Health & Fitness

Bipolar: The husband I knew and loved just disappeared

Sarah*, 34, an advertising manager from Leeds, hardly recognised her husband Phil*, 35, when he became ill with bipolar disorder. Here she shares the journey of his recovery

‘When Phil and I first met in the bookshop where he worked, he was studying art at university. We both loved galleries and were from similar backgrounds, so we had plenty in common. He was good-looking, with a great dress sense and I was immediately attracted to him. We started going to galleries and the theatre together, and soon fell in love.

We got married in 2004 and with hindsight, even back then there were subtle signs of his depression, but I think he hid most of his feelings from me. I assumed he just experienced the usual ups and downs of life. Other times he’d have a sudden fascination with a particular topic. For instance, he’d read voraciously about a certain poet. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but years later I came to recognise it as the manic side of his condition.

Phil’s illness came on suddenly in July 2007, three years after we married. I was away working, when I got a call from his colleague saying, ‘Phil’s had to go home from work, he’s had some kind of panicattack.’ He told me not to worry, but of course I was desperate to finish my work trip, so I could see him.

That night I got home to find Phil in bed, shaking, anxious and upset. He said he felt he couldn’t breathe. I thought it must be some kind of depression or stress brought on by his job in graphic design. I was so
worried and felt terrible leaving him, but two days later, I had to go back to work as I was in the middle of a big campaign. He was too ill to work from then on, so his GP and a private psychiatrist we’d been
recommended, prescribed tranquillisers and antipsychotic drugs.

We went on holiday for two weeks in the September, but he spent most of the time crying. He barely slept and was having terrifying visions of dark creatures coming to get him. He was clearly not himself, then things got much worse.

Back in the UK, his psychiatrist (whom a relative was kindly paying for) changed his medication to help with the visions. Heavily medicated and depressed, he spent most of the day in bed, then sometimes got up at night. He stopped showering and shaving, and gained five stone in six months, partly a side effect of his medication and also because he was hardly moving. The Phil I knew and loved had just disappeared.

Some days he’d go missing and stay with his friends or his sister who lives nearby. He’d tell me he couldn’t stand being in the flat. At first I thought he was going away for a short break, but then he’d be gone for a week or two. Sometimes, not knowing where he was, I’d have to ring round everyone.

One night he vanished while staying with his sister and she had to drive around looking for him. Eventually she found him sitting on the ground by a bus stop. It was so awful, because he wouldn’t even speak to me on the phone. I coped purely because I love him so much.

That Christmas was bleak. He was suicidal and sent me text messages, saying, ‘I can’t go on like this.’ I didn’t know what to do and began to suffer from depression myself. I started taking antidepressants and
seeing a counsellor, which was a huge help.

After he came home, I felt like his mother or nurse, rather than his wife. I knew I needed to get myself better so I could be there for him on an emotional and practical level – to get him up each morning and
make sure the flat and his clothes were clean. He then entered a manic phase where he compulsively shopped on-line and got into debt. I’d find bin bags of gadgets he’d bought.

Finally in 2008, he saw an NHS psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was a relief to know what was wrong, but also a blow to realise it was a lifetime’s commitment. I couldn’t help
thinking, this wasn’t what I signed up for, as his wife, but I loved him deeply so I knew I’d stand by him. The hospital’s team saw him regularly to give him the care he needed.

Phil’s healthy now and only needs to take one medication, which works well for him (at one point he needed six). He’s back at work, exercises regularly and knows how to manage his illness. We’ve had to renegotiate our relationship to move forward, but we’ve come through it. He’s a different person – more vulnerable and sensitive – but the fact we’re still together shows how strong our relationship is.’

*Names have been changed.

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