Marriage and Bi-Polar/Manic Depression
I remember the day I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder because I could not believe I had it. Even though it runs in my family, I thought there was another explanation for my ups and downs and overall weirdness. There were more bad days than good ones, and sometimes even my good days weren’t all that good, I had very few “happy” days, and that’s why I didn’t believe I was Bipolar. After all, the outdated term for BP is “Manic Depression,” and I didn’t feel manic. I thought that in order to be a “manic depressive,” you had to go around in a state of euphoria.
I knew I was making my husband’s life a living hell, and I was in a constant state of confusion and frustration. It took a lot of patience for my husband to live in the same house with me, and it took a lot of patience to make him understand how to respond to me.
Everybody gets depressed, and when you look at the numbers, it seems like everyone on earth has some form of mental illness. Sometimes healing from mental anguish can be found in a romantic weekend away, a couple of days off work, or a few counseling sessions. But my mental health issues were rooted much deeper, and all the quick fixes I tried seemed to make things worse.
Because I didn’t understand the full scale of what I was dealing with, my husband was at an even greater loss because of my erratic moods and behavior. It was hard for him to live with someone who was a doting wife one minute and a plate-throwing lunatic the next. A lack of understanding on both our parts almost made him walk out the front door (as plates and silverware crashed against the walls in the background!)
…Depression is what robs my joy. It’s not just a feeling of being sad or wanting to take a day off work to sleep; it’s this sense that all of life is absolutely bleak and hopeless and nothing you do will ever change that. My sense of reality and my ability to reason virtually disappear.
On a “typical” bad day, I know that tomorrow is a new beginning, and I believe that God allows everything to work together to fulfill some grand plan of His. But when I’m clinically depressed, there are no tomorrows. And worse yet, I don’t care. Instead of feeling that I have something to offer the world, I start believing the world would be better off without me. I am hyper-aware of all my flaws, bit and small, past and present. There have been times when the only thing holding me back from suicide was a deep fear of hell and my theological confusion in that area. Note that I didn’t say my hope in Christ held me back. No, it was fear that held me back.
For a long time, my depression absolutely alienated my husband because I retreated and wouldn’t discuss it with him. I told other friends when I was feeling desperate, but I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want him hovering around me. I mostly wanted to be left alone. I didn’t think I could stand to hear him constantly asking, “Are you OK? How are you feeling today?” So I shut the door in his face, crawled under the blankets, and disappeared.
Married Life, Scary Life
One of my most amazing feats in life was convincing my husband that I was a normal person. He knew about my past when we were dating—the depression, the suicide attempts in high school, the abuse, all of that. But he was under the impression that after many years of counseling and taking antidepressants, I was healthy again. He didn’t know that just weeks before we met, I had been suicidal again.
At first, there was no intended cover-up going on. Falling in love with Scott brought a lot of joy and excitement to my world, as well as new friends and situations. Everything seemed fresh and wonderful, and I was genuinely happy. I had down times, but I loved being with Scott and I was looking forward to our life together. I built my world around him, and I was in a love-induced haze right up until we got married.
But after the wedding, reality kicked in. As the newness wore off, the old familiar feelings of emptiness came back in full force, and they were so strong I couldn’t hide them anymore. My husband had no idea that his sweet loving bride could turn into a raging psychopath.
The first time he encountered “The Wrath of Julie” was just a few months after we were married. We had invited another couple over for dinner. I had worked so hard cleaning the house, and I’d done all the grocery shopping for the elaborate (and probably too difficult meal I had planned. But there was a snowstorm forecast to hit that night, and our friends, who lived about an hour away, called to say they weren’t coming because they didn’t want to take the chance of getting stuck in bad weather.
I had been unable to sleep for about a week straight. Planning a huge meal and making the house look spotless gave me something to do as my thoughts raced and my body fought to find rest. But when I found out our friends weren’t coming, I lost it. It was mild disappointment and severe exhaustion combined, and the weight of it made me snap.
Poor Scott, I’ll never forget the look on his face as I knocked over one of our dining room chairs and said horrible things. But that’s just where the rampage began. For the next several minutes, I yelled and cursed, throwing things, hitting things, kicking things, all while my husband stood in the exact same spot with his mouth hanging open, speechless. As Scott looked around the kitchen in horror, my rage turned into shame, and I ran to our bedroom, crying hysterically.
I tried to explain to him that I couldn’t help it, or that it certainly felt that way. It felt like a huge surge of anger. I could tell when it was coming, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t want to react like that. I knew it was wrong, and it always zapped me of so much energy, but I felt powerless over it. It had always had a grip on me, and I actually felt even less in control of my temper when I was younger. I told my husband these things, but I know if the tables had been turned. I was a frightening force to be reckoned with.
Learning the Ropes
My husband grew up in a family that never yelled. I didn’t believe him at first, because in my family you weren’t having a conversation unless you were trying to “one-up” the other person in decibels. The first time I went ballistic—when our friends canceled our dinner plans because of a snowstorm—my husband just stood there in the corner, looking like he had just watched me tear the head off a chicken with my bare hands.
My mother would have walked away, or even engaged in the action if the mood permitted, but my husband didn’t have any idea how to handle it. It all seemed so childish and pointless to a man who didn’t even raise his voice—in fear or anger—when his car once slid off the road on a patch of ice in the middle of a densely wooded area.
The first few times I had an angry outburst, Scott remained calm and either grabbed the car keys and went for a drive or excused himself to another part of the house. Although he didn’t react at first, he didn’t get over it right away either, even after I apologized and tried to make amends. He stayed quiet for the rest of the day and avoided talking to me any more than necessary.
But eventually, after living through too many of my “episodes,” something about my anger brought out the anger in him, and he learned to yell back.
When he yelled back and fed me sarcasm, it made everything worse. It was as if he was pouring gasoline on what was already a raging inferno. That was how we started having screaming matches.
He told me I was crazy, that he didn’t care if we stayed together or not. One time, when I had been at home unable to go anywhere for nearly a month after a car accident, I was on edge from being cooped up in the house for so long. Neither of us can remember what sparked the argument, but we both remember the angry, vulgar words that Scott shot back. It was not a manic episode, but Scott by then expected the worst and reacted to it out of self-defense.
When I was in a depression, Scott handled that much better. Even with all the animosity in the house, Scott had mercy on me when I was sad. It was as if my tears melted his heart, and he came to my rescue like a superhero. I know that part of what held us together was my need to be cared for and his need to care for me.
That may sound old fashioned, and many modern-day therapists would disapprove of such sentiment, but it is what the “for better or for worse” part of the marriage vows are all about. He knew he was designed to comfort me, and I knew I was designed to be comforted by him. But it was hard staying in those roles, and after turning to my husband for support a few times, I stopped going to him. I felt like a giant burden to him when I was in a downward spiral.
People who don’t have to live with depression (or who are in denial about their own) go out of their way to “fix” things. In my experience, the idea is either to exhaust oneself by trying to cheer the depressed person up (which is usually impossible, since mood is not the cause of the chemical imbalance, the chemical imbalance is the cause of the mood), or to shake them and “snap them out of it.”
How many times have you heard people say, “I think so-and-so could pull himself up by his bootstraps and snap out of it if he wanted to”? The first idea that it’s possible to cheer a clinically depressed person up is seldom ever possible, and the second idea that depression sufferers just need to “get over it” is ignorant. I don’t particularly want to deal with either false notion, so I pull away and try to get over it on my own. No, my husband never implied either to me, but I knew he couldn’t understand what I was going through. I assumed, however wrongly, that he was thinking all of those things.
For a long time I told nobody how I felt, or I called my friend in Georgia, or I confided in a coworker that things were not going well, but I said nothing at home. I knew when I was depressed—it was obvious. But I didn’t want to talk to him about it. He has always held up his end of the bargain, trying to reach out to me in my sorrow. One of my greatest sins as a wife is that I haven’t always reached back.
Peace at Last
For almost two years now, an older Christian woman has mentored me. I have always felt comfortable sharing my heart with her, and she knows she has permission to be brutally honest with me whenever necessary, even though sometimes I give her a hard time about it! Almost from day one, as soon as I told her the sad state of my marriage, she encouraged me to seek professional help again and stop trying to go it alone.
I humored her but never took any action until that night in February when Scott and I had to make a final decision about our future. I vowed to him I would get healthy, I may always be bipolar, but I can take steps to make things better, and it’s not fair that my husband had to put up with the unnecessary stress that could have been alleviated a long time ago.
…I started seeing a doctor who prescribed me Lithium, a mood-stabilizing drug that leveled me out and, best of all, helped me get some much-needed sleep.
I can’t explain how much better I feel and how much happier my marriage is now. My husband tells people that I’m “a delight to live with,” which is much nicer than overhearing him on the phone saying, “I don’t know how much longer I can live like this!”
I still get mad sometimes—I’m a human being. And I’m a woman, which means every so often I’m prone to grouchiness, which has nothing to do with BP. Being the sweetheart that Scott is, he tells me that he thinks the changes in me came directly from God doing a work in my heart, not so much the counseling or the medication. I say it was a combination of both. God certainly sent me to the right people at the right time, no matter how you choose to look at it.
Yes, I have Bipolar Disorder, and yes, I take medication, but I don’t want to skip out on driving home this point: I was an angry person. I was angry about my past, angry that I had let my past seep into my adulthood, and angry that my marriage was unhealthy. Medication cleared my head enough for me to realize and accept this, and counseling has helped me deal with it.
If you’re a married person who struggles with anger, then you understand the frustration of not being able to win, no matter what you do. If your spouse tries to be comforting and soothing, you get angry because you feel like they’re minimizing your anger. If they fight back, you get angry because you can’t believe they have the nerve to engage with you. If they simply walk away, you fault them for being a wimp who doesn’t want to face you. But somewhere in the mix, there is a lesser evil. The key is finding the lesser evil and coming to an agreement with your spouse over how you are going to utilize that.
For example, as illustrated above, when I’m angry, I’m not easy to please. Any reaction is bound to make me angry—initially. But as it turned out, when my husband responded to me in love—acknowledging that I was angry and actually hugging me (which is a lot like willingly stepping into a minefield, I have to admit)—while I got angrier at first, I eventually couldn’t deny that he was making a strong effort and that I was the one acting like a jerk. His love and physical touch defused my rage, which goes along with the theme of 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” In my case, it was to be taken literally!
My husband and I have had many conversations about this topic. He knows that walking away from me or (worse yet) getting in the car to leave is like fanning an open fame. And arguing back just opens the door to more hurtful words on both sides. It isn’t easy to wrap your arms around someone who is verbally attacking you (or attacking inanimate objects), but my husband knows this is the most painless way of dealing with me. Does he always do it? No. He’s human. It’s still easier to walk away or lash out. But his efforts have made a big difference in our home.
What he does for me is the essence of selflessness. It’s extremely important that you and your spouse know how to deal with anger issues. If you can’t work it out on your own, just between the two of you, don’t be afraid to seek help. We did, and we haven’t regretted it for a minute.
I still get angry when I spend too much time dwelling on who I used to be, but there are more good times than bad ones now. When I know my mind is psychologically cycling (I can always tell), I try to give people fair warning, especially my husband. Still, even when I am cycling, I am able to control myself and not go to extremes as much as I used to. It is very rare that I become so angry I get enraged, and it’s also very rare that I contemplate harming myself anymore. And the fact that I was able to write this book, after a lifetime of not being able to finish anything I started, was a major victory for me.
Being a Good Spouse under Bad Circumstances
Shortly after I conducted the Internet survey for the premarital counseling article I was writing, I conducting a survey about the impact mental illness has on marriages. I got some very honest and moving responses, and both Scott and I could relate to all of them.
Possibly the most important response I received came from a woman my age whose marriage had ended in divorce due to her struggles with depression:
If you suspect something may be wrong, DO NOT ignore it or discount it. I have to live every day for the rest of my life knowing that I destroyed our marriage and that it could have easily been prevented. I’m not huge on the psychosocial sciences, but some things are just too important to ignore. Don’t expect to fully understand how they are feeling; sometimes it’s just not possible.
…Reassure them with your love. Don’t withhold yourself from them because you don’t understand. That was one of our downfalls. James didn’t understand what I was going through so he withdrew from me, which just made it worse. Remain committed, no matter what. Even if you don’t “feel” love for them, your job as their spouse is to show them God’s love. So at the times when it’s hardest to love them, just resolve to show them God’s love. And never stop praying for them.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
You can’t expect your spouse to understand your emotional problems if he doesn’t have them himself. You have to really experience it to “get it.” But you have to work toward keeping an open line of communication and be willing to explain your illness to your spouse. After all, he can’t help you if he doesn’t know what he’s dealing with.
Those lines of communication flung open wide after we started to realize that it wasn’t just my problem, or just his problem, but a problem that we shared. Part of being “one” means dually carrying each other’s burden.
[MARRIAGE MISSIONS EDITORS NOTE: Following the book review from the great book, Adventures in Holy Matrimony, we will include links to other articles on this subject.]
The above edited article comes from a really wonderful book titled, Adventures In Holy Matrimony: For Better Or The Absolute Worst, written by Julie Anne Fidler, published by Relevant Books. There’s a lot more to this chapter (and this book) that we couldn’t include that you’d benefit from reading. In this book author Julie Anne Fidler tells about the painful journey her first years of marriage have been—a marriage that stood on the brink of divorce and, happily, remains intact. “But this is no fairy tale.”
As you read about Julie and her husband Scott’s beginning to their life together, you’ll find great advice and encouragement for your own adventure —including how to never, ever quit. As Julie says,
“I had these grandiose dreams about marriage, which were not entirely unlike the dreams of any other young woman. I had my entire wedding planned out by the time I was twelve, right down to the flavor of the filling in the cake. Every love song on the radio evoked that first dance…
“I can’t tell you how many people tried to warn us that it wasn’t always going to be a dream come true. We just didn’t want to listen. Anyone who told us anything other than what we wanted to hear was promptly shut out and dismissed as trying to ruin the great thing we had… We should have listened. It turned out that married life was a trial by fire. We went from whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears at the reception to practically wringing each other’s necks in the bedroom.”
Julie goes on to explain that her
“husband’s medical condition began to affect his ability to have sex almost immediately after their wedding. That caused frustration for both of them, physical communication broke down, and other forms of communication quickly followed. Scott got sicker. Jobs were lost. Surgeries were had. Bills piled up. And the newlyweds drifted apart.
On top of these ‘external’ forces pulling them apart, Julie and Scott were also carrying a fair amount of internal baggage in the form of difficult childhoods, different sexual histories and shared sexual missteps, and bipolar disorder. These ‘internal’ forces also worked against the union and Julie shares them all with a refreshing honesty.”
We love what one reviewer said of this book because we couldn’t say it any better ourselves:
“ADVENTURES IN HOLY MATRIMONY isn’t your typical ‘rah-rah’ book about marriage. It’s actually a lot more useful (and hopeful) than most of those books. The problems in the Fidler marriage aren’t sanitized or presented in a certain light just so they can be neatly resolved at the end. And because of that, anyone in a less-than-perfect marriage is going to recognize themselves here and take away this message: if Julie and Scott are making it work, my partner and I can too.
That’s the hope part. The useful part comes in the form of reflection questions at the end of each chapter and practical advice on things like newlywed finances and what it will really take to patch the holes in troubled relationships.”
To learn more about Bi-Polar Disorder, we recommend that you read the following articles which are posted on other helpful web sites. To do so click on the links below: