K’s bipolar marriage

I appealed for people to write about what life is like when you love someone with a mental health problem. The piece that follows is about what life is like when both people in the relationship have bipolar disorder.

Both my husband and I are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type 2. We’re clearly very (un) lucky people: there’s a one in ten thousand chance of that occurring. You may not believe it, but we did not pick each other up at a clinic or support group. We were both diagnosed in our early thirties. He also has a side helping of anxiety and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

It is both easier and harder for me to live with him and his mental illness than it would be for a “normal” person. Easier as I understand his struggles particularly well (they are mine too). Harder, because if he requires support, it may be at a time when I am not well, in which case I really have to dig deep. We are lucky – mostly it tends to be that if one of us is down, the other is up.

My husband’s bipolar first manifested in long depressive episodes in his late twenties. My bipolar was properly triggered after the birth of our first son, and I spun first into hypomania and then into deep depression. It was a very stressful time and he also became depressed although it was overshadowed by mine, and though I went to therapy he soldiered on by himself. His postnatal depression lifted but it took months. A few years later I was admitted to a clinic for a bad mixed episode. Extreme work pressure (and in hindsight a hypomanic episode), my illness, and looking after 2 kids triggered his own bipolar in full, and he spun into deep depression and high anxiety.

Diagnosis and finding a good medication regime took a while. During that period he was fairly unstable. I was lucky in that by then I had more insight about how I should deal with him. Had I actually engaged with him when he was short tempered and full of rage, it would not have ended well. The few times I did we got into impressive arguments, but, thanks to a good support group, I realised that it was not him talking, but the bipolar. That I could leave him when he was angry, and engage with him when he was calm, helped him to be more open to asking for help.

When it comes to someone with a mental illness, I think I’ve gotten off lightly. He’s not a complainer, although his just carry on attitude sometimes means he doesn’t get the help he needs fast enough. First appointments with psychiatrists here take an hour, and he finished his in half an hour (I did most of the talking). His half hour appointments are done in ten minutes. I thought he had a bad doctor but realised she may actually have a rather reticent patient. During one of his deep depressive episodes, his therapist did not realise the extent of it at all, and apologised when she finally did realise.

We are very different when it comes to our illnesses. I’m very informed, very forceful, very engaged with my treatment and my doctor, and follow a rigid routine to maintain stability. He has read very little about bipolar, suffers in silence for months while depressed, doesn’t demand different treatment when the current one clearly isn’t working, and the single thing he does the same every day is to brush his teeth (he’s not a routine kind of guy). It’s usually impossible to boss him around, but he takes his doctor’s word as law, and finds it hard to argue with her. He also doesn’t look after himself well. I wish he would be more selfish, and would take time to exercise, and sleep more and do other self-care. I encourage him to do those things but I’ve realised my oxygen mask needs to be on me first, and he has to find his own way to manage his illness. I push him to see his doctor if I can see he’s clearly unwell, but I can’t (and have realised I shouldn’t) manage the day to day for him.

There is a tiny silver lining to his illness. Without his first big crash, he would never have gone to a therapist. Now he finds her a lifeline, and is a lot more self-aware (and looks after himself ever so slightly better). He is already incredibly empathetic, but thanks to his illness he can support and understand me exactly the way I need when I’m struggling. I wouldn’t change him, but I certainly wish he didn’t have to suffer.