The culture of finger-pointing and catastrophizing others' words has grown…
This post is an excerpt from the book, “Healing the Stormy Marriage: Hope and Help for You when Your Loved has Mental Health or Addiction Issues,” co-authored by myself and my wife, Helen. Helen was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 2, a lesser-known, depressive form of Bipolar Disorder. Psychology professionals warned that our chances of surviving as a couple were statistically an “outlier” (extremely remote). But here we are. May our story bring hope and concrete ideas for how you can survive and heal.
Helen and I met on the very first day that I became a traveling musician. My band was booked at a hotel in her New Jersey town for two weeks and we saw each other every day for fourteen unforgettable days.
Within days of meeting her, I sensed she had every quality I didn’t have and more. I was completely in love and admired so many things about her even though we scarcely knew each other.
To this day, people often describe Helen as a “light.” She has an amazing energy, playfulness, humor, and sweetness about her. Everyone loves her.
I proposed marriage within a month of our meeting and I felt like the luckiest guy in the world when she enthusiastically accepted. Because the band traveled throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and West Virginia, we spent far less time together while dating than most couples. Nevertheless, we were married in less than six months from that amazing day we met.
As surprising and hard as our marriage turned out to be, I have no regrets about our marriage and I firmly believe that God led me to her. We were meant to be. Great blessings have come to us and many of our friends and family as a result of our union.
The First Disagreement
I vividly remember our first disagreement. It was about two months after we met and my band was playing in her area again.
I was driving and she was a passenger as we navigated an area she knew well. At one point, she told me to take a certain exit. Just as I was approaching the exit, I said, “Wait a minute, are you sure this is the right one?”
She said nothing and turned her head away from me, staring out the window for the rest of the ride, completely shut down, barely acknowledging anything I said.
We were engaged to be married at this time, and I was totally confused. I grew more anxious by the minute. Then by the hour. Then by the day.
Three anguished days later, she came to see me with a little stuffed piggie wearing a sweater that read, “Hug Me.” She apologized and was incredibly sweet, which I perceived to be her “true self” again. But what had happened? Why had she not returned my calls? Why this prolonged anger?
Little did I know that my questioning her about something she knew better than I did would put her over the edge emotionally.
I have an intense need to understand my surroundings and the logic behind decisions. I resist fully trusting others and want to comprehend things myself. To this day, this tendency of mine understandably conflicts with Helen’s need to be validated and trusted (and it reveals issues of my own).
This was the first time I was stunned by Helen’s instant and unrelenting anger. It was definitely not the last.
Three months after this episode and just before we were married, I clearly remember walking through a park as she tried to warn me not to marry her.
“I’m a witch, and I mean it,” she said earnestly (and not in the occult sense of the word).
I laughed. Not this sweet woman. Sure, there had been a few stressful moments, I thought to myself, but with the light of the gospel, I was sure we could work through a few wrinkles.
She went on to say she had a lot of problems and didn’t want to hurt me. I calmly assured her that everything would be fine, believing in my heart that our marriage was meant to be and that God would help us through it.
“Be ready to buy me ice cream when I’m mad,” she said.
I was unfazed and remained certain that happiness was around the corner.
I ended up buying a lot of ice cream.
“Normal” Reactions vs. “Clinically Abnormal” Reactions
After we were married, we had disagreements about the same things that tend to cause conflict in any marriage: money, in-laws, sex, values, priorities, etc.
What’s different in a mentally unstable relationship is the way in which the affected spouse deals with those stresses.
When reactions to stress become bewildering overreactions resulting in intense, long-lasting consequences, they become “clinical” and require a psychiatric professional to diagnose and treat.
But as a young husband, how was I to know what was abnormal or what was typical of new marriages? I had heard that marriage was hard and that women tended to be very emotional. What I was experiencing certainly didn’t seem normal, healthy or fair, but I didn’t initially suspect mental illness.
After terrible episodes, which gradually escalated from prolonged silence to angry words, to hitting herself, to terrible non-sensical accusations against me and others, fears of every shape and variety, Helen would completely withdraw and then calm down and be as humble and kind and loving as a person could imagine.
Sometimes she would “snap out of it” in an instant and want me to be perfectly happy and forget all about the problems.
Over time, she would resent my efforts to talk and resolve and understand what had just happened. She just wanted me to forget that anything had happened and snap back to normal like she did.
But I was whiplashed and hurting.
“Why Are You Punishing Me?”
Helen had almost no ability to cope with my feelings or my reactions to her behavior whatsoever. Neither of us realized it at the time, but I have Bipolar Disorder II, the depressive version of the more widely-known manic (hyper-excited) Bipolar Disorder.
Because of my issues, when Helen acted crazy, I would get very stressed out and become quiet and depressed.
Helen hated it when I wasn’t happy or talking. She would cry, “Why are you punishing me?” over and over. I thought this was nonsense and I told her so. I wasn’t trying to punish her at all. I tried to explain that I was hurt and shocked and tired from the painful episodes but she was never able to comprehend that.
It took many years for me to realize that Helen was regressing to the mindset of a young child when she was under stress, which is a known BPD coping behavior. So, if I as her husband (whom she thought of as a parent) was emotionally unavailable or stressed out, she took it personally and interpreted it as “punishment.”
The thought that her husband was an adult with feelings and needs of his own simply did not register in her psyche. It was incomprehensible to her no matter how I tried to explain it.
Separations and Progress
Throughout our first year, there were never more than two weeks that passed without some kind of bizarre, emotionally intense blow-out resulting in her lying in bed and staring. Usually, it was every two or three days.
After a year of intensely painful experiences, I decided to separate from her. I prayed about decisions at that time and felt it was the best I could do because I was near collapse.
After taking a short-term, menial, make-ends-meet job for a few months, I was blessed with the opportunity to use my education as a math teacher at a juvenile correctional facility in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, about 6 miles from the nearest little town and 40 minutes from any McDonald’s restaurant.
I had stayed in contact with Helen throughout the separation and we decided to reunite and she would join me deep in this isolated forest where the juvenile “prison” was located.
This isolation didn’t help much because Helen is also a very social person and she likes the energy and excitement of a city.
At the juvenile facility, I worked with brutally disrespectful, dysfunctional young men for twelve intensely stressful years. It’s impossible to describe the combined stress of dealing with them every day at work while being overwhelmed at home. I became deeply, severely depressed at times and began to lose touch with myself.
During this time, my wife and I separated two more times. The separations were helpful because I was able to ground myself again and set limits. I was being emotionally abused and I knew it, and it was not healthy to allow it to continue.
With each separation, I could sense progress being made. Individuals with BPD, bipolar disorder, and addictions need to have clear limits or they can wreak terrible havoc in others’ lives.
During one of these separations, I had filed for divorce. Filing for divorce triggered in Helen another fundamental fear common to those with BPD: the fear of abandonment. Psychologists consider this the number-one fear for many BPD sufferers.
The abandonment issue places the spouse or family member in a tough spot. They must set limits to protect themselves and help the BPD individual view their own actions from an adult perspective.
But setting limits and separating from them triggers their spouse’s darkest fears: “I’m unlovable. I will be abandoned, I know it,” which leads to “I hate you” and “You never really loved me” statements.
Nevertheless, looking back, separating was the right thing and our relationship progressed.
Back in our second year of marriage, I learned more about mental health issues and realized that Helen had some type of condition and needed care. She reluctantly began seeing a professional and was periodically in psychiatric hospitals during times of crisis.
Initially, none of the medications they gave her helped.
About ten years after we married, Helen was prescribed a medication that made a world of difference. Within days of first taking it, she walked up and looked right at me with such serene, hopeful eyes. “This is really helping me. I feel so much better,” she said.
But medications have side effects, including weight gain. Because Helen’s left leg is paralyzed from the knee down, she needed to watch out for weight gain, and so the years that followed were filled with trying different medications. Nevertheless, she continued to gain weight and that was concerning.
Around this time, her mother suddenly passed away, which was extremely hard on her. Soon after, her father began living with us.
Helen’s overall mindset deteriorated, and no combination of medications or therapy seemed to help. At year fifteen of our marriage, there were still major emotional meltdowns about every three days, which was even harder to conceal with her father close at hand.
After a combination of bitter disputes, a miserably failed vacation, her new smoking habit which infuriated me, and discovery of her secret credit card that was nearly maxed out, I became despondent.
One day a voice inside me said, “That’s it. You can’t do this anymore.” I just stared at the breakfast table and knew that was true.
I became resolute. I had given all I had to give at that point in my life. I was crumpling, and I felt the Holy Spirit sanction the decision to protect myself.
I told Helen we needed to separate and that I was going to file for divorce. This astonished both of us.
“How could this happen?” I agonized.
I knew our marriage was right. I had received so many witnesses from God! We had made progress in some ways. Yet I knew we were at a dead end and I had nothing left.
But God clearly approved the decision to separate and pursue the divorce.
A Life-Altering Accident
We separated for the fourth time. Helen and her father moved into other houses and I remained in Virginia where I had taken a new job.
I bought Helen a home in Pennsylvania where I fully expected she would live the rest of her life and I would move on.
To this day, Helen painfully reminds me of how “cold” I was toward her on the day we moved her belongings into her new house. I had resolved that the relationship was over and I needed to emotionally detach to protect myself. She again perceived it as mean, intentional punishment.
But being a prayerful person, I continued to pray for guidance. I repeatedly felt that I should not rush things to finalize the divorce but that I should “wait for the Lord.”
“Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34, ESV)
When I was at work one day, the receptionist came back to my room in a panic saying that a “crazy woman” was on the phone demanding that she talk to me. It was Helen’s sister, calling in a frenzy, telling me that Helen had fallen and twisted around in her bathtub and that her leg had been shattered. She was going to be in the hospital and the surgeons were going to do what they could.
I knew this was a catastrophe for her and I decided to make the trip up to Pennsylvania through the night.
I went into her hospital room at about 2 a.m. She had a sweet smile and told me the doctors had done surgery, implanting various metal bars to try to make her leg functional again.
With prayer and laying on of hands for a priesthood blessing, it worked. She could walk but never as well as she did before. Within a couple of years, she was in a wheelchair most of the time.
Ultimately, this experience was beneficial for Helen because she was stuck alone in the house with little help. (God did mercifully send our high-school aged nephew to live with her, which was truly a miracle in terms of timing because she was nearly immobile.) She felt the weight of personal responsibility to care for herself and she had to decide how to live with nobody else to blame or influence her.
The harsh boundaries of real life had closed in on her and it was God’s treatment plan and tutoring.
Had she not known that I was pursuing a divorce, she would not have felt the weight of responsibility to truly act for herself. I am not recommending this for you. I am merely sharing what happened in our story as evidence that God was still at work with us. A confusing attempt to divorce turned to our good and ironically, our reunification.
She started listening to religious programming on TV, which filled her heart with inspiring messages and hope. For the first time, she began to live with faith and make decisions to live with the Lord first in her life. She quit smoking. She lost weight (mostly because nobody fed her, she would joke, but in truth she followed a strict diet and quit all of her medications, which is not something we would recommend today).
I could sense the difference in her and naively assumed that everything would be better now that the gospel had truly come into her life. “Perhaps the meds weren’t necessary after all?” I wondered.
I agreed to get back together with Helen and that was our last separation (nineteen years ago as of this writing).
Breaking the Eggshells
As with the other separations, growth had occurred for both of us as a result and our relationship was functioning better than before. But serious problems came back with intensity.
For the first time, I began to realize that I was part of the problem. I was triggering her upsets somehow. In many ways, she had been living with greater peace without me than with me, I could see. And she was getting more upset the longer we were together!
This was deeply concerning. “Were we not meant to be after all?” That made no sense. I had received such powerful witnesses from the Holy Spirit that we were right for each other and that we should get back together again.
With some horror, I also noticed that I was changing mentally too. I was slowing down a little and I wasn’t able to handle her crazy behaviors as well as before.
I was fatigued from it all and that frightened me.
One day, Helen was yelling something outlandish at me—probably another “Catch 22” no-win directive of some kind where I felt trapped by her illogic.
I recall unintentionally ducking behind a reclining chair in our living room as if hiding from her and shielding myself from her words.
It wasn’t until after I had left the room that I realized what I had done. I was afraid of her. I feared that I was being permanently harmed psychologically. Who on earth hides behind a chair during an argument?
Around this time, I discovered the book, Stop Walking on Eggshells, which I strongly recommend for anyone living with a person with BPD.
With that book, I began to understand how, when, and why a person with BPD is triggered and goes “off the rails.” This book satisfied my deep craving to just understand what on earth was happening and how to prevent or minimize the outbursts. (This is why we so strongly recommend that you learn about your spouse’s condition or illness and seek guidance from mental health professionals. For your own sake, you need to understand them.)
I also realized that I had been unintentionally triggering painful emotional upsets for Helen. I understood why she had been happier in some ways living alone. It gave me insight to know what not to do or say. I saw that my efforts to fix and prevent problems were misguided and harmful. I meant well but I wasn’t helping at all. I had lacked understanding.
I tried to do better. But monitoring my words and my facial expressions while watching out for her feelings and mental state was draining. And it is impossible to prevent all conflict, despite our best efforts, even today.
My Near Collapse
I had been so broken down by the stress of our relationship that we decided to start sleeping in separate beds. I was surprised that she agreed to it and I credit a merciful God with helping us both see the necessity.
For years, when Helen was upset she would keep talking even after we went to bed. This was her most sinister, destructive behavior because she kept waking me up at the first sign that I was sleeping. If she was still steaming mad, then I wasn’t going to have the pleasure of falling asleep. “You have to get me out of this!” she would often say.
I would just lay there as still as I could and try not to snore or anything. It was traumatizing because in my near subconscious state, there she would be again, saying crazy things.
It took seven years of sleeping separately before I felt safe enough to sleep next to her again and even then I was nervous for weeks.
At the lowest point in my life, psychologically, the mental fatigue was so intense that I was pretty much in a depression for three years straight. The professionals could not find the right medications; nothing was really helping me.
Somehow at this time, however, Helen became very gentle with me and absolutely mature. Not all of the time, but sometimes. She allowed me to be weak and vulnerable. She would let me fully express myself and share how upset and hurt I was without having a meltdown herself! This was unheard of in earlier years. I can still picture several moments where having such a conversation took our relationship to a much healthier, safer place. What an inexpressible relief.
I also thank God in heaven that he gave me an easy job during that time because I was so worn out, I couldn’t have handled anything more. I worked with kind and caring people who were having similar life experiences. God is so merciful. He has always given me what is needed—even if He didn’t take the full problem away.
Doctors finally figured out my unique mental illness (Bipolar Disorder II) and found the right combinations of medications to help me feel better. Today, I feel amazing most of the time thanks to spiritual learning and healing, my medications, and a much more stable relationship with Helen.
Blessings in the Furnace
Hard times are often called the “furnace of affliction.” The problems hurt us terribly but they don’t necessarily harm us. The intensity of the flame does positive things to our souls—if we accept those problems with faith in God—which is a major theme of this book.
I recall often thinking to myself, “Am I being destroyed by all of these problems? I envisioned my life a lot differently, but is my life being ruined?”
The answer was almost always, “No.”
I had many leftover issues from my immature drug-using years and character flaws that were gradually being addressed and strengthened. “I’m better off than I was before I met Helen,” I often remember thinking.
Her personality and strengths were indispensable to building my self-confidence. She drew so much out of me that just wasn’t there before. Her innate talents, humor, energy, people skills and love of children and domestic things brought us a great deal of joy throughout the terrible trials.
I had better jobs over time. I was effective at work and respected. Sure there were hard days with the stress but I was still considered a solid and sometimes exceptional employee.
I was maturing in my knowledge of God and beginning to reflect more of his character. I could see the “crud” being burned out of my soul and I was spiritually maturing.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
(1 Peter 5:10, ESV)
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
The key for Helen’s lasting and deep change was the decision she made to attend a full-time treatment program in Pittsburgh focused on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT), which is widely recognized as the most effective form of therapy for individuals with my wife’s conditions.
This therapy “aims to build mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills.” (See https://elunanetwork.org/resources/mental-health-basics-dialectical-behavior-therapy/). In simpler terms, DBT helps the person manage their thoughts and feelings by using specific techniques. It helps them understand the nature of their unproductive tendencies and patterns. She had many thinking and communication habits that she believed were normal and okay, which other people should just accept.
Her participation in this program “popped a lot of bubbles,” as fellow participants often blasted her errant thinking in a safe,”patch you up again” environment and the counselors helped her understand negative patterns and learn better ways.
At the same time as this DBT program, doctors also placed Helen on new medications that really work. She became committed to her DBT skills even though she still needs to review and remind herself now and then.
We still have occasional-to-frequent stresses but overall, our marriage is happy today. It has been a God-inspired union and a blessing to ourselves and others.
We are each better people and more Christlike as a result of our experiences.
While this quote is not scriptural, it is wise and heartening:
“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Friedrich Nietzsche back in 1888. (See the outstanding article on this topic: https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/what-doesnt-kill-you-makes-you-stronger/)
God really does know best, which is why we MUST base our decisions on His guidance during these gut-wrenching experiences with mental illness. God uses the challenges in our marriage and family for His divine purposes in our lives.
Lessons Learned and Recommmendations
- Our difficult marriage was part of God’s plan to develop us into the people He wants us to become. It was not an evil and sinister trick He played on us.
- Living with a mentally ill or addicted person is fundamentally a lesson in boundary setting. Learn and start using boundary setting skills as soon as you can. (Click here for our detailed blog post on this topic.) You will get to know yourself to your core and you will learn a tremendous amount about your relationship with God. You will discover all of the issues you’ve been carrying since childhood and you will learn to grow up and out of them.
Recommendation: Read the book Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud. This is powerfully written and super clear. It will change your life.
- Focus your heart and life on God above all else. We believe Jesus Christ to be God the Son. Your trust in Him will do more to increase your chances of healing and preserving your marriage than anything else.
Recommendation: Read the scriptures and pray daily. Pray together, if at all possible. For a short, easy-to-read, powerful book that deepens your understanding of the story of Jesus and your connection to Him, read Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine, which was written by me during the toughest years of our marriage. Get to know Christ and see how to follow Him.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Learn More about the book: “Healing the Stormy Marriage”
There are many books for those who have a mental illness or addiction. But rare is the book for those who live with someone with mental illness or addiction, particularly from a Christian perspective.
Imagine waking up tomorrow with a new sense of hope and direction because you understand the secrets to living successfully with an unstable spouse.
What if you felt more confident, more in control, and less frustrated or resentful?
How good would that feel?
I craved all of that for over twenty years and it eluded me. Now, you can discover the way there through our remarkably easy-to-read recommendations—from a husband-and-wife author team who beat all the odds to find happiness in marriage despite multiple mental illness diagnoses (each)! In spite of family members and friends persuading us to call it quits, we found power in our faith and scripture and developed new skills recommended by world-renowned mental health and marriage researchers—now neatly interwoven in this groundbreaking volume—for you.
Learn more at Amazon.com.
Find out why critics and readers are saying:
“. . . for Christians dealing with the challenges of mental illness in their spouse, this is a must-read. (BlueInk Reviews, starred review)
“. . . empathetic . . . relatable . . . practical . . . a warm, inviting faith-based self-help guide for married couples seeking to understand and overcome their respective challenges and remain together.” (BookLife Review)
“. . . highly recommended . . . neatly wound into Christian beliefs in a way that psychological perspectives alone can’t fully address” (Midwest Book Review)
“So thrilled that a book like this is available. Coupling marriage and mental health, with a lens of faith, is a gift for newlyweds to forty-year partners.” (Ganel-Lynn Condie, bestselling author, video host, suicide prevention advocate)
“What a profoundly helpful and moving book! . . . full of hope and wisdom for any marriage in an easy-to-read format. . . practical, spiritually sound recommendations. The author and his wife’s transparent stories of their struggles provide rare windows into the complexity of these challenges and illustrate how spouses can rise above through Christ. Highly recommended” (Robert Reich, synod leader and pastor)
“. . . opened my eyes about ways to improve my own marriage of 41 years.” (Mardie, reader)
Learn More or Buy at AMAZON.com NOW:
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Visit R. Christian Bohlen’s author page on Amazon.com.
Estimated Reading Time:
10 – 15 minutes