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And as anyone would, she resented it when I played nutritionist. I eventually decided the only way to preserve the relationship was to let her do what she wanted. As her physical health seemed to deteriorate, I resisted temptations to call her doctor. But according to David Oliver, I should have. Oliver, who is not a psychiatrist, runs one of the internet's most popular sites on bipolar disorder, Bipolar Central. He launched his bipolar consulting business because he was dissatisfied with the professional care his bipolar mother received.
"There's a huge flaw in the system," says Oliver. "They give you fifteen minutes at the doctor, they forget to tell you there are ten to twelve different meds, or to warn you about the side effects you're experiencing."
That lack of professional supervision means people in relationships with bipolar individuals must step outside the normal boundaries, according to Oliver — communicating with your boyfriend's doctor behind his back, for instance. Such actions have saved lives; they've also violated trust, and in the end, I found myself unable to tell where the line separating those two requirements was. "It has been my experience that some people [with a bipolar partner] use the disorder as their immunity card," says Danielle. "Nothing in the relationship is their fault because they're dating or married to a bipolar person." My relationship with Sara was filled with gray areas — the popsicle issue, for instance — in which I could never figure out the right thing to do.
Which is why some bipolar people prefer to date others with the same disorder. Thirty-seven-year-old librarian James Leftwich struggled for years with relationships because of his schizoaffective disorder — essentially
"Personally, I'm in a frame of mind where I'm not sure I want someone with a mental illness," says one bipolar sufferer.
bipolar coupled with schizophrenia's delusions or hallucinations. Tired of being misunderstood by a population generally unfamiliar with his condition, he created NoLongerLonely.com, one of the few dating websites for the mentally ill. In four years, he says, the site has helped produce countless relationships and at least six marriages. But even for someone with a similar illness, another person's mental health is not an easy thing to be responsible for, and Leftwich says even he isn't sure he would use his own website right now. "Personally, I'm in a frame of mind where I'm not sure I want someone with a mental illness," he says.
On the other hand, an issue like bipolar disorder may encourage a healthy sense of compassion. When twenty-eight-year-old software engineer Jil told her husband about her illness on their very first date, she was happy that he seemed a little bewildered and had lots of questions — it meant he cared. "I also wanted to be a better person because of him, and when I feel no other reason to swallow those pills that stabilize my mood, I do it for his sake, not just my own," says Jil.
It was a sunny Saturday morning. Just a few minutes earlier I'd been lying on the couch, reading one of the self-help books Sara had given me to help ease us through our crumbling relationship. Then, without warning, she stumbled out of the bathroom and collapsed on the floor. I think I would have lost it had she not regained consciousness a minute or so later, or if the paramedics had not arrived as quickly as they did. After I gave them the names of Sara's medications and watched them load her into the ambulance, I called her mother, a woman I'd only spoken to a few times. She received the news almost serenely. It wasn't the first time her daughter had been whisked off to the hospital.
Sara's wasn't an overdose, or a suicide attempt — at least, not an overt one. I'd known Sara was severely anemic, that her pills had made her stomach bleed. For months I'd asked her what her doctors were doing about it, and she'd given me cheerful answers about iron infusions and blood transplants. I no longer believed her, but I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I researched her medications and learned all sorts of frightening things. One of them wasn't even indicated for her disorder; it was an epilepsy medication that the drug companies encouraged psychiatrists to use off-label.
She talked about visiting the hospital the way other people talk about visiting their grandparents.
But it was difficult for me to voice my reservations about her care. Sara liked hospitals. She loved Scrubs. She admired doctors, detested any criticism of the medical system, and talked about her psychiatrist as if he were a best friend. When she spent a night at a sleep-study clinic (she thought she was narcoleptic), she talked about it as if it were a slumber party. She kept getting into fender benders from falling asleep on the freeway, yet still insisted on driving to volunteer at the hospital that had saved her after her suicide attempt. It was more than simple gratitude, she admitted; the hospital's rituals made her feel safe and comfortable. She talked about it the way other people talk about visiting their grandparents.
When I told Sara what I'd learned about her medications, she told me she would rather die than get off of them, and pointed out that she knew the cost of them better than I did. She couldn't remember words, for instance — she who had wanted to be a writer. But those pills had given her a reason to live. Did I know better than her doctors did? No, I supposed I didn't. I knew that for us to have a healthy relationship, though, I needed to trust her. The trouble was, I no longer did. At that moment, I decided I couldn't stay with Sara any longer.
That day, when I got to the hospital, I found her looking happier than I'd ever seen her. I was baffled. Five minutes earlier the doctor had informed us that her life was in danger if she didn't find some way to fix her anemia. But she seemed at peace now. That was the worst part about it — in her hospital gown, sitting up on her austere gurney bed, she looked as if she were finally at home.
I have my own theory about relationships with the bipolar: the successful ones are those in which the relationship simply isn't in competition with the disease. Sara seemed to regard the illness as a more intimate part of her than I could ever understand — not just a profoundly affecting experience, the way other serious diseases are, but almost the entire essence of her existence. In the end, I simply wanted there to be more. n°
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|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
A recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Justin Clark has written for L.A. Weekly, Psychology Today, Black Book, Architecture, Fuse, and The Fader, among other publications. He is currently researching a history of the American child prodigy, and writing a mystery novel set in Los Angeles.