(This article originally appeared in BP Magazine.)
I’m no psychiatrist, but maybe I should be. A little more than 10 years ago, I got married, a big step for anyone. But marriage was a bigger leap of faith for me than most of my friends because I have bipolar disorder.
My husband Steve turned out to be a great partner, and I’m fairly certain he’d say the same about me. Everyone knows marriage teaches you a lot. But being married and bipolar means learning about yourself and your spouse in ways others can’t always understand.
Sharing the challenges of living with bipolar can bring you closer together. It can be an avenue toward real intimacy that comes when a married couple shares their deepest feelings.
Consider this heartfelt advice from a veteran wife who has worked through many of those special challenges. For now, forget the professionals. Listen to words of wisdom that have worked for us.
Life as a comedy
Know any jokes? OK, even if you don’t, remember humor can often defuse difficult situations. It’s better than bitterness, defensiveness, paranoia, anger or sadness. Be aware of the comedy in your problematic scenarios. Too depressed to take a shower? Try joking with your spouse about how terrible you look; you might feel better and get in there.
And remember, living with someone gives you a front row seat to what he or she thinks is funny. One time, I thought my husband was stealing my money.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” he said when I asked him about it. “I’m stealing your credit cards.”
Taking it easy
When I begin to feel ill, I take a day or two off from life. I go to work if I must (I teach at a local college), but I try to stay inside and slow down. This usually helps me reclaim my equilibrium. For me, being mentally ill is like being physically ill. In both cases, I limit my activities until I’m better. Your spouse might appreciate the intermission as well.
The ‘new’ and ‘old’ you
Spend time with friends you knew before you got sick. It’s nice being with people familiar with “the old” as well as “the new” you. This way, your spouse sees you had a life before you became ill.
And don’t tell everyone about your disorder. Sorry, for many people, the mental illness stigma still exists. Scope people out. Can they handle the information? Will they use it against you? Does your spouse want you to be more discrete or open than you would be? Respect the difference.
Perfection? Yeah, right
Accept each others flaws. Obvious as it sounds, no one is perfect. Not you, or your spouse. Be tolerant of each others foibles and eccentricities. Last year, my husband told me something really beautiful.
“Perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” he said.
Keep an “attitude” journal. Record what gets to you, analyze problems and how you work through difficulties. Now that I’m in remission, I’ve gone back and read my “crazy” thoughts from years gone by. I feel for my younger self, how troubled I was. My journal reminds me how far I’ve come.
And don’t be afraid to enjoy yourself. A diagnosis is not a death sentence. Treasure your marriage. You have so much to give. Your spouse is lucky to have you.
Talk, talk, talk
Use your spouse as a reality sounding board. Does he think Regis is really talking directly to you on the television? Trust your spouse’s ability to observe your moods and suggest how you can keep your balance.
Hold a weekly family meeting to discuss your issues. Ours were called the “Eat My Shorts” sessions, in homage to Homer Simpson. We took minutes and covered everything from shampooing rugs to gifts for in-laws. These meetings actually got us talking. After holding them diligently for years, we’ve stopped; now we talk all the time. Success!
An expert at humanity
Here’s something I say from my heart: I am a good wife. I keep my family together. I wash their clothes, feed them, drive them where they have to go. I earn money to support them. I play with them, hold them when they’re crying. Most importantly, I nurture and love them.
Remember, you too, can be a great partner. As a person with bipolar illness, you bring so much to the table. Think of what you know about being alive, about pain, about joy. You are irreplaceable. You are an expert at humanity.
And don’t you forget it.