This story is the first of several parts. The woman in question is now my ex-fiance. It’s a serious issue and I have attempted to present it as thus. I also tried to truthfully present not only her issues but my own failings. I am not in any way trying to malign my ex, but she, as we all need to do, must make changes in her life if she is to enjoy a successful relationship with a mate, as she so desperately wants to do. As most of us do, I’m sure. Finally, I share this with those of you who may read this story because I know there are millions of people who suffer from Bipolar Disorder (BD) and other related mental illness issues and diseases, and even many more millions who have friends, lovers, and family who suffer from this malady. I detail my experiences as truthfully and as clearly as I can for you.
This past year my five year relationship with a woman ended. It was a mutual decision and one that was long overdue. There was bitterness on both our parts, and both of us certainly shouldered our share of the blame for the failure of the relationship. Long-term relationships of any kind are difficult to maintain under the best of circumstances, perhaps love/romance relationships most of all. Almost all partner-oriented relationships undergo trying times for many typical, familiar reasons: money issues (usually the lack thereof), not sharing the same core values, emotional incompatibility, sexual dysfunction/incompatibility, extended family issues, illness, age differences, and a cornucopia of other reasons. So, when my ex shared with me early on in our budding relationship that she was bipolar I was taken aback, skeptical about our chances for success as a couple, and generally leery about the disease itself.
As it turns out, I should have heeded my gut feelings about moving forward in a relationship with a person who suffered from bipolar disorder. Not just because of the disease itself or the fact she had it, but also because I realized deep down in my emotional core that my type of personality was probably not compatible with a bipolar partner. Before I go on, perhaps it would be instructive to offer a short explanation of bipolar disorder. Most of us have heard of it, or know someone with the disorder, yet many people probably could not accurately describe it. During my relationship with my ex I expended a great deal of time and energy learning about BD, and how it could affect an individual, a couple and/or the people around them.
From the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): “Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. Different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through, the symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. About 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6 percent of the population age eighteen and older in any given year, have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop them late in life. It is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.”
From Wikipedia: “Bipolar disorder is not a single disorder, but a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood, clinically referred to as mania. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present. These episodes are normally separated by periods of normal mood, but in some patients, depression and mania may rapidly alternate, known as rapid cycling. Extreme manic episodes can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. The disorder has been subdivided into bipolar I, bipolar II, Bipolar NOS, and cyclothymia based on the type and severity of mood episodes experienced.”
I make some of my living as a writer, and I do a great deal of research on the subjects I write about. Whatever skills and experience I possess in this arena stood me in good stead as I researched the issues and misinformation surrounding BD. I did this because I wanted to learn how best to deal with the emotional fallout and issues that would be a part of our daily life together, and because I fell in love with this woman, whom we’ll call Lisa (not her real name), for our purposes here.
Lisa was, and is, an engaging, very intelligent, sexy southern woman, with a sunny disposition (when not in the throes of a manic depressive state) who first melted my heart with as winsome and lovely a smile as I’d ever had directed at me. I had not dated much in the previous several years as I had been busy building a tech-heavy startup business. Plus, let’s face it, my last serious relationship had just ripped me up inside and I was tentative, to say the least, about jumping into a romantic relationship. Lisa was honest with me from the start about her BD. It was a red flag, to be sure, but she was just so cute and engaging in that flirty manner southern women seem to possess from birth that I succumbed to her dazzling smile and feminine charm. Lisa was, at the time, in the midst of divorce proceedings which raised yet another red flag. But, I was hooked. Additionally, ours was a long-distance relationship. We lived 350 miles away from each other. So, she drove down to see me several times over the first year that we dated, while I drove up to visit her much more frequently, due to her lack of job flexibility.
Lisa hid our relationship from everyone in her family and all her friends. She was afraid that her husband would petition the court to keep sole custody of their daughter if she openly dated me. Which, in the south, is a legitimate concern, though that’s changing somewhat. Eventually, the divorce was settled and Lisa had equal co-custody, with her ex, of their daughter. What I didn’t know, and found out later from both her parents and her ex, was that dating me wasn’t the real issue behind the threat of sole custody. In point of fact, Lisa lied to me about not only this issue, but many other things over our time together. It shocked me when I learned that her parents would have sided with her ex on this issue. How could this be?
It turns out that Lisa had a serious drinking problem, and combined with the drugs she was taking to manage her BD and drinking issues (Wellbutrin, Effexor, Lamictal, and eventually, Abilify) made her manic depressive episodes more acute and potentially dangerous or actually triggered them. She would drive and drink with her then nine-year-old daughter, which terrified her parents and forced them to side with her husband on this issue. She called me several times in this condition and I would beg her to drive home and call me when she was safely there. At first, I thought she was just experiencing the emotional distress and guilt we all have in the midst of a divorce or bad breakup. And, certainly, that was part of it. But as I grew closer to her, and eventually her family, I begin to find out some disturbing things about her BD past and manic episodes.
Lisa first got drunk at the age of twelve and exhibited the initial symptoms of what years later would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Her parents spent years and extreme sums of money to make her better with the hope that she would one day be able to be a functional, productive adult. At the time, according to her father, no one believed that Lisa would be able to take care of herself. Her parents were resigned to the fact that they would be responsible for her well-being for the remainder of their life. Lisa’s parents even made a heart-wrenching decision to put her in a mental hospital for nearly a year where she received weekly shock therapy treatment. I know this because her father allowed me to read a journal he wrote during that period. It was illuminating and scary, yet I believed it was the right thing for me to do. In fact, it made me fall in love with her more, because the diary informed me just how hard she fought to overcome her disorder.