Reprinted from "Couples" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (4), p.17
I’ve been with my husband Gord for 14 years and married to him for eight. Nine years before I met him, I was diagnosed with my mental-illness trifecta: bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis. It took me five years to actually accept that I had mental illness. So when I met Gord, I’d had about four years of recovery under my belt.
Telling the person you’re dating about your mental illness isn’t like admitting you’re left-handed, or even vegetarian. You can’t casually say, “Oh yeah, by the way I don’t eat meat, but I have had a couple of psychotic breaks.” Well you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Not on the first date.
When I was in the initial stages of recovery and first started dating, I went through a misguided phase of “honesty is the best policy.” I was so honest that I’d spill the beans—not on a first date, because there usually wasn’t one—but when I’d meet a guy at a party. It was like I was at an AA meeting (except no one else was): “Hi, my name’s Victoria and I have mental illness.” Didn’t leave the kind of first impression I was aiming for.
No one wants to admit it, but there’s only so much listening, so much support a partner can do and give. Mental illness—severe depression, in particular—has a cutthroat way of dismantling empathy. The self-loathing I battled while depressed was the unwanted third party in my relationship. Like acid, it slowly dissolved my connections.
'Surfing' the currents...
Gord and I cuddle, watch movies and make meals together. We also argue, worry about our future and complain about relatives. Blessedly, our relationship is like any ‘normal’ long-term relationship.
With mania, my electric anger and unpredictable behaviour created not only fear, but resentment. The newness of each relationship couldn’t bear such extreme stress. Even the best, most well-established relationships have difficulty weathering such storms.
When I dated Peter,** I was wrestling with both acute symptoms and denial of my illnesses. One day, we were in the sardine-can-sized living room of Peter’s walk-up apartment. He said something harmless, but I was in the throes of mania—pressured speech, flight of ideas, anger co-mingling—and his comment seemed like a gauntlet thrown down in challenge. I yelled something back. Wide-eyed, Peter tried to calm me down. (Note to partners: Do not say “calm down” to someone who needs to calm down, especially if that someone is in a florid mania. It will have the exact opposite effect you intend it to have.) He moved closer. I yelled louder. And pushed him, with both hands full force on his wagon-wide chest, yelling even more loudly and with more vitriol.
We’d been seeing each other for only a few weeks. He had been so kind and so tolerant, but this aggressiveness was not okay. Nor should it ever be. When I became more lucid, Peter told me not to call him anymore and said I wouldn’t be hearing from him.
I’d like to think if I had prepared him, had told him what kind of behaviours might occur, the relationship might’ve lasted longer. But that’s expecting a lot of someone in the new stages of a relationship.
So when I met Gord on a film set (me, a movie stand-in; him a lighting operator), I played things smooth. Okay, smooth isn’t exactly how you’d have described me, but I did decide to do things differently.
Doing it differently was easier than it had been in prior years. I was now more adept at managing my illnesses. And the episodes I did deal with were infrequent and far less severe. I wasn’t afraid that my illness would implode relationships, like it had in the past.
With Gord, I had a modicum of recovery, few symptoms, and as a result, some confidence. I didn’t feel like I was at the mercy of my mental illness, so was less afraid it would do me in. Overall, the more comfortable I am with my mental illness, the less likely others will feel awkward.
Telling Gord was still nerve-racking though. I liked him. This could be a deal breaker. But, if the relationship was going to become something more, I owed it to him and to myself to be authentic.
What gave me the signal that it was okay to share something so intimate with him? He had taken the lead and divulged something almost as vulnerable—something I’ve held close to my heart and chest ever since. Gord was willing to take an emotional risk. And I didn’t run away. I followed suit and hoped he’d stick around too.
A few dates in, after dinner, we were lying on our stomachs, head to head on a grassy knoll outside a waterfront market. I thought I’d swallowed my tongue. All moisture in my mouth had completely vanished and seemed to be making my nose run. Oh god, oh god. Just spit it out!
“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder awhile ago.” I decided to hold off on the psychotic part. Then I added, “Thought you should know.” I nodded once, abruptly. This was not how I’d rehearsed it.
A few words from Gord
It’s a big thing to let someone else monitor your behaviour. Victoria lets me do this. I can freely say when I see mania or depression. This is not something we actively agreed on; it evolved organically out of the tenderness and caring we have for each other. It keeps me involved and gives me a sense of being a support and part of her wellness. It’s not always fun to hear that you’re a bit “spazzy,” as we jokingly call the effect of her hypomania, but Victoria appreciates being told and knows I’m doing so in a loving way.
One thing I’ve had to cope with is concern about the reliance on medication. My fear is that one day a heartless drug company will stop producing the almost-magic drugs that help keep Victoria stable. If I could buy a 20-year supply, I would.
He looked at me: “What, like a mental illness? You seem pretty normal to me.”
Is that a good thing? I asked myself. Yes. Yes, it is. I think.
“Well, I’d like to think I am.” That’s a solid, ‘normal’ response, right? “And I take medication for it.” Crap. Maybe that wasn’t necessary.
Gord pursed his lips. “Why? You don’t seem like you need medication.”
I tried to wring some moisture out of my tongue, which seemed to have become a dried-up towel. “Well, that’s probably because it’s working. Because most of the stuff I do is working: exercising, eating healthily, getting lots of sleep, seeing a counsellor...”
What was happening? I couldn’t stop my mouth from blurting out the... Truth. Aaaggghh! As I obliviously babbled along, he moved closer and kissed me.
He told me he didn’t really care, that I seemed fine, and really, it was a bigger deal that I didn’t have a car and lived in North Vancouver, because he’d have to drive me home all the time. Seriously. He said that.
Gord was spared my most outrageous and frightening behaviours. No psychoses, no psych wards. He met me first, not the illness.
I still ride waves of minor ups and downs, and Gord rides them with me. Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has a great quote: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Over the course of our relationship, we’ve created ways to help each other surf the currents of the sometimes calm, sometimes wild bipolar waters (see sidebar).
*Bachelor of Fine Arts/Bipolar Princess
About the author
Victoria is a sought-after speaker on the lived experience of mental illness, recovery and dismantling stigma. She lives with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis, and for over 14 years has presented one-woman stage shows and workshops across North America. She lives with her husband Gord on the Sunshine Coast. www.victoriamaxwell.com