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11/13/12

My Partner Has Bipolar Disorder

I am married to someone that is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It isn't a secret but has been a new chapter in our lives that I haven't publicly talked about, in respect to my partner. I recently asked him if it was okay if I talked about it on my blog. I felt like enough time has passed (it has been 2 years) and we are more comfortable talking about it. It is a significant part of our lives and I know other people can relate. I also think it is important that mental illnesses not be attached to shame and stigma the way they are. That goes for people suffering from the disorder and the people that are in their lives. About 2.6% of people in the US suffer from bipolar disorder and millions of people worldwide. It is not uncommon and especially prevalent in creative people, like Vincent van Gogh and Kurt Cobain. It is easily undiagnosed as some people enjoy the "highs" of their mood swings, feeling more productive. It can also take years for there to be enough evidence for a doctor to diagnose it correctly and is often misunderstood.

Bipolar disorder is defined by Wikipedia as:
A psychiatric diagnosis for a mood disorder in which people experience disruptive mood swings that encompass a frenzied state known as mania (or hypomania) and, usually, symptoms of depression. Bipolar disorder is defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated energy levels, cognition, and mood with or without one or more depressive episodes. At the lower levels of mania, such as hypomania, individuals may appear energetic and excitable. At a higher level, individuals may behave erratically and impulsively, often making poor decisions due to unrealistic ideas about the future, and may have great difficulty with sleep. At the highest level, individuals can show psychotic behavior, including violence. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes, or symptoms, or a mixed state in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time. These events are usually separated by periods of "normal" mood; but, in some individuals, depression and mania may rapidly alternate, which is known as rapid cycling. Severe manic episodes can sometimes lead to such psychotic symptoms as delusions and hallucinations.
I love him more than anything in the world and a few years ago I thought I had lost him forever. I mean, he is my best friend and my whole world. I saw someone I knew since I was 16 act out of character and do things that scared me. It took two years to diagnose when the episodes began. The first time, it started with him staying up all night and having grandiose thoughts and at it's worse I was calling the police and was close to losing my job. This isn't always the case, but in my case he was never violent or abusive towards me or anyone else. There was just a lot of flighty erratic behavior such as getting up at night and running through the neighborhood, not sleeping, hallucinating and acting out or behaving strangely. This included an incident at my workplace and that was when I had to call the police.

I could no longer be the super wife that I thought I was. I realized that we needed help before the worse imaginable happened. At this point, we didn't know what was happening, why it was happening or what to do. I was in a panic 24/7! I thought about how he could be arrested for trespassing or that a situation could escalate and he could be hurt in a misunderstanding or even shot by police. It seems silly to call the police since that was my fear. But it was the only choice I had. It was that or tie him down and lock him in the house, which I was fully prepared to do! Thankfully, the officers that arrived were very understanding and treated us well. They made sure I was safe and that my husband was safe. They made sure he was brought to the hospital and that was the beginning of what ended up being a handful of psychiatric holds that it took to diagnose the disorder.

At first we were told his behavior was temporary and he would be okay. We went back and forth to hospitals, often given medications that only intensified the symptoms. Finally there was a moment, in the  midst of an episode, when I realized something else was happening and we needed a new approach. A therapist had mentioned bipolar disorder as a possibility a year before and since everything else had failed, I knew it was exactly that. I remember we were outside at home, and I looked at him calmly and said "You are acting strange again. We should go back to the hospital." He agreed. We finally went to the hospital educated, knew which medications to refuse and was able to make a choice together that it was best to have a longer stay in a psychiatric hospital. We finally had a diagnosis and a plan. I would miss him terribly but those couple weeks would save his life.

I could tell that through all of it, he was feeling a tremendous amount of pain and fear over what was happening and things he said or did. To him, it felt like a dream, or more like a nightmare. He was somewhat aware of what was going on but really just felt out of control, like a dream, it was happening to him. He pleaded to me to take his life one night at the hospital. From then on, I never blamed him for what was happening. We were going to go through this together and our lives would be changed. We went from being married teenagers to adults in the their mid-twenties learning how to deal with the effects of mental illness on our relationship, family and friends. Not everybody understood but we had each other and the worse of it was over.

He lost his job and was able to find a new one, but they ended up letting him go too. Even though we faced living on one income for a while, we were thankful to be on the other side of this mountain we had been climbing. I know he was relieved. Relieved that there was a treatment that would take off the pressure. The pressure of constantly having to internalize and suppress the disorder. The doctor said that usually people have it all their lives and little things and behaviors can be signs. But that over time, it just gets harder to manage by ourselves and starts affecting how well you can function. It's like a roller coaster ride that starts slow and gets faster and steeper. I think about how strong he must have had to be to hide it and control it by himself all those years. Then something will happen to trigger an episode and then you are more likely to have another and they usually get worse each time. For him, the trigger was the sudden death of my grandmother that we were both very close to. I was away from home assisting with her hospice care. Then, I was in a car accident and messed up my back. There was a lot of stressful things happening at once. After that was when almost two years of episodes, doctors, hospitals and confusion started. 

Looking back at that time, it seems like a lifetime ago. Millions of years ago! To go from feeling helpless and desperate for answers to knowing what is wrong and how to make it better is a huge deal. I still love him just as much as before. Actually, even more. We have been together for 13 years and so much has changed in that time. We grew up, transformed from doe-eyed half-hearted Christians to passionate Humanists and Atheists, learned how to be caregivers, and we got through this together. They say that your body regenerates cells and after 7 years you have a completely new body. Well, that seems even more true with us. Everything we ever thought we knew and wanted changed.

It's not something every couple survives. There was times when I felt alone, fucking angry and could barely deal with it. I thought about separating. I actually kicked him out for one night and missed him so much that I asked him to come back right away. I was just so afraid that I would hate him for how we was acting, even though it wasn't his fault. But my heart told me it wasn't over and we were going to deal with this shit together.

As soon as we knew it was bipolar disorder and had medication to control it, everything started making sense and getting better. It was like our lives started over again. Those two words, Bipolar Disorder, saved our marriage. It isn't a death sentence or a source of shame. It was the answer we were looking for. Things are now stable and he found a job that he enjoys and is excelling at. We trust each more than ever. We can laugh at some of the crazy things we have been through. Instead of feeling like we are drowning, we have a lifeboat and floaties and a little island where we can live happily ever after.

Yes, my partner has bipolar disorder but it isn't what make him who he is. It isn't a bad word, a problem to ignore or embarrassing. I will gladly stand up with him and yell it to the world. 
- Rachele
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