HOPE AND HEALING
Loving People with Bipolar Disorder
By Allison Johnson
The morning of August 16, 2005, expectations for my future and the future of my family met with the harshest of realities. My husband had disappeared and I didn’t know if he was ever coming back. The clues he left me that morning suggested that suicide was imminent, causing me to race against time, doing whatever I could to be certain his death would be averted. I had no way of knowing that he would indeed return home and that we had just stepped onto a battlefield that would consume us for the next two years; the battle to save his life.
When I fell in love with Grant during the summer of 1988 we had known each other since seventh grade gym class and had been very good friends. But something changed in me the summer before our senior year of high school. He dazzled me with his smile, and his jovial chuckle often sent me into spirals of my own laughter. He was kind, a great listener, and tender hearted; different from any other boy I had known in all my seventeen years. He was the first person I called after I came home from a Young Life Retreat where I became a Christian. I knew he would understand how excited I was about my new faith, as he was deeply committed to his own. Grant was one of those guys that would hold the door for you, or give up his seat if you didn’t have one. He was respectful, and polite, hardworking and filled with integrity. He was an old school gentleman and I liked that!
To this day, almost twenty-two years later, I hold fast to the depth of love I felt for Grant that summer of 1988. That love has carried us through challenges beyond our wildest imaginations, onto battlefields that we never would have chosen and ultimately helped to fortify us as a couple. Our hearts were woven together by the loving hand of God, who planted a seed in me, and then in Grant soon after. Like the machinations of a roller coaster we have climbed mountains and rejoiced in amazing victory, and then, we’ve flown rapidly down, disappearing into darkness, enduring together what seemingly would be crushing, devastating defeat. Like a rusty wheel on an old track we have been broken, humbled, and in desperate need of repair. Without this God given love, we would have lost our way long ago.
There are approximately six million people in the United States today who suffer from Bipolar Mood Disorder and my husband is one of them. In the past decade the incidence of Bipolar diagnoses is on the rise—it has doubled in the adult population and has risen a stunning 40-fold in children and adolescents (1994-2003). Some statistics peg the divorce rate for people with Bipolar Disorder at 90%. If not for the resources we found and the support we obtained, surely Grant and I would have become another divorce statistic.
Loving someone with Bipolar can be excruciating whether they are your spouse, your sibling or a friend. It’s an unpredictable disease marked by extreme highs and lows that tears apart relationships and very often for the patient, ends with suicide. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance a person with Bipolar faces up to ten years of coping with the symptoms before getting an accurate diagnosis, with only one in four receiving an accurate diagnosis in three years. (DBSA, 2000). And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Bipolar Disorder results in 9.2 year’s reduction in expected life span, and as many as one in five patients with Bipolar Disorder commit suicide.
The statistics are not encouraging but the good news is, Bipolar is treatable and there are things you can do.
Create a Support Network
Building a support network is crucial for the family, especially for the spouse. My initial shock isolated me at first. It took almost a year before I felt like I could talk about what was happening with Grant; it was an extremely lonely year. Eventually I took this burden of loneliness to the Lord and prayed for him to raise up people who I knew I could trust without fear. These were people I knew I could call at a moments notice, or in the middle of the night. People who cried with me, prayed with me and laughed with me when things were looking up. They helped me feel normal in spite of our crazy circumstance, and were often the source of tremendous encouragement when I was filled with doubt. I would not be the same if it hadn’t been for these five ladies. They were gifts from God; I would not have survived without them.
The other part of my support network was my relationship with my own Christian family counselor. Being able to share my whole heart gave me the opportunity to really grieve and express my emotions regarding Grant’s illness. I saw my counselor twice a week for many months before I gradually tapered off to once a week. Some days I just sat there and cried and on other days I felt like the heavens had opened up and the angels were singing halleluiah right along with me.
Find a way to get the support you need, you don’t have to be alone in this.
Find the Right Doctor
If there is any question in your mind that your family member might need help, take action right now. If you’re wondering how to find a good psychiatrist or counselor, call your church’s pastoral care department or ask your family doctor who they could recommend. If you don’t like who they suggest, keep looking. It’s imperative to find someone who is knowledgeable, who will work with you and your family member and who will be very firm in your action plan. Don’t be lulled into thinking that what you are seeing isn’t real. Bipolar is something akin to a shape changer and doesn’t always present itself the same way, please don’t hesitate to take action. You may very well be saving their life.
Finding the right doctor and getting on the right medication is the first step, getting the patient to stay in treatment is the second. A cancer patient wouldn’t stop chemotherapy right in the middle of their treatment cycle and treating bi-polar is really no different. For Grant it took two years of trial and error before his doctor ruled out clinical depression and began treating him with medication suitable for a Bipolar illness. If the patient doesn’t stay on their medication or see their doctor regularly it will be almost impossible to help them get better.
It’s simple logic, if a person is sick, they need help. Period.
Once the doctor figures out what drugs will work best, the key is to get the patient to stay on them. Grant says even though he felt betrayed by the intervention; he knew it was imperative for him to get to the doctor. He didn’t want to die, not really. But if it hadn’t been for the action plan we put into place during his initial twenty-four hour disappearance, and his commitment to get help, Grant would not be alive today.
Trying to get a person with Bipolar into treatment is no small task and many will avoid treatment at all costs. That’s why you have to know for certain what you will and will not tolerate. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to take care of yourself and your family first and if the patient is not willing to care for themselves then you must know what your limits are. Bipolar is an illness that doesn’t just affect the patient, it consumes the entire family and when it runs amok wreaking havoc on each family member… then everyone is in jeopardy.
Nothing about this illness is predictable and many people will lose their lives because of it. Others will be fortunate, like Grant, to have found the right medication and will be able to maintain their treatment regimen. For those of us friends and family members, our lives will never be the same as we fight right along side them on a path we would not have chosen but find ourselves on nonetheless.
Finding Hope for the Future
Navigating through any kind of crisis is challenging and takes a toll on our emotional reserves, which is why it is our profound desire to share our story in the hopes that you will be encouraged to take action, to get help and to know that God has a plan and a purpose for you. Without our support network of family and friends, the best doctor and Grant’s commitment to receiving treatment, we would not be where we are today, in the midst of restoration and healing. There have been many days when it would have been so easy for us to admit defeat and let the enemy win, but we have been reminded consistently through Scripture that our God is a God of restoration, a God of healing.
In the words of Isaiah 40:31, we are reminded that,
They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
We acknowledge our challenges do not replace or supersede the challenges you may be facing currently and we know that every situation is unique. We don’t pretend to be experts in the arena of marriage and mental illness but are simply trying to make use of the lessons God has taught us over these last years in the hopes that these experiences will be an encouragement to you as you travel your own road.
I pray God’s provision for you wherever you are and whatever your circumstance. I ask Him to make Himself known to you, and that as you cry out to Him through your struggles, He will give you the perfect equipment, at the perfect time. I believe we are uniquely equipped to handle whatever challenge we may face, and that when we grow weary it is God who will scoop us up into his mighty hands helping us to persevere. His intent is to draw us closer to Him through our challenges, teaching us, guiding us and showing us what to do and when to do it. Trust in Him, seek Him through your challenges and know that whatever the outcome, He has what’s best for you in mind.
Order Allison's Book: Waking Up in the Middle of Nowhere
Read an excerpt: Chapter One, Freefalling
More from Allison at her website: www.resurrectedgirl.com
Check out Allison's blogs: www.wakingupinthemiddleofnowhere.blogspot.com and www.resurrectedgirl.blogspot.com
The National Institute of Mental Health
The Depression and Bi-Polar Support Alliance
The National Alliance on Mental Illness
Family Life Conference
Allison Johnson cares deeply about Christian women’s issues which she addresses through her speaking and writing ministry. She is a Certified Life Coach, having received her training from the Center for Coaching Excellence. Allison has served as a group facilitator for numerous Bible studies and women’s groups. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband Grant, her two children, and her big yellow dog Yukon. She is currently working on her first novel. More from Allison at her website: www.resurrectedgirl.com
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