May is Mental Health Awareness Month. #BreakTheStigma
This is going to be a very personal article about parenting with a bipolar spouse. I shared this with my husband and got his full approval before publishing. It’s also worth mentioning that letting me share this wasn’t an easy decision for him because this puts his struggles out there for everyone to see.
I realize some people will think bipolar is not something we should discuss or openly write about, but I disagree. Talking about tough topics is how we break the stigma. Uncomfortable things aren’t as uncomfortable when you discuss them, when you share.
That is why it was so important to get my husband’s approval before I wrote this and before it was published.
First and Foremost: My husband is an amazing person and an even more amazing father. Our daughter doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have such an engaged, doting, and hands-on father. She’s never known anything else. But I recognize it. I see it in his daily interactions with her.
When he gets up after five hours of sleep to watch her, teach her, and play with her during the day.
It’s when he willingly changes the shit diaper, when I easily could have as well, and doesn’t complain.
When on his only day off he chooses to spend family time, versus going out and doing something for himself.
I’ve searched before for “parenting with a bipolar spouse” and you know what I found? Articles about co-parenting after divorce.
I don’t want to co-parent. He doesn’t want to co-parent. We want to fight and work together through this diagnosis, the ups and the downs, all for the sake of our daughter and our family.
Because mental health aside, our relationship is rooted in love. One we are both willing to fight for, even on those days when we can’t even stand to look at each other.
So Let’s Begin, Back in November 2012
Long before my husband and I decided to start a family and only a few short months after being married, my husband was diagnosed as bipolar. Bipolar II to be more specific, the less intense, but still equally as upsetting form of the illness.
All of a sudden those impulsive decisions that made him look reckless and immature had a reason. I was hard for me to get a handle on. Due to my anxiety, I dove head first into reading, learning, and educating myself on all things bipolar, while my husband merely shrugged his shoulders, took a few pills at night, and visited his psychiatrist quarterly.
If you know anything about living with bipolar, you’ll know that it’s not just a take a few pills a day and keep the doctor away type of illness.
We had a few ups and down in the early years of his diagnosis, trying to find the right medicines. Marriage counseling helped tremendously with our communication, something he is not very good at when he’s cycling. He tends to withdraw himself and I’m left in the dark until all of a sudden, months of “Oh my god how did I not see this coming.” comes crashing down before my eyes.
In 2014, things had been going smoothly. A few small ups and a few small downs. Nothing like before. I thought we were doing a good job of handling everything, the medicine was working, we were eating right, working out, and getting adequate amounts of sleep so things weren’t too rocky.
I had always been on the fence about having children since his diagnosis. How could I possibly raise a kid while handling everything that living with a bipolar spouse entailed? However, in 2015 our finances were good, our relationship was strong, and we both decided we wanted to start a family. We’d deal with the ups and downs as they came like we always had.
Being Pregnant with a Bipolar Spouse
I found myself pregnant in 2015 and although my husband was supportive and at all of our doctor’s appointments, he started to withdrawal when we were home together at night. He hyper-focused on the book he was reading (The Dark Tower Series) and I felt alone in my pregnancy.
This new and exciting adventure was not as exciting anymore. We had several serious discussions about his hyper focus, isolation, and lack of communication. A pattern that repeats all too often. He ended up putting the books away (He didn’t even finish the entire series! Which was huge because he reads them almost every year). I felt better, he became more engaged, he discussed his fears with me, his moods, and his feelings.
We were back in power couple mode!
About three months before our daughter was born, while preparing to visit Key West for our babymoon, my husband started to go into hypomania. This is the up, or the high, in bipolar. Where there was less sleep, more arguing, more numbing, and louder laughter. To those with bipolar, this is the welcomed side of their illness. Because finally, they feel like they can do anything, the clouds have lifted, and life is worth living again. It’s worth living at 500%. Our trip was great, nothing super intense happened, it was a manageable episode.
We got back to Jacksonville and in December we had a baby!
Parenting with a Bipolar Spouse
Parenting is hard. Parenting while being a wife, someone’s rock, and a caregiver are also very hard. I was aware that lack of sleep can really trigger mood swings in bipolar so I shouldered the night duty. I was the one to get up with the baby. This didn’t go well with my own mental health. I was exhausted. We argued a lot. Eventually, I was able to get more sleep and things calmed down. When I went back to work after maternity leave is when things started to go south with my husband’s mental health.
He started working nights. He also started only getting anywhere from 4 to 6 (7 on a good day) hours of sleep. We no longer exercised, as we barely saw each other and he was always so tired he didn’t want to do anything.
Our schedules are the biggest struggle in keeping his mental health afloat. If we both worked days, we would go to bed early and get up early, and things would be more even keeled.
We had a few ups and downs during the first year of our daughter’s life, more ups, because when you’re taking care of a baby you can’t afford to have the downs. You have to get out of bed. You have to put on that happy face. He was a trooper. He pushed himself past his limits, all for the sake of our daughter. But in that same breath, he pushed himself past his limits.
Starting around the time our daughter turned 1 he started going into hypomania again. He started isolating himself, staying out later driving around the neighborhood because he didn’t want to come home and go to sleep. It all came crashing down in April of this year when I discovered how bad his mental state was. He was not doing well. I felt kicked in the gut.
How could I not have seen his mental health deteriorating? He was rail thin, not sleeping, isolated, and so irritable.
Feeling Guilty, with a Bipolar Spouse
I let him down. I should have noticed. I should have said something. Those around him who saw him losing weight and the bags under his eyes should have said something. We all let him down. Bipolar isn’t an every man for himself illness. It takes a village, because when my husband isn’t doing well he’s not going to speak up and say it. He’s going to go along with the bipolar ride because it can feel good and it can feel exciting. Chaos is often welcomed. Until it’s not.
The Future, with a Bipolar Spouse
Going forward, our plans for the future, to keep our health, happiness, family, and love in check is going to be a bit more intense than other relationships. There will be a lot of discussions about moods, about feelings, about what we’ve both done that day to promote a better and healthier lifestyle.
There will be more psychiatrist visits. There will be new medicines. There will be more support groups. There will be more tears. More hugs. More understanding. More forgiveness. There is going to be a lot of transparency because without it, our foundation will crumble and we aren’t the only ones who will be affected by it. There is so much at stake. We are someone’s parents.
And for the first time, since that diagnosis five years ago, my husband really understands the gravity of his diagnosis. He understands the impact his mental health can have, will have, and has had on him, on me, on our daughter, on his family, and on his career.
There is an understanding within him that I’ve never seen before. He’s always been good at saying what I want to hear, but this time he said things that I didn’t know I needed to hear. But once I heard them, I felt hope. He felt hope.
My Non-Clinical Advice for Those With a Bipolar Spouse
To anyone out there who is also parenting or in a relationship with a bipolar spouse: I can’t say anything that will actually help. You can read all the self-help articles you want. All the “ways to be married to a bipolar spouse” advice columns you can find. There’s not a one-stop shop solution on how to navigate this journey. It depends on the person you’re with, the severity of the illness, and how far they are willing to go to manage it.
It’s hard. It’s probably always going to be hard. There are days that I’m so overwhelmed with putting everyone first, our daughter, my husband, my clients, the dogs – that taking care of myself or doing things for myself will fall by the wayside. For days, weeks, months. It can be draining. I haven’t had a haircut in months. I stopped running because there just isn’t enough time. I’m exhausted.
There have been times I’ve said some really unkind things to my husband because I just want to be selfish for once. There are days I don’t want to have to be a cheerleader, a wife, and a caregiver. The days I show my edges and I cut him with them are the days I feel my lowest. I can’t be superwoman every day. But he understands and he always forgives me.
He’s Not a Diagnosis, He’s My Husband
I don’t have to tie his diagnosis to who he is and what he means to me. He’s not my bipolar spouse. He’s my husband, my rock, my love, and my best friend. He doesn’t have to have a label.
I’m beyond lucky. He is willing to sacrifice and go the extra mile because his family is the most important thing to him. He’s told me countless times he’d be lost without me and our daughter and I have no reason to doubt that. He’s the strongest person I know because every day is a struggle mentally and emotionally for him to exist, to thrive, and to survive.
Every morning, he opens his eyes, he looks at me, he looks at our daughter, and he thinks to himself “Ok, today is another day. I’ve got this. There’s no other option.” And he gets up, and we get on with our lives – together, as husband and wife, and as two loving, caring parents to our daughter.
Featured Photo: Chay Hastings Photography
Content Photos: Author’s photos used with permission | Chay Hastings Photography