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Lifting the Veil off Mental Health: The Art of Negotiation

July 29, 2009 Leave a comment

(cross-posted from The Bilerico Project)

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that negotiation is a part of every romantic relationship. That dynamic changes quite dramatically, however, when one of the parties involved is bipolar.

One of the questions both Jim and I have been fielding a lot lately has to do with how we negotiated doing this project. There is very obviously a level of disclosure that could create stress for all involved and I am always mindful of that whenever I sit down to write.

Where this blogging project is concerned, though, the negotiation process was fairly benign and focused more on what I should say rather than what I should not. Like I said in my last post, this is part of my pursuit of understanding bipolar disorder. And, if there is one thing that Jim wants from me it is empathy for how he feels and an understanding of why his moods are sometimes out of his control. This idea, while it required Jim’s permission, was not as contentious as those questioning may have thought and it has provided the perfect platform for the outcome Jim and I have both been working toward.

These questions did get me thinking, however, about how the both of us negotiate and make compromises on other issues. The issues may appear to be trivial in nature, but in a relationship made up of two men, one of whom is bipolar (and both of whom are stubborn), these “trivial” negotiations suddenly become much more meaningful.

A perfect example of this involves my reputation for spontaneity and Jim’s necessity for planning. Part of this need for planning has to do with his need for routines. For someone who is bipolar, a regular routine is crucial because it provides stability and structure. This is integral to maintaining a happy medium for the brain. If that routine is disrupted in some way, it can be bad news for themselves and for those around them, especially if they are in the midst of an episode.

I can’t tell you how many routines Jim has, as there are probably a number of different ones for different situations. They are all very personal and I trust that I know of the ones I need to know about.

One such routine that I learned to accept as necessary is that which requires him to know what we are doing before we leave the house on any given day. I don’t just mean an idea of what we are doing or where we are going. I mean a plan. Specifics. Where are we going first? What do we plan to do when we get there? How will we be there? How does this plan mesh with any later plans we have in the evening? As you can tell, there may be any number of questions depending on the situation and they must be answered before we walk out the door.

For my part, I have never required much planning, especially when it concerns what I’ll be doing for any random Saturday or Sunday. Part of the allure of a free weekend has always been what unknown adventures lie ahead. In the first couple of years of our relationship, we both engaged in some pretty bad arguments that stemmed from my obstinacy to making a plan and from our mutual ignorance of Jim’s condition, which was keeping both of us from talking about the real issue at hand.

In the last year, I have come to better understand why Jim needs these details. I have made compromises and I have become much more amenable to making plans for our days. Where before I would pop out of bed and be rearing to get out the door, now I take my time and come up with a number of ideas to float by Jim that we can talk about together. Then, I let him know when I think we should be out the door, what bus or metro we will take to get there and what we should do when we arrive. I know things are good when I hear Jim say “I think that will work.” This is the process we have negotiated and it has worked well for us for quite some time. Of course, it would be dishonest of me to say that I’ve learned all I need about how to deal with this one aspect of bipolar disorder. Relationships are organic and require constant vigilance. In short, we’re both still learning.

This is merely one negotiation we have made, but it has mitigated one of the more pernicious aspects of bipolar disorder. It is only negotiation, but it has brought us closer to a more peaceful and happier life.

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Lifting the Veil of Mental Health: Life with a Bipolar Partner

July 12, 2009 Leave a comment

(cross-posted from The Bilerico Project)

Bil announced a couple of weeks ago that I was going to be blogging here about my experience living with my partner, Jim, who suffers from bipolar disorder.

Since Jim’s first hospitalization, I’ve been on a personal journey to better understand my partner and this illness. I’m still learning and there are still trying moments when I have to do my best to remember it’s Jim’s bipolar talking, not him. It’s a day-to-day process, but hopefully, my thoughts here will help other couples (especially the spouses who aren’t bipolar), gay or straight, who are also doing their best to learn to live with this illness.

To fully appreciate how I arrived at the start of this journey to understanding, I think it’s best to start from the beginning.

I knew Jim was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I met him, but I knew very little about the illness and he seemed to be in good health so it didn’t deter me from wanting to date him. He was a breath of fresh air for me and I appreciated his honesty about his affliction.

Our relationship moved quickly and before long we were living together. Jim mentioned to me when we started dating that he was no longer on medication and he wasn’t in therapy.

His reasons for getting off medication seemed logical to me. He couldn’t afford health insurance and the university’s student health center was his only available resource. Their approach, however, involved drugging the hell out of him and after a year of overmedication that resulted in lethargy, a diminished sex drive and exhaustion, Jim decided he’d rather deal with the consequences than to be a zombie. He was 20 years old by this time.

Jim loved a good party and he loved to drink. We’re kindred that way, but after a few months of living together I realized his moods could be very erratic and his irrational behavior was often unbearable. Add in my stubbornness and my penchant for being argumentative and you’ve got the recipe for a powder keg of fights!

We had many arguments over the first two years of our relationship, but I never suspected that part of the problem could be chocked up to bipolar symptoms that were just starting to manifest themselves, as it tends to do in folks in their early 20s. Plus, I just figured that most couples had their fair share of disagreements

Things really came to a head a year ago when a fun evening of wine drinking and show tunes suddenly turned ugly. I don’t even recall what sparked the anger anymore, nor does it matter, but I do know that one moment we were laughing and the next I had wine thrown in my face and there was glass shattered against the walls. Jim also got physical and my immediate instinct was to call 911 as I feared for my safety.

In the hospital ER he was sedated and we waited there through the night until a bed in the psychiatric unit opened up. The next morning, I was told that it was best for Jim to stay there for an undetermined amount of time.

I couldn’t make the decision for him, but I did counsel him and told him he should probably listen and stay. Soon after the decision was made it was time for me to go home. Alone. As I got up to leave, Jim’s last words to me were, “Are you happy now? You’ve locked me up. Thank you.” I wouldn’t talk to him again until the next day.

That was the moment this illness became real for me and, I suspect, for Jim as well. Over the course of the next week, I spent my nights alone with my thoughts confused about what had happened and frightened for what lay ahead for both of us. I could not talk to him on the phone and I could not sleep with him at night.

It was awful, but I took solace in the fact that he was getting help. By the end of that week, he was home and we both talked about what was going to have to happen if we wanted to stay together.

Since then, our lives have changed dramatically. He’s been in therapy ever since and, with the help of his doctors, has found the medications and dosages that work for him. About six months after this ordeal, I entered therapy myself.

Jim has effectively quit drinking and made marvelous progress in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I admire him for that. And after some slow learning, I have made strides to curb my drinking in order to foster an environment in which we can both live more easily.

This brings us full circle to where we are today. My own progress has been steady and I learn something from Jim every day. I’ve taken an active role in talking about how he feels and I ask him for what I should be vigilant of in his behavior.

It is a responsibility that has taken me some time to accept, but I am happy to do it if it means our relationship will survive and if it makes it easier for Jim to stay healthy.

In future posts, I’ll be blogging more about my current daily life with a bipolar partner and about mental health news as well. In the meantime, if you are bipolar or live with someone who is, check out these resources for more information about how to cope with this illness.

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