Bipolar. For some people, few words muster up as much emotion. Books and movies like “The Silver Linings Playbook” show the challenges faced by people with bipolar disporder and the people who love them. According to the Black Dog Institute, “Bipolar disorder is the name used to describe a set of ‘mood swing’ conditions, the most severe form of which used to be called ‘manic depression’.” Bipolar I is the more severe form, where individuals are predisposed towards mania, have longer episodes of mania, and are more likely to have psychotic experiences which may lead to hospitalisation. Bipolar II occurs in individuals with a less severe form of mania referred to as hypomania, but without the psychotic element.
I’ve interviewed a writer with Bipolar Type 1, Sara (pen name) and her husband, Ali (pen name), who is not bipolar. I’ve also interviewed Tamara Redfern, Sara’s life coach, who also is bipolar. Tamara has been married for almost eighteen years and is a mother of two. I’d like to thank all of them for their honesty and courage.
1. What is it like to be married to someone who is bipolar?
Sara: I’m so glad the first year is over! I used to take my husband’s negative emotions so personally when it had nothing to do with me. I’m getting better at managing my moods, and Ali has been really grounding. I’ve helped him open up and talk about his emotions, too.
Ali: The beginning of our marriage was fun yet difficult. It took me a while to get used to a person who needed a lot of care – be it therapy, life coaching, or a good GP. The first six months were the hardest as I was still recognising patterns and triggers and also understanding what were the appropriate responses. It eventually got easier, especially once I learnt the tell-tale signs. I think I’m slowly getting better at working together with my wife.
Tamara: Being married and having bipolar (disorder) are both challenges and blessings in their own right. They both have strengthened me in knowledge and understanding of myself and my faith. Throughout the highs and the lows of each, I realise that all I really have is Allah. He is whom I cry to when I’m down and out with nowhere to turn in my marriage or in my journey with bipolar (disorder), and when I’m feeling like I’m on top of the world. It is His blessing that I am married to an understanding and supportive man who accepts me and doesn’t look at my bipolar (disorder) as a flaw. It’s just a part of what makes me Tamara. Masha Allah, it’s a major blessing to have someone like that in your life. He’s not like a parent or a sibling who loves you yet doesn’t have to deal with you every day.
2. What fears did you have concerning having bipolar disorder, and being married?
Sara: I’m afraid of having a manic episode and hurting my husband and children, but I don’t even have any kids yet! To prepare for motherhood, I’m weaning off my medication under the supervision of my psychiatrist. So far, so good. When my fears start getting out of hand, I reach out to my loved ones, life coach, or therapist. Ultimately, giving everything back to Allah is the lasting remedy for all of my worries.
Ali: My earliest fears were any exaggerated responses to a situation. She was once upset and said that she wanted a hammer so she could smash things. My immediate response was to hide the hammer and all similar tools. Months later, when she was calmer, I told her what I did and she laughed.
Tamara: I worry that I may forget who I am and not remember certain aspects of my life. I’m always fearful that maybe during an episode I might do something that is totally uncharacteristic and embarrass my family.
3. How did you and your spouse work together to manage your moods?
Sara: Before marriage my family was the second line of defence, and I was the first. Now, I’m still the first line of defence, and my husband is the second. He’s mastered the art of gently yet firmly letting me know when I need to look after myself.
Ali: We talked through a lot of her different ups and downs and learned to deal with it. I learned things like during cold weather she needed warming comfort food. I gradually developed a list of ways to manage her moods that included telling her to take a nap, specific foods, giving her alone time, or reaching out to family.
Tamara: My husband and I work together to manage my moods by being vigilant on the fluctuations and by paying attention to my triggers and cycles. The main key is knowing yourself and your mood cycle because you are your first line of defence. Your husband is there and he’s your backup, but he is not able to watch your every mood and to notice all the details of what’s going on in your life on a day-to-day basis. Be honest with each other. If you are not feeling well, let him know ASAP. Accept his advice on any behaviour modifications and know that it’s coming from a place of love.
4. What kind of stigma did you face, and how have you overcome that?
Sara: On the one hand, bipolar is seen as ‘sexy,’ but when it comes to issues like’ bipolar rage’ it’s scary. There’s also a cultural stigma surrounding mental illness, which prevents a lot of people from getting the right type of help. Because of that, most members of both our extended families have no idea that I have bipolar (disorder). Sometimes I feel that’s safer so they won’t jump to incorrect conclusions or go into denial. Other times, I feel like it’s not something to be ashamed of. Bipolar (disorder) has a large genetic component, so part of me feels like the rest of my cousins should know in case their children develop symptoms. The first two years of my mood swings were terrible because I had no idea what was happening to me.
Ali: I’m still overcoming this. My extended family have no idea she has bipolar (disorder).
Tamara: I’d have to say that the only stigma I really face has been self-imposed. For the first 15 years of my bipolar journey I tried to hide it from my children. Like many women, my onset was post-partum, so I never wanted them to feel that something was wrong with them or that they caused me to become sick. Once they became teenagers and I could no longer hide the mood swings and I had a manic episode, we had a long discussion in my recovery. Now they understand a part of who I am and actually try to help avoid my triggers. Masha Allah they really understand way more than I gave them credit for!
5. What advice do you have for any couple going through the bipolar journey?
Sara: Be patient with each other. Often the spouse with bipolar (disorder) tends to be harder on him/herself when both spouses are equally important halves of the marriage. Remember to do fun things together! Most of all, keep turning to Allah. He gave bipolar (disorder) to me out of His wisdom, and it’s taught me a lot, including how to be kinder to myself and others.
Ali: You need to connect your state with a higher purpose and know that Allah Ta’ala has placed you in this state for a reason. Use this to find closeness to Allah and to turn to Him for support. For me, being married to someone with bipolar (disorder) is my means to success in the next world.
Tamara: The best advice I can give to anyone who’s going through the bipolar journey is to consistently and constantly rely upon Allah. Bipolar (disorder) is a test just like anything else is a test in this life and only He can make it easier for you and relieve you as you’re going through it. I’m rarely praying for Allah to remove bipolar (disorder) from me; I just pray that I’m able to understand what it is that He wants for me and what bipolar (disorder) has to teach me.
Raidah Shah Idil is a writer, poet, and counselling student based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her work has been published in The Feminist Wire, Daily Life, Lip Mag and Venture Beat. Her debut double-featured novel, “Finding Jamilah and The Story of Yusuf,” was published by MyLegacy Publications in early 2014. Her poetry has been selected for publication by the Australian Muslim Artists. Visit her at www. raidahshahidil.com.