By Elizabeth Forbes
If only life came with a reset button. One push and voilà: Relationships unraveled by the behaviors of bipolar disorder would knit themselves back together.
Of course, it's not that easy to mend what's broken-but it's not impossible, either. What bipolar symptoms put asunder, effort and understanding may repair.
Not all rifts can be mended, and sometimes letting go of the relationship is the best way to move forward. Yet healing can happen through a commitment to self-care on one side, education and acceptance on the other, and lots of communication to work through hurt, anger and fear.
When Barbara B., 53, and her husband, Gary, 57, separated after nearly 15 years of marriage, she was pretty sure the split would be permanent. Gary's escalating bursts of rage, coupled with a growing emotional distance felt by both partners, had eroded the El Cerrito, California couple's bond to a thread.
Both mania and depression often leave those with bipolar "unable to interact with the people around them," explains Mamdouh El-Adl, MD, MRCPsych, an assistant professor in the Psychiatry Department at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and a clinician and researcher at the Providence Care Mood Disorder Research and Treatment Service.
"They don't seem interested in maintaining the relationship, and this can be misperceived by other people," he says.
Before Gary got his diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar I, Barbara interpreted his out-of-touch reactions to her problems as impatience and lack of sympathy, especially after her father died in 2003. When Barbara had to store boxes of her father's belongings in the garage, for example, Gary complained there was no room for his car.
That sense of disconnection deepened in the months that followed, just as the angry tirades Gary directed at Barbara were getting more frequent and more extreme. Looking back, Gary sees a combination of causes: extreme stress at work; disturbed rest from untreated sleep apnea; and antidepressants he was taking for unipolar depression, diagnosed a few years earlier. Getting an accurate diagnosis, which happened shortly after they separated in 2004, opened the door for real improvement-and for the couple's reconciliation two years later.
As someone with a mood disorder herself-she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in her 20s-and with a background in psychology through her work as a medical writer, Barbara didn't see the bipolar diagnosis itself as a deal-breaker. The key for her was whether Gary was getting treated for the illness.
"I was really impressed with how Gary made a lot of effort to get better," she recalls. "He was really good about medication. If any symptoms cropped up, like depression, he would talk to his psychiatrist about it. He became much more emotionally engaged once he was treated."…
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