent schedule, a clean lifestyle, pass quarterly psychiatric exams, and follow a treatment program. I'm on constant alert for mood swings or abnormal thoughts. But what happens when you throw the continual heady rush of dopamine and oxytocin from first dates, first kisses, and orgasms into an already unbalanced brain? 

Social anthropologist Helen Fisher studies the brain's chemical reactions to new relationships, stable ones, and heartbreak. My experiences with dating, according to Fisher, are similar to my previous chemical dependency on anxiety medications. In her TED talk, "The Brain in Love," Fisher describes how romance "has all of the characteristics of addiction. You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality."

Why, yes, I do. With every new partner, things go too fast. One moment, I'm in a little bistro, holding a paper menu and the next, I'm three-hours deep into searching for a Korean recipe, because my date mentioned he likes to cook it. I'm unable to limit my self-expression to quiet emotions, normal exchanges, or texts under 160 characters. 

"I never know what to expect from you," one of my exes commented. A methodical scientist, he acted cautiously, with logic and reason. "The universe is random enough as it is. I want a consistent girlfriend, if that's not too much to ask."

Unfortunately, yes. For me, it is. While I'm functional, chemical romance makes me unpredictable. 

"Every time I got a text from you, it was like taking a magic eight ball filled with random emotional outbursts and shaking it," one ex replied when I asked about my behavior. While I thought I was keeping loved ones in the loop from moment to moment, others viewed my updates as scattered. Fueled by the singular focus of my new relationships, sharing felt immediate. As Fisher says in her TED talk, it's a fine line between romantic infatuation and clinical instability. In fact, "the same brain region where we found activity" Fisher describes, "also becomes active when you feel the rush of cocaine."

It's no coincidence, then, why I relate to Bradley Cooper's character in the recent 2015 American cooking movie Burnt. Cooper plays Adam Jones, a psychotic chef recovering from addiction. We encounter Jones in the film as he shucks his millionth oyster; even his sobriety is obsessively measured. In the film, he apologizes to his former kitchen team, only to coerce them into helping him pursue a third Michelin star. 

"The kitchen's the only place I've ever felt like I belonged. I loved every minute of it, the heat, the pressure, the violence," Jones says to his chef-de-partie, the even-tempered Helene, whose presence offers an unshakeable juxtaposition to Jones' inherent volatility.

Brunch with my son is quieter than my days on the professional line. I like it better that way.

Brunch with my son is quieter than my days on the professional line. I like it better that way.

At the tipping point of my illness, I was plating steaks in culinary night school and arranging sauces in neat swipes on the plate. Supervised by a chef with an international legacy, I developed an infusion concept of food that bloomed like layers of perfume. In execution, my work was (at best) disorganized and (at worst) erratic and frightening to my peers. I was prone to emotional meltdowns, in contrast to the steel functionality of the commercial kitchen. Yet I loved every moment. 

In love and in cooking, my heart is in the carnage.

I've never felt anything softly in my life, not even my love for my tender, thoughtful son. As a mother, my love constantly quivers. I ache with anxiety that, during the week, he might slip away as if he was just another figment of my overactive imagination. From the outside, my life now is quiet, reduced to the slow simmers of easy family living. We indulge our weekends in play, in art supplies, in mixing farmer's market produce into breakfast muffins. As we bake, we talk about why some eggs are brown because the farmers chose kinder practices. Kinder practices are important. 

I exchanged the heat of dinner service for lovely meals at home.

I exchanged the heat of dinner service for lovely meals at home.

As a parent, I feel pressed to teach Benjamin how to channel his raw emotions into more gentle behaviors than my own. Lately, we've sought insight through art: our peanut butter and jelly on Monet placemats, our living room filled with music. Ben likes orchestras, the steady hum of violins before the tension picks up. Last week, in the car, I played the Burnt score and its cinematic swells filled our tiny KIA. 

"Some of the songs are a little strong," Benjamin observed, "Maybe we can skip them."

We have the option now to skip the less pleasant, but Benjamin hasn't forgotten. Benjamin is old enough to remember when I didn't have impulse control. "Do you remember when you threw the cup?" He asks occasionally and I do, my face burning every time we go over the story. In a fit of panic, in a final argument with his father, I shattered a teacup against the wall behind the kitchen sink. His father never patched it over. It was a silent reminder of my dormant capacity for rage.

At best, this rage is expressed in passion. In romantic situations, though, obsession; and in the end of my marriage, violence. I think back to the question, is my illness a medical condition, or a legal disclaimer? It's both, especially when it comes to my love for my son. I cup my custody in the palm of my hand, knowing any impulsivity could shatter it. My grip on reality tightened since my final day in my husband's kitchen. I became more careful.

In reality, kitchens are quiet places. Love too is in the soft notes; the quivers before the crescendos. My last serious relationship was also with a chef. Side by side, at 4 a.m., we used to unload produce, our shivering bodies wrapped into quilted jackets as we organized the walk-in freezer. I'd longed for a kitchen by that point. I'd tried to assemble my life from the scraps. I missed the steady rhythm of morning prep, the calm before dinner service opened. Even and measured, my ex would check boxes as they arrived, his discerning eyes catching accidents before they happened.

In the same vein of wisdom, he'd cut our relationship short before our chemistry simmered into an outrageous boil. Late on a winter afternoon, he let me into his apartment to collect my things. Gathering an armful of abandoned workout gear, I smelled a jacket's wrist, where I'd spilled vinegar. In a moment of nostalgia, I wished it had stained. On my way out the door, his hand brushed my waist, pulling me back. "You know what I hate most about this?" he sighed, eyes glistening, "On your good days, everything was perfect."