While they reconciled their former hopes and dreams with a new reality after a bipolar diagnosis, this couple discovered they can both live fuller lives.
I came home to my world upside down. My apartment entrance had been blocked with music blaring deep within. I finally got inside and found my wife, Katherine, in a “possessed” state. It was surreal: there I was calling 911 to get her help. Paramedics arrived with several police—standard procedure for a psych call—but I thought: is this a medical emergency or an arrest? Stigma had already started to set in.
What started as a minimum 72-hour hold would end up being several weeks in the psych ward. My wife, still manic when I first saw her, hated me, blaming me for calling for help. Her bipolar I diagnosis was unacceptable to her and when she couldn’t deny her illness any longer, she said I had contributed to it.
Besides the trauma of Katherine’s manic episodes and the years of trying to figure out a new normal as a couple—thankfully a recovery we enjoy now—I was inadequately prepared for the ambush of my own reactions: the initial shock followed by deep feelings of resentment, guilt, and anger.
Some of these emotions were due to my own confusion and
uncertainty in trying to find a way forward with my wife. There was also little
support; I didn’t know of any couples dealing with bipolar and thriving or
Katherine blamed me for playing a part in her illness and yet needed me to care for her. I couldn’t get past my resentment for how she reacted toward me. I missed work to see clinicians and plan for her return, and while at work I fought the distraction of wondering how she would be once home. And I felt angry that I was making all these sacrifices that she didn’t appreciate.
I also couldn’t help feeling guilt. I didn’t know what had caused
her mania; maybe it was something I did. But in fact, a lot had recently
happened to explain the episode—a combination of family stress, work stress,
and traumatic events. I hadn’t known enough to make the connections.
Neither of us really thought very much about how the other
was feeling, and it would take us a long time to address and work through these
issues after she left the hospital. We both felt loss, which we now know is
called “ambiguous loss.” My wife was still “there,” but she was not the same.
We were still together, but this was not the family life we had envisioned.
I probably fixated more on my losses than hers. Truthfully, I felt like a bit of a victim and resented her even more.
I was always more focused on preventing another chaotic
manic episode, but depression was the most pronounced and consistent part of
her condition. She was inactive and no longer creative. She was no longer
hopeful, and I was no longer hopeful for her. I, too, was depressed. Our
communication suffered as we became hardened by the illness. We were without
hope for years.
That was until Katherine took more control of her treatment.
Up until then I had communicated directly with her then-doctor. But after she changed
doctors and had her medication adjusted, she began to find strength and hope
from peer support.
We slowly entered a recovery phase that I hadn’t thought was
possible. It wasn’t the smoothest transition for us, but we are now partners in
her treatment. I discovered that we can both live fuller lives and we can both
have more control over bipolar disorder’s uncertainties. And I was able to heal
from my emotional state.
We reached a better place together, which reconciled our former hopes and dreams with the realities of her diagnosis. The ambiguous loss was not a real loss. We didn’t lose our former life together; it is just a different life now, and potentially a more fulfilling one.
Printed as “On My Mind: One Couple’s New Normal”, Spring 2019
Izzy Gonçalves and his wife, Katherine Ponte, developed ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness. Katherine, a mental health advocate, entrepreneur, and lawyer, is in recovery from bipolar I disorder. She is also a director of NAMI-NYC.
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