My Spouse Has Bipolar Disorder. I Was His Caregiver in Quarantine
A woman shares what it's like to be a caregiver for a spouse with depression, bipolar disorder, and suicidal thoughts during coronavirus quarantine.
One in five adults in the U.S. has a mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. The Covid-19 pandemic is adding even more barriers to people with mental illness, as well as increasing anxiety and depression in general, according to an April poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. We talked to Raul, 44, and Lizzy, 40, parents of two in Virginia, about their experience managing Raul’s bipolar disorder during quarantine. You can read Raul’s story about bipolar disorder here. This is Lizzy’s story about what it’s like to be a caregiver for someone with bipolar disorder during quarantine.
(Do you have a story to share about coronavirus? Click this link to share your Covid-19 story with us.)
How to help a spouse with depression
It was the seriousness in his voice that really got my attention. Raul’s always been a really loud, passionate person, so when he said “I’m going to put a bullet in my brain” like he was telling me he was going to pick up pizza, I knew he meant it. I wasn’t surprised, but at the same time, I was. I’d known he was depressed for a long time. Our cross-country move and the new business were really, really stressful. But I was surprised how quickly he went from depression to suicidal.
When we took him to the hospital and I handed him over to the doctors, that was one of the worst moments of my life. I felt like I’d failed him by not realizing how serious his depression was. I wondered what mental illness would do to our marriage. I wondered what to tell our two kids—they were just seven and 11. And a tiny part of me was relieved because it meant something was going to change. It’s not easy living with someone who’s deeply depressed, and we’d all been tip-toeing around him for months. As I left him there at the hospital, I remember just being so scared but recognizing that this was my time to be strong for him.
That was September of 2019. Fast forward to March of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. Raul was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder and it took some trial and error, but we’d finally gotten him stabilized on a good medication and therapy regimen. Our lives were starting to return to normal and I was feeling hopeful. We’d even started marriage counseling together. (He’s always felt like he’s had to hide his feelings from me, which has led to major issues in our marriage beyond his depression.)
Managing coronavirus and mental health
Honestly, the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 weren’t really on my radar for a long time. I was so focused on Raul and the kids and our business that I hadn’t been paying any attention to the news. It hit me when I went to the store to grab a few things for dinner. It was the Friday before the Virginia governor announced the lockdown and it was like the apocalypse had hit. People were yelling at each other. Every box of pasta was gone off the shelves. There was no toilet paper or cleaning supplies. I walked in shock around the aisles until I ran into a neighbor who filled me in on all the rumors about the virus and a quarantine that would likely be announced in the next few days.
That was a whole different kind of fear. Up to that point, I’d been focused on keeping Raul well and suddenly I had to pivot to keeping our family safe from some plague. I sat in my car and just cried. I felt so unprepared and overwhelmed. Then I pulled it together before I drove home because I felt like Raul was still too fragile with his mental health to handle this. He’d already had to really cut back his business for social distancing and now he would have to close. I knew he was going to lose his mind, so I couldn’t lose mine.
The breaking point
I was already exhausted by Raul’s illness at that point. To add living in quarantine on top of everything really felt like too much. Just as I’d worried, he started to spiral out of control. I couldn’t pry him away from his phone, even for five minutes to eat dinner. All he talked about was the virus and the stock market. His anxiety was through the roof and he couldn’t sleep. I finally called the doctor and told him we needed help and he prescribed some sedatives for Raul. He said they would help him calm down and sleep.
That night I handed him the bottle and told him to take one. He said he would and I headed up to bed. Several hours later I woke up and realized he hadn’t come to bed. I found him in the bathroom with something balled up in his fist. I pried open his fingers and found that he was holding a bunch of the pills. He had looked up online how many he would need to kill himself, counted out that many, and was just sitting there holding them.
I had no idea what to do. I knew I couldn’t take him to the hospital again because they were telling everyone to only go in if it was life or death. Plus, I didn’t want to take him somewhere where he might get Covid-19. So I took all his pills, put him in bed, and then put them down the garbage disposal. He finally fell asleep, but I sat up all night trying to make a plan.
I decided I just couldn’t leave him alone, not for a second.
I had a new role as a caregiver
The next morning, Raul slept late, which gave me time to feed the kids and get them settled. I’d basically been a single parent for months. All he’d been able to handle was dealing with his depression and the business. Now I felt like a mom of three needy kids as I followed him around the house all day. I made him a schedule and hung it on his door, just like I’d done for the kids. Each hour was a new task, like showering or reading, and I made sure he did it. He did what I said, walking through the day like a zombie. The only time he showed any emotion was when I insisted on staying in the bathroom with him while he used it. He said I was being ridiculous but he hadn’t seen his face the night before and how he looked at those pills. I did.
I figured if I could get him to focus on the present, just being with our family, that would keep his mind from going to dark places. I took away his phone and his laptop and only allowed him to use them for work meetings.
It seemed to work. Over the next couple of weeks, he seemed to be getting a lot better. He was smiling and laughing again. He got really into playing games with the kids, especially old-school Mario Kart. He stopped losing weight and started working out again and sleeping better. It was all great. Really wonderful. I was happy for him. (Check out the things every caregiver needs to know.)
As he got better, I was more burned out and stressed
But while he was getting better, I was getting worse. It’s exhausting babysitting a grown man. And taking care of two kids on top of it. I missed having a friend to talk to and a partner to help do some of the work. Plus our sex life, which had always been really important to us, had gone to zero. We didn’t have a relationship anymore. I didn’t know how much more of this I could endure.
Then one evening, around the middle of April, he came in and told me that he was all better, I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, and he had this great idea. He told me when the quarantine is over, he wants to sell the house, get rid of the business, move in with family, and start a whole new business from scratch. He was so excited; he was literally dancing. I burst into tears.
Dealing with a possible manic phase
I was wary of this new plan from the beginning and over the past week I’ve only become more concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that he is finally happy again, and it is great to see him excited about something. Now that he has a new purpose, he jumps out of bed every day to work on plans for the new business or the house. So what’s the problem now? I think he might be entering a manic phase (of his bipolar disorder).
His doctor warned me that this was a possibility and when I called him, he agreed it sounded like that might be what is happening and wants to add an antipsychotic medication to his daily regimen. Unfortunately, Raul won’t even consider it, because he thinks he is doing so well he doesn’t need to be on any medication anymore.
I’m starting to feel like I’m going crazy. There’s no one I can talk to about this and I can’t get any break from it. If we weren’t in quarantine I could escape to one of my friend’s homes or go to my church or go to a movie where I didn’t have to think about it. But now my only option is short walks. I’m taking a lot of short walks. A. Lot. (Here are some ways to stay human during Covid-19.)
We are re-evaluating our lives
Not everything about this experience has been bad. Having this time in quarantine, without him having to go to work every day, has allowed us more family time than we’ve had together in years. The kids are loving it. It’s also allowed us to take a step back to reevaluate our life and if it’s really working for us. Raul’s right that our business has a lot of problems and that he simply can’t go back to working the way he was before. We’ve also realized that we really don’t like living away from our families and it’s hurting our quality of life. So, we agree on the problems, but I don’t know if I can trust his solutions. I’m not ready to completely walk away from our life, but if I say that he feels hurt and unsupported.
That’s one of the hardest parts of being married to someone with severe depression and bipolar disorder—I never know if I’m talking to the man I love or to his mental illness. Which means I can’t stop being the strong one, not yet.
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.
—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen