First, let me say I’ve learned a lot from my husband and from my bipolar disorder. The two of us have been married for more than 35 years and I’ve been bipolar all that time. I’ve learned a lot from him about caregiving, steadfast love, and coping, among many other things.
But he’s also learned a few things from living with me and my disorder. I asked him to tell me about it, and here’s what he said he learned.
He can’t fix me or control my emotions. (Of course, the corollary to this is neither can I.) “It’s not necessarily my fault when she feels bad and it’s not my responsibility to make her feel better,” he says. This particular lesson caused both of us a lot of trouble early in our marriage. Dan would blame himself for my moods and become angry when he couldn’t do anything to make me feel better or even respond to his attempts. He was in there trying, but he had to learn to let go and help me find ways to work toward my own healing.
He knows my comfort items and my triggers. Over the years, Dan has learned that while he can’t make me better by himself, he can help me get the things that bring me comfort and avoid the things that trigger me. For example, he knows I find watching cooking shows calming. Him, not so much. But often he joins me on the sofa while I indulge. “Sometimes I’ll sit and be with her even if I’m not really interested in the cooking shows,” he says. “Just to be with her. I do it because I want to be with her.” Sometimes I do that with him too, when he watches shows about treasure hunting or weird science. Sometimes we even sit together and watch shows we both like, such as Forged in Fire.
He has also learned about things that trigger my anxiety, such as loud noises. “I have to be mindful if she’s in a place where loud noises affect her,” he says. “If I do have to hammer or pound on something, I give a warning so that she’s not blindsided or startled by it.” “There’s going to be a crashing noise,” he says, or “Everything’s okay. I just dropped a pan.” He also lets me know where he’s going to be and how to get hold of him in case I panic badly.
He knows to ask, offer, or get out of the way. I can be needy at times, but don’t always know what it is I need. At times like that he’ll ask, “Do you need a hug? Do you need to eat?” Other times he’ll simply give me that hug or put on one of my comfort movies (The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance usually draws me out of bed). If neither one of us can figure out what might help, he’ll simply let me alone until I feel better or until I think of something.
If I do ask for something I need he’ll say, “You can get that.” If he can’t do what I need, we’ll sometimes negotiate a partial solution. Or he’ll give me the tools to do it myself.
He knows how to help with self-care. Like so many people with bipolar disorder, I find that taking a shower, getting dressed, and going out requires quite a number of spoons, sometimes more than I have. Dan helps with that. For example, he’ll give me a clean towel and clean clothes, and remind me that I need that shower. Or he’ll encourage me to get out of the house by negotiating how many errands we’ll do on a given day or by including a stop at a bookstore or a favorite restaurant among them.
He knows that self-care is important for him too. Sometimes he’s the one who needs that hug or that alone time, and he asks for it. He knows that I have learned that he needs these things too and that I will ask him what he needs, or offer it, or say, “You can get that” to him. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty vessel.
A lot of what we’ve both learned from my bipolar disorder are just the things that any partners need to learn: Tolerance. Give-and-take. Negotiation. Touching. Sharing. Civility. Support. We’ve both grown from the experience and that to me is very important. This marriage would never have worked if either one of us had stayed stuck in the way we were in the early days.