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I Was Married to Jekyll and Hyde

My husband's bipolar disorder was wrecking our family. Could I handle his quick-change personality?

Restraining orders, liens, and broken belongings were furthest from my mind as I sat in my counselor's office sharing all the doors God was opening for my fiancé and me.

"Journal these stories," she told me. "One day you may forget how God orchestrated these blessings."

Both divorced, John and I had met through a Christian social club. We began dating, and four months later, we were engaged.

On limited budgets because of our past divorces, we were amazed at the numerous provisions that came our way. A friend donated beautiful wedding invitations. Another friend gave me my wedding dress and shoes.

The owners of the place I dreamed of having our wedding offered it to us at a steep discount. Over and over we felt God's blessing. Surely that meant God intended us to build a life together.

At our pre-marital counseling sessions, our pastor helped us explore our finances, parenting styles, and personality types. Cautious and carrying scars from our former unfaithful spouses, we left no stone unturned.

On our honeymoon, God blessed us again, and a month later we joyfully discovered I was pregnant. Days later the nightmare began.

I came home from work to find John cursing into the phone at a customer.

When I questioned him, he turned on me and began to call me names. Then, abruptly his mood changed, and he was the gentle man I married. I was unable to make any sense of it.

A few nights later, John's teenage son found alcohol John had hidden; I wondered if I'd made a mistake with this marriage.

As weeks passed, verbal abuse, threats, drinking, and my seemingly on-again, off-again Christian husband had me spinning and disoriented. The stress affected my health and pregnancy to the point that I began to have severe stomach problems and had to have surgery. (I ended up having eight stress-related hemorrhoid operations.)

One night Glenda, a woman from church, and I had dinner together. At our wedding, John had asked Glenda and her husband to hold him accountable to his marriage vows. So at dinner I told her what was going on. She drove me home and broached the subject with John. He became angry and told us both to leave.

Glenda and I left the house and contacted our pastor and some other friends. They counseled me to pack some clothes and stay at a friend's house. My daughter was already staying with her father, but my step-children would remain with John. Fortunately, that night they were at their mother's house.

So I returned home with my pastor and friends. They helped me pack while John yelled and made threats. Finally, in a rage he grabbed our wedding presents, went outside, and began to break, burn, and destroy them—including his wedding ring.

I was stunned, confused, and heartbroken.

Our pastor set up Christian counseling for me. But everything felt like a bad dream.

After a few weeks, John contacted me and apologized for his behavior. He begged me to attend a marriage conference the next weekend. Since it was in a public place, I agreed.

At the conference we talked, cried, and agreed to counseling. John promised to quit drinking and begged forgiveness. He confessed he'd cancelled insurance to pay bills, and his customers were suing him for unfinished work projects. I felt sorry for him. I knew I didn't want to go through another divorce—especially since I was pregnant. So I prayed God would restore our marriage.

We began counseling, and after several weeks I started to trust and forgive him. I returned home—only to have John's cycles repeat.

My health deteriorated and my obstetrician told me I could lose the baby. So again, I moved in with a friend, while my daughter stayed with her father.

The worst was when I received messages from John's kids that they were frightened by their dad. But I felt helpless to do anything.

The nightmare continues

The following weeks were a nightmare of John's harassing phone messages, mixed with sweet attempts to gain forgiveness. He filed for divorce one day; a day later he withdrew it. One minute he said he loved me, then hours later said it was over, that he'd never loved me. I rode a roller coaster of emotions. For some reason, however, I believed John wasn't an abuser.

I felt John's genuine remorse when he apologized. I believed him when he said he wanted to be the "good John" not the "bad John." I'd never been around anyone with mental illness before, so I never thought John might be suffering from that.

After two weeks, we agreed to meet at a restaurant to discuss reconciliation again. This time I insisted on longer counseling for his anger problem and mood swings. He agreed, pleading for forgiveness. Then, unexpectedly he became belligerent. I felt physically threatened as he poked his fingers in my face, blaming me for his problems.

I left and called the police to obtain a restraining order. My due date was three months away. I didn't know this man, so I wondered what else he hadn't told me before we were married. I investigated court records to see if he'd been convicted of anything. Sure enough, I discovered John had a hidden history of judgments, liens, levies, and financial problems.

I stayed with church families. On Sundays, I listened to the pastor who'd married us speak about God's plan for marriage. I wondered, How could God orchestrate this marriage, only to destroy any chance of normalcy for my baby and me?

After I gave birth, alone, with no contact from John in months, I filed divorce papers.

Entering the court room, John begged me to withdraw my filing, promising to do whatever it took to reconcile if I'd give him one last chance. I didn't want the divorce, so I told him I'd meet him in a park a week later so he could meet our newborn.

Cradling our infant, tears spilled from John's cheeks, revealing a glimpse of the loving husband I'd married. Under the bizarre behavior, I knew there was a spirit-filled, tender man. John assured me he'd quit drinking during our separation. But I'd lost trust.

We met daily in public places so John could bond with our baby and so we could reestablish my trust.

Diagnosed at last

We resumed counseling. Our new counselor sent John to a psychiatrist, who finally diagnosed the problem. John had bipolar disorder.

Listening to the counselor describe a mental disorder affecting more than 2.3 million Americans, I felt both relief and grief.

The counselor explained that John's irritable, apathetic, angry, and elated mood swings were characteristic of the disorder, along with his unfinished work projects, inability to handle finances, addictions, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and the cycles of euphoria and grandiosity. All the mania mixed with depression had a medical explanation.

We learned that often it's genetic, and that stressful situations such as marriage and financial strain may bring the disorder to the surface. Although there's no cure, bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is treatable.

If John agreed to treatment, we could get our lives back.

I agreed to stand by John once again.

Soon after treatment began, John's life was manageable. After he'd gone through months of medication and therapy, I agreed to reconcile—with boundaries. Since the counselor warned that bipolar patients often stop their medication when they feel normal, only to fall back into ruin, I told John if he stopped medication, I would separate.

Everything was fine in our marriage—until three months later, when he stopped taking his medication. He stopped paying the bills and the rent. Our utilities were shut off and eventually we were evicted. Then he became threatening and verbally abusive around the baby, so I kept my boundaries and left—this time for good.

Homeless, John camped by the river. He'd hit bottom and lost everything that mattered. That was the breaking point. The only thing John had left, miraculously, was his job, but he was sleeping in a tent, alone. John continued to read his Bible and attend church, but he wasn't living out his faith.

Alone in that tent, John finally realized the seriousness of his disorder. The way in which he'd carelessly handled it was wrecking his marriage, life, and faith. He determined to go back on his medication—and stay on it. He resumed his counseling and made himself accountable to his physician. Then he approached me once again to reconcile. I was hesitant—not wanting to fall back into the cycles—but saw by his actions that he really meant to change this time. So I agreed.

Rebuilding our lives

Slowly, we began to rebuild our lives together. It's been three years since that pivotal point. It's not been easy.

John still has occasional cycles, but nothing of the magnitude and destruction of the pre-diagnosis days. John is now a wonderful husband, devoted father, and godly provider. A year ago, God blessed us with another baby, and John was there for that birth, comforting me with his love, strength, and newfound stability.

Yet even with the medication, this disorder is never completely cured. While it's managed, we still have to plan every aspect of our lives around it. We never know when the mood swings will hit or what will trigger them (a dip in medication, fatigue, certain foods).

Since John can't manage money, the finances fall completely on me. In addition, we deal with his memory loss, which sometimes accompanies his bipolar disorder. John forgets where he puts things, leaves things unlocked, or forgets to turn off the stove. So I have to be the safety net, checking up on him and working behind him constantly. John's had to invent backups and memory helpers to function at home and at work. This is frustrating for him—but we work through those times together. I also receive support from a friend who started www.outofthedarkness.net, a Christian ministry for bipolar sufferers.

I wouldn't choose to go through the devastation we've endured. However, I do see God's hand protecting us through it all—especially each time I look into our children's smiling faces or hold John's hand in church.

I'm often overcome with gratitude for what God's done in our lives. God honored our commitment, faithfulness, and prayers.

Several years back, giving birth alone to our baby in the grimmest circumstances, I prayed, trusting God, while clinging to Romans 8:28: "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

With God's grace and provision and with education and treatment, healing and restoration are possible for those affected by this troubling disease.

I'm now married to my best friend.

Naomi Wilson is a pseudonym for a writer living on the West Coast.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Disease; Illness; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2003
Posted September 30, 2008

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