Therapist by Day, Bipolar Caregiver by Night

Author: Cory Anderson

As a therapist, I thought I would be well equipped to handle anything marriage threw my way, including my wife’s bipolar II diagnosis. Well, I was wrong. Even our journey of getting this diagnosis was long and fraught with potholes. I imagine a lot of you can relate to these difficulties.

When Christine and I got engaged over 13 years ago, we knew she struggled with depression, but we had no idea there was more to it. We were glad for the times she was able to feel upbeat and get more done at work and around the house. It felt like a breath of fresh air. But her down times became more severe after our wedding, and at times Christine became extremely rageful. I wanted to be a good husband, but it felt like I couldn’t handle the hurt.

I tried to be supportive when Christine was down and understanding when she was crying uncontrollably. However, even as a trained professional, I would often feel powerless. I tried hard not to “therapize” Christine, and she would let me know (sometimes with colorful language) if I crossed that line. So I mostly focused on being an empathic listener.

As it turned out, I wasn’t trained in how to live with and love someone suffering from such a debilitating illness. Often, it was easy for us to fall into the “identified patient” dynamic, where I was the stable, strong one, and she was the unstable, broken one. This dynamic became insidious and tainted our view of each other and ourselves. When  a marital problem came up, we usually found a way to blame it on her disorder. And I fell  into “being strong” and “being there for her” so much so, that I wouldn’t “be there for me.” 

Christine’s single greatest strength is that she cares. She ceaselessly cared about getting healthier, cared about pursuing therapy, cared about psychiatric treatment, cared about exercise, and cared about me. Sure there were times when she felt it was futile and nothing was going to help, but overall, she strove–and continues to strive–to better herself and her life.

Years later, through this persistent work and collaboration with her therapists and psychiatrist, Christine discovered she not only had depression, but also moments of hypomania, and thus, bipolar disorder. At first, I was in a bit of denial about the diagnosis. When I reflected on why, I realized I was afraid of the bipolar diagnosis as an even worse struggle. However, it didn’t change the fact we had been dealing with it for years, even without the label!

As most people will tell you, it actually helps to have an accurate picture of what the illness is, and so it was for us. Christine was able to begin the journey of mood stabilizing medications, which is another lesson in sticktoitiveness, as there are many to try and dosages to modify. It also gave us more understanding and language to talk about what we were going through.

Our next biggest help was doing consistent, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) as a couple. While I knew about the form of therapy and practiced it myself with clients, we didn’t live it out in our marriage until we saw our own therapist. We learned how to express our deeper needs to each other and entrust each other with the care of those needs. This, perhaps above all, began to help us undo the “identified patient” dynamic I mentioned before. Christine was able to begin to trust me with her even deeper, more vulnerable needs, and I was beginning to learn to let down my guard and not have to be “the rock” all the time. I could have needs as well.

Those of you who can relate probably realize that despite all the genuine, beneficial progress, there can still be scary pitfalls in this journey. A little over a year ago, Christine was hospitalized because she was close to self harm. But, since the dynamic had healthily leveled out from our EFT work, I was not the one to be the caretaker and prevent her from hurting herself (like several times in our past). Christine called 911 and the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) for herself.

For me, that was one of the hardest days of my life. I was finishing up with clients at my office about 45 minutes away from home, and I got a call from Christine who told me what was happening and had me talk to one of the members of PERT. At first, I couldn’t believe it, she seemed well-enough when I left that day, and I tried bargaining as my first tactic. Then I tried pulling the I’m-a-licensed-therapist card to convince them to leave her into my care, but they did their job and said she met the criteria to be hospitalized.

I was reexperiencing some earlier feelings of powerlessness  around her illness. I was also feeling that frightened sense of abandonment that her suicidal ideation had triggered in the past. I had to make the drive home–in traffic with way too much time to think–to an empty home with just our two pets. While I called people close to us who understood and were supportive, I still had no idea which hospital they were taking her to and when I’d be able to see her.

I’m sad to admit, I fell back on my less than emotionally healthy way of being the supportive “rock” and went into busy mode–making calls, figuring out care for our pets, and still seeing my own clients. By the time I got to see my wife, it was more of a to-do list check off than an empathic, vulnerable connection. In hindsight, I needed to cancel clients, increase my self care, and show up fully for her. I  have had grace and forgiven myself since then, because this situation isn’t in any therapy or spouse manual!

In this bipolar journey, it’s tempting to look for a finish line –to look for a time when “things will just be normal.” However, when I do that, I notice Christine and I are less able to cope with and even enjoy the present, and our focus becomes one of denial and trying to live in a future that doesn’t exist. So, while I see continued growth and stability in our lives, it’s not because we are seeking some “ideal” normality, but because we are accepting the journey we are on, with all its ups and downs.

I’m sharing this intimate part of our life with all of you, because Christine is strong enough to care, because I am trying to be vulnerable enough to admit my needs, and because Christine and I want you to know you are not alone in your journey.

Cory Anderson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the founder and director of Integrity Counseling Group, a Christian counseling practice in San Diego, California. You can learn more about Cory and his work at IntegrityCounselingGroup.com.

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