Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘relationships’

A Haunting From 40 Years Ago

I was chatting with a potential customer the other day. She was interested in having me write a book on gaslighting – a fictionalized account of the experience she had with her soon-to-be ex.

I told her that I sympathized and that I had some experience with the topic, too. I was once in a relationship fraught with emotional abuse and gaslighting. “It was years ago,” I told her, “but the scars are still there.”

Suddenly, I stopped to think. That relationship took place over 40 years ago. For going on 41 years, I’ve been married to a man I met the weekend that everything blew up between Rex and me. But I had been truthful. The scars are still with me.

Oh, they’ve faded since then. I no longer have aversions to the things I associate with him, like cobalt blue glassware and blue spruce trees. I don’t cringe and close up whenever anyone in the room is angry. I don’t put myself down before someone else has the chance to. I allow myself to feel anger when it’s called for. I listen to the kind of music I like, at high volume if I want, and don’t apologize for it. In fact, there’s lots I don’t apologize for anymore.

But the memories still affect me, all these years later. I still have flashbacks when someone uses one of his pet phrases, like “fish or cut bait.” I dream we’re in the same town and I’m afraid to run into him. I flash on his insistence that it be called “Eighth of January” whenever I hear the tune “Battle of New Orleans.” And now and then, the obscene song he wrote about me – supposedly as a compliment – pops into my head randomly. It’s doing it now as I write about it, of course.

I was at a formative stage in my life when all this – and more – happened. I was exploring newly discovered independence, dealing with the stresses of college, navigating my first serious relationship. I’m sure my lack of experience helped to make the situation particularly searing for me. At the time, no one ever spoke of gaslighting, and physical abuse was the only kind I had ever heard of.

When I was still just coming out of the fog of the relationship, my startle reflex was unnaturally sensitive. I’d react with alarm if my husband dropped a knife in the kitchen. I didn’t even have to see it. The sound was enough to make me flinch and cry out. (I don’t remember any specific incidents from the bad times that seem to be related to this, but there you have it.) For years, I was a jumpy little thing. My husband learned to let me know if he was about to make a loud noise so I could be prepared for it. I have only a little bit of that left – now I jump only when something very sudden or very loud happens.

It’s been suggested that I have some form of PTSD from the experience. I don’t know if that’s true, though I certainly have some of the symptoms. I was told once by a therapist that I do have it, but at the time it seemed wholly incomprehensible. Now that I look back on it, she may have been right, only I wasn’t ready to hear it. And my future therapists moved on to my problems with depression and bipolar disorder. Self-diagnosing is seldom legitimate, so I won’t say that I definitely have PTSD. But this all puts me in great sympathy with those who do.

PTSD or not, I can still see the lingering effects of that relationship even after 40 years. They say time heals all wounds, but in my experience, the wounds don’t heal so much as scar over. The effects are still there and visible, but they no longer bleed like they did.

Of course, defining the trauma is less important than recognizing it and its effects. And healing from it, which I am still doing 40 years later. It’s a work in progress – and so am I.

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Green Flags, for a Change

I recently saw a meme that pointed out the red flags in a relationship, such as getting rid of friends and family; financial control; insisting on knowing whereabouts; gaslighting; intermittent reinforcement; and, of course, physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse.

But the meme went on to say that, just as there are red flags of a bad relationship – one you shouldn’t get into or should get out of – there are green flags that indicate when a relationship is healthy and positive.

I’ve had relationships of both kinds and, although I didn’t recognize them at the time, have learned the hard way to notice and avoid the red flags. But I’ve also learned how to recognize the green flags.

It’s only fair to say that recognizing both red flags and green flags is more difficult when you live with SMI. It clouds your perceptions. It makes it harder to recognize when and why you should get out of a bad relationship and when a new one is a safe space to be in. We doubt ourselves so much that our vision gets clouded.

So, what do I see as the green “go ahead” flags in a relationship? Besides the absence of all the red flags, I mean.

Listening to you is the first one and maybe the most important. Along with that comes validating your perception of reality. It’s a hard thing to find, especially if you and your new partner have disagreements – which all couples do. You can disagree with someone without tearing them down, even if you have an emotional reaction to whatever you’re disagreeing about. It can actually be easier to agree on religion and politics than it is when the topic pushes one of your buttons. Realizing that you disagree but respect and love the person anyway is a hard thing to do and a harder one to say, but it’s important.

It’s also very important to act on what you say and to make your words and actions congruent. This is the very basis of integrity and trust. We’ve all met someone who says one thing and does another. It’s beyond disappointing. In fact, it’s one of the biggest red flags there is. Not being able to rely on your partner to do what they say they’ll do is a breach of trust. To cite one example (not completely at random), there’s the person who says that an open relationship is the ideal but then demeans you when you act on it – the same way they have always done.

Laughter is vital in any relationship. In order to share jokes and laugh with a person, you must be able to relax with them. Trust is involved here, too. You have to be able to trust that the other person won’t use “humor” to attack you, especially in front of other people. Sarcasm directed at you sours the good feelings you may have had. But genuine laughter, whether at a joke, a silly song, or a funny movie, brings people together. If you have SMI, laughter may have been long absent from your life. Getting back the capacity to laugh is a revelation.

Another aspect of a relationship that can be pivotal is understanding each other’s “love language.” This idea comes from a book by Dr. Gary Chapman that was published in 1995, The Five Love Languages. The five languages – ways that people communicate their love – are words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together or physical touch. Figuring out your partner’s love language and adjusting yours to match theirs can be difficult.

Most important, I think, is perseverance. I often say that we could describe ourselves as “The Couple Too Stubborn to Quit.” We’ve been married now for 40 years. We’ve had bad times when we went to couples counseling – more than once. We’ve even tried to work out if each of us could make it if we separated.

So, those are my “green flags” for a relationship: listening, trust, laughter, understanding, and sticking with it. There may be more, and I’d love to hear from you what others you’ve found.

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Missing Friends

Last week I wrote about the controversial subject of self-harm. In my post, I said:

One of my dearest friends once said that if he ever found out I was a cutter, I would never hear from him again. Except for his publicly mocking me for being so stupid.

Naturally, this sort of reaction, though common, is not helpful. I didn’t tell him (or practically anyone else). And I didn’t tell him that at least two other people he knew – one fairly intimately – were also cutters.

Anyway, Tom, if you’re reading this and still feel the same, I guess this is goodbye – just not the long goodbye. I would rather skip the public mocking, though. I’ll just assume you’ve done it while I wasn’t there, mm-kay?

Finally, I got tired of wondering, withholding a part of my past from someone with whom I have practically no secrets, sometimes to the point of TMI.

So I called him and asked, “Are we OK?” At first he didn’t know what I meant, since he hadn’t read the post, but after a brief nudge I could tell he knew exactly what I was referring to.

Just as a (very rational) mutual friend had predicted, Tom chalked it up to the hyperbole of his callow youth and reassured me that we were fine.


I had lived with the fear of losing that important relationship (and being publicly mocked) for over 20 years. I had never dared mention it to any people in our circle either.

And, let’s face it, I have lost other friends and can attribute at least some of these losses to my bipolar disorder. It harms me, but it also harms those around me, and especially relationships.

I have shot my mouth off and driven away friends and colleagues with bitterness and sarcasm but without realizing how I sounded.

I have ratted out a friend to his therapist and his wife when he was suicidal, which he found unforgivable.

I have turned down invitations to go out or agreed to and then backed out one too many times. My friend gave up the effort since I wasn’t responding.

I have abused the hospitality of friends. When I was at my still functioning moderately well, I would visit and we would enjoy activities, food, conversation, and music. When I was near or at the depths, I would invite myself to visit and turn into an uncommunicative, disengaged, immobilized lump. I was a mooch and a leech, and a real downer generally. I didn’t like spending time with myself, so it’s no wonder they didn’t either.

And I miss every single one of them. I wish I hadn’t driven them away. I wish I could make things right again, now that I’m functioning at a higher level. But I can’t. And that hurts.

In some cases, I’ve tried – sent brief notes of apology. They have been acknowledged with cold politeness that does not invite more contact. I don’t know what else I can do.

Bipolar is a cyclical illness and, though I’m much improved, I can’t promise that I will never sink that low, be that inconsiderate, offend those I deeply care about again. And I can’t blame them for not wanting to deal with that. I don’t want to deal with it.

But I have no choice in the matter. And that hurts too.

Fortunately, there’s one friend I cannot lose, no matter what – my husband. He’s ridden the roller coaster with me, put up with the huge mood swings, ignored the irrational remarks, offered to help in any way, encouraged me to go out but understands when I can’t, and dispensed hugs on a regular basis. He respects alone time and is there when I need company or distraction. If things are really bad, he gets me to eat and helps me shower and takes care of the pets and picks up my refills and does whatever else needs doing.

He’s a man who takes “in sickness and in health” seriously. I wouldn’t have made it this far without him. And I won’t ever lose him, till death do us part.

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