Tuesday, October 23, 2012

This Was Not Part of the "Package"

Over the last few months, a few people have asked me some form of the following questions:
Did you have your bipolar diagnosis when you married your husband?
Did he know that was part of the "package" when marrying you?

My husband and I met when we were 15 and 16 years old. We knew I was sad a lot and that I had really bad anxiety but I did not see a therapist and psychiatrist until I was 19 years old and we were in college. At that time I was diagnosed with only depression and an anxiety disorder so that was all he knew when we got married at 21. At that point I was on an SSRI and doing a bit better but then we moved out of town and I got a lot worse. I went back and forth on medications being treated for depression, not knowing I had bipolar and the SSRI's were triggering mania.

High School Graduation, 1996

Many people assume my husband has always been understanding of mental illness and supportive of my treatment but really neither of us understood what was going on and in the early years he still thought mental illness was a choice. He is a left-brained computer programmer and logic makes the most sense to him so having a wife that does not have a hold on reality was hard for him. He did not really read much about mental illness and did not go to doctors appointments with me in the beginning. We fought a lot and were not sure if we would stay together or not. We had many dark times.

We struggled like this for five more years until after our son was born and I was finally diagnosed correctly with bipolar disorder. At that point, after so many years of us struggling, he did start to do more reading and went to a few doctors appointments with me. As we went back and forth with treatment, he got more and more involved in helping me. He has always wanted to understand what I was going through but it is really hard for people who have control over their mind to really get what is happening to their loved one.

Today we still we struggle with treating my illness. (Sometimes It's Hard to Stay Together) Some days one of us is not entirely sure we should still be together. My illness was clearly not part of the "package" Jeff married. And honestly, he is not the same "package" I married either. The whole marriage "package" idea actually really bothers me. No one stays the same forever so thinking that you married a "package" is unrealistic. Both of us understood from the beginning that marriage is not perfect and the one you love will change a lot over the course of your lifetime.

For me, seeing my father go through serious illness and the other challenges my parents had, I knew that people do not stay the same forever and that marriage is hard. Life will throw sickness and many other horrific things at you, but you promised on your wedding/commitment day to get through those things together, in sickness and in health. I think the biggest problem with mental illness is that either the person with the illness does not think they have an illness and/or their partner does not believe it is an illness either. If one or both of you can not accept that this is an illness, then you do not know the correct way to manage it. You blame each other and think that you have a "deal breaker" in your marriage.

Wedding, 2000
None of us really has any idea what we are getting into when we marry/commit to someone. I have no idea why Jeff and I have been able to stay together except that when each one of us thinks about life without the other, it makes us sad. That sounds very simplistic, but it is what keeps us going. And it is not like we have not had times that absolutly would qualify as a "deal breaker" (as Dr. Phil says.) Jeff did not sign on for a wife who is sick, and will be for her whole life, with behaviors that negatively affect him.

We both agree that if either one of us was to hurt the other emotionally or physically and we were not getting help or did not admit we had a problem, that it would be wrong to expect the other person to stay in the relationship. We do believe in each other though. We believe that if either one of us is going through something, that we will take responsibility and get the help we need. The problem with mental illness is that it is extremely hard to treat so you have setbacks and you will not always be well. People with mental illness have high rates of non-compliance, which is not stubbornness or laziness, it is a symptom of the disease so it is not an illness that you treat and never have to deal with again.

In order to handle all of this, I encourage couples to go to doctors appointments together. Make sure everyone in the family is physically and emotionally safe and if they are not you may need to be apart until things are more stable but if the person is in treatment that does not mean you need a divorce. You really have to work closely with your doctors to decide the best options are for your family.

Two books that have really helped us are The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman for general relationship help (given to us at a Couples Retreat at John Carroll University) and Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder by Julie Fast.

Our best recommendations to couples are:  You HAVE to talk to each other. You have to see your doctor, together. You can't see marriage as a "package" that you bought and which stays the same. Don't have a big ego and either of you blame everything on the other person because both of you will make mistakes over and over again. Marriage/partnership is not easy and couples need help in order to make things work. ALWAYS ask for the help you need, and actually take the help given to you.


Rev. Katie

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