I was 18-years-old, pregnant, scared and lonely when I met my now husband. We became best friends and two years later, he married and had a baby. Fast forward six years, we were madly in love and engaged, then married. One year after that, my husband came home after work, sat down at the kitchen table and told me he wanted a divorce. I refused. Not very nicely. A few months after that, he was diagnosed with Bipolar 2, and our marriage was in for a hell of a ride. Ten years later, I’ve had a book published about our marriage, a lot of sleepless nights, and a heck of a lot of a lessons learned about loving someone with bipolar disorder. Here’s a few biggies:
1. When your partner is diagnosed, you won’t know what’s coming. This is because even if you understand mental illness — I was already struggling with anxiety and depression when my husband was diagnosed — you don’t know what it’s going to look like in a particular person. There are general parameters of symptoms, but they can vary wildly from person to person.
2. Part of not knowing what the person’s bipolar disorder is going to look like is not knowing what they are going to be willing to do. Part of having bipolar can be what is called ‘anosognosia’, a weird word for a simple idea: a mentally ill person who is unable to perceive that they are ill. This means a huge part of bipolar is that when your partner most needs help they will be least likely to look for or accept it. Some people with bipolar can be very pro-active about their care but this is usually after treatment has begun to help. Part of what makes bipolar so scary — and yes, it is scary — is that it takes an enormous amount of work to manage and ‘an enormous amount of work’ is almost impossible for someone very ill with bipolar. Therefore, recovery is a long, hard road, save for a lucky few who respond to medication immediately and beautifully.
3. Your partner may not have the same ideas about what it means to treat their bipolar disorder that you do. If I had my way, my husband would be scarfing fish oil like it was beer, contacting his inner zen daily, eating a perfectly balanced diet and taking regular strolls in nature to reconnect. Let’s just say these things are not happening.
4. You will struggle with letting go. Letting go of the idea that you can heal your significant other or the idea that your love can save them. Letting go of the way things used to be before the disease took hold. Letting go of waiting for the disease to let go! Letting go of thinking if your partner would just ‘try harder’ they wouldn’t act ill when having a bipolar episode.
5. You will feel guilty. I struggle still to accept that it’s not wrong for me to be happy or light if my husband is in bipolar depression and cannot. I struggle to know where letting go crosses with ‘I’ve done all I can’ because we do a lot — almost anything— for those we love the most.
6. The medication they take might not work. And if it does work, it might stop working. Many people with bipolar have to try more than one or two medications, and combinations of medications, before they find something that works for them. Staying on top of the medications could very well become partly your responsibility, too. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but…
7. …You have to throw ‘should’ out the door when having a relationship with bipolar. You ‘shouldn’t’ have to be sad a lot, right? Well, nobody wants to feel sad. People with cancer, pain disorders, lost jobs and broken hearts ‘shouldn’t’ have to suffer either. But we all do. When you love someone with bipolar, you have to stop listening to the shoulds and think about what really IS and what works for you. If helping your partner manage their medications makes you feel better and keeps them more balanced, great. If it makes you feel resentful and stressed out and your partner feel hen-pecked, then don’t do it!
8. You will need to re-learn that taking care of yourself is important. Even if you already knew this, it’s hard to remember when the person you love is struggling so much. You can’t be calm, loving, patient or gentle with your partner or yourself if all your mental and emotional energy is going toward the other person. You don’t want your relationship to start feeling like a caretaking role — and trust me, neither does your partner. So remember to include what nourishes you every day. I go on 4-mile runs a few times a week, write, read novels and talk to my girlfriends and my mom. I spend a lot of time being ridiculous and laughing!
9. Your relationship could become all about bipolar. I recommend that it does not! Take note if you are paying more attention to the disease than the person. If your conversations all end up somehow coming back to bipolar or your idea of a date night is group therapy, you might want to reconnect as just people who love each other and drink some wine and watch some bad TV together before hitting the sack.
10. Bipolar is a disease that shows up on MRIs. It is not your partner’s fault they are sick. It’s up to you to educate yourself about this disease and get the support you need and up to them to accept and take responsibility for treatment.