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“I had a manic episode when I was 20,” he said, looking me in the eye as we both played nervously with our beers.
It wasn’t a typical first date, and I’ll admit his confession surprised me. But we were each delighted to be sitting across the table from someone who wasn’t presenting a glorified image of themselves.
Two months later, I went with him to his psychiatrist. For me, it was a chance to understand what it’s like inside his mind and to find out how a professional approached his health. For him, it was a risk to let me in to the reality that living with bipolar is an eternal balancing act. His first manic episode was the only one, but there had been some deep depressions in the dozen years since. He would be on a cocktail of medication for the rest of his life. And he’s constantly sorting out the puzzle of his brain and his heart.
For him, a happy day is rarely simply happy – there is an element of fear, the looming question of whether this is the precursor of mania. And dark days are plentiful. Too plentiful, which is why he keeps reaching for happiness. He would be more likely to say stability: Steadiness, firm ground for his mind to stand on, that’s the goal.
I often forget that all this is just under the surface. He is a gregarious man, the sort to strike up conversations with bartenders, waiters and store clerks. He’s a doer, impatient with my detail-oriented questions, and always ready with another set of dreams and ideas. And he’s soft-hearted, holding me close and stroking my back when I cry about the things that are too much.
Our romance caught us both by surprise. We fell hard for each other, creating solace for hearts that were tired. We laid all our cards on the table, looked at them together, looked at each other and decided this was a hand we wanted to play out. We started talking about marriage.
But a few weeks after we had agreed we were in, he decided to get out.
“It’s not fair to you,” he said. I didn’t understand the weight of what he lived with: There would always be the possibility of a manic episode – wild spending, irrational decisions, even delusions. There was the “minor” depression he’d been living with for the past several months, and always the chance it would get deeper. It was too much to ask of me.
“This is not your decision to make!” I yelled, tears sneaking out. “You don’t get to protect me. You don’t get to decide what is too much for me. I get to decide that. And I have decided that you are not too much.”
“How can you marry someone with bipolar?” he retorted. “My life is complicated. There are a lot of risks.”
“Every relationship is a risk!” I yelled. “Even if I married someone without a mental diagnosis, it could always happen later. There are no guarantees! Mental-health issues happen to anyone, any time. Bipolar doesn’t define you. It’s just a part of the deal. And it’s a deal I want.” We both cried that night.
I’m no superwoman. Some days, it’s overwhelming and terrifying. I fear every bad day will turn into a string of bad days, that he won’t be able to get out of bed or work at the job he loves. Sometimes, his moods confuse me and I can’t figure out what he wants or needs. He has energy to burn late at night when I’m profoundly sleepy. I nag, reminding him to order his meds before he finds himself pill-less at midnight. I wonder when I should call in the cavalry, and who exactly that cavalry is.
In most ways, he’s a very normal sort of person and we have very normal days. We laugh, we dream, we talk and we fight. His laundry is everywhere. I worry too much. He wants to unwind on his own after work. I have a million stories to share from my day. He cooks with too much oil and salt. I don’t get enough meat when I grocery shop. He’s someone who gives space for my feelings, who isn’t afraid when I tell him what I need. He encourages me to speak up and often notices my internal struggles before I do because he’s learned to pay attention to his own.
He’s compassionate toward strangers, friends and family members who live with varying degrees of mental illness. “If I didn’t have a good family, a good support system, that could be me,” he tells me after he stops to talk with Walter, a regular panhandler in our neighbourhood.
We’re married now, and I asked him recently if he’s afraid that our children might inherit his disorder.
“Not any more,” he told me, “because of what you said – mental-health issues happen to anyone, any time. We can’t live in fear. Maybe our kids will have bipolar, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll have some other struggle. But they’ll be our kids, and we’ll love them, support them and care for them as best we can.”
I am in love with a man who has bipolar disorder. I cannot imagine a man better suited to care for me, encourage me and challenge me. There’s no one else I trust as deeply. I’m grateful for our life together, with all its complexities and the ever-present attentiveness to his well-being. And if we have children some day, I’m not worried they might share their dad’s mental diagnosis. Mostly, I just hope they inherit his heart.
E. Fisher lives in Toronto.