Married… with Bipolar Disorder: One Couple’s Unique Mental Health Perspective
by Gabe Howard
Hi! We’re Gabe and Kendall Howard. We’ve been married more than five years and live in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, with our miniature schnauzer, Peppy.
Kendall works as an accountant for the federal government and Gabe is a mental health advocate who hosts the award-winning podcast, The Psych Central Show.
Gabe lives with bipolar disorder and Kendall does not. Well, to be more precise: Gabe lives with bipolar disorder and Kendall lives with Gabe, who lives with bipolar disorder so, in a way; Kendall does most definitely “live” with bipolar disorder.
We’re delighted to present two separate essays about how we each see life from our own unique perspectives, in the same house and the same marriage: one half of the marriage partnership living with a chronic mental health challenge, and the other who does not. These are our experiences and our lives. Just like with two people taking the same psychiatric medication: your experience may be different!
Being Married to Someone who Doesn’t Live with Bipolar Disorder
by Gabe Howard
My wife, Kendall, is amazing. This is a smart opening statement for me to make because she’s definitely going to read it. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the truth. I’ve been married before, have dated other women, and I know many people. I feel quite comfortable listing my wife in the upper echelon of awesome individuals currently roaming the Earth.
Kendall and I share the same values, we both love superhero movies (the Marvel universe is the best), and curling up on the couch in front of our TV at the end of the day is our favorite activity. I can’t be certain, but I think we invented the phrase “Netflix-and-chill.”
In spite of this seemingly idyllic awesomeness and Netflix chilling-ness; having bipolar disorder and being married to a woman who had, prior, experienced no mental illness has some drawbacks. Sometimes, I wish she were a person living with bipolar disorder. I know that’s a bit of a weird thing to say but, in some situations, it would make life a lot easier.
No matter how hard we try, we will never understand what the world looks like for the other person. Kendall has only ever experienced life free from mental illness. While my in-laws may be crazy, they aren’t mentally ill and no one my lovely wife knows has ever been suicidal. In fact, when we met she believed many of the stereotypical myths about people who live with mental illness. Our initial conversations about my diagnosis were fun. Kendall has never experienced mania, depression, anxiety, or psychosis. However, I think about these symptoms daily—these thoughts are like a bad commercial jingle I just can’t get out of my head.
They’ve caused me trauma and they’ve shaped my life. When people say, “You’ve overcome so much,” that’s what they’re referring to. I’ve climbed out of an abyss that my life-partner has never even seen and has admitted that she didn’t really know existed until I came along.
Recently, I was being interviewed for an article about how I dress up as Santa Claus over the holidays. The interviewer knew I was a person living with bipolar disorder and asked if I thought that helped me play Santa better. I laughed, and said I had no idea. I’ve never had the benefit of doing anything without bipolar disorder. That includes marriage and all the other relationships in my life.
There is a world of difference between who I was when I was untreated and who I am now that I have the disease under control. Kendall never would have agreed to marry me when I was in my twenties. It bothers me that there is a version of me that existed that my wife wouldn’t have liked, and I don’t mean a version of me who wore MC Hammer pants and a mullet. I mean a version with deep character flaws and moral deficits.
I was emotionally abusive toward the people who loved me. I was unreliable, uninhibited, and unreasonable. I was unkind and unfair. I was a bad husband to two previous women who put their faith in me and were let down by my behavior. I abused drugs and alcohol and there is no escaping the fact that I wasn’t the type of person I’d want to be friends with. I’d love to “blame” my mistakes on my illness, but life isn’t as simple as assigning all my negative traits to bipolar disorder and all my positive traits to my personality. It would be disingenuous to pretend that, if not for mental illness, I’d be a perfect person who never hurt anyone. I do understand that untreated bipolar disorder was a contributing factor, but, while it may help explain my behavior, it does not excuse anything. Moreover, that understanding does nothing to remove all of my shame and regret.
Kendall doesn’t understand that kind of deep personal shame, either. I live in constant fear that she’ll realize who I was when I was sick, that it will be too much for her, and she’ll leave. I live in fear that I’ll get sick again and, when faced with the horrors of bipolar disorder, she’ll leave.
Of course, Kendall abandoning her sick husband would be a moral failing on her part, and I comfort myself knowing that she wouldn’t just up and leave me. She’s a loyal person and one who can be trusted to “do the right thing.” So, naturally, my thoughts quickly jump to wondering just what she would do.
My past is filled with people who tried to help me. My parents, for example, never abandoned me and did everything they could to help me. When I speak of moral, upstanding people who will always “do the right thing,” my family members fall into that category. Unfortunately, while my parents’ choices were what could be deemed morally correct, they didn’t understand what was happening to me, so they made some decisions that ultimately made my life harder.
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So I find myself thinking, is Kendall capable of helping me? If I did become seriously symptomatic again, would her choices be morally correct, yet harmful? Would the trauma of my illness drive a wedge between us that would ultimately end our marriage? Would I be left alone, depressed, and suicidal once again?
Life doesn’t jump up and hand out concrete answers to our most pressing questions. I don’t want Kendall to experience the horrors of bipolar disorder; not second-hand, not first-hand; not at all. As her husband, as her friend, and as a mental health advocate, I want to keep her far from the devastation that mental illness brings.
Nevertheless, I would feel better if I had concrete proof that she understood how the world is for me. On some level, it would be nice to commiserate with her about what I’ve experienced. Deep down, it creates doubt that she even understands who I am, or if she really knows me at all. Does she love me, or some fake version of me I’ve created?
When all these feelings overwhelm me and become too much, I always hang my hat on one phrase that gets me through:
“Life with bipolar disorder is terrible; life with Kendall is not.”
Being Married to Someone who Does Live with Bipolar Disorder
by Kendall Howard
When I met Gabe, I wore mismatched socks. This was something I had done for years without giving it much thought. It added a bit of “flair” to my wardrobe, although most people with whom I interacted never knew about it, unless they saw me walk around my house without shoes.
When we began dating, Gabe let me know that my odd sock habit bothered him. It made him feel “a bit uneasy.” When this first came up, I asserted that it was my right to dress how I wanted. I liked having mismatched socks. He said that he preferred symmetry and that it distracted him when he saw the two different socks, which made it difficult to focus on anything else.
I thought about this. We had JUST started dating and my independent streak wanted to yell and scream, “Accept me for who I am; mismatched socks and all! Don’t try to change me!” How dare he try to change something about me! But then I kept thinking—I had no moral, religious, ethical, or political rationale for wearing mismatched socks and, apparently, this habit of mine brought discomfort to someone who I was beginning to care deeply for. After this short discussion with myself, to me, it was a no-brainer. I started wearing matching socks.
Being married isn’t always easy, whether your spouse has a mental illness or not. I don’t know if Gabe’s dislike of mismatched socks is due to his mental illness, or if it’s just a personality quirk. There’s nothing in the DSM-V about people with bipolar disorder and sock issues. Regardless, I don’t judge his daily actions by whether he does or does not do something due to his mental illness—that would be unfair to him and it would be exhausting for me. I married Gabe, all of him, the good, the bad, the mental illness, the red hair, the humor, the height: he’s a package deal. Just like I’m a package deal with my petite stature, naturally brown/dyed purple hair, and my one good ear, (I was born completely deaf in my right ear).
We have a pretty “typically normal” life. We both have full-time jobs, we own a house in suburbia, we adopted a puppy, go grocery shopping—all those ordinary, adult things. Gabe’s illnesses do not really play a big part in our day-to-day life. I’m not saying it’s always easy or that his mental illness never gets in the way. It does. He’s had panic attacks at holiday events and vacations where he’s had to excuse himself and has missed out on activities. He’s had to refrain from attending events because he knew it would be too much. This can be frustrating and disappointing but, just like with everything, you learn to work around these barriers. We plan breaks in the day on vacations, where he’ll go off, get a Diet Coke and just sit. Sometimes I join him; sometimes I venture off and do my own thing.
One of the biggest issues we have is that I will never be able to fully understand what he goes through in his mind and in his life. I am never going to be able to empathize with his experiences. I wish, more than anything, that I could make life better for him, that I could wave some kind of magic mental illness wand and remove his depression or make him less anxious, but I can’t. And that sucks. It’s a horrible kind of pain to watch someone you love hurting and not be able to do anything to make it better. I’ve asked him repeatedly what I can do, and he always gives me the same half-smile and simply replies, “Nothing.” Because there is nothing. The only thing I can do is be his wife, be there for him, support him, and love him.
I have NEVER felt like I have missed out anything due to his mental illness. We have gone on amazing trips to Chicago, Las Vegas and even Disney World. Gabe agreed to adopt a puppy for me, although now that little dog has stolen his heart. As with any marriage, we work through everything together.
I’ve been told that, because I’m married to a man with bipolar disorder that I’m a “saint.” I’ve been asked how I put up with being married to someone with mental illness. I honestly never know what to say when I hear these things. First of all, marrying the person you love doesn’t qualify you for sainthood. I do not see myself as an Anxious Bipolar’s Wife – I’m Gabe’s wife. Gabe is SO much more than his illnesses, and anyone who knows him will agree. He’s my best friend and the best partner I could ever ask for. The life we have together is one that I would not trade for anything: definitely worth giving up the mismatched socks.
Being Married. . .
We’ve learned a lot about each other over the years, and Kendall has done a lot to accommodate Gabe’s illness. In turn, Gabe has done a lot to accommodate Kendall’s desire to lead a more typical life. Compromise can be difficult, but pays huge dividends when it comes to ensuring we have a strong marriage.
One thing we’ve learned, however, is that all the usual “rules” of marriage still apply to us. We aren’t special just because of our circumstances. We need to do all the work that other married couples do, plus a little extra to ensure that both our needs are met.
It’s not reasonable for our marriage to be only about managing bipolar, just as it isn’t reasonable to pretend that Gabe isn’t sick and just hope for the best. A marriage that focuses on one person will not survive.
There are limitations on how much we can relate to each other; and that’s okay. We don’t need to understand each other perfectly in order to be caring and compassionate. Being willing to put forth the effort and to stick it out, even when one of us is confused or frustrated, makes a big difference.
We always remember to have fun. Kendall is fond of saying that our life is never boring, and our family motto reflects that. On a rock, sitting in front of our house, are inscribed the words:
Kendall Howard is a Financial Analyst for Department of Defense, working at the Defense Finance & Accounting Center (DFAS) for the last ten years. She is the wife of award-winning writer, speaker, and mental health activist, Gabe Howard. They have been married over five years and reside in Columbus, Ohio with their Miniature Schnauzer, Peppy.