Wife in Limbo – living with a spouse who has bipolar and how to manage it.
Mental illness has a profound effect on the individual diagnosed with it. Few realize that an equally severe impact is had on the families of the patients. Books are written for the sufferers, support groups formed, websites posted with advice, medical journals added to on the symptoms, treatments are discussed.Yet the fall out happens at home with the families – parents, siblings, partners, spouses, and children. They are all suffering the effects, and there is no medication for them to take to alleviate the stress.
How many wives lie awake at night wishing that their husbands illness would get worse, so that the police can be called and he can be taken away to a mental institution? This happens during a manic episode of my husband who suffers from bipolar 1 disorder. The chaos of the leading months is so stressful, that I almost cannot wait until he becomes psychotic so that I can commit him. When I said my marriage vows, “in sickness and in health”, to me it meant dispensing of some panado’s here and there, a few possible hospital visits after an operation or accident. At no time did I think that it would mean visiting my husband in a lock up state mental ward, looking into his 2 mad eyes that were 2 of the 80 staring back at me through the bars. Forty psychotic patients jostling for space in a lock up room at Valkenburg, and my husband and father of my two children was one of them. He had been privately educated, was successful and had never dabbled with drugs, yet during an episode he merely became a state mental patient. When the police had picked him up that morning, 5 strong all armed with guns, to commit him, I had been relieved. What kind of a wife does that make me?
Mental illness does strange things to relationships – it rips us apart with such force that it takes years after an episode to trust each other again. The verbal and emotional abuse during a manic episode is incessant, twenty-four hours a day. As a wife I keep going, bring in the money to pay the bills, love and protect my children unconditionally, make the meals, clean the house, walk the dogs, join the PTA. I do everything that needs to be done, but during an episode nothing is ever done right, according to him. I am at fault, I am his biggest enemy, I should be divorced and left with nothing, or be killed. It is because of me that he is in an episode, I am constantly told. I start to doubt myself, thinking of ways I should have rather done things that could have avoided episodes. His emotional abuse is obviously working, as if I doubt myself then he can be more manipulative. Am I overreacting? Am I reading into the signs for symptoms because of my fear of another episode hitting our family like a freight train?
I learn to hear but not listen, I pretend that it does not affect me. He is never physical, yet his emotional abuse cuts to the bone. Once out of an episode I realize that I am suffering from depression and physical effects, as no-one can endure that amount of verbal and emotional abuse with out it affecting them in some way. Yet I am told constantly that it is the bipolar talking, and not him. I am told by him, by psychiatrists, by psychologists, by websites and books on bipolar. However the wall that is built up by supporters of bipolar sufferers will always have cracks in it, and the abuse gets through like grass shoots through a tennis court. And I know it is not him, because in between episodes he is a normal loving, caring, interesting, humorous, adventurous husband and father. He is so good at what he does that we live in one of South Africa’s most beautiful and exclusive suburbs. We travel the world and expose our children to interesting adventures and cultures. Yet how can I learn to love him again, knowing that it is going to happen again? He does not deign to be ignored during a manic episode. If I ignore him he shouts, if I argue he argues back, if I walk away he follows, if I try to sleep he keeps me awake. He needs to be heard. Because of course he does not sleep, so why should I? He does not like to hear though, and if I open my mouth to voice my meager opinion his hand is held up and I am told to “speak to the hand”.
They say it is like walking on egg shells. I beg to differ. For me it is like walking on broken light bulb glass. The effect of stepping too hard is so painful that sometimes my heart aches and my stomach shudders.
During a depression our children are just as wary of him as during a manic episode. He is irritable and lashes out at them. He needs peace in the home in order to sleep through the day. He no longer joins us for dinner, and if he does we eat in tense silence. I have to keep the children quiet and away from him. Eventually that becomes easier, as they don’t want to be around him anyway, for fear of getting berated again. The air around him is so heavy with depression that it feels as if the whole house is sinking. Month after month of deep rambling sighs, and sleep and boredom and irritability.
During these episodes I isolate myself from people. Their layman advice makes him worse, and they do not understand the stress our family is under. Our extended family fight about what should be done, so every family relationship is strained to breaking point.
Throughout all of this I have to find it in myself to not blame my husband for the chaos and abuse, but rather blame the bipolar. This is difficult, as they are so rolled into one. After nineteen years I do blame him though, as it is his choice whether or not to take medication, and take responsibility for his disorder. It is a disorder that can be managed with the right treatment plan.
Nineteen years of excessive ups and downs, clinic stays, state care commitments, expensive psychiatric visits that meant nothing, as he never took their advice. Nineteen years of stress, living in limbo, never knowing when the next episode would start. Finally he realized that it was medication or divorce, and the difference in his character after two years of medication is nothing short of a miracle. The loving man I knew was hidden in there somewhere is surfacing, and it was worth the wait.
Bipolar Mood Disorder is not curable, yet it is treatable. One can recover, and with the correct treatment plan and support one can live a stable and happy life.
www.bipolarsupporters.ning.com is an online support group for family members of bipolar sufferers. We share advice and support, but most importantly just understanding of what each other is going through whilst supporting a loved one suffering from bipolar.
The Bipolar Bears meets on the first Tuesday of every month at a private home in Mowbray, as a support groups for sufferers. Call Suzanne on 084 293 3214.
A SADAG group meets the first Tuesday of every month at Crescent Clinic, Claremont, Cape Town as a support group for supporters. Call Nina on 082 458 8044.
May 26 is National Bipolar Awareness Day. On May 29 there will be a Bipolar Awareness Workshop at Erin Hall, Rondebosch, Cape Town. (Flyer is attached.) The newly published book “A Manic Marriage” by Nina Mensing will be on sale at the workshop.
So what is Bipolar Mood Disorder (AKA Manic Depression) exactly?
It is a mental illness that has no cure, but can be treated. It is a mood disorder of extreme mood swings. Everyone has ups and downs, yet bipolar mood swings affect the functioning of ones life. It has a disruptive, ok, majorly disruptive, affect on ones family and professional life.
Mania presents itself in the following ways:
Feelings of excessive joy, creativity and energy, coupled with decreased need for sleep, irritability and impaired judgement. Risk taking, impulsive activities, racing thoughts and grandiose feelings.
Depression presents itself in the following ways:
Flat emotions, tiredness, no energy, no motivation, irritability, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. This can also lead to suicide idealization and disruptions in sleep patterns and appetite.
One can also have a hypomanic episode, a mixed episode, and mania can sometimes lead to psychosis.
Treatment generally includes medication, therapy, education, support and lifestyle changes such as exercise, diet regulations and sleep pattern adjustments. Keeping stress to a minimum is essential.