The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
How can a marriage survive when one partner loses her sanity, her sexuality, her capacity to mother, to work, to love and support her lover, to laugh, celebrate or appreciate life? How can the spouse who is healthy survive the mysterious abduction of his beloved? She was here in body, mind and soul, in lust for life, and now it’s as if some sadistic walk-in has taken over. How can the one left alone survive the grief, anger, loss, fear, and mourning? How can he have the physical stamina to take on all the care and feeding of the children, the home, and the suicidal partner while also taking on all the responsibility for livelihood? How can this person survive without cracking up, splitting the scene, becoming vengeful or cruel himself while he gets none of his needs for care and nurturance met? Seems impossible. Had the roles been reversed, I doubt I’d have survived it with self and family intact.
I am simply lucky that my man Joe was a rock – solid, steady, tireless.
In writing this sentence I’m aware of the privilege in it. Not everyone with this disease has a reliable partner who can provide emotional, physical and financial support, and that makes the path exponentially more difficult. If you are in this position, it’s all the more important to stretch to reach out for the support of friends. If you love someone with bipolar depression who does not live with a caring partner, it is all the more reason for you to get serious and organized about showing up with a posse of support.
With Joe, it was as if he was running a marathon with no end in sight. Or to continue the Greek metaphors, like Sisyphus, he was pushing the rock uphill for all eternity. There was no way to know when, how, or if my brain would recover, and I would return to be the woman that he’d fallen in love with, married, built a home with, enthusiastically agreed to have more children with at age fifty, when his oldest was already twenty-three.
When we met, Joe described me as the strongest woman he’d ever known. He chose me because, having had two previous marriages, he knew that he wanted a woman with whom he could truly partner, a woman who, as he liked to say, could meet him in his power. He’d joke, “When I finally met the strongest woman I’d ever known, I did the only logical thing a man could do, marry her.” A leader in the men’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s, Joe was fluent in the language of self-reflection and personal history. He said that first he’d married his submissive mother, then he’d married his abusive father, and now in me he was marrying his soul mate. A woman who came of age with the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Thank you very much; I didn’t need a man to take care of me. I liked my independence, and so did Joe.
For the first three years of our long-distance courtship and the next three years of living together and marriage, the empowered part of me was the only part of me that Joe experienced. When we made the commitment for life, witnessed at our wedding by 150 or so friends and family, I truly believed that that part of me would prevail. I was open with Joe about the dark days of my past, but always framed them as such, past.
When Joe and I first experienced the depressed version of me, we were both shocked. Me, because I was sure this was history. And Joe because the woman before him was the quintessential opposite of the one he’d described as the strongest he’d ever known. I was suddenly and totally incapacitated. By then we were full-scale professional partners in the business that sustained us financially. Business consulting at high-powered companies like Nike and Shell was intellectually and emotionally demanding, and I suddenly couldn’t do it. All of the skills I relied on were gone. I had a reputation as a smart, reliable, energetic visionary, but I was now none of these things. It was as if I’d been hit with a debilitating and unexpected disease like cancer, but this was worse – a cancer patient is sick, while a bipolar woman is not only sick, but she’s lost her fundamental personality. It becomes hard to find the person you fell in love with and married. Still, through compassionate eyes, Joe could see the hidden essence of me.
He covered for me. Though he’d joined my practice and was not fully comfortable in the private sector, he stepped up. “I miss my partner. I miss my soulmate,” he’d report in confidence to friends. But for our public persona, he never let on that I was down. He followed through on all our professional commitment, his and mine.