The cover story of the most recent issue of BPHope magazine features several couples who live with bipolar disorder. In the “Power of Two,” writer Barbara Boughton does an exceptional job of pulling together nuggets from different two-somes on ways they manage a mental illness together. The handsome couple that graces the front cover, Heather Tobin and Ken Lambert (at left), are friends of mine, and co-conspirators with me of trying to making a marriage work when creative brain wiring wants to tear it apart. Since I knew there was much more to their story than BP was able to cover, I thought I’d interview Heather on the details of keeping a marriage strong despite her bipolar disorder.
You say in the BP article that your husband knows when to give you space and when to hug. How does Ken know when to do each?
Heather: It has taken 11 years we have been together to really get to that point. And some days are easier than others for certain! When I am extremely irritable and hypomanic, Ken knows that hugging me at that point would be like trying to embrace a Tasmanian devil. I can lash out and be absolutely nasty, and space is what is necessary for the both of us when this occurs. Man caves are especially needed for dealing with a bipolar wife! Ken knows when I need a big hug usually when I am curled up under my blankets in fetal position crying or very quiet and verbally unresponsive. This is during the depressive swing where I truly get quite catatonic. A hug helps enormously then because I am so disconnected. After so many years, Ken knows my patterns; when to stay close and when to take that space.
How should couples communicate what they need in terms of support? Some people need a lot of space, while others need tons of affection, right?
Heather: As far as couples communicating what they need as far as support, I find it crucial to understand what type of communicator you each are and then learn how to compromise and respect each other’s communication type. If you are a big verbal communicator, for example and find it therapeutic to talk it out, but your partner is quiet and more non verbal, it’s important to recognize these differences! Absolutely, Therese, some people need a lot of latitude to process and giving your loved one that space can be a form of support in of itself. Other people really need that affection to be lifted up and reassured. Learning how to best support each other is a learning curve for sure!
You have an agreement that you and Ken will promptly address any worrisome symptoms. What does that mean? Does he give you three mornings of walking around in your pajamas before he says anything to you, or do you tell him the moment you feel it coming on? Any specific rules you two abide by?
Heather: Ken and I do “try” to keep to an agreement that if any worrisome symptoms crop up, we will address them. As life is imperfect, sometimes we are better at this than at other times! However, there are major red flags in my behavior that cannot be ignored, such as days and days going by without me getting out of bed. If the “to-do list white board” he set up in my room goes “undone” for a week and I seem listless and unmotivated, Ken tells me I’m slipping down and to call my therapist fast! I usually start talking about death and dying and the apocalypse nonstop too, so that’s a huge red flag!
Oh, and then there is the manic flip side like this past Christmas when I went crazy on eBay and bought 17 miniature antique goat sculptures claiming some lady I knew at the consignment shop wanted to buy them! She wanted one! I then proceeded to buy an entire farm load of miniature clay barn animals! Big, big, big red flag when this kind of spending happens, and Ken must step in! The rule is: call the therapist immediately and be honest about my behaviors and emotions. So I do, as I know my behavior is hurting Ken, too. I feel terrible about that a lot!
What are some of the mistakes that you’ve made together in your marriage that have backfired in terms of dealing with your bipolar disorder?
Heather: The biggest mistakes we have made along the way in this marriage denial, avoidance, and disconnection in dealing with the bipolar disorder. At times I had been so depressed and unresponsive it was easier for us (so we thought) to act as if nothing was wrong. It’s that magical thinking, that if you just keep ignoring and avoiding the elephant in the room, it will go away. But as we know, that bipolar elephant will not be ignored and can tear down a marriage faster than a herd on a rainforest ransack! The mistakes of denial and avoidance only built walls and ultimately had us at various times in a state of resentment and disconnection. I think the fact that our marriage has survived all of our many mistakes in dealing with my bipolar is pretty miraculous sometimes! But, I think it is a true testament to our deep love for each other that we have remained together for over a decade. A sense of humor is so important!
What are some pointers, some successes you and Ken have shared, that might be beneficial for other couples?
Heather: Ken and I would suggest, that in order to get through the trying times of bipolar episodes in a marriage, make sure you show each other through actions and honest communication how much you treasure and love each other. Laughter is also something that is so important! Yes, bipolar, as you know, Therese, is a serious illness, but the humor helps so much, especially in a marriage. I mean to this day Ken and I laugh at all of those goat sculptures I bought manically! Or when I painted the toilet seats to match the walls and my butt was blue for days. Also, it’s so important for couples to plan times to get out for dinner, a nice hike, a movie, whatever each week. Time together enjoying life is really what it’s about, whether you are a couple dealing with bipolar or not. And finally, remember that it’s easy to be the designated sick person in a couple if you are the bipolar one. However, as a couple, try not to label one another. Ultimately each partner in a successful marriage has so much to offer and share.