What Makes a Marriage Work?

This is a reworking of a comment I left on a prior blogpost I read and commented on….

I did not meet my husband (one and only) until I was 38 years old. Before then I had been in a series of relationships, some lasting a while (almost three years) and some not lasting long at all. I seemed for years to go back and forth between men who were like my father and men who were like my step-father. This yoyoing back in forth consumed all of my twenties and some of my early thirties. I was engaged to be married to someone before my current husband arrived on the scene.

I learned from that failed engagement that a couple does well to share a belief in God and to argue well. My fiance had clinical depression so on that level we understood each other’s behavioral health challenges. I have bipolar illness. But our relationship was toxic. We always had the same argument over and over. Why aren’t you opening up? Why aren’t you letting me in? Eventually he would call off the engagement, but it was a friendly parting. Years later he wrote and seemed to wonder about our getting back together. I had already moved on.

After the engagement broke off, I began a period of celibacy. This lasted for almost 7 years. During that time I stopped with the yoyo dating and focused inward on myself and my job. It was very important for me to validate myself during those years with something other than a relationship (short-term or otherwise) with a man. I did not even kiss a man for this 7 year period before I met my soon-to-be husband.

I met my current husband (one and only) at an online data service in 2001- this was very early in the web dating sphere. That is a story in and of itself. The first thing I noticed was that our mutual faith in God seemed to make things easier. I also noticed a couple of other characteristics of our relationship as it started to grow and mature. These are my insights into what has made my marriage a successful endeavor for someone with bipolar illness and someone with addiction issues.

For me there are three keys that help my marriage work – though I cannot guarantee these will work for everyone. Hold some sort of faith belief in common. It helps me through the darkest hour if that is not a topic that I argue about with my spouse but one that grounds me in that relationship. Second, be able to argue well. I try not to always go back to the I told you so’s. I try to make each argument have a beginning, middle and end. I try to learn from it once it’s over instead of drudging it up over and over. Finally, a sense of humor goes a very long way. I find it important to be able to laugh at myself and with my partner. It is amazing how a good laugh clears the air.

In addition to these three items, I am adding the ability to be thankful to God for people who are helpful in my life’s journey. I am still working on being thankful every day instead of always asking God for something. There is so much to be thankful for. So here is my two moments of marriage wisdom. Took me until I was 38 to figure it out – still figuring it out at 56. Oh well, later is better than never. 🙂

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Rock Bottom

That said, it is not unusual for medications to become ineffective or non-therapeutic after a certain point in time.  It is also true that as a patient I have had to participate in the “laboratory rat syndrome” and try different medications by trial and error and see what works and what doesn’t.  This ‘laboratory rat syndrome” is described later in the text. 

But what is most important to convey about this time period in my life is that I made a conscious decision to be transparent to my health team including my doctor, my therapist and my family. 

It was at this time that I hit rock bottom.  As they say in many recovery programs, you don’t really ever reach sobriety or true healing until after you hit rock bottom.  This period of three to four years after my daughter’s birth is my rock bottom.  I tried several doctors.  I tried several therapists.  I tried several new types of meds.  But none of these worked. At the root of what was going on in hindsight is that I was not being honest or truthful to myself and my support team.  I would schedule doctors’ visits every three to four months as compared to once a month so as to “prove” to myself I was healthy and not in need of help.  There were times when I felt the drugs weren’t working and I stopped taking them. 

This period of sheer and utter chaos in my life finally came to a close when I decided to put my health first.  After the lengthy hospital stay, I stopped working altogether and began weekly sessions with my new therapist and monthly sessions with my new doctor.  I communicated openly to my husband James, my mother and sister Jane about my health and how I was doing.  I became transparent in my place of worship and informed my clergy of my condition.  Basically, I decided at this critical juncture in my life that I was not going to lie to myself or to any other person close to me about how I feel.  Further, I determined that I am not going to hide my condition from myself or from my support team. 

Slowly and very very slowly, after this lengthy hospitalization and move to Clozaril or Clozapine, I began to gain more stability.  This I believe is equally due to the meds, my work with my doctor, my work with my therapist and my dedication to illness transparency in my place of worship and in my family and extended family.  I do not believe the end of the rock bottom period would have occurred without any one of these four developments: meds, doctor, therapist and transparency. 

Further, the end of the rock bottom period did not occur suddenly.  There was no silver bullet toward health.  But rather, this time of reparation was marked by gradual developments in learning to express my fears for safety, learning to address these thoughts of safety before they developed into full-blown paranoia, learning how to be a mother to my child which was preceded by my developing ability to be a parent to myself.  This journey was to take not just weeks or months but years of work. 

Initially, my therapist and I met weekly to work through issues of abandonment and replacement child concerns.  But what was a complete turnaround for me was when I began to talk openly to my therapist about how I perceive the world. It was at this time that I started talking more openly about how I am drawn toward coincidences, patterns and pattern-recognition.  We talked about my fears for safety for my family, my nation and my world.   These fears continued to haunt me throughout the process of climbing out of the hole at rock bottom, but somehow just knowing that another person understood what it meant to see the world in terms of patterns was a huge relief and an even more huge release.

For the first time in my life (literally) there was a person who understood my train of thought.  I no longer felt that my thought processes were singular and inexplicable and inaccessible.  By somehow working with my therapist and my doctor on the intricacies of how my mind worked and how my feelings had been somewhat left behind in the process, the fear that had consumed me for the first three to four years of my daughter’s life was released.  Not cured however but released.

By talking about the patterns that I saw, I no longer felt isolated in my existence.   Without the isolation, the fears of safety seemed to become more and more manageable.  In those years that followed rock bottom, my therapist and I were working on releasing the fear that had been mounting for me as a person not just from the point of birth of my daughter but from a point all the way back to college days at Ivy College where I first discovered my chemical imbalance.  We talked a lot about Professor Flannigan but mostly we talked about how I was intellectually a star student but not so much in touch with my emotions.  Someone more centered in his or her emotions would have been able to tell Professor Flannigan to “go to hell.”  From here, we spent several years looking at my propensity to approach life from my head rather than from my heart.      

In addition to this work with my therapist, I developed a huge amount of trust and respect for my doctor.  We talked about the fact that for the four years’ preceding my work with him, I had not found any sort of solace in my meds.  This doctor seemed to understand that prescribing me an anti-depressant as doctors had been doing since my postpartum period was a huge problem and something to avoid.  This doctor realized that anti-depressants that had been prescribed had been catapulting me into mania off and on for four years prior. 

Perhaps in writing this book or blog, I am encountering a new aspect of the rock bottom experience.  Perhaps the chapter of my life that includes potential abuse as a six-year-old is now sitting on the desk awaiting work.  Working through these details surely will help enable my security and my feelings of security and well-being both for myself but also for my daughter and for my family in general.

My Sojourn thru Bipolar Illness – Nothing in Common

My postpartum depression was off the charts.  It is impossible to relay in this text the gamut of emotional experiences I endured during the first four years’ of my daughter’s life.  Whatever you have heard about postpartum depression stop and multiply by ten.  My meds after fifteen years of being pretty therapeutic stopped working.  I was put on several new meds one after another with no clinical break-throughs. I would later come to understand that the anti-depressants that were augmenting my other meds were causing me to revert into full mania in a repeat pattern every four to six months.  The anti-depressant rather than helping me with the postpartum was catapulting me to the opposite extreme of mania.  This was mania like I had never before experienced.  There were times I felt that my medication had been laced with an illicit substance.  There were times when I felt like all members of my family were dead or in comas and on some sort of life support system overseas at the Swiss Hotel.  There were times when I was prompted to act in manners unsafe for my own well-being. 

Besides the anti-depressant issue which was huge and impactful to me on a daily basis, the overall upshot of this postpartum period was a huge sense of isolation and of fear.  How on earth could I carry on a discussion with other mothers about their child’s potty training or their child’s teething or their child’s pre-school years when I was obsessed by potential terrorist take-overs in the Himalayas? 

With a child in diapers, I and my thoughts were focused on the threat of a nuclear meltdown over the existing power grid, and the threat of nuclear water contamination east of the Mississippi and the threat of terrorists living their daily lives among us.  Thoughts of national security consumed me on a daily basis.  What’s more is that these thoughts of national security also prevented me from being a Mom and talking to other Moms about their kid or their kids.

I felt unable to connect with other young mothers largely because my thoughts continued to soar toward global safety and security in full-blown paranoia.   At one point, I imagined that the United States was undergoing a Civil War and had to address some Constitutionality gap and it was up to me to help do that.  At another instance, I believed that my husband was being cloned at his place of work and it was up to me to stop the cloning.  At another instance, I believed that I or friends and relatives were being cloned at the hand of terrorists.  At another instance, I believed that Lithium was the cure for HIV/AIDS.  At another instance, I believed my brain was implanted with a computer device that was controlled by terrorists or those who were seeking vengeance on me and my family.  At another instance, I believed that I was engaged in some sort of computer “fight-off” where I had to survive some form of computerized attack.  At another instance, I believed that my sister (and not myself) had brain damage from an accident sustained as a child and this somehow made her, and not myself, responsible for my symptoms.  These thoughts and obsessions and paranoid delusions made it nearly impossible to maintain family relations or to develop peer connections surrounding motherhood and being a Mom.  It also kept me feeling isolated in relationships including my relationships with my husband, my rapidly growing up daughter and just about every other person in my family.

In many ways all these fears left me unable to connect to my daughter’s peers and peers’ parents in the first 2 to 4 years of my daughter’s life.  Even today, I have to remind myself of the role of un-therapeutic meds during this extremely vulnerable time.  The use of anti-depressants given my bipolar condition was a huge mistake and one for which my family and I paid the price.  

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Being a Working Mom with Bipolar Illness

Being a working Mom continues to be the most difficult part of my journey.  I am drawn to high- stress and high-pay jobs as this was generally my track before my daughter was born.  However in the last sixteen years I have not been able to work a high paying job for longer than a few months without some sort of bipolar break-through or debilitating anxiety attack.  Usually this involves some sort of high anxiety event where I disclose my health issues to my employers who are invariably not sympathetic and ask me to leave their place of employment. 

My worklife over the past sixteen plus years has gotten more and more difficult as I seek to balance the responsibilities of motherhood and of work.  Again, how potential child abuse issues impact my anxiety levels today is somewhat unknown but something I am working on.

If I want my childcare activities to be front and center or “on,” I need to work at a job that is generally stress free and does not put a priority on a high salary.  I am just coming to terms with this reality and starting to seek jobs that are lower stress and relatively lower pay. This includes looking for work that is part-time, that includes flex-time and/or that is not particularly challenging.    This also includes just doing volunteer work for the time-being.

So far I have not been able to find the balance between motherhood and a job for pay – even if that is a relatively lower paying job.  So I have gravitated toward writing my story with this book / blog series as a way of perhaps finding worklife success in an unconventional manner.

This also includes getting back in touch with the writer in me who attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont some 25 years ago.  But instead of fiction writing, I am focusing on telling people the story of my bipolar illness through this text and perhaps through other texts to come in the near or not so near future.

The ultimate job would allow me to spend time with my daughter and be present for her in her after-school activities like cross country, track and chorus.  The ability to write about my illness, the challenges it presents and my approaches to tackle those challenges may just be the “ultimate job” I am looking for.  Time will tell if my bloglife satisfies my need to work financially or otherwise.

As for the bipolar diagnosis, my husband and I have determined to be relatively transparent to my daughter who is sixteen about mental illness and about addiction issues.  We are betting that Nurture will win out over Nature in the future of her life such that she will be minimally impacted by mood swings and addiction issues.  We talk openly about how we don’t drink alcohol as a family and how we are very sensitive to moods and mood changes.  We have been active in our church and in my daughter’s role as an acolyte as well as a member of the church choir. We hope to be setting the behavioral example that we did not necessarily follow in our growing up years to include marriage at 38 and 42. 

I am hopeful that by providing my daughter with a strong home life and spiritual life, she will muddle through the teen years and twenties without signs of either bipolar illness or addiction.  Invariably, I am aware that these health concerns will probably not hit until her teens and/or twenties if they do occur.  With God’s help, we will steer clear of these obstacles or encounter them in a way that is manageable.  With God’s help, we will also steer clear of any abuse issues that may present during her childhood.

For me, much about being a Mom involves letting go of Ego and embracing God.  While for years my Ego has told me to “follow the money” and jobs that pay high dollar, I am unable to manage these career expectations and still be present in my daughter’s life.  It appears I have “a Mom switch” that it is either on or off with little in between.  This leaves my career choices to be a great deal more restricted than they were before the postpartum period.  Today I seek a job that will provide “a living wage” that will also provide me the opportunity to get my daughter to cross country or track practice or travel to nearby Augusta for an Honors Chorus performance. 

A high-paying job is only feasible for me if I extricate myself from all Mom activities.  That leads to a highly stressful and largely empty lifestyle.  In my current search for work, the pay and the status are taking a back seat to what it is I can do with and for my daughter on a daily and weekly basis. 

I still seek a job that allows a “living wage,” allows meaningful interaction with my daughter and allows ongoing relationship development with my husband.  From what I understand from talking to people with no behavioral health concerns, finding this balance is even a challenge for them.  

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Becoming a Mom

Becoming a Mom has been the greatest gift God has ever given to me.

I got married at 38, got pregnant at 39 and had my child at 40.  I often talk and think about how as a person with a behavioral health diagnosis I have done everything “late.”  I have to talk with myself about how life events like graduating from Ivy College or graduating from Business School or obtaining my professional project management certification may have occurred on God’s timeline rather than on my own.

Perhaps I am not late in achieving these life events any more than I am early in my perceptions or thoughts about time and matter and anti-matter.  Perhaps all of these thoughts and events and timelines are under control with the ultimate project manager – God himself.

Still, I have a hard-time accepting that these successes are on God’s timeline rather than my own.  I want to be able to say “I’m normal” and therefore “my successes have occurred in the way I have prepared for, planned and executed.”  In reality these successes are contingent upon allowing myself some “grace” and the opportunity to pursue my accomplishments in an elongated timeframe.  There are many goals that I have currently that I continue to pursue – the message to myself along these pursuits is that God is in control of these developments, even though I would prefer to be in control myself.  I would prefer to be in control just as that ten-year-old child within does so as perhaps despite myself to take full blame when things don’t go according to plan.  If my child within is six and/or if God is in control, I am no longer in control of the outcomes of my life.  If I give my life over truly to God, then every outcome including the potential for child abuse at age six is part of his plan for me and I need not accept any particular outcome as “my doing” or “my fault.”  Perhaps my role in God’s eyes is to tell my story of abuse so that others will not have to endure such happenings or at a minimum can feel some solidarity surrounding those events.

So it was with having my daughter — the biggest accomplishment of my life.  For years, I heard that Lithium was contra-positive toward being pregnant and carrying a child.  For years in my twenties and my thirties, I asked to change my meds so that I might be ready once I got married to carry a child.  When I met my husband, we talked at length about the fact that bipolar illness has a huge genetic component and that there would be some risk of passing the illness along to my child.  I considered this strongly and even looked into the idea of surrogate eggs and surrogate Moms.  In addition, there was a study occurring at a local university hospital which posited that risks to the fetus for heart impacts associated with lithium use by the mom were grossly overstated. My husband was not keen on the surrogate or adoption alternatives, so about 7 months after we were married, we started to try through traditional methods to get pregnant.  I was 39 at the time.  I believe that prior to this time, I may not have been ready to be a Mom, at the same time I do not really advise people to wait too long to have kids.  My husband and I were very blessed to become pregnant within two months of trying.  For most people at the age of 39 in vitro and other pregnancy/fertilization tactics would have been needed.

Even amidst the throes of postpartum depression and related problems, having my daughter in my life and experiencing her as part of my family with my husband continues to be the greatest blessing in my life.  Even now in the midst of the teen years and our occasional head-butting, my daughter continues without a doubt to be the love of my life tying with my husband. 

Question about consumerism and consumption?

I am reposting my Comments to a prior posting below:

I think people’s patterns of consumerism and consumption around the States or around the world are fascinating during these crazy times. What are the things that the people themselves feel are essential? Spending on food has gone up in part because of all the food shopping and in part because food prices are getting higher. But what is essential for one group – like being able to go to a bar or get a haircut – is not necessarily essential for another group of people. In fact, I am not sure if our modern day definitions of consumer behavior even have the capability of parsing our behavior into more specific subgroups.

These subgroups could be defined via age or could be defined via level of risk they are willing to take on or by their need to protect and continue their livelihoods. So far as I understand things, economic models talk about consumer behavior as one thing or one entity. But within that definition of consumerism and consumption are huge variations surrounding consumer beliefs about what is essential to their households or not.

I am wondering if our economic models will have to evolve to cover subsectors of consumers and consumerism. Or maybe I am just uneducated? Just a question for today’s times?

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Managing Anxiety Then and Now

My daughter was born 16 years ago when I was 40 years old.  She is the light and the delight of my world, yet her birth marks a turning point in my illness particularly as regards my experiences of anxiety.  As a parent, my experience of anxiety has quadrupled or more over the years of being a parent. 

In years prior to the birth of my daughter, everyday life felt relatively normal between breaks with breaks or mini-breaks coming every six months or so each year.  After the birth of my daughter this scenario was replaced by a low to medium to sometimes high level of generalized anxiety all of the time.  This generalized anxiety now persists as my benchmark or my norm with little or few break-down episodes.

While I no longer have episodes that land me in the hospital or at my sister Jane’s house twice a year, I do maintain and live with a generalized sense of anxiety all the time.  In many ways my illness has migrated from severe to partially severe breaks every six months to living with anxiety on a regular basis.  The anxiety may also be the by-product of mixed moods – or experiencing mania and depression simultaneously.

The good news is I have become better at policing my environment and know those things that trigger my anxiety:   fears of safety, not being sure the house is locked or secure, not knowing the location of important things like documents in the safe or prescription medication, big parties where there is an emphasis on alcohol and drinking…. In many ways it feels like my bipolar illness has migrated toward including a combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. 

But, I am not the doctor and as far as I know I am still diagnosed as having bipolar illness… 

As a parent as discussed, I tend to be hyper-focused on safety concerns for my daughter as well as for my family.  I tend to be extra vigilant about little things like crossing the street or being in a venue where alcohol is served or being aware of predators on the internet or elsewhere.

I also appear to have some short-term memory problems that I associate with a high dosage of meds over the years and/or over-active brain synapses.   These short-term memory issues continue to present challenges to me particularly in the workplace.  At times, I am challenged with finding a place for everyday things like a wallet or keys or cell phone.  It is also difficult for me to keep track of things of my daughter’s like phones, laptops, keys, etc. Each of these things has to have a specific place or I will become anxious in the not knowing.  The not knowing again is tied with the short-term memory challenges. 

These short-term memory issues have turned me into “a checker.”  Before leaving the house, I check routinely that the stove and oven are off and that other appliances are unplugged.  I have developed a checking routine for various appliances and doorways before leaving the house.  This level of “checking” feels important for me because of the memory issues but drives my husband and my daughter crazy.  

In general, I would say that the general anxiety that I experience currently presents my largest challenge in the management of my life including my role as mother to my sixteen-year-old daughter.  The anxiety is something that I face every day.  Being overly sedated so as not to feel the anxiety is one approach.  I am hopeful, however, that the medication I have been taking for the last 10 years will allow me to address that generalized sense of anxiety.  Perhaps also, this anxiety simply is tied with being a parent and all the worrying about things that that role entails.    Perhaps also this anxiety is due to unresolved issues of potential child abuse when I was six.

Prior to my daughter’s birth, I managed my condition with a combination of lithium and tegretol for ten plus years.  This was my regime when I had the mini breaks every six months or so that were treated with Mellaril and Haldol.  Now, I no longer have those mini break-through episodes, but I do have a sense of generalized anxiety a lot of the time.  The generalized anxiety appears for now to be the trade-off for no longer having the mini-breaks.   Managing through this generalized anxiety is my current mental health challenge.     I am hopeful as I get through to the other side of child abuse as a six-year-old, these anxiety symptoms will abate markedly.