A woman opens a window on life with a bipolar partner.
Today it stormed, a last snowy wonderland in March. About mid-day, after the snow had turned to sleeting rain, there was an unexpected and singular clap of thunder that rocketed through our house. I was resting in bed with bronchitis when this happened and I was momentarily stunned. My cat leapt out from under my covers and hid under the bed. My youngest daughter ran into my bedroom her face alight with the mystery of it all. She told me that she’d been standing at the kitchen window when the sky shimmered and filled with an amazing white brightness and for a moment she wondered if she was experiencing some kind of “magic” that only she could see. Then the dream was broken by that rending blast of noise from the heavens and she knew that everyone else was experiencing it too.
I cut from these thoughts now to the story of my life. My family lives the metaphor of this storm. My husband is bipolar, and his moods are mercurial as this March weather. Sometimes we all wake up and he is crazed, like a mad March whiteout that shuts down all the schools. The day before no one could ever imagine that such a storm would pay a visit. Though the headlines on all the stations rant on about the impending gloom that will soon hit the city and outlying areas, the roads currently seem so clean, and the wind is blowing nicely, and the ocean is bright and blue under a near-Spring sky, so it is honestly hard to imagine one more blowout from the heavens that will blanket our world in thick, suffocating drifts of white. Yet, at 5:30 am, a call from the school wakes me up and an automated voice tells me that I will finally get to sleep in late. Yes, the whole town is closing down for this last gasp of winter. I don’t open the shades to watch because I already know what to expect, I can hear it wailing down the road, a windy, pounding storm of thick flakes … and I am happy, I am hunkering under the covers, relieved.
But I am never relieved when I awake to my husband’s whiteouts. He can rise from bed with a scowl and the mercury in my heart plummets. Who knows what triggers the bipolar madness … but it surely swirls around us all, gathering in heavy clouds of cold flakes that soon press down upon the home, shutting us down so that we can barely function. It is his storm … but it becomes our weather system and we are the ones, me and the children, who have to find a way to shovel our way out.
How does it begin? What triggers it? It could be fear … somehow fear is always a part of it. Or it could be the mistake of forgetting his meds, or playing with his dosages, or trying to titrate down on a med. It could be that the part of his brain that processes emotions is like a crazy weather station and all the charts are wrong and the weather man can not even begin to describe what is happening, he’s forgotten all his training, and no one knows anymore if it is winter, summer, spring, or fall.
It could be, like it has in the past, that he’s been drinking and mixed alcohol with the powerful anti-psychotic meds creating a cocktail of disaster.
So he awakes angry because he went to bed angry. I am usually the focus of his storms. The sun has gone down on his rage … but what does he rage about? I was once his beautiful bride, his wife of twenty two years, kind, compassionate, ever-protective, but then, something I said, or did, something very small but very huge in his eyes, has triggered his wrath. It could be that I spent ten dollars over our budget for the week on a class trip for the kids that came up unexpectedly. It could be that I didn’t kiss him in quite the right way, “Your heart wasn’t in it enough, but you still are the best kisser in the world.” I will feel his hand grab the back of my head and shove me closer, his tongue prying into my mouth, attempting to make me show “more feeling.” But if I pull away from his control then I am “abandoning him.” It could be that one of our teenage kids gets into a spat with the other over something as small as a cup knocked off a dresser and before we know it our whole house has erupted into their father’s fury, as he attempts to “bring order” back to our home, which in bipolar terms could mean smashed glass everywhere and violence … but I digress, that is another story …. which I must save for when I have the energy to share it.
Storms come in rapid cycles. Sometimes it feels like ten March storms, one after the other, before the snow plows finally arrive, the roads are cleared, and we can get out. When my husband is angry our cat is the best predictor of his weather. All he has to do is enter the house from a long day of work with a sour expression and the cat knows … he skitters away and hides. Or like that unexpected burst of thunder, when my husband suddenly explodes at one of us, the cat flies for safety. And we do too …
I can not even begin to list all the times and ways we have fled. I have cleared our home out so fast sometimes I impress myself. I have lived for months on end with my car packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. There are hotels I am familiar with, and safety routes, and enlisted help waiting. Ultimately, though, it is always a lonely life and one without much hope.
Lithium has been a life saver. My husband, shall we call him Storm Boy, or SB for short, so SB takes lithium now, after two years of trying to find the right meds, and this lithium in combination with another drug, keeps the sky from sleeting icy rain or tossing hail stones at my head. Still, even on this combination, I never know what to expect.
My children are broken hearted in some ways. My youngest daughter, a teenager now, who still for a moment thought there might be magic in the world, has discovered that it’s only lightning after all. And my son wants a father to lean on during his teenage years. My oldest daughter is at college … she has been my wingman, or should I say wingdaughter, during all of these epic weather systems, but now it is time for her to get away from the drama of it all and forge her own life.
So I sit here, late at night, writing this first blog post, after a cold day holed up in my house, after about ten days of SB’s rapid cycling (his psychiatrist tried to reduce one of his meds and learned the hard way not to do that), and I am tired.
I am tired of storms and snow. I want Spring … but Spring for me only comes in fits and bursts. Like tonight, when he was calm and I rested my head on his shoulder in the dark of our room and it felt like home again … like the fact that he came home from a long day at work moving cars during the storm (he works at a dealership), and still made us fried zucchini, his specialty. These are small things, but to us they are large.
I know that when he walked up the stairs this evening my son and I turned in fear, bracing ourselves … why was he home so early? Had he lost yet another job? Was he going to be angry tonight? Our moment of peace felt robbed—we’d been watching a movie together, enjoying a rare time alone, wrapped in blankets, drinking tea, watching Joseph King of Dreams, a film that he’s loved since he was a small boy … we were regressing together, bonding … and then SB entered the home, his boots pounding through the hallway, his coat thrown over a chair, his face grim.
“How was your day?”
“Are you ok, honey, you don’t look well??”
Still no answer as he leans over the sink pouring a glass of water.
My son and I exchange a look. The look says: “Are we safe?”
I decide to leave my husband alone. We listen to him turn on the shower. Good. He’s going to unwind, get clean, maybe soothe his demons under the hot water?
It takes hours and hours of this soothing before he seems ready for bed. He has his rituals for calming the inner whirlwind … currently he escapes into obsessively watching re-runs of old Star Trek episodes. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, you might think…they are just shows, a harmless pastime …
Imagine a spouse who can watch Star Trek from 9 am until 1 am on his day off, without ever leaving his chair unless it is to get food or go to the bathroom. Imagine the shades are drawn against the happy light of day, he is intensively focused and no one can get a response from him to a question. He is truly in the world of Star Trek, an alternative reality that helps him escape the triggers and pain of his current reality. Now imagine that you go on with your life, running a household and caring for others, living, while your spouse ignores life, a life that should be a shared life. And he is doing this, in a way for you, to save you from the storms erupting. He is disappearing temporarily rather than choosing the permanent vanishing of suicide … his other constant preoccupation and companion.
There is so much more to tell you, but I am tired and it is very late … he is resting beside me as I write this, in a deep and peaceful sleep while I am setting my private angst down on the page and going to press publish.
Because I need to publish my inner world, like a garment turned inside out, so that others might process bipolar through my experience of it and hopefully get more insights … for it really is a mystery, not even the greatest psychiatrists have any real and lasting answers.
Yet, where there is love for the bipolar person, a great and abiding love, it seems by the grace of God, the storms are weathered. I cannot promise that the storms will not wear away our hope and reasons for staying … but for now, I have found a way to put on my parka, my mittens, my hat and scarf, my long underwear, my highest boots, my thickest socks, and sit in the blizzard, chattering and waiting for the winds to stop. I am trying to find my way to spring … I am still holding out for the good green shoots and the sun. Perhaps I am a fool, but if the situation were reversed and I was the one suffering from such an illness, I can only hope I would not be entirely abandoned. The question is, how do I not abandon myself in the process of holding onto him? The children do not want their home broken apart and they love their dad … but they fear his illness and what it does to their world. It is such a complicated situation and I am not a satellite with the power to forecast accurately … I am simply a woman who loves a man and is trying to find her way through the ice and the hail and the snow to a greener time.