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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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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Tetris Soothes Psychological Trauma

November 14, 2010

Every year at my dad’s office Christmas party, my sister and I would beg his secretary to let us play Tetris on her computer. We could play it on a Game Boy anytime we wanted, but that was in black and white. On her computer: glorious color.

After about the age of 13, I didn’t play Tetris for many years. In high school, Sim City was my video game of choice. In college, I discovered computerized Solitaire. A few years ago, I became obsessed with digital Scrabble.

A couple of months before John’s breakdown, I rediscovered Tetris. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, he was working a lot, and even when he was home on the weekend, he was often obsessed with work. I needed to find things to do to occupy my time. A Web search for “free Tetris” bore fruit, so I played the occasional game here and there.

But when John went into the hospital and my anxiety was so high that I lost seven pounds in a week eating the exact same amount of food as usual (I know because I weigh and measure all my meals as part of my Twelve Step recovery), Solitaire didn’t help, Scrabble didn’t help, and I didn’t even have access to Sim City.

No, the only thing that helped calm my anxiety and prevented me from reliving the weekend prior to John’s hospitalization over and over again in my mind was a combination of mindless TV and Tetris.

In light of some new research released by Oxford University, I don’t think this was an accident.

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Future Tripping about the Baby, Birth, and Bipolar

November 11, 2010

For eleven years now, I’ve recognized the benefits of taking things one day at a time, not dwelling on the past or getting lost in dreams/nightmares about the future. This was a particularly helpful practice when John was in the hospital, “floridly psychotic,”* but before anyone could give us any indication of the cause.

At that time in my life, I had to be exceedingly mindful of staying in the present, because it was easy—it was ridiculously easy—to let my thoughts wander back to the two days leading up to his hospitalization and berate myself for not catching the fact that something was amiss sooner. He’d been saying strange things all weekend, but I’d just chalked it up to stress.

It was also easy to get caught up in worry about what might be coming down the pike. Would the medications work? Would he get better? Would he be paranoid and delusional for the rest of his life?

One morning, maybe the second or third morning he was in the hospital, I got out of the shower and started to sob in the bathroom. There was a strong possibility my husband had schizophrenia, and I was terrified.

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What My Husband’s Bipolar Breakdown Taught Me about Bulimia

October 14, 2010

Seeing my husband suffer from a severe psychotic episode gave me a new appreciation of the fact that when I was binging and purging, I had truly been mentally ill.

This may sound strange. After all, bulimia is classified as a mental illness in the DSM-IV, and for six years (1993-1999) I binged and purged as many as four times a day. I saw nutritionists. I saw therapists. I wasn’t stupid; I knew something was wrong.

But here’s the thing: I always understood why I was engaging in insane behavior like sticking my fingers down my throat, sitting in freezing cold baths, and trying to burn off my tastebuds.

It made sense to me to ingest fake Russian steroids, stick a weight-loss patch on my arm, and spend four hours a day at the gym. I was under the impression that when I got thin, my life would be perfect, so everything I did was designed to help me lose weight.

My actions always seemed perfectly logical to me.

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