I read somewhere recently that the divorce rate when one marriage partner has bipolar disorder is 90%. While it seems kind of high to me, I suppose I understand it. In the 12 years I have been married to my wife, there have been many times when one or both of us was ready to quit.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t know what it feels like to have bipolar disorder. But I do know what it feels like to live with it. I’ve sat helpless as depression brought my wife to her lowest points. I’ve spent nights afraid to fall asleep for fear that my wife would hurt herself. I’ve watched manic episodes chip away at the foundation of our marriage. And I’ve had to accept a two year old believing that I was the reason Mommy wouldn’t stop crying or wouldn’t get out of bed. Bipolar disorder can bring even the strongest people to their knees.
When we got engaged, my wife told me about her bipolar diagnosis at 21. She told me about her issues cutting, the suicide attempts, and the hospitalizations. She told me about the regrets she had for things she had done while manic. I think she was giving me an opportunity to walk away. But we were in love and that would be enough to get us through.
So I took it upon myself to become an expert. I read every book I could find, researched on the internet, found online support groups for spouses of people with bipolar disorder. My problem was that nothing I read sounded like her. And that gave me a false sense of security.
What I can tell you now, knowing a number of people with bipolar disorder, is that there is no cookie cutter mold of what the illness looks like. It can present differently in each person. There is also no definitive medication or treatment that works better than others. Again, it depends on the person.
The first few years of marriage were really hard for both of us. When a mania or depression occurred my wife wouldn’t let me help. “It was her illness, not mine.” “It affected her, not me.” So we didn’t talk about what was happening, didn’t work together to get through it. And after a while we acted like it wasn’t there at all. Gradually over time she started to accept that her bipolar disorder affected both of us. And I had to accept that I couldn’t fix her problems.
It took couples counseling for us to start working together. Now we feel comfortable talking about which medications are working. We let each other know when we see signs that an episode is coming. We both see therapists to help us cope with the illness. And we work together to make sure our son is able to deal with incidents as they occur.
There are still days when I don’t think I can do this anymore, days where I don’t think I have the strength to face another episode. So why do I stay? I can’t imagine what it feels like to have bipolar disorder having witnessed it up close and personal these last 13 years. But I have watched my wife find a way to get up on days when the depression was so bad all she wanted to do was stay in bed. She finds the strength to get dressed, to make our son breakfast, to put him on the school bus. She finds the strength to push through the sadness so that he doesn’t worry so much about her. I have watched her struggle with this illness while keeping a full time job and working on a graduate degree and trying to be the best mother and wife she can be. I stay because every day that she can find the strength to face this illness, I can find the strength to stand beside her.
My therapist tells me sometimes that my life would be much easier if I wasn’t married to my wife. And I’m sure she’s right. I could become part of the 90% and things would probably be easier and I could probably avoid a lot of pain and hurt. But if there is one thing I’ve learned in 43 years on this earth, it is: The best things in life are rarely easy. They take hard work, commitment and sacrifice. Our marriage may not be normal and it may not be easy, but it’s has been worth it.