real life

This is what I know about loving, leaving and burying a husband who had bipolar.

At the beginning it was easy. It was almost a fun fairytale. Natasha David met John at a party, they fell in love, then a year later he called from the roof of a building threatening to kill himself.

Clutching the phone at work, with the man she loved on the other end threatening to jump off a hotel roof, it was the first time Natasha, just 23, realised something wasn’t right. The couple were told John’s psychotic episode at 20 could be a one-off and that is what they hoped it would be. A one off.

In the next nine years there were great times, there were dark times. John struggled, he gambled, he found it hard to hold down a job, he was the life of a party. They married, Natasha, 26 and John 23. They hid their troubles from friends and family. They tried. Their marriage broke down and six months short of John’s 30th birthday, on the last day of winter, he committed suicide in his car on a quiet side road in the Blue Mountains.

In Australia 2,100 people commit suicide every year, with five times that amount attempting to take their own lives. Suicide is the main cause of premature death among people with mental illness. According to Headspace around 2% of men and women have had bipolar in the previous 12 months with the figure nearly doubling for Australians aged 16-24. Bipolar is often misdiagnosed as depression and, typically, The Black Dog Institute reports, diagnosing bipolar takes 10-20 years from its onset.

"He was the life soul of the party, and radiated warmth." Image supplied.

But for the people left behind. The people who loved those who took their own lives, the path to recovery, just back to normal life, is so very complicated. It is a pain very few understand.

Natasha David, a journalist, has now written a book, Marrying Bipolar, about what it is like to live and love a partner with Bipolar.

This is her story.

How did you meet?

We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. All their friends were in hospitality, so it was a Monday night and I was preparing to make an early exit at 11pm! He came through the door, and a great cry went up from everyone “JOHN!!! Hello!!!” and he started hugging everyone! So I just lined up and got my hug, and he looked at me and said “Hello, who the hell are you?!”.

He was like that, hug first and ask questions afterwards… He was the life soul of the party, and radiated warmth. I ended up ditching my plans to go home and spent most of the night with him and my friend into the small hours of the morning, laughing about everything. It was an instant connection.

What made you fall in love?

He was a lovely man – he was younger than me and at first I didn’t believe he was only 19 (I was 22 at the time). I made him show me his driver’s licence. I just laughed and said “so I’m a cradle snatcher!”.

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 "He was a gentle giant that would greet everyone with a smile." Image supplied.

We fell in love over a few weeks. He moved into the building where I lived, and it was a tight knit community of young people either working in the city or going to uni. So we hung out a lot. Eventually we went to the movies together, just the two of us, and at the end of the movie he held my hand and our fingers entwined and that’s when I knew my feelings for him were reciprocated.

What was John like?

When he was ‘up’, he was really good. Charismatic, generous, friendly with a loving heart that radiated to everyone he met. People fell in love with him instantly like I did. He was a gentle giant that would greet everyone with a smile.

However, he also had a dark side, that I only saw when things started going wrong. His face would get very dark, both emotionally and physically. His eyes would glaze over, and he would be prone to bouts of anger that I recall walking on eggshells to avoid.

What was the first inkling you had something wasn't right?

I had no clue right up until the moment I describe in the opening of my book. We had been going out for about a year and I received a phone call from him while I was at work in Chatswood. He was standing on the top of a hotel building in Sydney, and he had called to “say goodbye”.

In my shock, I managed to convince him to wait for me to meet him. He had been calling his family to given them the same message. He wouldn’t look me in the eye when I got there, and I thought “if he runs and jumps there is no way I can stop him”.

I managed to talk him down from the rooftop and get him to help. He was hospitalised shortly after that episode, but that’s something I cannot remember. I was later told I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and my mind just shut down.

He was diagnosed with having had a Psychotic Episode, which we were told might develop into full blown Schizophrenia or simply go away. Of course, we hoped for the latter and when it appeared to be over, we didn’t want to look too closely at signs that it hadn’t.

What was life like day to day living with someone who has bipolar?

The year following his Psychotic Episode was horrible. He would think people were following him, or talking about him on the bus. He once hid in a tree in a park, convinced that cars were following him.

He also thought books were sending him messages. It was scary to deal with someone divorced from reality. I was very young and tried my best to help him, but it was very stressful for me.

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"I was very young and tried my best to help him, but it was very stressful for me." Image via iStock.

After he was cleared from that episode, we went about life as usual. He got a series of jobs, and never held down the same job, or career, for very long. I would never know when he would come home his unusual, happy self, or whether he would come home with his head hung in shame, from gambling or drinking.

Or whether he would not come home at all. He would sometimes disappear for days.

However, during these years these episodes were few and far apart. We got married, and went about building a life together. We bought a small house in the suburbs and just wanted the typical things your newlywed couple does.

How did you both handle the changes in your relationship?

I could tell things weren’t right, and tried many times to confront him about them, but he never wanted to seek help beyond one counselling session, or one trip to Gamblers Anonymous.

We were married, and living in our own home, so pressures had been mounting at that stage. I wouldn't say there was a clear moment when things got bad, rather a year-by-year degeneration of our marriage and the feeling that things couldn't get worse, and then they did.  I didn’t, at that stage, think it was a mental illness, I thought it was marital issues stemming from differences in personality.

In fact he was never specifically diagnosed with Bipolar in his lifetime. I tried to encourage him at the end to see a doctor, and while he told me that he hadn’t, the police found a bottle of antidepressants in his car after they discovered he had suicided.

"I had no idea he had the prescription." Image via iStock.

I had no idea he had the prescription.

It was only later when I was describing his behaviour to my psychologists that they said it sounded less like Schizophrenia (which I assumed he had) and more like Bipolar with episodes of Psychosis. When I started reading about Bipolar it all fell into place.

Did you feel you could talk to people?

I put an instant pressure on myself to not talk about his suicide. I only just recently learned that I never told my work what happened, just went on leave for 2 weeks while I was dealing with the aftermath of his suicide, arranging this funeral and winding up his business affairs. My boss at the time said a work friend had to call to get the details from my family.

There was also some pressure to ignore the fact that he had attempted suicide previously and had presented with symptoms of a mental illness, which made it very hard to explain to people why the seemingly happy, bubbly person that they knew would do this. In particular, his friends didn’t know the extent of our problems, as we both hid it so well.

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There was a cultural taboo at the time around talking out about mental illness and suicide. And I alsodidn’t want to go through grief, I resented the word “widow” and tried to avoid it at all costs.

I kept stoic, until my family (prompted by friends who would also see I wasn’t coping) helped me get to a counsellor. I went for a few visits along with a support group for people who had lost partners.

"I felt utterly alone, like no one else had gone through this." Image via iStock.

But this was mostly from divorce or separation. I didn’t feel connected to this group at all. Even the other people in the group who had lost partners through death had experienced their partners going through long-term illnesses such as cancer, and had time to come to terms with their deaths.

In those days, there was limited information beyond what you received from your doctor or parish (if you were religious). The internet was in its early stages, and no Facebook to find or join niche support groups.

I felt utterly alone, like no one else had gone through this. There is also a sharp pain that the one person you need to talk to in order to get closure is gone. They are the ones causing you this pain. I was angry for a very long time.

What did it do to you when John committed suicide?

I went into complete shock, and stayed in shock for almost a year. I was later diagnosed with situational depression, anxiety and PTSD. It wasn’t until I attempted suicide myself that I started accepting I needed help and started fighting for my life. I had to get to that point before I decided if I was going to live, I’d make it the best life I could.

Other ways to meditate

"I then threw myself at anything that seemed like it would help – psychologists, meditation, Buteyko breathing technique." Image via iStock.

I then threw myself at anything that seemed like it would help – psychologists, meditation, Buteyko breathing technique. I eventually found kinesiology which really helped me, and I actually got my Cert IV in kinesiology.

I also threw myself into a new social life. As many of my circle of friends were married and starting families. I felt like I was going back to square one. I signed up to a lot of dating websites as I thought that would help me feel less alone, and went to a lot of live music venues. Slowly I built up a wider circle of friends and starting enjoying life again.

It wasn’t until I wrote my book, Marrying Bipolar, that I really healed and “archived” my story in my heart and mind.

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How did you cope after his death?

I didn’t cope at all. I regularly drank myself into unconsciousness as I couldn’t fall asleep, or stay asleep, naturally. I was wracked with guilt and pain. I didn’t want to grieve, so I just ignored it.

Looking back I was very un-self aware. I went on a spiral of self-destruction until the pain got to be too much. After a particularly devastating conversation and rejection from someone I thought was a friend, I didn’t sleep for a week.

"I didn’t sleep for a week." Image via iStock.

In an attempt to end the pain, I took an entire 2 bottles of sleeping pills, drank whatever alcohol I had in the house and lay on my bed. I have a distinct memory of feeling my heart slowing down, and while I was doing that I thought “I can’t do this to my family”.

Somehow I roused myself and got myself outside my apartment, hailed down a cab and got the nearest hospital. I called a close friend while I was there, but never told him about what I did until much later. I never told anyone what I did at the time. I knew it would break their hearts.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

It’s okay to be in pain, and not to cope. It’s okay not to be strong. This (mental illnesses) is not your fault, it’s something visited upon you. You are not responsible for his choices.

All these things were said to me in various ways at the time, but I truly believed I was nothing, worthless and completely responsible for letting him down.

I also wish I had known when you suspect that someone close to you is suicidal, it’s not only okay to ask them flat out “are you thinking about suicide”, but it has been proven that it’s the most effective way to prevent that person from committing suicide.

Apart from that I wish I knew how deadly the role denial is in any problem – not just mental illness. I denied grief, I denied that I wasn’t well enough to date (and went through a lot of heartache and pain that reopened wounds for me). I denied I needed help. I denied that I wasn’t strong enough to do this on my own.

What is the most important thing you have learned in the last 10 years?

The most important thing I have learned is that being vulnerable and asking for help doesn’t mean you are weak – it means you are stronger than you think.

Marrying Bipolar by Natasha David available from bookshops and www.marryingbipolar.com

If you or a loved one need to talk to someone, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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