In sickness and in health

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The 2016 memes are hard to avoid, if you live in certain circles. Many of us have learned to our cost that surrounding ourselves with only the views of those who think as we do can give just as blinkered a view of reality as those whose opinions we decry.

As I write this, the world is reeling from terror attacks in Berlin and Turkey. Civil war continues to rage in Syria and I can’t quite bear to find out the latest from Aleppo. For each still crying newborn rescued from the rubble, how many innocents lie undiscovered in shallow graves? The world seems unsure and frightening. The path we are travelling is untested, following leaders I would never have chosen in a direction which every inch of my being says is wrong.

I don’t know how the history books will look back on 2016. Will it be seen as a pivotal point in history as the western world takes a step to the right, turns its back firmly on those who don’t look or sound like us and sets the scene for increasing political and civil unrest, a rise in global poverty, a rise in ‘acceptable’ racism and the emboldening of those who have long held deeply unpleasant beliefs? None of us know and only time will tell. I do know, however, that 2016 will be an important part of my personal history.

Shortly after the EU referendum, my husband began to act a little ‘odd’. In a time of angry rants on social media, of ¬†Brexiters, Brexiteers, Bremainers, Bremoaners and an increasingly unlikely number of portmanteaus, my husband’s posts could have been seen as part of the bigger picture of discontent in certain sections of society. But to me, something jarred. Something wasn’t quite right. He applied to assist at a field school in Laos. He was going to apply to Oxford University for a Masters degree. He was going to get a tattoo. Of a God. He became more and more irritable. Never good at listening, he became incapable of having a conversation with me without interrupting. His mood swings were sudden and violent. He once shouted at our elder daughter – for interrupting him – in a restaurant so loudly that a nearby family looked over in absolute horror.

It hadn’t been plainsailing since he was diagnosed with psychotic depression and at the time I was warned there might come a time that we needed relationship counselling and, after a completely unnecessary argument about Tom Daley’s sexuality (yes, really) it became apparent to me that time was now. Heaven only knows I was more irritable and less tolerant and, if I am completely honest, harbouring some resentment about the role I had been forced to take when he first became ill at a time when our baby daughter habitually woke every two hours all night, every night. But underneath these relationship concerns, hid a deeper worry – was he becoming ill again?

It didn’t feel like last time. It wasn’t scary in quite the same way. But it didn’t feel right either. There were plans being made, all the time, plans which had no basis in the realities of being a married father of two reliant on the income of two parents. It wasn’t until he mentioned that two colleagues had raised concerns that he seemed stressed that I was able to convince him to return to the doctor. I had, in fact, to agree to first go to the doctor on my own account, then he would see her, then we agreed we would give Relate a try.

I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t want him to be ill. But if he was given a clean bill of mental health, I feared that had a lot of not very positive things to say about our relationship. Not to mention my lack of trust in him. If he, in full possession of his mental faculties, believed the way he was behaving to me and to our children was acceptable then there were some fundamental differences in our attitudes that needed to be addressed and there wouldn’t be any easy answers. I do truly believe that marriage is for better and for worse and you do have to take the rough with the smooth – but the man I was living with bore barely a shadow of resemblance to the man I married.

The first time my husband mentioned the words ‘bipolar disorder’ I thought he might have misunderstood. It wasn’t written down on the letter to his doctor which he was copied in to. When the first doctor called to have a chat with me to get my perspective, he talked about how anti-depressants can sometimes send people a little ‘high’ so they would be taking him off them. Wrong medication, it seemed. Had my husband got it wrong? But when I was invited in to the next appointment, it was pretty stark ‘I think we can be clear that you have bipolar’. The consultant at the next appointment confirmed the diagnosis. It’s in writing now. And it is finally starting to make sense.

In the new year, he will have blood levels taken and will start on lithium (one of the few medications for mental illness that almost everyone has heard of). For now he is on anti-psychotics again. The list of possible side-effects is as long as my arm. He is much closer to ‘normal’ since taking the medication. But I know that at some point in the future he won’t be. This is a lifelong condition now. The lithium may mean the highs and lows are less extreme, shorter and less frequent. They almost never go altogether. My children are¬†thought to be ten times more likely to develop the condition than the general population. Our marriage is two or three times more likely to end in divorce.

The information I have read so far, the forums I have joined, indicate I am doing almost everything wrong already. I’m finding it hard to take in. I’m finding it even harder to allow him to make his own bad decisions – because the decisions he takes have a direct or indirect impact on us. My well of sympathy, patience and understanding has been drawn on heavily over the last few years. I need to dig deeper and find more. Each day I resolve to think of a way to demonstrate to my husband that he is loved. Unfortunately I am all too human and flawed and too bloody tired so when the moment comes to demonstrate that act of love, more often than not something sparks my frustration instead. It’s not fair. He didn’t ask to be sick, to submit to a lifetime of medication and medical intervention. It’s not his fault. But then, sometimes it IS his fault. Sometimes, it won’t be the illness. It will be him being an arse. Because he is human too.

By 10th January, when David Bowie died, 2016 already had a black mark against it. Can we strike it from the record? Or can I just mark it down as the year I learned to play the harp and crochet (although not simultaneously, that’s my task for 2017)?

I can’t be happy about my husband’s bipolar disorder yet, or about Brexit, or Trump, or a world without Alan Rickman and Bowie and Prince and Harper Lee, where bombs fall on civilians and refugees with brown faces are not welcome and children have to declare their country of birth when they register in schools. I can’t change these things. But I hope I can come to terms with what I cannot change and support those best placed to change the things which can change. Hope and a sense of humour will see us all through. It has to. That and the harp.