How my wife coped with the effects of my bipolar disorder

How did I cope with the negative effects of Jim’s bipolar disorder? Well, Jim frequently says that education is over half the battle in dealing with bipolar disorder or other brain illnesses. I agree with him, because I believe knowledge about an illness and its treatments is as necessary for family members as it is for patients.

Although I’d taken some counseling courses while in seminary, I was pretty much in the dark when it came to knowledge about mental illness and bipolar disorder.

Initially, it was hard for me to tell the difference between the real Jim and the Jim with the bipolar condition. Gradually, I learned information about his bipolar disorder through reading, attending mental illness conferences, and talking with therapists, psychiatrists, and patients and their family members.

And, unexpectedly, I probably got my best education from Jim—through his sharing about it. At times, his explanations came in manic rambles, but they were very helpful nevertheless. Plus, I also observed him in different situations and began to actually see how stresses, medications, and their side effects affected him.

I learned to forgive myself and Jim.

A strong, vibrant marriage is a two-way street. It was important to realize that both of us needed to work on forgiveness.

In western movies, good guys and bad guys are easy to distinguish: the bad cowboy always wears a black hat and the good cowboy wears a white one. Let’s face it: in our marriage, Jim doesn’t always wear the black hat and I don’t always wear the white hat. He’s not the bad guy and I’m not the good guy in our relationship—we both bring negatives and positives into our marriage.

I have to be responsible for dealing with my own issues and the things in my life that need to be changed. Sometimes this means saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you, Jim. I was wrong.” And when he does the same, I need to be willing to forgive him.

I saw our marriage as a lifelong commitment.

The pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a young bride and groom from his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1943. He told them, “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, your marriage will sustain your love.” (emphasis ours)

We agree with Bonhoeffer that it’s not romantic feelings that will keep your marriage together. Rather, it’s your commitment to your marriage and its vows that will keep your love together. This has certainly been true for us—and it’s still true for couples in today’s world!

We took very seriously the vows we made on June 24, 1967: “For better or for worse.” Believe me, it got worse for us. Many times. But we’ve also made it better.

You wedding vows, your duty, and your stubborn loyalty to your partner will be one of the key things holding your marriage together.

Reminding yourself often of the importance of your “for better or worse” commitment to each other will help you to hang in there until feelings of love return. This will act like an anchor for your relationship in the midst of bitter, long-lasting storms. Although, I jokingly admit that at times our relationship could be described the way singers Simon and Garfunkel described theirs: “We’ve had many fights over the years, but we no longer fight. We’re just too exhausted!”

I separated Jim from his illness.

During the first seven or eight years after his hospitalization, Jim wasn’t his old self. Sometimes Jim was so overly medicated he could barely function. At other times, his medications were either not working, or were actually causing some of his manias or depressions. Plus, he was facing severe conflicts with our denomination’s insurance company and still knew very little about “recovery tools.”

Our sons were young then, and things were pretty tough for all of us. The boys and I would get together and vent. They’d complain, “Why can’t Dad stop talking so much. I can’t stand it when he wants me to get things for him all the time, and I feel like a slave waiting on him. Why does he sleep all day? Why won’t he answer the phone or help with house chores?”

Unloading and getting it all out was a good thing. But then I’d always try to remind them, “Remember, that’s not your real Dad when he acts like he does—it is his illness or medications that are affecting him. Let’s try to remember who Dad really is beneath his frustrating behaviors.” Easier said than done, but it was important for me and our boys to separate Jim’s bipolar symptoms from the real Jim.

I found safe, supportive friends.

Like Jim, I have developed a group of friends with whom I can safely vent. I can swear, spit, stomp, or cry when I need to, and I know that they won’t bail on me, or Jim. This last point is very important; they’ll still support him and be his friend because they understand it’s his illness that affects our marriage, not just his own rough edges.

I learned how to emotionally detach from Jim.

In my counseling, I learned that I had to come to grips with my co-dependent issues. The best thing I ever learned was that I could not fix Jim—all I could do was control and repair myself.

I realized I couldn’t go up and down with Jim’s highs and lows. It was emotionally impossible and would drive me crazy trying to do it. I had to keep functioning at a normal, steady pace to keep our family together. I still tried to be sympathetic to Jim’s upheavals, but there was no way I could truly understand his feelings. By letting go of the need to become deeply empathetic with his ever-changing moods, I freed myself to become emotionally healthy.

I resigned as Jim’s caregiver.

I had to surrender all attempts to “mother” Jim. I encouraged him to be totally responsible for managing every aspect of his illness. Jim took full responsibility for all of his appointments and for how he managed his day. He, not I, was in control of his medications, counseling, and support group attendance. I still try to encourage him as best I can, complimenting him in his attempts and accomplishments, but I’ve learned to stay out of it and let him make all his own decisions.

I learned how to set boundaries.

Through my experiences with Jim, I’ve learned that unless a mentally ill person is in a psychotic state and out of touch with reality, he or she can respond to upsets in a civil manner if firm boundaries are set.

Early on, when things were extremely chaotic, I had to set some protective financial boundaries. I cancelled some credit cards and changed some bank accounts to protect our family from a possible manic-induced reckless spending spree.

After a lot of turbulent years, I learned how to create boundaries. My boundary setting (and maintaining) became a way to protect myself against the verbal and emotional abuse that sometimes could come with bouts of Jim’s manic agitations or rages.

If he started getting out of hand with anger, or swearing, or yelling, I’d say something like, “Jim, I know you’re upset and you have every right to be. But I’m not going to listen to this tone of voice, and so when you can calm down we can discuss this civilly. But until then, please leave the room, or I will.”

It wasn’t easy to do that. It took me a long time to be comfortable setting limits on what behavior and words I would or would not accept, but the effort was worth it.

Boundary setting takes experimenting and courage, but it’s vital for both you and your spouse. Your limits may not involve abusive words or behavior. They can cover such areas as spending, house chores, drinking, drug use, and others sources of conflict.

I learned the importance of timing.

When coping with a loved one’s emotional struggles, it is very important to know when to communicate.

There is a lot of irrational thinking going on in a bipolar person’s mania or depression. It helped me to understand that Jim’s moods dictated how and when I communicated with him.

Trying to have a rational, meaningful discussion when a bipolar person is in a psychotic state is nearly impossible.

When that person is manic, it is useless—he or she is too argumentative, agitated, all-knowing, or easily distracted. Having a sensible conversation when your loved one is really manic will be like spitting into the wind. Because of this reality, when Jim was in a manic period, our conversations had to be very limited.

I found that attempting to converse meaningfully with Jim when he was manic was frustrating—and a waste of time. Often, I had to wait until he dropped into a depressed or “neutral” state—when he’d be open to talking without being extra-argumentative or stringing together unrelated topics.

Having a meaningful conversation with a depressed individual can be more fruitful than one who’s manic, but most depressed people don’t want to talk much. If Jim was badly depressed, he’d shut down and avoid interactions with me or anyone else.

I discovered that sometimes I had no other option but to wait until Jim got somewhere into the middle ground before we could have a productive conversation about feelings or decisions that had to be made. It made all the difference in the world when he was able to hone in and concentrate on a conversation.

I found a new career role for my life.

I had to move on with my life, to recharge my emotional batteries from the constant draining of Jim’s ups and downs. Without Jim’s normal income, and now limited to his monthly disability checks, my salary wasn’t enough to support our family’s needs and Jim’s growing medical and counseling bills. I needed to find more meaningful, better-paying work.

For our first two years in California, I worked as an elementary school teacher at a small, nearby Christian school. I enjoyed the work, but teaching had its share of stresses, and the salary was modest. I had to find other employment that could help us better financially. To increase my salary, I worked for the next few years as a secretary in a large company, then took a position as a school secretary.

I liked my elementary teaching and secretarial work, but something was missing. I needed something more fulfilling. I wanted to work directly with people in a spiritual context, doing counseling, speaking, and organizing. So I started on what would be a ten-year journey that finished with me being ordained as a minister.

In 1991, while still working full time, I began taking one class per quarter at Fuller Theological Seminary. Even though I wasn’t sure where or how I’d ultimately use that seminary education, I stuck with my studies.

The courses really resonated with me. They opened my eyes to the possibility of some kind of full-time professional ministry similar to what I was doing part time at my Newport Beach church. All along, Jim was extremely supportive of my academic program and new career direction.

Then, in 1993, the senior minister of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, where my husband had served, offered me a part time position on its staff as visitation minister. I was thrilled! For the next ten years, it enabled me to earn enough income to meet our family’s basic needs, plus get practical experience in ministry and continue my part time studies at Fuller.

I finally graduated from Fuller Seminary in 2001 with a Masters of Divinity, and I went to work full time on the church’s staff with an expanded job description as minister of congregational care. For me, seminary education was a huge help in separating from Jim’s problems and moving ahead with my life.

I made it a priority to keep my own emotional gas tank full.

I believe it’s important for those of us living with a spouse who has a mental illness to find things that fill us, encourage us, and make us want to move on and enjoy life. These may be leisure pursuits, a new career, or volunteer work.

If I burned out with caregiving, or got depressed over my situation, Jim and our sons would suffer. So I had to push myself to do things that were fun, meaningful, and distracting from my daily pressures: regular exercise, movies, concerts, phone conversations with friends, and other positive activities.

For you, finding emotional fulfillment may not mean a career or education change. It might be experimenting with a new interest, or taking some community college courses you’ve always been interested in. But you’ve got to do something to fill your own gas tank and have something that you look forward to doing.

Note: This is an excerpt from my book, Mental Illness and Your Marriage. To find out more, please click here.


Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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