A Change of Mind: Living With Bipolar Disorder

When someone suffers from mental illness, the family suffers, too. One woman looks back on the diagnosis that forever altered her husband, her marriage, and her life.

Photo by  Frederic La Grange

Before he got sick, my husband, Mike (not his real name), was one of the warmest, funniest guys around. He was a great talker who could engage with anyone about anything—Czech history one minute, 1950s monster movies the next. The two of us had countless in-jokes, and our conversations always seemed to devolve into laughter. But in April 1996, 12 years after we had first started dating, Mike said something that wasn’t funny at all.

“See that guy over there?” he whispered to me in a voice so low I had to lean closer to hear. “He thinks I’m CIA.” Mike and I had arrived a few hours earlier for our vacation in Saigon, exhausted and bleary-eyed after 22 hours of flying from our home in New York City. We had eaten dinner and were sipping beers in the café at our hotel. I glanced in the direction Mike was staring. All I saw was a twentysomething Vietnamese man reading a magazine. There was no way that this man thought Mike—a curly-haired, jeans and T-shirt–clad freelance copy editor—was in the CIA. Then I looked into Mike’s eyes. His pupils were completely dilated. I felt unsteady. Mike just peered at me, his eyes wide with fear.

I could see that something was wrong with him, but I didn’t know what. I was naive; mental illness didn’t even cross my mind. I simply thought that if we could cut our vacation short and get him back to familiar surroundings in New York, everything would be fine. But Mike calmed down, insisting that he was OK and that he wanted to stay in Vietnam. I complied, as I often did. In those days, I was painfully passive, certain that it was best for both of us that Mike made the decisions. And for much of the rest of the trip, I was grateful that we hadn’t taken drastic action. Mike was back to his delightful and charming self. We had pho for lunch one day (a noodle soup pronounced “fuh”) and made up puns about it. “I’d fuh-gotten how tasty this is,” Mike said to me, and I laughed. However, I purposely ignored some of his more curious behaviors: checking the hotel locks and windows multiple times; shushing me, even when we were alone in our room. He had never acted like this before; what I didn’t realize was that a new paranoia had taken up residence in Mike’s mind—and it was never going away.

Mike and I met in 1983, when we were college students in New Orleans. Our relationship turned romantic quickly. We’d sit in the sun in his quad or mine or read books side by side on his futon, snuggled under his childhood tiger-print blanket. After graduation, we traveled for a year, strapping on backpacks and bumming around various parts of the world.

Then, in 1987, we moved to Manhattan, where we both got jobs and shared an apartment. We didn’t really have separate lives: We’d often meet for lunch just to catch up on the few hours we’d spent apart. Neither of us went out without the other. If Mike was meeting up with his friends, I’d tag along. If I had a girls’ night planned, Mike would come, too. I was terribly insecure. I didn’t feel smart or clever, and I knew that Mike was smart and clever. So I deferred to him whenever I could. Once I wanted to try a yoga class. So I spent hours convincing Mike to come along. It didn’t occur to me that I could try a class on my own. We even shared an e-mail account. It was only years later, as Mike grew ill, that I realized that my dependency was unhealthy.