There are days when I feel like basic communication with my wife is almost impossible. There are days when nothing calms her down, nothing settles her racing mind, and nothing gives her comfort. There are days when she disappears downstairs to her work area, and I have to bring her food or she won’t eat. There are also days when she cannot seem to get enough sleep and spends the day in bed.
And oftentimes this happens within the span of just one week.
For those of you who live with someone with bipolar or other mental illness, or have been diagnosed with one yourself, you know that all the medication and therapy in the world will never eliminate sypmtoms entirely. There will always exist a struggle to to live life as “normally” as possible. And there will always be people who question or criticize your need for self-care. That, to me, is without a doubt the most frustrating, tedious and painful aspect of living with mental illness.
My wife was misdiagnosed for years. In fact, when she was a kid, she remembers suffering through many days not understanding why she felt so agitated or discouraged, and everyone wrote her off as a tempermental, hard-to-manage child. Eventually as an adult, a doctor told her she was depressed and medicated her for that. And while that addressed part of her symptoms, it only made her feel more out of control. Finally, at the age of 32, a psychiatrist she just started seeing approached her with a bipolar diagnosis. She was devastated but relieved at the same time. She’d have to deal with new medications, new treatments and new knowledge that explained behavior she previously didn’t understand. But it also came with newfound hope that someday she might feel more “normal.”
The road to living with bipolar has been a hard one. Medications help but some have horrible side effects. Therapy helps but it also means unearthing painful memories that break her down. Outpatient treatment helps but working through issues within a group comes with its own challenges. Over the sixteen years we’ve been together, it wasn’t until last October when she had to be hospitalized for the third time that she was offered a regimen that included all of the above. Sad that our healthcare system is still so underequiped to help those with mental illness.
I love my wife but I hate bipolar disorder. I know that sounds severe, but it’s true. On days when she feels so angry that everything I do only irritates her more, on days when she leaves to buy a few groceries and comes back with hundreds of dollars of stuff we don’t need, on days when she can’t get out of bed or doesn’t feel safe driving or is so frustrated she hits her head against a wall or can’t stop crying, life feels almost too hard to bear. And though I’ve never been suicidal myself, I understand why sometimes she thinks that may be the only way to end her suffering.
When we were finally able to legally get married last year, I had someone question if I really wanted to do that and be tied to a person with mental illness. I couldn’t believe my ears. If her husband was diagnosed with cancer, would she leave him because she didn’t want to deal with it? Because it would make her life easier? No. And I view my wife’s illness in the same way. It may be less understood and still carry the stigma that she’s “crazy” and just needs to “think happy thoughts”, but it can be as debilitating and difficult and frustrating and horrible as other diseases.
Would I change anything in my life? Maybe. I wish she had been diagnosed ealier in her life so she would have had years to learn to cope and adjust; I wish we had pressed harder after the first hospitalization for more comprehensive treatment; I wish she didn’t have to deal with the pain and frustration of not understanding her own behavior; But bipolar will never make me love her any less. I have just had to learn to love her differently, and I have gone through my own therapy and skill-building process. But I would never leave her simply because she has bipolar disorder. In truth, it has shaped who she is; it has made her the quirky, clever, hard-working, sensitive and compassionate woman she is.
May is Mental Health Awareness month, which is why I felt compelled to share this on my blog, but living with a partner with mental illess impacts life every single day, every week, every month, every year. It challenges the bond we have and constantly tests our love for each other. And I know that we will never have a “normal” life that fits most people’s standards.
Well, most people’s standards are what need to change, because according to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 19% of the adult U.S. population has some type of mental illness/disorder. The number is even higher for kids, with 1 in 5 having had at some point in their life a debilitating mental disorder. And we wonder why there’s so much violence in schools, and why kids are being bullied, and why suicide rates are increasing again within certain populations. As a society we blame mental illness for behavior, but we don’t do enough to educate and understand. Not nearly enough.
One of my ways to cope is to write. Often I feel I talk to my computer with more honesty than I do anyone else. But it helps me gain perspective. And I realize how lucky I am to be blessed with such a wonderful, amazing, talented, kind, and loving partner to share my life with. I’m not a successful writer – yet – but I believe I will be and so does she, and no matter how difficult life feels, she has always encouraged me to follow my dreams.
This coming week, my first book will be released. Dream come true. And she’s been by my side for the entire journey.
My next writing project features a character diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am doing this not only because it’s cathartic, but also because I feel that the characters in our books don’t reflect the prevalence of mental disorders in relationships. Or at least they’re not always identified as such. My hope is to bring awareness to a story that is typically only seen in crime novels. It is possible to live with mental illness and have an amazing life, and that’s the story I plan to tell. I do it for me, for all those whose lives are impacted by mental illness and for my wife, who has taught me so much about perseverence, courage and unconditional love. She will always have my heart.