Here's What It's Like When Mental Illness Affects A Relationship
We're told that love conquers all. But sometimes antidepressants help, too.
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One afternoon, two and a half years ago — 10 months before our wedding — my now-husband and I stood in our kitchen in Houston, arguing about chores. Again.
"Why do we keep having this argument? Why did I keep asking you to do things, and you agree to do them, and then you just...don't do them?" I said, like I had said so many times before. He apologized, like he had so many times before. And then he said, so sadly, "It's just...getting through my day is so overwhelming, I just don't have the energy to do anything else."
There was something about the way he said it that left me feeling like I'd stepped into a commercial for antidepressants. "Oh," I said. "I think I know what's going on."
But despite the many therapy sessions and doctors and prescriptions and really good days since that lightbulb moment, there are still a lot of days when I feel like I don't know what's going on.
The ways in which mental illness can affect intimate relationships often go against the cultural narrative about what a "good" or "happy" marriage looks like. We're told that a "good" husband or wife is thoughtful, attentive, generous, social, and sexual. And if a partner isn't one of those things, it's because one of you isn't good enough, or doesn't love the other enough. We're always told that love conquers all. But sometimes antidepressants help, too.
Whether you're the one with the diagnosis or your partner is, living with mental illness is hard.
For the one with mental illness, there is the illness itself, plus a whole host of other feelings: the vulnerability that comes with letting someone truly see you as you are, the anger when they don't get it, the guilt when they reassure you, the shame that you aren't easily "fixed," the fear that one day they'll give up on you.
For the partner, there's the confusion over what's causing your partner to act in ways that often defy reason, the worry that they'll hurt themselves, the disappointment when they break promises, the guilt when you remember it's not their fault, the shame that tells you it's your fault, the fear that one day they'll give up on you.
But thousands of couples don't give up.
After I put out a call for stories about mental illness in relationships, I received about 175 emails from people who were willing to share their story. All but three were stories of hope, love, and support. People were incredibly honest about some of the worst days of their lives. Mostly, they wanted everyone else going through it to know they aren't alone.
Below are stories from four of the couples who reached out:
Matt and Justin (ADHD)
Jordan and Justin (Bipolar disorder and painkiller addiction)
Khakan and T (OCD and bulimia)
Nancy and Dan (Bipolar disorder and postpartum depression)
Matt, 29, and Justin, 29; Rockville Centre, New York
Justin has ADHD.
Justin: I did not receive an official ADHD diagnosis until the summer after my first year in undergrad. Looking back, I charmed my way through high school with an outgoing, kind, and energetic personality in addition to a pretty great smile. When I got to college, things were very, very different.
There, I was suddenly responsible for my own organization and motivation. Things fell apart, and that initiated my decision to talk to someone. I met with a psychologist who asked if I had ever considered that I have ADHD. Looking back, all the pieces fit together. I then went for a full psychological evaluation, and the results screamed ADHD.
Matt: We have been together for over nine years — first as college roommates, but of course we didn't date for two years (imagine the drama?!). It wasn't until we moved out of the dorms that we connected. We continued to date through college and his long-term grad school (getting his doctorate in school psychology) in upstate New York. Justin is my world. My everything. He's my rock.
At first, as a roommate, Justin was just a friend with ADHD. And a friend with ADHD is nothing but a good time. Up for anything, always on the go, and more than happy to give you some pretty memorable college memories.
As a boyfriend, ADHD means so much more. Broken conversations. Forgotten anniversaries. Waiting for a ride. Misunderstanding. Mood swings. It can mean sitting in utter and complete silence on date night, or it could mean watching your partner spiral into overnight manic study sessions to barely finish a paper.
Justin: Living with ADHD can be difficult. I tend to either act without thinking, or not act because of overthinking. It is difficult to follow conversations I'm involved with.
Matt: It also means unbridled joy. Childlike fun. Getting lost in the moment. And even, at times, understanding that you are the complete and total center of someone's attention. At first, you may never really know which person you're talking with — or what you said to make them even more upset. But in time, we learned how we each worked.
One night, sitting in bed, Justin explained to me just what goes on in his head on a daily basis. "You know that little voice you hear when you read to yourself?" he said. "Well, I don't have one."
That was a breakthrough. Justin went on how to explain how sometimes we can chat or reason with our inner selves. But his brain simply does not work like that. For him, things aren't necessarily thought about; they are decided in the moment. Meeting new people, remembering names, or following conversation is like mental gymnastics — sometimes he can stick his landing, other times he may fall.
What does a good day look like?
Matt: I think a good day is us just spending some time together. Firing on all the same cylinders. Sleeping in, but not too in (leave it to Justin and he would be in bed till 4 p.m. every day). A movie and a dinner date. I like to think we are like big kids (he definitely helps with that), so hitting up a toy store or going laser-tagging is always a good time.
Justin: Good days are us being on the same page. Laughing, chilling on the couch, remembering to follow through with things, having a quality conversation. A really good day is me being on time.
What does a bad day look like?
Matt: A bad day would be a mood shift. If I feel frustrated because I feel like he's not chatting or too scattered to focus, I shut down. Then, just when I am getting out of a funk, his mood dips. Those are the worst days.
Justin: Not following through with things, forgetting things in the apartment when leaving, not remembering to bring up a topic and being completely distracted and unfocused. Matt needing to tell me things three and four times before it registers or sticks.
Matt: Our relationship was long-distance for three years. That was our most frustrating and rocky time. Our relationship eventually turned into utter and complete routine; a good morning text, perhaps a midday phone call, an "I am leaving work text," and a forced goodnight phone call. When he was free, I was crashing from a full 10-hour workday.
Plus, him trying to juggle school meant that he would forgot to ask about important parts of my day; how grandma is feeling after surgery or how that big interview went. I misinterpreted his lack of communication as not caring. He later told me he would remember about that job interview or big film shoot days later, when something triggered his memory, but he felt it was so many days old it wasn't worth mentioning. We just weren't syncing when we weren't together.
A few times I went upstate with the mindset of breaking up, but once we were back together it reminded me of why we were together. Our silliness, friendship, and love were refueled with each of those trips. Justin has told me now he sensed my real purpose for going up there, but did his best to ignore it. That was the hardest period in our relationship, but we got through it. I feel that if we were able to overcome that three-year rough patch, anything is possible.
Has his mental illness affected your sex life?
Matt: I would say it's definitely "killed" the mood sometimes. Who wouldn't want to come home on a Friday after a long week to see your perfect man cooking up some juicy chicken parm in nothing but his skivvies and an apron? (Hey, it's my fantasy.) Instead, Justin is walking around in circles trying to clean the house, with the TV blasting, underwear all over the floor, and no idea what's for dinner.
What has helped you two manage ADHD as a couple?
Justin: [For people with ADD or ADHD], have patience with [your partner] and with yourself. Don't beat yourself up over the difficulties. It is a part of who you are. Own it and grow. Be as open with your significant other as you can. It will be difficult at times, but it will be your biggest asset in a successful relationship.
[For partners], read up. The time you invest in reading about ADHD will pay off. Have patience. Understand that it is difficult for us to communicate what is going on or how we feel because we may not know ourselves. Try not to take things personally.
Matt: Nine years in, I definitely know Justin in and out. If I see that he is struggling to find a response or process something mentally, I will just say, "Think about what you are trying to say, take your time." We take a moment, pause, and then speak.
From small daily tasks to weekend plans and everything in between, repetition is key. Also, time apart is a must! Sometimes, like any relationship, you are just on two separate wavelengths and need a break. I don't think that really has anything to do with ADHD, but if he or I are having a rough day, it can make it worse.
I am not a teacher, I am not a banker, I am not a mother...but it can often be difficult not to take on a piece of these roles in daily life with someone with ADHD. Questions like "Did you pay your credit card bill? Did you take your medicine? Did you finish your grad paper? Did you do your answers for the nice BuzzFeed lady?" can come off as accusatory or nagging. Unfortunately, I need to ask those questions to make sure the bills were paid on time! If I am starting to be a pest, Justin just says something or gives a look. He's really good at those looks.
Do you have any fears about the future?
Matt: Who doesn't? I think my biggest fear is traveling the path of life together with one person, who may get a little distract— oh, squirrel! But I wouldn't want to take this journey with anyone but Justin.
Justin: My biggest fear is that the mental and emotional effort it takes to be with me will get to be too much for Matt. I make valiant efforts, but things don't always pan out the way I hope. I love Matt with all my heart, and deep down truly believe we can overcome any obstacle.
What do you love about each other?
Matt: Justin is one of the kindest people in the world. Cliché, I know, but he will literally give you the shirt (usually a sweatshirt) off his back. He's sensitive, and will put others first, all the time. Plus, what made me fall in love with him was his general enthusiasm. His eyes light up even at the simplest of things. He makes you stop and re-evaluate what's really important in life. He just makes you feel loved, unconditionally.
Justin: He doesn't give up. Always ready to learn and grow. He accepts me for who I am; sees me as a complete picture. I know he ALWAYS has my back. He is supportive, dedicated, and can be the BIGGEST pain in the ass. I love the look in his eyes when he looks at me. The world stops in the little moments, like meeting eyes from across a crowded room.
Matt: We may never be able to sit down and debate the latest breakthroughs in astrophysics, but who cares? That's not us. That's not who we are. We know how we each think, act, and — more importantly — love. I could never love another person more that I love Justin. Justin doesn't just have ADHD; we do.
Learn more about ADD and ADHD here.
Jordan, 29, and Justin, 29; Texas
Justin has bipolar disorder and was previously addicted to prescription drugs.
Jordan: I have known Justin since we were 13, and he was my first boyfriend ever. We have been on and off for years and years because of normal life junk. He has a daughter from another relationship, and I have two from a previous marriage. He always had "issues," according to his family, and I believe they did right by what they knew.
Justin: I was a '90s kid with "ADD/ADHD." So, my mom and dad had me seeing a doctor at the age of 6. From then until I was 17, I have been on every pill they could throw at you for ADD.
Jordan: There was never any real improvement, and his family just started to ignore his perceived issues. He came back into my life five years ago, after I got divorced and while he was in the U.S. Navy. We all thought the Navy was going to be a godsend for him: structure, doing something he could be proud of. But he is one of the many that the military was not the greatest idea for, in regards to his emotional and mental health. In my most humble opinion, there is not enough screening for emotional and mental health for our servicemen and -women prior to joining.
In 2009, Justin's second year in the Navy, he started to develop anxiety.
Justin: I started having very strange thoughts. For example, I would be talking to someone I respect and would have a flashing thought: spit in their face. Of course I would not act on it, but sometimes the thoughts would get to the point that I would be mistaken as disrespectful because I would have to walk away from a conversation. This was the first time I really noticed something was off.
Jordan: He, like many, went to his C.O. and to the Navy docs for help, and was put on benzos and painkillers, which are highly addictive.
Justin got out of the Navy in 2011.
Jordan: Even though it was hard at times, he missed his Navy buddies and that life so much. His self-image and self-worth declined rapidly as he became more anxious and dependent on the medicines prescribed to him. He had what we referred to as an alter ego, named Brett, when he would slip into his "moods." It became clear there was something more going on.
We went through the VA, like we were told, to get him help. The VA is the most depressingly unorganized joke of a hospital. They lost his chart and diagnosis multiple times. He was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and on top of that was slowly becoming addicted to the Xanax and hydrocodone that they had him on.
Jordan said the couple spent thousands of dollars on non-VA doctors, who all recommended lithium as treatment. The VA doctors wouldn't take the recommendations of the other physicians, but since Justin didn't have insurance, he kept going to the VA doctors, who prescribed several other medications.
Justin: I truly believe that today I am still recovering from the effects of the poorly managed health care I received. There were so many nights adjusting to new medicines. I would wake up screaming, if I actually fell asleep at all, due to reactions to the pills. It would make my skin feel like it was crawling, like I had bugs living inside of me. I was having the worst nightmares you could imagine. It was absolutely terrifying to go to sleep. So they put me on sleeping pills.
Jordan: It took the VA a year of failures and horrifying experiences to finally try lithium, which is one of the most common treatments for bipolar disorder. He went through so much. He would be so exhausted he couldn't get out of bed, would have emotional outbursts of every kind, would be super-needy all of a sudden and suffocating in the relationship, have insomnia spells, would go completely numb and coldhearted, etc. But through all of this he managed to get two degrees in school.
Justin is no longer addicted to pills; Jordan says he got over the addiction relatively quickly with the help of a functional medicine doctor.
Justin: I still have a hard time understanding what is my disorder and what is real. I have some of the most wicked depression, to the point it is not fair to a spouse. There are days when I have literally not been able to drag myself out from under the covers because the voice inside of me also likes to tell me how much of a failure I am and he likes to make sure I know when I am having an "off" day. While I am being consumed with my own self-loathing, my wonderful loving partner has no idea what is going on and doesn't hear from me for days. I will go without paying my phone bill on purpose because deep down, I do not want anyone to be able to get ahold of me.
Jordan, are you able to reassure him when he's feeling guilty or seeing himself as a failure?
Jordan: It is really hard to reassure him. Sometimes it's as simple as going on a date. Other times, no matter what I say or do, he still feels that way. I just try to not get sucked into it. If he isn't being receptive then I typically just stop. That is where I believe self-work and healing comes into play. I don't make him feel guilty; he has guilt. And since I cannot stop the guilt, he has to get healing from it, and I am not the one to do that for him. I had to learn so much about mental illness and health and learn not to take any of it personally.
Jordan said that one of the main things that has helped her and Justin is when he's honest with her about where he is, emotionally, and now tells her when he's having a bad day and needs some space. The couple do not live together, which Jordan said is better for both of them right now.
Jordan: He would try so hard to make a good day when his head was not in a good place, and it almost always failed. He has so much guilt about his behavior and is always waiting for me to "wake up and move on to someone who is normal and can give me what I need all the time." What he doesn't understand is that the good days we have so greatly outweigh any day with anyone else.
Jordan: When he is doing what he needs to, I can work with that. When I text him a few times and he responds with something like, "I haven't slept, I am lost in my mind right now and don't want to say something I don't mean," I know he needs space and can respect that.
Are there any moments or experiences that stick out as things you wish you'd handled differently?
Jordan: Oh god, so many. I put him in a place where my happiness relied on his and that wasn't fair to either of us. I wanted to save him, and if I couldn't it affected me. I thought he could be fixed. It wasn't until my mother, who is a nurse practitioner, said, "Bipolar is for life, it doesn't go away," that it really sank in that I was in it for the long haul.
Initially I was angry and insecure, because the person I knew wasn't there anymore. He was there sometimes, and I felt tricked. The more I read about mental illness, the easier it got to maintain my zen. I have been fortunate enough to come to a place where my happiness is first and doesn't rely on anyone else. That was hard, and it took 18 months of counseling.
What do "good days" look like for you now?
Justin: A good day generally consists of very limited stress. No panic attacks. Not having to worry about money or prescriptions or pain. Jordan and I and the kids have a good time as a family, not having any symptoms of mania.
Jordan: He is very needy and affectionate, wants to do everything for me, cook, clean, build me a fire, things he knows I love. He spends a lot of money on the good days. My theory is it is to make up for the bad days. It is difficult for me, sometimes, to go from giving him needed space or fighting to being super clingy and openly affectionate.
What do bad days look like?
Jordan: He needs/wants different things, depending on his state of mind. That has been influenced by different meds docs have him on, or lack of meds or pain levels that day. A particular instance is when he was on a pill binge and we were supposed to be doing maternity photos for a friend and then going to my younger sister's high school graduation. Something snapped and he started arguing about god knows what and ended up leaving with our friend's husband and spending over $500 in crap we didn't need, and then taking my car so I couldn't go to my sister's graduation.
Jordan, how do you practice self-care so that you can remain a supportive partner?
Jordan: I make music. Justin has been my muse in a lot of ways. I am the lead singer of The High Moons, a four-part, all-female band in Dallas. I write about the things we have been through, and I have been able to reach people in many ways via music. I've heard people tell me their stories of their loves, parents, friends, etc. who have made them feel similar. If my pain can help one person make sense of theirs, I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.
Jordan: I also have a vision board and affirmation cards. I have a great therapist who is all about inward work and no blame. I surround myself with music and people who are good, and that heals me. [You have to] protect your children and loved ones as well as your own heart. The person you love is important, but so is everyone else affected by it.
What advice do you have for couples going through something similar?
Jordan: [When dealing with the VA], try to get a patient advocate on your side there. Usually they can help weed through the bullshit. Counseling is key, but don't just settle for the first counselor you meet.
Both parties need to honor themselves by having time alone, or with others, to breathe. Have a nonjudgmental friend to talk to, one that will just let you vent and not try to fix or save it. And do not feel guilty about cutting people out who make the situation worse. Understand that it is for life. Even if a person gets on a good treatment plan, it isn't a cure.
Do you have any advice for people with children, where one of the parents is dealing with mental illness?
Jordan: Children are not choosing to be there. So they need to be protected and cared for, first and foremost. Try not to fight around them; be honest with them, but age-appropriate. Protect their hearts and minds and never, ever, ever allow the person with mental illness to drag them into anything. After a bad episode once, my daughter (4 years old at the time) said, "Mommy, I wish Justin's head wasn't sick, I pray for God to make it better." Balance it all as much as you can and forgive yourself when you can't.
What do you love about each other?
Jordan: His wit, humor, manliness, beard, ability to probably survive a zombie apocalypse. He lets me be the strong-willed woman I am, he gives of himself and is willing to help anyone he meets, almost to a fault. He is a great dad and a brilliant mind.
Justin: I love her because she accepts me. She has been my rock, my general grasp on reality since I got out of the Navy and rejoined "reality." She has always been there for me to listen when I need someone to listen, to advise when I need advice, to tell me I am wrong when I think I am correct (I'm usually wrong), to call me on my shit and not be afraid to let the cards fall where they may. We have been through the good times and the bad and we're still here. Last but not least, she is an amazing mother and partner and I just cannot see myself without her in my life. She makes me a better person.
Do you have any fears about the future?
Jordan: Not really. Just, y'know, global warming and shitty music.
Khakan, 45, and T, 66; Birmingham, U.K.
T has obsessive-compulsive disorder and bulimia.
T: From the age of 15, I knew I was different. Being gay in the 1960s, you had to live your life in secret. I put my problems down to the fact I was gay and never [considered that it was due to] mental illness. I have suffered for 50 years with OCD and body image issues (anorexia and bulimia). I hid it from my friends and family and suffered many years without help and support. At the age of 43, I met Khakan. I hid from him my depression and other mental health issues, thinking he would never know.
Khakan: I was introduced to T through a mutual friend. When I entered his flat that day, I was impressed by how pristine everything looked. I noted how quick he was to move things back into place. He would even plump up the cushions on the sofa if I left the room.
As I got to know T over several months, I would see how he would be cleaning, polishing and buffering surfaces, vacuuming, washing down windows. I would wake up at night and find he wasn't in bed. I thought nothing of it, but he later admitted that he was cleaning the windows at 3 or 5 in the morning. I put it down to having a few restless nights.
Around the same time, mutual friends told Khakan that T would make himself throw up after meals.
Khakan: I didn't realize how bad it was until one evening, I could hear him in the bathroom and it sounded as if he was vomiting. I went into the room, but he shouted at me to get out. I saw that he was deliberately making himself sick. Family and friends would make jokes about his behaviour and say he was a "nutter" or laugh and say "he's just who he is" and let him get on with it. I couldn't figure it out.
About two years later, I heard a psychiatrist on the television describing how some people constantly wash their hands, or switch their lights on and off, check the cooker, and repeat rituals or routines. He described it as "obsessive-compulsive disorder." I researched it. What I read didn't quite match up with the behavior T was displaying. But it did start a discussion about why he did what he did — the cleaning, polishing, etc. I suggested he seek psychiatric help, but he repeatedly refused, saying that he wasn't crazy.
I learnt that pushing someone to do something against their personal beliefs or opinion wouldn't help. So I decided that to leave T to do his own thing would work better for us. It was only a matter of time before I knew he would have to seek help. I had to demonstrate patience and understanding. At the same time, I had to express my feelings very clearly.
Then, one day, we saw and heard David Beckham on a daytime show talking to a doctor about how he would line up food items in his cupboard and arrange his socks in his drawers, and the doctor diagnosed a mild form of OCD. T said, "That's it! That's what I've got!" We realized that he also had a form of OCD, but it manifested in a different way.
T said he felt better knowing that a celebrity shared his "illness," because he then understood that he was not alone. As we talked, it also made me question why he went to the bathroom. He admitted that he was conscious of his body image and had always wanted to be thin. He said he had been sick after every meal for many years. It had started in his mid-teens, when he felt "image was everything".
I realized he had a severe eating disorder. After much persuasion, he was sent to a doctor who diagnosed bulimia. But the diagnosis didn't put him off. T had learnt to condition his body to reflux after every meal, but control it enough to sustain a relatively healthy-looking body.
Things changed when he was about 60. He started to experience suicidal thoughts and took himself to the GP. They diagnosed an underactive thyroid. At the same time, they referred him to a counselor and an eating disorder specialist. The mental health team recognized some of the signs and symptoms that he had with his OCD and eating disorder. They provided invaluable support and encouragement. They discussed issues that he had developed since childhood and in his teen years. Most notably, coming to terms with being gay and wanting to be accepted.
After many years and counseling sessions, we learned that T had been brought up in a culture in which being gay was not acceptable. I realized that it was about control. T needed to try and control who he was.
Do you have any advice for other couples going through something similar?
Khakan: I think in hindsight, the timing to seek professional help could have been better for both of us if he had gone in the earlier stages. But as I said, sometimes you have to learn to manage it as best as you can, especially if they are not willing to recognize they have an illness. Once your partner does accept they need help, grab the opportunity and work with them, support and encourage as best as you can.
T: Anyone who suffers mental health problems shouldn't be afraid to tell people. For 50 years, I lived in total secrecy about my health issues. It was totally taboo for someone like me, growing up in the 1960s and over three decades, to own up to such health issues. You suffered in silence.
Today, the different agencies where you can receive advice, guidance, and information are endless. Now, after receiving support from professionals, I openly tell people I have mental health issues or illnesses. I still suffer with OCD, bulimia, and body image issues, but telling Khakan (even though he knew and always seemed to know!) has helped me to manage my life better and cope with things I would otherwise ignore or hide.
Khakan: I suppose some of the counselling sessions have helped. But I think having patience and understanding, and allowing T to describe his feelings or disclose to people who are close to him what he has, is even better. As a society, we are not encouraged to talk about mental illness, but T speaks about what he goes through to close friends so that people can develop a better understanding.
Khakan, how do you practice self-care so you can be a supportive partner?
Khakan: Communication, talk time, and being creative helps to alleviate the negativity — i.e., baking, cooking, gardening, art, decorating, listening to music, reading a good book, joining or starting a social/support group, or attending a course. We share the living space, but we also take time for ourselves. We have a cat, which helps to relieve any stresses of the day.
I think self-preservation as a couple and as an individual helps to maintain good dynamics in a relationship. I try not to allow his OCD or bulimia to affect our being together. We try to be holistic in our approach — learn to live and love each other for our flaws, passions, idiosyncrasies, ideas, humor (very important to have in any relationship) behavior, attitude, opinions. The list is endless.
What do you love about each other?
T: Khakan is strong-minded, determined, and stands up for his convictions, even when it caused problems with his faith and family values. He is liked by everyone who meets him. His devotion to me over the past 24 years, the kindness he shows to others, and the love for me in the good and bad times we've shared. We both have become better people in trying to understand the cruelty that life can throw at you, and still we remain as much in love now as we were all those years ago. We've never tired of each other!
Khakan: We are complete opposites yet we complement each other, like yin and yang. I'm much more of a creative dreamer, but he is practical and very down-to-earth. He keeps me grounded. I love his outlook on life, his sensitivities and generosity, his compassion and understanding, his "orderliness" in our home. We share similar tastes in music and fashion, but slightly different opinions and viewpoints when it comes to people and situations. I think we fit very well together.
T: Without him by my side, I would never have survived to be the person I am today. It's been hard for Khakan to cope with my depression and addictions. But he stood by me! We've been together now 23 years, experienced racial abuse, homophobia, and our families turning their backs on us. We got through it and it made us both better people.
Khakan: Maintaining, nurturing, and sustaining a good relationship is hard work. I would say we've worked very hard at our to make it last as long as it has. Twenty-three years in an interracial gay relationship is a very, very, very long time!
T: We are still in love 23 years on, and never bored with each other. I cope with my depression and mental health illness knowing Khakan is by my side, my support, my soulmate, my life.
For more information on eating disorders and resources that can help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association or the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
Nancy, 30, and Dan, 30; Oklahoma
Nancy has bipolar disorder and had postpartum depression.
Nancy: I had my first panic attack in 2008, the spring my mother left me again. I felt like I was drowning, but having a heart attack at the same time. Later that day, I wanted to kill myself and kill somebody else, anybody. Daniel talked to me on the phone, reassuring me. But it wasn't enough. I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with anxiety. I got put on antidepressants, the first of many.
I married Daniel in November that same year. Something about getting married set me off, and I ended up hospitalized with homicidal thoughts. When I was 11, I was raped by my good friend's stepfather. I've come to learn from therapy that many rape survivors feel anxiety about getting married.
Being married made me feel trapped. I told Daniel these thoughts while in bed on Christmas Eve, in 2008. He didn't want to believe me. He tried to reassure me that my thoughts were normal, but I knew they weren't normal when I was having to stop myself from going to get a knife so I could stab Daniel and then myself. I made him take me to the ER, where I was then transported to the nearest psychiatric crisis center.
Dan: I didn't really know how seriously to take it at first. I had had similar thoughts in the past, and thought maybe she was just obsessing over disturbing thoughts that popped into her head, afraid that they meant she was a bad person. It wasn't until she told me about the voices that I took it more seriously, and decided to take her to the hospital. It wasn't really a shocking or scary experience for me, to be honest. I'm self-aware enough to realize that I had a relatively sheltered childhood, especially compared to Nancy's.
Nancy: I was at the local crisis center. I was terrified. I'd never been in a hospital like that before. I couldn't sleep in the bedroom they assigned me due to my anxiety about somebody hurting me, so I slept in the "living room." They gave me Geodon, which got rid of the horrible thoughts, but made me a walking zombie. Dan visited me as often as he could. I called him as often as I could, crying all the way.
Overall, I was relieved to be on a medicine that stopped the suicidal and homicidal thoughts, even if it did make me beyond sleepy. I was diagnosed as severe depressive with psychotic features. After my complaining, they put me on Abilify instead.
Dan: The Abilify worked much better, but then she got pregnant and had to stop taking it. She did fine throughout the pregnancy, but she ended up getting postpartum depression, and hated herself for not feeling connected to our son. She woke me up one night, saying she heard voices telling her to kill me and our son, and she was finding it hard not to listen to them. She ended up in another crisis center for a few days, and her psychiatrist changed her medication.
Nancy: It took me three years or so to get the proper diagnosis. Once I did, I was stable until just this year, when I had a relapse when we changed my meds.
Dan: I should also mention that she really hates taking the anxiety pills. She is absolutely filled with hatred towards me and herself when she takes them sometimes.
In late 2014, Dan changed jobs and took a big pay cut. He says Nancy started to get more stressed at her teaching job and decided to finish out the school year and then quit to focus on writing. She ended up in the hospital again before the school year was over, and almost immediately after the school year ended in summer 2015, she entered another manic phase.
What do bad days look like for you?
Nancy: My most recent manic episode, I slept with I don't know how many men (hypersexuality can be a sign of mania/bipolar disorder) and I wanted to divorce Daniel and get my own place. I don't like talking about it, because I'm so ashamed of it. I was making lifelong decisions in a matter of days.
Dan: I didn't realize she was manic at first, and I didn't know how to react, but I knew I couldn't force her to stay with me, so I had to let her go. Fortunately we realized what was going on before she got a job or moved out. Her psychiatrist adjusted her medication, and changed her diagnosis to Bipolar I.
Nancy: My psychiatrist upped my Abilify and as soon as that kicked in, I had the worst emotional hangover in the world. All the things I did suddenly hit me and I realized that the path I was on was very self-destructive. My psychiatrist and Dan helped me realize this, but so did the medication.
Dan: She's doing better now, and is trying to focus on writing, but it's a struggle because she feels like she isn't contributing to the family. We did just get approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, however, so we are hoping that will help relieve some of the stress.
Nancy seeing herself as a burden is one of the most emotionally difficult things for me to deal with. Last spring before she was hospitalized, she had a string of panic attacks and during two of those attacks, she begged me to let her kill herself. She tried to convince me that my life would be easier without her. But I don't see how my life could possibly be any better if she killed herself. Living with the guilt of failing her and the children would be a much greater burden, and I wouldn't have my best friend to help me through it.
How do you reassure her when she's seeing herself as a burden?
Dan: I remind her that the best thing she can do for all of us is to take care of herself. Me doing all the chores isn't a burden when I know that it frees her up to work on writing or spending some extra time with the kids. I've never seriously considered leaving Nancy, because I really don't think I would be any happier. I was actually somewhat depressed before I met Nancy, and she helps pull me out of my head and deal with life.
Dan, how do you practice self-care so you can be a supportive husband?
Dan: Most days I have to choose between getting a full night's rest or having some alone time for an hour or two before going to bed. It also helps that I have a long-term outlook on life, and I just keep telling myself that the kids will be old enough to get themselves ready for school and bed someday. I have a couple of friends I occasionally talk to about some of this stuff, but not very often and not in great detail. My parents are very supportive financially and with helping take care of the kids, but I think they struggle with taking her condition seriously sometimes.
If you have friends or family that can help you take care of the kids, then absolutely use them. Don't think you're a bad parent if you need someone else to take care of the kids on a regular basis in order to relieve some stress.
What do good days look like now?
Nancy: Good days are me working on becoming a published author and actually getting a lot of writing done. Good days are me not having an anxiety attack or feeling worthless.
Has her mental illness affected your sex life at all?
Nancy: My medicine makes it hard to orgasm and it decreases my sex drive, so it has affected our sex lives in a negative way. And we have two kiddos, so that hurts it, too (lol).
Dan: Before her manic episode last summer, we had sex maybe 10 times a year. We haven't had sex since her manic episode. It doesn't help that I have become a sort of parental figure in her life, because I spend so much time helping to take care of her.
Do you have any advice for other couples going through something like this?
Dan: Don't freak out and judge your spouse if they ever start having panic attacks or suicidal/homicidal thoughts. Take them seriously and try to help if you can. If the person can't be consoled, take them to the hospital, or call 911 if you don't think a car ride would be safe. For all mental illness, do not belittle the thoughts and emotions of your spouse. Don't tell them they just need to "think positive" or "get over it." People have said similar things to my wife, which infuriates her and makes her feel like a failure at the same time.
Nancy: My advice for couples is that you have to be able to communicate without repercussions. Daniel has never once used anything against me in our arguments. ("Well, you know you once wanted to kill me..." kind of thing.) The partner with the disorder has to realize that it can be managed, but when it can't, when the disorder is bigger than them, they need their spouse's support.
If you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can speak to someone immediately here or by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also get support via text from 3 to 11 p.m. on Samaritans Statewide Helpline, 877-870-HOPE (4673). If you feel as though you cannot control your behavior, don't hesitate to call 911 or go to the emergency room. Your safety, and the safety of others, is of paramount importance.