Marriage, Mental Illness & Blowups

Daily Prompt: Entertain via The Daily Post

5580809734_657f1a0622_zFrom Facebook’s On This Day Feature:

January 13, 2012
Near the end of our lunch time phone call.
Me: Are you mad?
My husband: No, it’s just, sometimes I feel like you don’t listen to me.
Me: Well…sometimes I don’t.

My husband and I met in grad school in the fall of 1999. We began dating that November, and one of the first things I told him is that I’m bipolar. I was stable when I started school, but once winter hit, I became depressed, which was no surprise, as that’s a tough season for me. (It also could have been “grad school depression”.) I wasn’t expecting the episode. My husband (then-boyfriend) was supportive.

We moved to Chicago in 2001, after he graduated. I had a year left to complete my thesis (I had finished my coursework), which I could do from home. Our first few years were rocky because we didn’t have much money; my husband just started a job with a stressful commute to the suburbs; and I was experiencing the highs and lows of bipolar, despite being in treatment.

My antics, mainly hurling accusations, were difficult for him to deal with. When we fought, I’d entertain the idea of self-harm as a way of coping (inappropriately), and often went through with it. This was difficult for him, as well.

At one point, I was hospitalized, though I can’t remember what for. After I was discharged, I ended up in a partial hospitalization program (PHP) at a hospital near my husband’s office, rather than in the city, where we lived. This was because left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have gone. So I had to drive to the suburbs with my husband every morning to go to PHP. The fights continued.

A non-profit organization called National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI, who did not ask me to mention them) in the US offers a free workshop for family members and friends of someone who has a mental illness. It’s called NAMI Family-to-Family. Around the time I finished PHP, my husband attended the workshop, and gained a deep understanding of what I was going through.

But I continually picked fights. Everything was his fault. My moods were his fault. That I couldn’t sleep was his fault. That I could no longer work (teaching) was his fault. You name it. Unfortunately, he would engage in my accusations, and my unfounded arguments would escalate into blowups. He would shut himself in the bedroom or hang up on me when I called him at work. His reactions made me angrier.

We didn’t want to split up, so we went to couples counseling. There, we learned how to use “I” language instead of “you” language. “I” language is used when there’s a conflict, and doesn’t put the other person on the defensive. “You” language is basically pointing your finger at the other person using words. Learning this and other communication techniques didn’t happen overnight, and we were in counseling for many years. I learned (and continue to learn) how to listen. We also both matured; and in individual therapy, I learned how to accept responsibility for my actions and my moods. I’m still learning.

I’m better at identifying my moods, and not blaming them on my husband. Instead, I tell him how I feel, and that the particular mood may cause me to become argumentative. We don’t have knock-down, drag-out fights anymore, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. We discuss them calmly, and rarely do they escalate. No shouting. No doors slamming. No blowups.

I was afraid that when I told my husband that I’m bipolar, that he would dump me. Instead, he stuck by me for 18 years and counting, through all the ups and downs, highs and lows. Ours is the first stable relationship I’ve ever had. It isn’t perfect — do those even exist? — but couples counseling saved us. He is my rock. (To my husband: I love you.)

Have you been in a romantic relationship with someone who’s mentally ill? What was it like? If you have a mental illness, what have your relationships been like, or do you avoid them altogether?

Photo by PoppetCloset on / CC BY-NC-ND

In the Psych Ward

Daily Prompt: Brilliant via The Daily Post

NOTE: This is a pre-written piece in which I was able to include today’s prompt.

NOTE: My experiences of hospitalization in a behavioral unit (psych ward) does not reflect other people’s.

hospital-hospital-corridor-long-corridorIf you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, then you know why I was first hospitalized in the ’90s. My stay was similar to my most recent hospitalization, which was in 2014.

During my first stay, there were 2 units: the one where I was placed, and the one where patients were behind a heavy, steel door with a small square window in the upper half. Staff used a key to enter. I learned that the other ward was for “sicker” patients. I would later discover what that meant.

Before being admitted, they took away my shoelaces, and had I worn a belt, they would have taken that, too — same with clothes with drawstrings. Although I could wear my own clothes, the staff didn’t want me to have anything I could use to hurt myself.

I was frightened at first, but the other patients were welcoming, and mostly older; I was 25 at the time. For their privacy and probably legal reasons, I’m going to write about other patients in generalizations.

The rooms contained two twin-size beds that weren’t hospital beds. I didn’t have a roommate. I was provided with a plastic comb, shampoo, conditioner, a small bar of soap, a travel-size tube of toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Turned out, the conditioner was actually body lotion.

In the mornings and evenings a nurse distributed my medication in a tiny, disposable cup. The psychiatrist met with me for a few minutes each day. We discussed my symptoms, and any side effects of my new medications. (He became my psychiatrist for almost 20 years.)

We had 3 meals a day in the day room, not in our rooms. Every morning we were given a paper menu listing the options for the next day’s meals. We used short, eraser-less pencils to circle our choices.

I learned that if I wanted more than one of a particular item to write “x2” next to my circle. This brilliant tip worked at other hospitals where I’ve stayed, even the ones I’ve been to for surgeries. I always wanted 2 packets of honey for my breakfast of Malt-O-Meal (kind of like mushy grits).

I can’t remember much: we had group therapy daily in the day room, which had board games, decks of cards, a TV, and a pay phone. We didn’t have phones in our rooms.

Unlike other psych wards I’ve stayed at, there wasn’t a separate area for visitors; I met with mine in the day room. My sister says that her purse was checked because the staff wanted to make sure she didn’t bring contraband like drugs or alcohol or, I presume, something with which I could hurt myself. She remembers it as depressing, and because the board games were missing pieces, that made it more depressing.

I don’t disagree, but I don’t completely agree, either. At least the place wasn’t institutional. There was carpeting, which I don’t know why, but to me seems less institutional. There were no conflicts between patients.

What I remember most was the smoking room. Imagine that! A smoking room inside a hospital! We weren’t allowed free access to it; throughout the day there were intervals where a staff member unlocked it for us.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was pretty quiet.

I was hospitalized in different psych wards several times since then, but can’t remember the stays. I know that in 2004, I was admitted to that same behavioral unit twice in a month. The stays weren’t long, maybe a couple of days each time, but I was hypomanic and the psychiatrist added a new medication to my cocktail (my regular psychiatrist was abroad). He wanted to see how I would react to it, which was why he wanted me to stay. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of how/why I was hospitalized, and I only know what I’ve just described based on an entry in the LiveJournal I kept at the time.

What I can remember is that the unit changed. They closed the ward where I first stayed, which meant that I was behind the locked, heavy, steel door. There wasn’t a smoking room, though I had quit by then.

It had a different vibe — totally institutional (no carpeting). It was loud, unlike the other ward, and sometimes there were conflicts between “sicker” patients.

I can’t remember if we had group therapy. I can’t remember eating, though I’m sure I must have. I do remember feeling scared and staying in my room as much as possible.

It was not a pleasant experience.

My most recent stay, in 2014, was at “ECT Hospital.” I was there because of a severe depression, and had to resume my ECT treatments.

ECT Hospital’s unit is swanky compared to other places I’ve stayed, probably because it’s newer or remodeled. You don’t have to share a room! And yes, there’s carpeting.

I was also more savvy: I knew they’d take my shoelaces, so I wore wool clogs, and packed clothes without drawstrings. (I wasn’t admitted through the ER.) We had group therapy, art therapy, anger management classes. There’s a day room with a TV and games, and that’s where I learned to play dominoes.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but not one I care to repeat.

Were my hospitalizations therapeutic? Not really, because who wants to stay in a psych ward? I never knew how long I had to be there, and all I had was the hope that I’d be discharged soon.

I realize this is personal, but if you’ve ever been hospitalized in a behavioral unit, what was your experience like? If you prefer, feel free to respond by using the Contact form above. Our discussions will remain private.

Photo via

Light Box Debacle: Lessons Learned

Daily Prompt: Forlorn via The Daily Post

3973789342_2fe43744e2After this weekend’s light box debacle, I learned a few things: 1) light boxes can trigger (hypo)mania in people with bipolar; and 2) follow instructions. I admit that I sometimes toss the instructions to new items because, I now know, I have the hubris to think I can figure out how to use them myself. This is especially true if the print is so tiny that I need my reading glasses (as if wearing them is a tall order). Other times, I pore over instructions the way a veterinary assistant combs through a cat’s fur with a flea comb. I read every detail repeatedly to make sure I do/use whatever it is correctly — “for best results.”

I’ve used light therapy for years, and my particular “happy light” instructions says to start using the box for 30 minutes, and then work your way up to 2 hours. This time, I didn’t want to wait. I went straight to using it for an hour — for only 3 days! — and it triggered hypomania symptoms.

My psychiatrist e-mailed me and instructed me to stop using it for a few days. I followed his instructions and didn’t use it yesterday. If I decide to start over, I’ll use it for 30 minutes for the first 2 weeks. So I also learned that light boxes work, at least for me. I just never felt the effects in the past because I gradually increased my time sitting in front of it.

My symptoms have decreased, and I don’t think I’ll plunge into the polar opposite of hypomania because it wasn’t a full-blown episode. Still, this morning I woke up forlorn; I was miserable enough to consider staying in bed all day. Fortunately, I rallied — got up and even took a shower. I feel exhausted physically, because I didn’t get much sleep this weekend. My therapist answered my text earlier and reminded me that I often have trouble distinguishing exhaustion from depression, so I’ll need to be more discerning about that in the next few days.

Do you follow instructions, or throw them away?

Do you have trouble distinguishing exhaustion from depression?

Photo by szb78 on / CC BY-NC-ND

Life Scripts, Bipolar & Childfree

Daily Prompt: Funnel via The Daily Post

NOTE: This is a pre-written piece in which I was able to include today’s prompt.

8676002030_6576f87af0My parents were married and had me by the time they were 23. I thought this was a life script I had to follow. So when I was 24, I felt behind schedule, and married the bass player in my band who I’d been dating for a few months and with whom I moved in almost immediately (pre-diagnosis). My parents didn’t like him and didn’t approve of the marriage, so we were married in City Hall with 2 friends as witnesses.

The marriage lasted about 3 years. Although he was supportive when I was diagnosed, our relationship was volatile, mainly because he couldn’t/wouldn’t get a job. He half-heartedly looked, but never got interviews.

He went back to school for one course (he had about a year left to finish his degree), but skipped class a lot, which was another point of contention: I, not his parents, was paying his tuition. I was supporting the both of us working as an admin assistant, and I didn’t make much.

I thought we were supposed to have children, because that was part of the life script. Thankfully, we didn’t. I could barely afford to support us financially, let alone an addition to the family, so we held off.

It was my dream to return full-time to college and then attend veterinary school, which meant quitting my job, being broke, and without insurance — my tuition didn’t include student health insurance. You had to pay for it, and it was too expensive even with student loans. I graduated 3 years later, not when most people do at age 22 or 23 (like in the life script), but just before I turned 30.

About a year before I returned to school, I had started therapy and began learning how to live a mentally healthier life. My ex remained stagnant — had quit school and may or may not have had a job — I don’t even remember. We fought all the time, and finally agreed on a divorce after my first quarter started.

I went straight from undergrad to grad school (not vet school) in 1999, where I met my current husband. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, especially because he was only 24 and I was 30, but when you least expect it, expect it! We were married 3-1/2 years later (a whole other story — not the marriage, but the circumstances around the marriage; and no, I wasn’t pregnant).

Again, I thought that kids were part of the life script. After graduation, we struggled financially and decided to wait. When I turned 35, I thought it was then or never. We considered adoption, and I asked my mom about it, hoping to have a heart-to-heart talk. Her answer: “If you want to adopt, then adopt.” Then she literally walked away.

After the Breakdown, I couldn’t work and was put on disability 3 years later. I thought having a child would be okay because I’d be home to take care of it. I knew it would be challenging because of my bouts with depression and hypomania, but plenty of people with a mental illness have children and take great care of them, so I knew it was possible. I was also concerned about passing on the disease, so adoption seemed like a good option, though that was no guarantee that the baby wouldn’t grow up to have bipolar or another illness.

We continually put off the adoption research, and eventually realized that we didn’t want a child after all. Also, I didn’t know that I would need to funnel my energy into trying to take care of myself; where would I find the strength and endurance to raise a child? (Hats off to my sister-in-law! <3 )

I figured out that there’s no such thing as a life script. You don’t have to be married nor have a house and a brand new car by a certain age, nor have children. At first I thought of myself as “childless by circumstance” because I grapple with bipolar; then I realized that when we didn’t seriously explore adoption, we made the choice not to have a child. I now think of myself as “childfree,” and know that not wanting children is okay, too.

Do you believe there’s such a thing as a life script?

Photo by astrangelyisolatedplace on Visual Hunt / CC BY

My Light Box & Hypomanic Symptoms

Daily Prompt: Winsome via The Daily Post

IMG_0585Omg, wtf????? I don’t know how coherent this post will be because my thoughts are racing through my brain faster than a Formula One car at the Monaco Grand Prix. Of course it will be proofread and edited because I’m obsessive about that.

Speaking of which, out-of-the-ordinary obsessiveness began yesterday afternoon or evening. This is a little graphic, so sorry. Last night, or actually, early this morning, I found myself relentlessly picking a zit that may not even be a pimple, but a tiny imperfection. In my need (obsession?) to be perfect, I worked that sucker and couldn’t get it out. Now I have a red splotch on my cheek from the tiny blood vessels that broke, and look worse.

My sleep hygiene has been poor for the last few weeks, I admit.  Normally I take my trazodone at 10:00 PMish whether or not I’m sleepy, but it kicks in fast. I’ve been staying up late reading/finishing books I can’t put down, which I’ve been known to do. Then I go to bed.

Last night, I finished a book at about 1:00 AM, then started reading a new one — something I never do. Halfway into the first short story, I put it down for two reasons: it was so good that I wanted to savor it, and because I could no longer concentrate. But I was wide awake and there was no way I was going to bed because why shouldn’t I stay up if I want to? Fu@k trazodone. So I checked and re-checked all of my social media accounts.

At some point, I got ready for bed but went back into the living room and started crocheting, which I could focus on. I was obsessed with finishing a practice mitten before making the real thing. I finished it around 4:45 AM, but it’s hardly winsome; in fact, it’s downright ugly. It looks nothing like the cute mitten pictures on the pattern.

During this time, my husband was up working on his fiction writing (not unusual), but lay on the loveseat around 3:00. Before that, I told him how I was feeling — the racing/obsessive thoughts (like how to write this post and what today’s one-word prompt would be — I kept checking throughout the night/morning to see if they’d posted it — they hadn’t); the obsessive behavior; being completely and fully awake at 3 in the morning. We wondered what could have caused it, because my psychiatrist didn’t change my meds when I saw him Wednesday. Then, we hit on something: the light box.

We Googled (I know, never Google) “side effects of using a light box” and found this on the Mayo Clinic website (I took the screenshot at 5:00 AM). If you can’t read it, click here, and scroll down:


One of the risks is “Mania . . . associated with bipolar disorder”. I have bipolar II, so I don’t get manic, but in the past I’ve experienced hypomania. I haven’t been hypomanic in over 10 years, but I sure feel like it now.

Earlier this week, my psychiatrist suggested that I start using the light box because my mood has been dipping lately. According to the long-lost instructions to my particular “happy light,” you start off at 30 minutes and work your way to 2 hours. I didn’t have the patience, and besides, I see my doctor again in 4 weeks and we’re supposed to discuss if it helped. So I used it for an hour Thursday morning and an hour Friday morning. I began feeling symptoms by Friday night. Before this, I was feeling low off and on.

I felt like I could FLY. Even now, I feel ELECTRIC. We, actually my husband, e-mailed my psychiatrist about what I was feeling/exhibiting. I couldn’t write it myself because at that point I couldn’t concentrate enough on stringing words together.

Before I received his answer this morning, I used the light box. When I got his reply, he said to see how the next few days go with or without it. If the symptoms don’t go away (which, according to the Mayo Clinic, they can ease up the more you use it), then stop using the light box and make an appointment to see him.

I finally went to bed after taking the screenshot and got 2 hours of sleep. But I still feel like I’m flying.

Have you ever felt hypomanic/manic because of your light box? Did you keep using it? If so, how long before the symptoms went away?

Photographs provided author