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I Didn’t Let Bipolar Disorder Keep Me From Finding Lasting Love

By Gabe HowardFebruary 14, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

In seventh grade, I told my science teacher I was looking forward to getting married. He said that’s what all kids my age think — he chalked it up to hormones, the example of our parents, and plain old cultural conditioning.

I disagreed with him. I was sure that I wasn’t just going along with the crowd. I was sure my reason was special.

He was right, to an extent — my desire to be married was because I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to feel love, acceptance, and stability, and I thought marriage could give me those things.

But, as it turned out, I was right, too — my reason really was different. Although I didn’t realize it in the seventh grade, living with bipolar disorder made me feel insignificant and unwanted. Thoughts of suicide and self-hatred were feelings that, in my mind, marriage could fix. Once I found the right woman, all my sadness would melt away.

Of course, I eventually learned (the hard way) that marriage couldn’t fix my problems. In fact, it seemed to create new ones. Because I looked at my wife as someone who was supposed to solve all my problems, I was constantly angry with her for failing. I blamed her for my feelings of loneliness and began to resent her.

That was my first wife. We were married young — she was 18 and I was barely 20 — and we both believed that marriage was the magical cure-all that our lives needed to be whole.

Consequently, we were both constantly disappointed in our choices and treated each other terribly. Years after our divorce, when someone would ask why my first marriage didn’t work out, I’d quip that it turns out women don’t like being married to untreated bipolars.

It was meant as a joke, but it’s accurate. Trying to use my wife as a treatment for mental illness is literally crazy. Pardon the pun.

By the time my second wife came along, I was diagnosed and had started treatment, but I hadn’t yet reached recovery. I didn’t quite grasp that people can’t make me better. I thought that the combination of medication and my new relationship was the key to being happy.

I still thought, at that point in my life, that happiness came from an external source. I believed that as soon as I met the right person, lived in the right place, or had the right job, I’d be happy.

My relationship with my second wife was better, but still not sustainable. We divorced after 5 years but remained friends. During our time together, I learned more about my illness and found the right medication combination, but the marriage ended because I didn’t enter as a whole person.

The rules of marriage don’t change just because I’m a person living with bipolar disorder. I entered both of those marriages trying to see what my wife could do for me. It never occurred to me that I needed to do things for her. I was emotional and stressed, but more than anything, I was incredibly selfish.

I wasn’t stable as a single person, so being in a relationship only amplified my deficiencies instead of removing them. When I realized this, I knew I had to put a lot of work into improving my overall well-being so I would be in a good position to be in the stable relationship I craved.

I was single for 2 1/2 years before I met my third wife. And this time, I had a lot to offer. I was stable, funny, and caring. I could take care of myself, and I could take care of her. We clicked because we both knew what we wanted in a marriage before we met.

We moved forward carefully. We wanted to be together not to solve a problem, but to enhance our lives — lives that were stable and fulfilling before we met.

I insisted that she take classes on mental illness and bipolar disorder. I wanted her to understand, as much as possible, what it meant to manage a serious illness for a lifetime. We had conversations about what I’d been through and what we expected from each other in terms of help and care.

Today, my plan for a happy marriage is to manage bipolar disorder separately from managing my marriage whenever possible. I ensure I’m open and honest with my spouse and insist she treats me the same. We are a team, and we care for each other. And in this marriage, I do have the love, acceptance, and stability that everyone longs for — but that’s because I found those things inside myself first.

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer, mental health advocate, and sought-after speaker. He is the host of The Psych Central Show podcast and a regular contributor to Psych Central, Bipolar Magazine, and other online journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Kendall. He can be found online at gabehoward.com.

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