It took me by surprise when someone asked me what it was like being married to someone who had bipolar disorder. Somewhat bizarrely, in 25 years of marriage no-one had ever asked me that before.
On reflection, I realised not many people know that my husband has bipolar. It has only been in the past year or so that he talks about it and for most of our marriage, he actively did not want anyone outside of the immediate family to know – because of the stigma that he felt it carried. Despite being diagnosed almost 20 years ago, he has only recently accepted the diagnosis himself. So I challenged myself to put into words my experiences, in the hope that more people would understand and support those with mental health issues, and to tackle the stigma that surround them.
I met my husband in secondary school. It wasn’t love at first sight, or even romantic – in fact his first words to me were to tell me to leave him alone. But I was fascinated by him: He was different. As I got to know him, I saw that behind the arrogance was a vulnerable young man who didn’t trust people easily and who could be both brilliantly funny and charming, but also withdrawn and introverted. Sometimes we would go for months without seeing him around. I now realise that he had depressive episodes for most of his life.
At the age of 23, I was single and working in London. We met up at a party, got chatting and discovered that we worked near to each other, so arranged to meet up for lunch one day. 18 months later we got married, moved to the suburbs, had 2 wonderful children and got on with life.
We had been married for about 5 years when the first really bad depression hit. I don’t know what triggered it, if anything. He gradually became more distracted and unsettled and lost his confidence. He was a highly successful Sales Manager in a great job and smashed his sales targets every year but, after a couple of months of deterioration, it got to the stage where he couldn’t sleep and threw up before going to work. He didn’t want to eat, couldn’t focus on doing anything normal like reading a book or watching a film. After weeks of this I finally persuaded him that he was ill and should go to the doctor. He was prescribed anti-depressants and was signed off work (to his mortification, but my relief). It took about two weeks before the anti-depressants started to have any effect: two weeks of no sleep, paranoia, low self-esteem and feeling that this was never going to change. It was another 4-6 months before he felt well enough to socialise, play golf and sleep through the night.
As soon as he started to feel better, he stopped taking the anti-depressants. He hated relying on medication and wanted to put any signs of what had happened firmly behind him. It was as if it had never happened. We didn’t talk about it and although I was constantly looking for signs of him feeling bad again, I couldn’t tell him that.
He got much better – back to his old optimistic self. Then EVEN better, super human! He developed a zest for life and socialising that had been missing for months, and he loved this new found energy and belief that he could do anything.
At first I loved it too – he was really happy, he bought the children lovely presents, booked an amazing holiday and was great fun to be around. But, it didn’t stop there. He went clubbing after work, went to strip clubs, got into fights with bouncers, spent the night in police cells – I never really knew where he was or what he was doing, but how could I be angry? He was better and happy.
Neither of us understood at the time about mania – and we both felt very differently about it. He loved it and I hated it.
A few months later, he came crashing down and became depressed again. This time I recognised the signs and dragged him to the doctor immediately. He was given the diagnosis of bipolar, a lecture about not taking his medication for longer and was put back on the tablets.
This cycle of depression then mania continued for the next 20 years. There would be a few years in between where life would be stable and then we would start to see signs of depression. Each time the depression got deeper and took longer to get out of and each time it would be followed by a period of exhilarating mania before settling down. He had to leave several jobs because he was unable to work for months at a time. The periods between the episodes got shorter – a few years later and, in 2014, his depression became so bad that the emergency psychiatric team came in on a daily basis to monitor him as he was suicidal. At this point the combination of the doctor and the psychiatrist made him realise that this was a condition that he had and needed to own for himself. Long term medication was a complete necessity if he was going to be able to live and function. Thankfully, he finally accepted it and has been stable for the past 3 years.
So, what is being married to someone with bipolar like? Just like any marriage, it has highs and lows – but the highs are a bit higher and the lows are a bit lower.
He is a loving dad and tried desperately hard not to let the children see how he felt, no matter how bad his condition got, although they of course knew something wasn’t right. He is an amazing man with a tenacity and ability to survive and look after his family despite his condition.
The hardest part for me was not being able to tell anyone or to ask for help. In times of depression he needed constant reassurance and I couldn’t leave him alone. This was difficult with 2 young children and no family living close by. I spend a lot of time lying to people about why we weren’t going to places and making excuses up for his erratic behaviour. The manic bouts were worse for me – I was constantly worried about where he was and whether he was safe. I would get a call at 4 am in the morning to go and pick him up from some random place – I would have to bundle the children in the car in their pyjamas ‘because daddy had missed the train’. In truth, all this is exhausting.
But the plus side is that life is rarely dull. You learn to appreciate the good days and the quiet days. We now laugh at the outrageous clothing purchases and have many wonderful memories of the incredible holidays we have had and things we have done. You don’t take things for granted.
I wish that we had known more about the condition 25 years ago and how to treat it. But most of all I wish that it didn’t carry the stigma of failure and weirdness that it did and that we could have had more support from people who knew what we were living with. At the end of the day, mental illness is just that – an illness that affects a certain part of the body, the brain. It can be treated and managed. It certainly doesn’t define the person.
My mum is one of the few people who knows what impact the condition has had on me and the family. She asked me the other day if I had my time again if I would have gone out with him and married him knowing what I now know. Without hesitation I said yes – definitely.
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