Dawn’s husband, Eric, suffers from bipolar disorder. Over the course of their twelve-year marriage, the two of them have learned to deal with the challenges the illness brings, grow in their careers, be active in the Church, and live happily together. “I used to always feel like his mental illness was something happening to me,” Dawn says, “But now it feels more like a blanket that we’re wrapped in together.” Note: Names have been changed here to protect the privacy of the participants.
Can you explain why it’s important this interview be anonymous?
If I didn’t have to worry about Eric’s reputation or his feelings, this would not be an anonymous interview. Eric, of course, knows that I’m doing the interview, but we always have to strike the balance of how much we share up front. I’d like to share, discuss, and disclose, but I always have to be careful to respect Eric’s privacy. I generally can’t fully show myself and my life, my obstacles, and my struggles to other people. It’s kind of like our secret life.
Your story seems to me a love story. Can you tell me how you met your husband?
My husband, Eric, came home from his mission when I was eighteen. We had the same friends, so we spent a lot of time together. We were great, great friends.
Eric had come home from his mission early because of mental health issues. He was not being properly medicated and his illness escalated until he had to be sent home, but it was an honorable release. Our first date, I was most impressed with his testimony of Jesus Christ. I thought, “This is someone I can learn from.” And I was right.
His official diagnosis is that he’s bipolar. When we started dating seriously, I went with him to a doctor’s appointment. The doctor told me, “This is the easiest mental illness to deal with. You keep up on your meds and you’re fine.” But what the doctor said and what Eric was telling me about his experiences sounded so different. Despite what she said, it sounded like a big deal to me.
When I thought of someone being bipolar, my limited understanding was that that person gets really happy and then gets really sad. That in no way looks like Eric’s bipolar disorder. Eric is not happy/sad. Instead, he gets really, really manic and if it’s left untreated, or sometimes even if it is treated, it escalates to psychosis.
What does that mean?
It’s as if he’s in a dream, with all its weirdness, but he’s awake. He’ll have loose associations, which means that he confuses information. For instance, if I put my hair behind my ear or adjust my glasses, he thinks I’m communicating something to him. There have been times that he has been so lost in this other reality that he doesn’t even know who I am or who he himself is. He’s just totally gone.
When we got engaged, there were people in my life who were not happy. My poor mom. A few weeks before, I had told her, “Eric’s a really good-looking guy but he’s not really my type. I’m concerned that I’m going to get confused over my attraction to him and pursue something romantic.” After I told her that, things in our relationship changed and became more serious, and the next thing she knows I’m engaged to him! She thought I was just getting confused. My mom had always given me space to make my own decisions, so it was really difficult when she was all of a sudden so opinionated about my decision, especially because it was a good decision—I was marrying a returned missionary in the temple. But her “mom sensor” was on and she was really, really concerned that this guy wouldn’t be able to take care of her daughter.
It wasn’t only my mom who was concerned. So was my home teacher (my surrogate father) and so was my family and so were my friends. There was a lot of resistance to the two of us being together. My sister gave me a letter that told me that when it came to my decision to marry Eric, she felt like Nephi talking to Laman and Lemuel. I felt very isolated.
There were times I really wanted to not marry him—I even broke off the engagement once—just because of how difficult it was making my life and my other relationships. I would pray about it, though, and feel strongly that this was the right decision. I had a chain of the strongest, most visible spiritual experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I remember one night I had decided I was going to break up with him. As I was getting out of his car, I turned around and looked at him one last time. I won’t say it was a vision, but in my mind I saw him as if we were kneeling across the altar, and the Spirit said to me, “That is the father of your children.” So I didn’t break up with him that night.
My mom says that she was praying to feel peace that I was making good decisions, and that feeling never came. She’d pray and fast and go to the temple, and she would get nothing. She never got the feeling it wasn’t good. It was just an absence of information.
I think, in hindsight, the Lord was withholding that from my mom to give me the space to make my own decision purely by the Spirit. I was getting no support from other people, so I had to rely heavily on the Lord about my decision to marry Eric. I was constantly praying and re-praying and fasting and re-fasting about it. That made all the difference after I got married because I was sure.
I have many times gone back to those experiences to reaffirm that I did the right thing, that the difficult experiences we’ve gone through are not the result of a poor choice twelve years ago.
By the time you got married did you have a clear understanding what challenges the mental illness would bring to the two of you?
Oh, my gosh, no! It became clear the first time he really got “sick”.
When we’d been married about a year, we were really into natural health and herbs. He started messing with his medication and taking this herb or that instead of what the doctor had prescribed. We were not handling his medications appropriately.
We’d gotten a notice that a sex offender had moved into the apartment complex where we were living. One night I was in the laundry room doing laundry, and as we left, there was this guy standing on the porch watching me. My husband started to get really nervous. He said, “Dawn, I wonder if that’s the sex offender. He’s looking at you like he wants you. This could be bad, really bad.” Then he said, “We can never go back. Ever.”
The whole thing was so dramatic and so weird. I said, “What are you talking about? This is crazy talk!”
But he talked me into it. He said, “Dawn if we go back, you’ll be in danger. I feel the Spirit. We need to do this.” So we got a hotel that night. I was really confused. I knew my husband to be very sensitive to the Spirit, but the things he was saying were just weird.
We never went back. Our family came in and took our stuff out of our apartment for us. We called the manager and asked if we could move to another apartment complex they owned across town, but they refused. Eric said, “If we have to move anyway, let’s really move big and make this an adventure!” We both worked from home, so we could work anywhere. We decided to move across the country. He had a brother in Utah, so we were going to go stay there for a couple of weeks while we transitioned to living somewhere else. In the days leading up to the move, I would swing between thinking it sounded fun, to thinking, “What are we doing? This is stupid.”
We packed up our car and left. We got as far as Illinois. The trip started out being the most spiritual high of our marriage. We were close, sharing really personal things. But somewhere, we crossed a line. I don’t know where and I don’t know when, but it went from being really intimate and really spiritual to being really weird and really dark. He started telling me that he had a prompting that when people move their hands a certain way, then that person has an evil spirit. He started to be paranoid. I didn’t yet have experience with him and mental illness, so I still thought we were having a very spiritual experience and that he was telling me true things. It was a gradual downward slope to a very, very, very scary place.
It ended with us in a hotel and his thinking I was possessed. I ran and called my mom, sobbing, “Am I possessed? I don’t know.”
My mom said, “No honey, this is him. This is his mental illness. You’re fine.”
He had to be hospitalized. There I was, alone in a hotel in the middle of the country, trying to figure things out. I never saw it coming.
Has that experience of moving from an outpouring of the Spirit to such a scary place affected how you feel about spiritual experiences you have?
There have been times that it has. That’s a remarkable thing about Eric. If I were him, I would have zero testimony. I would have zero faith. For him, it always is a very fine line that he might cross. It is a mental health line, but it’s a spiritual line, too. As members of the Church, we’re used to relying on the Spirit for information and revelation to make decisions. When those same mechanisms go haywire, like they do for Eric, it’s hard to trust the Spirit. I admire and respect Eric’s faith and valiance in spite of that.
But more than affecting my ability to trust the Lord, this experience affected my ability to unconditionally trust my husband. Unfortunately, because of the unique nature of our relationship, I can’t always follow him. There are times that I have to hold back and say, “What you’re saying doesn’t really make sense so I’m going to have to hold out making a decision until I get a sure knowledge.” That’s hard for both of us.
Were there other events like that first one?
By the time we’d been married seven years, he’d been hospitalized five times. Every year, eleven out of twelve months were fine, but then something would happen and it would just escalate into a big dramatic mess. In hindsight, I see that we weren’t managing the medications and the doctors very well. At the time, though, that light bulb never went off. Every time he got sick, we would find a reason it had happened: you had bronchitis and you couldn’t sleep at night and that triggered it; we moved and we didn’t find a doctor in time; and blah, blah, blah! There were always unique reasons, so we thought it would never happen again. And then a year later it happened again for different reasons.
Finally, we made a plan for when things started to get bad. We decided that if he was ever starting to have problems, he’d take some of this heavy medication we had on hand to treat the immediate problem until he could get in to see someone, instead of having to wait until things got so out of control. At the very beginning stages of an episode, Eric and I are both aware it’s happening but then it quickly gets to the point that Eric doesn’t see it anymore.
One time, about seven years into our marriage, I totally saw it coming so I was ready to go to Plan A. I said, “You didn’t sleep all night, and now you’re saying that I’m cheating on you. You have to take this medication until we can get you into treatment.”
He said, “No, it’s not happening, Dawn.”
I said, “What?! It is happening!”
He said, “Nope. It’s not happening.” So at that point I had to make a decision. When he was in his right mind, we had made a plan together. Now manic-Eric was refusing the medication. So I made a decision. I drugged my husband.
It was a heavy medication that acts very quickly and very strongly, so he knew right away. He was furious. He ended up having to be hospitalized anyway, and he was furious with me the whole time. He felt so betrayed that I had drugged him. When he got out of the hospital, he still wasn’t totally baseline, and so his perspective of the situation was still being influenced, at least in part, by some lingering mania. He said, “You need to apologize for what you’ve done and promise you’ll never do it again, or I’m going home without you.”
I didn’t apologize. I wasn’t sorry. I stood by my decision and said, “We made that decision together when you were in your right mind. I used the protocol we’d already set in place to protect our family.” So he left me at my mom’s and he went home by himself.
I didn’t know what I should do. Should I apologize for the sake of peace so we could move on with our life? So I called Dr. Laura, the radio doctor. I called her and said, “I drugged my husband. Should I apologize?” I explained the situation, and she said, “Hold on. Let’s back up a second. Why did you have to drug him in the first place? If you had to drug him to take his medication, this is a big deal.”
That phone call was an eye-opening experience for me. It set a chain of events into motion, and all of a sudden I was able to see things with a new perspective. I realized, “This is not a one-time thing. It’s a pattern. It’s happened the last five years. We’ve said it’s for this reason or that reason, but those don’t matter. It’s happening every year—we neglect his treatment, he gets manic, he goes into the hospital, and we lose everything.”
We ended up coming to a temporary resolution at the time, but within a month, Eric had stopped taking some of his medications and things started to escalate again while I was out of town visiting a friend several states away. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I go back home? Should I stay where I was? At that point in our life, I was feeling like a casualty to all of this, especially since I felt like he’d caused this by choosing to go off of his medication, and I didn’t see a way out of the pattern we were in.
I made the hard (and prayerful) decision of deciding not to go home. I ended up making a list of things that I felt needed to be in place to protect me and to protect our relationship. Some of that was medication protocols. I decided that I can be married to someone who is bipolar, but I can’t be married to someone who is bipolar and doesn’t manage it.
In the middle of all this, Eric disappeared. Nobody knew where he was. I decided, though, I still wasn’t going back home.
I went to stay with his sister’s family, still several states away. She lived near Eric’s brother, who was going through an ugly divorce at the time. It ended up being just what I needed to strengthen my testimony of marriage, because his thirteen-year-old daughter talked to me a lot, parroting the things her mother was telling her, that she had to get divorced because she’d met her soul mate, and all this stuff. I was so angry to hear those things coming out of her mouth. I felt it was taking temple sealing and marriage very lightly. I was constantly bearing my testimony of temple marriage to her and it reaffirmed for me the promises I had made. It really changed my heart.
For Eric, the episode ended dramatically and he had to be hospitalized again. I didn’t know how long it was going to take him to accept my list or what would happen to our marriage. It was difficult for me to defend the line I had drawn, even in my own mind. I was saying that I don’t believe in divorce but I was also saying that I can only live with him if he agrees to the list.
In the end, it was actually a very quick process. He got out of the hospital and we made up and put the list in place, and I went home very quickly.
The list is important to me. Since we’ve had it, I’m in a better place, but not exactly because of the list. A couple of years ago, we had a fight about it. Eric said, “It’s not fair that you give me this ultimatum. It’s my body, it’s my life!” And he’s right.
I told him, “Eric, I’m not trying to control you. I’m trying to set a standard for my own life. For your own safety and your own state of mind, you won’t be married to somebody who’s running around with other guys. Well, I’ve chosen to be married to someone who gets psychotic, and there are some scary things that can happen when things get bad. I understand that’s part of the package and I’m willing to accept that. But only as long as we’re making decisions together and I can share the responsibility of the outcome, too. Otherwise, if you’re unilaterally making health decisions without me, and things get bad, then it’s like you’re doing those things to me. Those are situations that are entirely out of my control, and that will just breed fear, resentment, uncertainty. It would poison our marriage.”
It’s not even that he has to promise to stay on the medication the doctors give him. It’s not that cut–and-dried. The heart of it is, we have to make decisions about his health together, and we’re both committed to making those decisions with the Lord. If I have that input, then if anything happens I know that I bear responsibility as well. It’s the difference between being a partner and being a victim.
There are times we’ve made decisions that, in hindsight, came from mental illness instead of revelation. Eventually, I decided two things: first, that I will never make a decision out of desperation. Ever. And second, that I will always get a sure witness about my decision. I have to really mine for answers and revelations. That way I can always look back and know that I didn’t just make that decision because I was confused or afraid.
I wasted years being angry and resentful. I was furious with God. I said to Him, “I don’t give you my life anymore. If this is the best you’re going to do with it, you can’t have it.” I even stopped reading my scriptures. I was miserable. And I was very angry with Eric. I used to always feel like his mental illness was something happening to me.
But now it feels more like a blanket that we’re wrapped in together. It’s a challenge in our marriage, and when we share the burden with the Lord, He makes it bearable.
How do you share the burden with the Lord?
It used to be that when something bad would happen, I would just grit my teeth and bear it, knowing it would pass. That was my motto in life. But with Eric’s mental illness, I’ve been faced with a trial that might not pass. I have come to know the gospel to be true in the trenches of my life. It is a tool and a formula that I can apply to my life for happiness and peace, no matter what I am going through. Through Christ, I don’t have to wait till my trial is over to be happy. I can be happy, even in the midst of uncertainty.
My faith has so many times come up against a wall. In that moment I can either lose my faith or reconcile my faith to the truth, to the bigger picture. It is in those moments of desperation, those moments of the greatest pain, fear, and uncertainty, that I’ve had to reach out into the dark and ask for my Savior’s help. And He’s helped me.
How do you reconcile your faith? What do you do to reach out to the Savior?
When we look at our challenges, whatever they are, it makes us afraid. I say, “I’m at point A; I’ve got to get to point B. That is a very long road, and I don’t want to walk it.” But when we rely on the Lord, a miracle happens. Instead of a long road from point A to point B, it’s a shift to a different reality. That is the miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ; He can shift our awareness and our feelings and our experience in a minute, in a second. It’s miraculous.
The change is easy. The hard part is getting to where we can say, “Okay, God, I give it to you. You do it.” When we reach the point at which we can say that, He swoops in and changes everything miraculously from that moment.
At one point, Eric’s medication wasn’t in balance and things started to escalate. I was very, very discouraged. I was praying so hard that Eric would get better. All the time growing up in the Church, I’d been taught you can have what you ask for in prayer, but I’d also been taught, you’ll get what you ask for in prayer unless you weren’t supposed to. That’s a contradiction. It can’t be both.
That was a moment where I really had to reconcile my faith. If you lose your testimony in prayer, what do you have? I remember talking to my mom about it. I felt so tricked. I said, “Mom, I’m sure I’m missing something.” I decided—and this was the action on my part—to go to the scriptures. I looked up all these scriptures on prayer. Reading the Lord’s Prayer really changed my heart and my mind. There’s nothing that says, “You give me a list of whatever you want and I’ll be sure to fulfill it.” Instead, it says to come close to the Lord so His will can be made manifest in your life.
My prayer changed. I stopped praying for a specific outcome. I just prayed for relief. I had had a very specific vision of how I had to get relief—Eric had to get better—but the Lord met my need in a very different way than I would have expected. In that instance, Eric ended up being hospitalized and I got relief that way.
It’s not like I read one scripture and it changed my life. But my willingness to pray about my question and to read about it and to ask God for clarification activated the Atonement. I think the Lord is always saying, “Dawn, trust that I’m not trying to trick you, that I do have a better plan.” He’s always asking me for the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve learned to express to Him what my need is, and then leave my prayers open-ended so the Lord can be creative in the way He meets my needs, because He knows them so much more intimately than I do. I’ve learned to trust His solutions to my problems. I have a very limited perspective on what I think should happen. So I try to leave my prayers open-ended so He can be creative.
For a lot of us, the things that are the most annoying about the people we love are often also an aspect of what we love about them. To what degree is that true about mental illness? Does your husband’s mental illness feel like something pasted on to him, covering up who he is, or is it an essential part of his identity?
I think that with what we call mental illness come spiritual gifts. I’m not completely comfortable with that label, “mental illness.” We call it illness and worry about the dangerous, scary things that can happen. And they are dangerous and scary!
But at the same time, there’s this other side of it. There are people in history, like Leonardo da Vinci, who were brilliant but also bipolar. Eric, too, is amazingly brilliant in his line of work. He’s respected and admired, an expert in his field. He is intuitive, spiritual, creative, a visionary. You can see in him this spark of brilliance that sometimes gets a little crazy, that crosses a line. The challenge is to manage the line.
But I think in some ways his mental illness is a gift to Eric. It feeds his creativity and his vision and his passion and even his optimism. He’s so annoyingly optimistic, a Pollyanna about everything. I’m so not. One day, thinking about all the problems, all the hospitalizations, I said to him, “Eric, how do you do it?”
He said, “I guess it’s because every time it happens, I believe it won’t happen again.” I’d always felt that was a weakness in him, an inability to see reality, but now I think it’s such a gift. I look at his problems and think, “Here is something he’s going to have to live with forever, but he’s happy and excited to start over every time. I’m miserable and depressed waiting for the other shoe to drop. Which has better fruits?”
Of course, you have to have a balance. You have to be realistic and plan and be prepared, but I have come to admire his optimism. No matter what happens, he fearlessly goes back to building his business and taking on clients and living. He is always moving forward, growing and experimenting. I would like to be more like that.
Is there anything you want to add?
I’ve talked a lot about the difficulties and trials. I want to tell you about the blessings, too. I once had a friend that said, “When things are good, they must be really good.” And they are! I’m married to a wonderful man who honors his covenants, and we’ve really come a long way with his health over the years. We’re comfortable and optimistic about the future. He has a great doctor, and we’re committed to making his health a priority. Things are fairly stable. We hope to have kids, and to continue to fully live our lives in our community, in our church, and in our family.
I have zero regrets, and I know this trial is temporary. I have faith in the resurrection. The times that Eric has been really sick, I can see his heart so clearly. Everything else is stripped away. And there’s just this vulnerable, pure-hearted man in front of me. From an eternal perspective, I have no worries.
I’ve been better able to see God as a father, too. He is so tender and so gentle with my husband. I’ve felt so much peace from God. When Eric drove off that one time and disappeared, it was really scary. There were infinite possibilities of bad things that could be happening. I got a priesthood blessing, and it said that Eric was in the hands of the Lord. As soon as I heard those words, I knew it was true as surely as if someone had just called me from Eric’s side and said, “It’s okay, he’s with me.” I knew that he was in the hands of the Lord.
There was a time I was angry with God. I didn’t trust the Lord. I didn’t like His design for my life very much. But now I know that He can see the whole picture. I can trust Him with my life and with the lives of my loved ones. They’re safe in His hands. I’m safe in His hands.