Posted by Est July 11, 2012

It is great to find a site that has experiences from the perspective of a partner of a bipolar person. I have been married to my husband for 22 years and have two beautiful boys (aged 12 and 5). I have known my husband for a lot longer, meeting him when we were 14 (though we didn’t date until 5 years later).

My husband wasn’t formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder until he was 36. Prior to this in his 20’s he was treated for depression, after he had a bad episode when he was 20 and had had a lot of doctors’ visits, to work out what was wrong. This was very early on in our marriage (I married at 20), and because there were 7–9 months between depressive episodes at first, we rode the waves and attributed it to the difficulties one has to deal with in marriage. His illness grew with our marriage and became our normal.

One of the most difficult things I remember feeling at the time was the inability for anyone else to recognise the problems I was dealing with, the misunderstandings, and lack of understanding from family. Sometimes I wished he had cancer or some other nameable disease that people have instant empathy for. At least a cancer patient returns the love and can hold a conversation. And the road is somewhat predictable.

What I now recognise as his ‘high’ periods, were seen as him being social, willing to help anyone anytime (except what needed to be done at home), and getting really fixated on projects like restoring cars, working on computers, and camping. A lot of his behaviours at the time were also excused through the amount of alcohol he would consume in social situations. His father didn’t understand the depressive/inactive episodes and often told him to just snap out of it. He also told me, “Why would you marry a loser like that anyway?” This was very hurtful to me, but also explained his inability to deal with his son at the time. Needless to say we have all come a long way since then, and he is much more loving and supportive these days.

My husband is a likeable and, when well, a loving man and has never been violent. I really love him; otherwise, I would not have married him. This doesn’t mean I haven’t gone through some very tough and soul searching times, and I continue to do so. I feel for all the partners whose posts I have read where this is not the case. I know how I struggle and cannot imagine what an added dimension violence adds to dealing with the problems.

After many years of dealing with a gradual increase of behaviour and frequency and being totally unaware of what was really going on, I started to read and came across the topic of bipolar disorder. I straight away recognised the symptoms, but it took another two and a half years before my husband was properly diagnosed, followed by years of finding the right medication, keeping him on the medication, and stopping the alcohol, as it made things 10 times worse. The endless careless spending is still a problem today, though not to the degree it used to be.

Again, I had to battle everyone and my hubby. People would tell me that he’s such a nice guy, he’s an adult, let him drink if he wants to, stop hen-pecking him, and so on. (If only they knew the days of hell I had trying to stay in control afterwards, finding money to pay bills and buy food, and keeping my husband safe from himself.)

At this time, the suicidal thoughts started creeping in to his depressive periods. He travelled for work, and to this day I keep selected SMS’s on my phone from him, saying he is going to end it all, to remind him and me how long this has been going on. You see, he doesn’t remember everything, which is another frustration when trying to talk to him when he is well or when he talks to doctors. His memory is coloured and vague. A few times he went missing for 24 hours. He cannot remember where or what he did — just follow the credit card trail!

In 2007, we had some terrible bushfires that lasted for 5 weeks. Our house wasn’t burnt, but we were on alert for most of that 5 weeks, the fire being 15 minutes away from us. (We live in a forest next to a national park.) At this time, my husband was trying new medication and told to be stress free. Ha! He went into overdrive, preparing the property for fire, going to help a friend fight the fire directly for 2 days, and then… crash! My husband crashed in the 3rd week. He had voices which he hadn’t told anyone about. He later described them as English private school masters whispering in his ear nonstop that he was worthless, useless, etc. They never stopped. He took some anxiety pills and lay on our bed. It didn’t work. He took some more and had a drink. It didn’t work. I wasn’t home. The kids were at school and in day care. He consumed a bottle of liquor and untold tablets. Luckily he started phoning people and his parents, sounding so strange that they finally came.

This was probably the pivotal moment in our lives that changed much for us. His parents came and rang the ambulance, but not wanting to make her son sound like a bad person, his mum made it sound not so bad, so the ambulance wasn’t going to come. By this stage my husband was in a foetal position on the floor in a dark corner near our wardrobe. My youngest son, 2 at the time, was repeatedly told to give dad a cuddle! This was something I was furious about, as we had always discussed to try and shield the kids from the severe behaviours. Then the best friend was called to come and help, so he turned up with his two kids. I also had a German exchange student and an au pair (19 years old) living with us, so they came home. Then someone finally decided I should know! I came home in the middle of a circus! This was the first anyone else had seen of my husband’s severe behaviour; I had always managed it myself.

I straight away got the ambulance to come, giving his history. This entire scenario resulted in my husband spending five and a half weeks in the psychiatric hospital. They continued changing his meds. The psychiatrist didn’t want to release him, but the other six people on the panel did, against my protest. He was supposed to be released under the watchful eye of the CAT team. They had him on their books for two days before they released him too. Then it was a battle of years to stabilise him. He was off work for 10 months. Finally the family acknowledged that he was ill (it took them 17 years). I have had many trips to emergency, where he is given an “extra dose” and if you drive around for an hour he should be okay to take home to the kids! I learned pretty quickly that looking like you are coping and being rational doesn’t always work in your favour.

We are now one year without a hospital trip. He is able to manage his own health better. He has stopped drinking completely. He has realised he needs to take his medication. But he has just come off five weeks sick leave at home because of an episode. I work full time. Have done so since we were married. I save my sick leave so I can look after him and the kids when they are sick. I go to work when I am sick. I do everything most of the time. If I add up the days when my husband is an equal partner in household responsibilities, it would total no more than 14 days. I am exhausted and often feel like giving up. But then I look at the kids, I get out the photo album, and remind myself of the good times and why I married him in the first place.

I choose to live with my husband and love all of him, good and bad. He is not his illness. It is an unwelcome intrusion into our lives but has also made us stronger and more tolerant of others. We have lost a lot of friends over the years, but we have also gained “true friends” who have stuck with us warts and all. Sometimes someone will say, “Why don’t you leave?” My answer is, “if he had a tumour or cancer would you be asking me the same question? Would it make me love him any less?” I still get, “It must be awful for your husband!” Not much thought is given to what I deal with and that sometimes I can feel like screaming. But I have made some peace with that, though I have momentary bouts of anger and resentment. There is a limit to how much support I can give, and I worry about my boys constantly. But they are healthy, they laugh a lot, they are much loved by both of us… and they don’t know different. My 12-year-old son said to me once, “Mum, I don’t notice when dad is sick. He is just not around. But when he is he helps me and fixes things.” Both my boys love their dad and he loves them. I’m proud that he hasn’t given up and keeps fighting. We continue to try and focus on our strengths, and continue to battle through our many challenges.

Some more thoughts I wanted to add as I reflect on my experiences with bipolar disorder

In his mid-twenties to early thirties, my husband’s bipolar gradually became worse. First it was two to three episodes a year. They lasted between two to four weeks, and had just enough time between for us to believe things were getting better. He was also very good at surrounding himself with what I call enablers — people who condoned his erratic compulsive and obsessive behaviours, friends who shared his interests, drank a lot, partied hard, and stayed up late. (Camping was a great way to indulge this behaviour.) It made it very hard for me to moderate situations when he was surrounded with support from likeminded people. We used to plan our outings with who was going to drive, that person wouldn’t drink, but inevitably, my husband couldn’t say no, and once he had one drink it would always lead to many more. At his worst he drank 4 bottles of red wine, some beer and a bottle of whisky shared between 3 people. That was a bad two days. At around 26 years old, I decided that I wouldn’t drink myself, so that there was always someone sober to keep some control of the situation. My friends automatically offer me cups of tea, my drink of choice, and never guessed the reason why. It was just my thing and became a friendly joke in our circle of friends.

In his mid-thirties, my husband was rapid cycling, having sometimes 2–3 episodes a week. He would even go from a low in the morning to a high by nightfall. I had to fight hard to get the medical system to accept this, as I was told by some doctors that that just doesn’t happen. But I was living it and he was spiralling out of control. This led to lots of doctor visits, different meds, and finally his bipolar diagnosis. Now he has mood swings about twice a month that are manageable, and three times of the year that are our “danger periods” — Christmas, June-July, and September. We still cannot work out exactly why. Some doctors say it’s the seasons, some the stress at work. I know two of the times have me extremely busy (I am a teacher and have report writing time/parent interviews) and during this time I am not as on top of things as I normally am.

This last year I was able to step in as soon as I saw the danger signs. I too have become better at managing the symptoms, as has my husband, and have managed to keep him out of hospital.

Just before our 20th wedding anniversary my husband had come out of a long depressive period, where he was hospitalised for 10 days, withdrawn and unresponsive to family. He was not part of the day-to-day activities, sat in a chair in the lounge, but unaware of the kids and what was being said. It was wonderful then to see him come out of it just before our anniversary. Deep down I probably knew he was going up too fast, but it had been so difficult I chose to ignore it.

My husband tried to make up for the previous months and planned a very special anniversary. The kids went to nana and grandad, and we had five days, eating and doing nothing much on a paddle steamer for three days. I got to read two books, which I love, and he got to fulfil his obsession with steam engines and spend the whole three days on the boat talking to the crew about how it all worked. Then we went to a spa retreat for two days. My husband doesn’t like all that but had a massage and spa with me. There was a huge bunch of 20 roses waiting for me in our room upon arrival. (I had also had roses sent to me at work the week before.) Totally over the top. But it was nice. He was attentive and he noticed me. I knew we had not much money and at the time chose to ignore the background nagging questions of how is this being paid for?

We were very low on money, I had $80 to carry me through the following fortnight, and late with a lot of bills upon our return, it took us eight months to catch up. I don’t feel guilty for letting it happen. I really needed a break and some nice things to happen. I think sometimes it is this confusing side of the illness that makes it so hard to understand. The highs can be a welcome relief from the lows, if they don’t go too manic, but they inevitably lead to a lot of anguish afterward. My husband was off work for a total of 11 weeks during the following eight months.

It is sometimes very difficult to accept my husband’s emotions for just what they are without reading more in to them. Is he happy because something is going well or is he going up? Is he being nice because he loves me or is he orchestrating another revelation of overspending? Is he grumpy because he had not enough sleep or is he going down? What is normal? I think it is okay to forgive yourself as a carer for treasuring some of the “high” times if it means some relief, if only for a short period of time. That time away on the paddle steamer has carried me through a lot of down times since. It’s important to take time out, find something nice, but keep it in perspective.