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Living, loving, and parenting with mental illness

by Maggie Ethridge

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One year into our marriage, my husband was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. I began scouring the internet for studies, groups, information, and support. I knew we were in for a ride, because I also have my own struggles with PTSD and generalized anxiety. The prospect of two adults with two very separate and different mental health issues raising children together felt daunting.

After spending hours online, I was disappointed to find scant information on how to make a marriage work with these challenges. Even more disappointing, the chatrooms and message boards for spouses of those with bipolar disorder were full of worse-case scenarios. Surely some people made it work, I thought. But how?

Years later, I can’t say we found the way, because our ways have been deeply imperfect, painful, messy, and certainly not definitive. We have found some ways that allow us to cope the best we can with our respective challenges in mood and cognition while keeping love, respect, and even tenderness alive during the toughest of times. Over nearly fifteen years, my husband has taken care of me through a few horrific panic loops, the latest of which I ended up hospitalized for 24 hours at our local public psychiatric ward. And I have waited for him through some of his tremendous lows. We have stayed best friends and lovers throughout.

Here are six ways we’ve made it work:

1. Understanding the brain

I was surprised by the amount of people on the internet who knew very little about the basic, biological workings of bipolar disorder and PTSD. How does it occur? What happens in the brain and to the larger person when sick? What specific brain processes are occurring? What are the mainstream treatments? The fringe treatments? Which treatments are considered beneficial from a psychological perspective? Are there any lifestyle changes that can help?

Educating myself on my husband’s specific disorder and learning about the known mechanisms occurring in the brain—such as the fact that bipolar is called the ‘stress processing disease’ because of the unusually radical response in the brain to stress, triggering dysfunction—made an enormous difference in my own capacity for empathy and ability to cope when he gets sick.

2. Understanding best practices

When dealing with mental illness, we can take what is understood at the time to be the best acting practices for when a person is ill and utilize it to cause the least amount of stress on the ill person, and the family. You can learn best practices from relevant books, a therapist, or a National Institute of Mental Health class.

My husband knows that when I am having a panic attack, he cannot reason with me. I cannot choose to snap out of it, sleep it off, or cry it out. What I need is a reminder of what is happening to me (“You aren’t dying, you are having a panic attack”) and quiet, constant support in a gentle, non-confrontational tone and manner. He understands what is happening in my body to produce the irrational behaviors, and he can identify the point at which I need medication or a visit to the emergency room. Because he is educated, I suffer less, he suffers less, and our children suffer less.

3. Self-care

Here, I must admit, I fail again and again, having to relearn what I know is true: whatever gains I make when letting go of self-care, I pay for ten times over when shit hits the fan. Self-care has become such a buzzword that it’s almost hollow sounding, nearly losing its meaning. Still, without care, one can become drained, and in that drying swamp, difficult feelings can grow: resentment, self-pity, rage.

Self-care must be defined by the individual but likely involves more than Netflix, chocolate, and a few scattered sessions of yoga. Self-care can include those things, but ought to also liven you up rather than exhaust your resources. For me, self-care absolutely has to involve leaving the house for a walk, run, coffee with a friend, or browsing the bookstore for two hours.

4. Find another like you

For me, this means I need to confide in someone who understands bipolar disorders. Sometimes that person might be a therapist, someone found through a support group, or maybe it’s a friend who is a great listener and intimately knows what you need to talk about. Whoever they are, it’s important to understand the disorder directly impacting your life and offer compassion for you and your significant other. This kind of connection is invaluable in relieving stress, giving advice, and sharing truths about the disorder. When you have such a bond , you are more likely to feel safe and be able to truly confide, versus giving liner notes.

5. Check the basics

When a mental disorder (or two!) is part of your life, the basics become imperatives. Without good sleep and a great diet, plus too much caffeine and sugar, my anxiety hits eleven. My thinking will become neurotic and fearful, and I feel physical signs of anxiety such as dizziness, upset stomach and rapid heartbeat, and I often feel close to tears. Without proper sleep, healthy food, exercise, and some meditative action like yoga or walking meditation, my marriage begins to feel strained within a week.

6. Practice

Sometimes I think one of the most striking and unfortunate differences between children and adults is the basic learning we forget as adults. While we regularly teach children that every aspect of life requires practice, we seem to forget that these lessons apply throughout our lives. Peace and happiness, or even qualities we think of as given instead of earned, like strength and devotion, grow from being purposefully, regularly practiced.

In my marriage, the qualities that I am most grateful for—our loyalty, intimacy, devotion, resilience, forgiveness, compassion, and even lust—are largely, sometimes solely, because we both agreed they were worth having, and we practice. Sometimes this looks like sticky notes on the bathroom mirror to myself: “Be in the moment, notice what is actually happening.” Other times it’s refreshing my memory with a book. Sometimes it looks like my husband putting aside his frustration at me and once again asking his hard-headed wife what she is trying to say. At first, this kind of practice is difficult—excruciating, even. The longer we’ve practiced, the more we’ve gained, and it’s become (mostly) easier. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes a life.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Maggie Ethridge

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of "Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage" (2015, Shebooks). Her novel "Agitate My Heart" is in final edits.