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When Both You and Your Spouse Have Mental Illness

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A woman with depression and a man with bipolar disorder got married.

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it is my reality.

I didn’t go looking for this relationship. Honestly, after the end of a previous relationship that was abusive in many ways, I had sworn off of love entirely. I especially hadn’t been planning to fall in love with someone else who had a lifelong struggle with their own mental health because I know how much of a handful I can be with mine, and I thoroughly imagined twice the mental illness would mean twice the headache. Yet here we are.

Some people might imagine our marriage to be the product of apex joke development, due in large part to the fact that the stigma surrounding mental illness has turned the condition largely into a joke for so long, but I assure you in many ways our marriage is just like any other. We butt heads sometimes, have the same types of silly squabbles, and the same blissful make-up sessions afterwards where we snuggle into each other and try to make everything right in the world again.

That’s not to say that our marriage does not face its challenges resulting directly from our diagnoses.

I am the depressed one.

I find myself apologizing all the time. It isn’t that I am some major screwup who is doing everything and anything wrong. My depression just makes me feel like everything is my fault. His computer isn’t working right — I apologize. It looks like the storm that was supposed to miss our area will be hitting us after all — I apologize. He went to get a glass of milk and it seems to have soured — I apologize. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I feel partially, if not wholly, responsible for everything that goes wrong. My brain rationalizes that maybe his computer fans are clogged with dust and causing it to overheat but if I dusted more, it wouldn’t have happened. My brain tells myself I should have checked multiple weather forecasts or found a more reliable one, and then maybe we would have known about the storm. My brain rationalizes that I should pre-emptively check the milk more often, replace it more often, so he never has to be subjected to sour milk. I tear myself apart over all of the shoulda, woulda, couldas that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen before they happened.

Another part of me knows none of it was my fault. Machines sometimes malfunction, meteorologists aren’t always reliable in their predictions, and milk sometimes goes bad. Part of me knows all of that was beyond my control, but the voice of my depression is booming, and in a snarky way it always asks, “but is it though?” It plants a kernel of doubt that compels me to apologize anyway. I need reminders sometimes, especially when my apologizing gets out of control, that it isn’t my fault.

I take a lot of things personally that I honestly shouldn’t.

The manic aspect of my husband’s bipolar sometimes causes him to become hyper-focused. Whether it is fixing something, playing something or building something, there will sometimes be a few days where he barely sleeps and would forget to eat if I didn’t put food right in front of him. I know he has very little control of those manic periods beyond giving himself focused purpose during those times, and I know I am not at all to blame for his diagnosis, but my depression still plants little kernels of doubt in my mind. I find myself wondering if he didn’t want to come to bed because of something I did. I wonder if I unknowingly did something to trigger his manic side. I wonder whether I’m not doing enough to help him. I wonder why he’s even with me at all. My depression plants the seed, then takes the reins and steers me right out into left field, where somehow my husband’s medical diagnosis is not only my fault, but I’m also to blame that it didn’t magically get better and disappear when we got together.

The depression aspect of my husband’s bipolar sometimes leads him down a path where he feels the need to vent about aspects of his life he is not happy over. He often gets on a roll, jumping from topic to topic, just to get it all off of his chest. Though the vast majority of what he has honed in on has nothing to do with me specifically, I often take it personally because in my mind, since we’re married, his life is our life. I feel like I’ve failed him as a wife because his life with me isn’t continuous bliss. I know on some level that it is ridiculous, that nobody’s life is perfect, but whenever he starts to vent and complain, my mind immediately jumps to “he’s struggling because he is with me” and “he deserves better than me.” They are lies my depression has been spewing out in different variations my entire life — that I am not worthy.

We’re honestly both insecure when it comes to that. We both struggle to accept compliments, assuming they’re never sincere and others are only trying to be nice. We both sometimes find ourselves asking “why?” in response to an “I love you” and needing reassurance that we’re wanted, needed, loved. Because for our whole lives depression has told us otherwise.

At times, I am overly emotional.  Little spats sometimes feel life-shattering and world-ending. There’s times I just curl up into a ball in bed and ugly cry, snot bubbles and all, because my heart aches so badly. After the fact, I can admit that I may have overreacted, but in the moment I feel so deeply raw and broken.

There’s times this flood of emotions hits so hard and fast that my husband isn’t even sure what is even wrong. One moment, I may seem fine to him, and the next I am off in bed, sobbing. He’ll bring me a handful of tissues, rub my back, tell me he loves me and wait for the tsunami to end.

Other times, I find myself completely numb and indifferent to the world. On those days, the world feels bogged down and heavy, and even the simplest of tasks feels like running a marathon. An Eeyore-esque “why bother even trying if it all feels so hard?” mantra reverberates in my mind. I know there’s things I should be doing, but even the smallest hills to climb feel like insurmountable mountains. I struggle to get moving, get focused, do anything at all. The worst are the days when that numbness hits us both at once. On those days, the dishes and laundry pile up and nothing seems to get done because we have caught ourselves a case of the doldrums. We sometimes declare those days a “F*** It Day” and shift our focus to self-care and survival, with the goal of just making it through the day together.

There are admittedly a lot of ways my depression negatively affects my marriage. But honestly it isn’t all bad. Because we both have struggled with our mental health for a long time, we are better able to communicate to each other how we are feeling, even if it turns out to be somewhat irrational or over the top. We also are learning to recognize the signs that what we are feeling is being caused by our mental illness and isn’t reality. Perhaps most importantly, we are able to talk openly and honestly about what is going on in our heads without judgment, even if it is completely irrational to be feeling the way that we are, because we both understand what it is like to live with a mental illness. In each other, we have found a level of acceptance, understanding, compassion and empathy that neither of us have ever experienced before.

We not only regularly do individual counseling, but couples counseling as well.  It isn’t that we have a ton of issues in our marriage or with each other. Couples counseling gives us a place to discuss the problems we are facing together, and to more critically and empathically evaluate after the fact things we may be seeing differently. We cannot change our respective diagnoses, but we are doing our best to face them head on together, for better or worse.

In so many ways, we’re just like other couples. We curl up together, bingewatching shows and eating foods we probably shouldn’t — though admittedly they’re both too good to pass up.  We laugh, we joke, we love, we fight, we make up, we live. We’re just also both doing our best to navigate this world together with disabilities that at times can feel overwhelming and overbearing.

A woman with depression and a man with bipolar disorder got married. I am the depressed one. On the surface, it may seem like a recipe for disaster, but through communication and love, we somehow make it work.

Getty image by Alevtina Zainutdinova

Originally published: September 2, 2021
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