Can a Marriage with Mental Illness Survive a Symptom Cop Spouse?

April 7, 2011

A few weeks ago, the Weightless blog published an interview with Susan Schulherr, author of EATING DISORDERS FOR DUMMIES, in which she explains the distinction between a symptom cop—someone who tries to control your symptoms—and a truly supportive friend or family member. The interview, of course, focuses on eating disorders, but it got me thinking about how to best offer support to a spouse with any type mental illness.

Being in recovery for an eating disorder myself, and being married to a man with bipolar disorder, I have experience with this issue from both sides of the fence. Interestingly, when I was in the thick of my illness—bingeing and purging multiple times a day—I didn’t think I’d recover unless I was being monitored/controlled by a symptom cop.

I daydreamed about getting locked up on eating disorder ward, joining the army, even going to jail—all because I imagined that in those places, finally, with someone else dictating what and when and how much I ate, I would lose weight and be okay.

At one point, I tried to enlist my mother as a symptom cop. I told her that having sweet foods in the house was bad for me. She understood, and stopped buying them. Of course, that pissed me off, and in the end, it only served to reinforce my sneaky behavior around food.

In my experience, relying on someone else to fix you never works.

When it’s your spouse who suffers from a mental illness, however, it’s hard to remember this fact.

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Mental Illness, Misdiagnosis, and Forgiveness

February 17, 2011

About a year ago, I had a terrible, two-week anxiety attack. My eyelids twitched constantly, I couldn’t sleep without serious pharmaceutical assistance, and—in lieu of a heartbeat—cold-winged butterflies beat around in my chest.

At first, I wasn’t sure what had triggered my anxiety. I’d experienced one similar episode about six months earlier, after starting a new job (I didn’t work for nine months after John’s hospitalization) and having a confrontation with a woman at one of my Twelve Step meetings. I chalked that experience up to nerves around the new job and a fear of conflict, and I didn’t think too much about it after the anxiety went away.

The second time it happened, though, I had to dig a little deeper to figure out what was really going on. And the truth was, I was still traumatized by the fact that my husband had been misdiagnosed after all my efforts to communicate what was happening with his psychiatrist.

The worst night of my life, in fact, occurred two days after said psychiatrist—Dr. Black—decreased John’s dose of Risperdal, and then proceeded to tell him that she “wasn’t that concerned” as his psychosis escalated and I pleaded with him to return to the hospital.

After my husband went back to the hospital, I was furious. I had trusted his psychiatrist. I had assumed that, because she had much more experience with mental illness than I did, she knew what she was doing when she ignored my calls and input.

I had, of course, assumed wrong.

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Happy News (about the Baby) that Made Me Sad (about Bipolar)

February 2, 2011

I started thinking about babies when John and I moved to the West Coast three and a half years ago. John wasn’t quite on the same page; he wanted some time to establish himself at his new company. He wanted some time to settle into our new life.

About two and a half years ago, we had a bit of a scare that left me thinking—briefly—that I might be pregnant. When I learned that I wasn’t, I was disappointed. I said as much to John, but once again, he wanted to wait. He wanted to make sure his company was stable and his future there secure.

To be honest, his reluctance to start a family pissed me off. It made me feel as though what I wanted was less important than what he wanted for his career.

So I got passive-aggressive.

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Being the Weak One

December 12, 2010

Last Sunday night at 11:00 pm, I woke up with a bad stomachache. I’d been having minor stomach pains at night for a few days prior to Sunday, but I wrote them off as some kind of normal, pregnancy-related thing.

Anyway, I got up that night and sat on the living room couch for an hour or so, to see if being upright would help the pain go away. It didn’t, so I woke up John around midnight and told him what was going on.

He phoned the on-call OB, who told us to go to the hospital to have everything checked out “just in case.” Before we left, I threw up.

On the labor and delivery floor, I got hooked up to two monitors: one to measure the baby’s heartbeat, and one to see if I was having contractions. Everything looked normal, and the nurse suggested it was probably just a case of food poisoning. Before she took us down the ER, I vomited again.

As soon as we got into the ER, they slapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm. My blood pressure was 70/35, and all of a sudden, there was a whirlwind of activity around us. People hoisting me onto a gurney, drawing blood, inserting an IV drip into the crook of my elbow. I threw up again, and then again.

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Surviving Trauma in Your Marriage

December 6, 2010

Seeing your spouse suffer is a terrible thing. You want to make things better. You want to take away the hurt.

So much of the time, though, you can’t. Or at least not fast enough, and not to the degree you’d like.

A recent post on Marriage Gems references the book HEALING TOGETHER: A COUPLE’S GUIDE TO COPING WITH TRAUMA AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. Marriage Gems quotes the authors of the book as saying, “Trauma puts up a wall that for a time locks a couple out of their familiar world and leaves them frozen in the traumatic event. Suddenly there is no past, and the future feels impossible.”

God, can I relate.

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Love, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

November 8, 2010

As a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t want marriage, I didn’t want kids, I didn’t want a family. In reality, I was afraid I’d never get them, so I tried to deny the desire, cut it off at the root before it blossomed into something I couldn’t control.

Fat, bulimic, and depressed, I didn’t think I was attractive enough to find a man. I didn’t think I was good enough to have a family. If people really knew me, I reasoned, they wouldn’t like me. Why should they? I sure as hell didn’t.

When I met John, I’d been in recovery for four years. I’d stopped doing things that made me hate myself, and I’d gone back and cleared up the wreckage from my past. I knew that I deserved good things, and I wasn’t afraid to admit I wanted them.

It sounds cheesy, but I was ready to fall in love.

When John and I married three years later, I spent the day in a blaze of happiness. I felt blessed, and I prayed only that, whether John and I experienced times of joy or heartache, our love and commitment to each other would remain strong and be used as a foundation to help others.

I never imagined that bipolar disorder would be God’s answer to my prayer.

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Being the Strong One

October 7, 2010

A recent post by Therese Borchard contained a beautiful Biblical verse, a portion of which reads, “To everything there is a season… a time to break down, and a time to build up…” It reminded me of something my mother said to me when John was in and out of the psych ward: “You take turns being strong in a marriage. This is your turn.”

At the time, I was scared that John would never recover, and that I’d have to be the strong one for the rest of our lives. Fortunately, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

But looking back, I can see that as my husband was breaking down, I was building him up. When he was sick, I advocated for his recovery. I took care of paying the medical bills, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and communicating with his employer about his eventual return to work.

It was sort of a yin/yang kind of thing: I took care of the details of everyday life so he had the space to get well.

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