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Sometimes the hardest part about being married to someone with bipolar disorder is trying to reconcile the actions of the illness from the actions of the person.
When you live with someone long enough you get to know them pretty well. You become comfortable with their habits (good and bad), their moods, and their daily routines. More than that though, you get to know the person underneath it all, the person they are when they don’t think anyone is looking.
My wife has an almost compulsive need to help others, so much so that she often puts their needs over her own. She has trouble saying no (even when she should). She chooses to see the good in everyone (even when she shouldn’t). And when things go wrong, she often blames herself rather than placing the blame on others. At her core, that is who she is. But when a mania sets in, that version of my wife disappears.
Have you ever seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers? It’s a movie about aliens invading the earth. These alien plant spores fall to earth and they have the ability to duplicate people, their memories, their looks and their personalities. These pod people are completely identical except they lack all human emotion.
That’s sort of what it feels like when my wife is in the middle of a manic episode. It looks like her, it even sounds like her, but it’s not her. She dresses differently, she flirts more, and she spends money we don’t have. She barely sleeps but is full of energy. She has more ideas and creativity than she can keep up with. She wants to do anything and everything. She doesn’t think about consequences. She doesn’t want to hear that she may be manic. She gets irritable if I ask if she is taking her meds. Sometimes she says and does hurtful things. Her sole focus is on herself and how to keep the high she is feeling.
We’ve been fortunate in our 12 years together that most of her manic episodes only last a week or so. And most of them are only pieces of the description above. Sometimes they can be helpful for her. They give her the energy and creativity to finish a big project at work, or keep her going in the weeks leading up to her work’s annual conference. Sometimes they can even be helpful for us, bringing some spontaneity and excitement into our marriage. But every now and again the mania lasts longer and all of the pieces come together like a perfect storm, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.
So what do you do when the storm is over? How do you move past it? How do you know what was the illness and what was the person? To be honest, I still struggle with all of those questions. When you’ve been hurt and you’re angry it’s hard to focus on anything other than the pain you’re feeling. More than once I have made the choice to try and hurt her back without giving any thought at all to what she could control. It’s a regret I have to live with.
Forgiveness takes time. You can’t go through something so emotionally trying and immediately be ok. You have to be willing to work through it together. We’ve found over the years that the when the bad manias occur they are usually amplifying an underlying problem in our marriage. So we make an effort now to talk more and to not ignore issues when they occur. It doesn’t make the manic episodes go away but it seems to have minimized the damage they do.
What helps me is trying to put myself in her shoes. Try to imagine for a moment making a mistake that hurt everyone and everything you cared about. Now try to imagine it happening twice a year for a decade. Imagine how much regret you’d carry with you. Imagine spending every day trying to make amends for those mistakes. You’d probably try to avoid relationships altogether for fear of hurting someone. And if you found someone you truly cared about you’d probably struggle with whether you are worthy of their love knowing you will eventually hurt them.
That’s the moment I realize that I’m describing exactly who I fell in love with. And when the storm is over that’s who is standing beside me. She’s the one that is punishing herself more than I ever could. She’s the one that still can’t forgive herself long after everyone else has. I see the good in her, even if she can’t. I know the person I married and I’m hoping one day she realizes that she isn’t that other one.
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