Heidi Conner D’97a reflects on her experiences as her husband navigates life with Bi-Polar disorder
I’d been married for less than eight weeks when my new husband—Chad—received his bi-polar diagnoses.
During that time, we had moved from New Haven, Connecticut to Hanover, New Hampshire. I was thrilled to leave sprawl and congested highways for the Upper Valley. I was excited to return home—to have regular access to fresh, local food and views of the mountains. Plus, I was starting a new job—dream job—at Dartmouth. We settled into an apartment in town that allowed us to walk to the library, post office and lectures at the College. Everything was picture perfect, until it wasn’t.
One night, Chad couldn’t sleep. I didn’t think too much of it because we all have restless nights from time to time. The following night, it happened again: Chad didn’t sleep well. I made sure we had chamomile tea and did some meditation before bed that evening. The next morning, Chad shared he hadn’t slept well, again.
I left for work.
When I returned, I saw my canvas bag out on the porch. I thought to myself, this is odd. I opened the door to our living room. Items were arranged in very intentional manner: a small yellow elephant statue in the middle of the floor, furniture moved, and small rocks and trinkets carefully lined our windowsills. I moved to the kitchen and noticed similar arrangements. Something was up.
I called out to Chad, and he happily responded. His presence was distant, and his pupils were enormous.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m great!” he shared.
You don’t seem great, I thought.
He was upbeat. He was muttering, stringing sentences together that I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Are you sure you’re ok?” I asked again.
“Yes!” Chad shared.
Clearly something was not right. I didn’t know what to do. I got him into the car and decided the best destination was the hospital. He sang during the short ride there. I tried to match his upbeat attitude—though my mind was racing: what is going on? Is he ok? This is so weird.
He was admitted to the Emergency Room. The doctors asked me questions about his medical history, if he took medicine, if he had allergies. I hadn’t committed many of those important details to memory yet and felt unprepared. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have answers for the doctor, especially since I was his wife.
Chad stayed in the ER for two nights. I don’t remember much, except the diagnosis: your husband had a manic episode and is bi-polar. I didn’t know anyone who had bi-polar. I had no idea what this would mean for the life we were just beginning together.
When Chad was released from the hospital, we were told he should see a psychiatrist as soon as possible. He needed medication to stabilize his moods. A doctor who accepted our insurance could see him in six to eight weeks—a private practice could see Chad the next day. Of course we paid the hundreds of dollars an hour for Chad to receive timely care. I was grateful that we could make this option work and furious that other people—and their families—could suffer for weeks simply because if they couldn’t afford care.
Needless to say, Chad’s diagnosis was agonizing for me. I was so afraid about another episode happening. I existed on pins and needles and was hyper-vigilant about Chad’s sleep—always asking every morning how he slept. I tried to do everything in my power to make sure he felt supported. I felt so alone. I cried so much my eyes stung and were nearly swollen shut. I didn’t know who I could turn to because of the stigma attached to a diagnosis like this.
At work, I was trying to prove myself and show my value. I didn’t feel like I could share this sort of news with anyone. I feared they might regret their decisions to hire me or think that I might miss a lot of work in the future because of my husband’s unstable condition. If he had any other diagnosis—cancer, a broken leg, almost anything—I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting my new colleagues know. This was different however and I didn’t feel like I could tell them.
I sought professional help because I felt like I could barely keep it together. I wanted to make more sense of what bi-polar was and how it would play out in my day-to-day existence.
I was told the diagnosis was scary. I was told our marriage was doomed and that it would never look like what I had envisioned. And, perhaps, that because we’d only been married a short time, I might get a divorce.
I took anxiety medicine which helped me immensely.
Miraculously, a friend sent me an email sharing that someone was looking to rehome their nine-week-old golden doodle puppy. I immediately got in touch and asked if we could meet up that evening. Of course, it was love at first sight. The puppy was beautiful and had a sweet, calming presence. We named her Rosie.
Rosie gave us something to nurture together. Her care required routine and she helped us cope. I walked her every morning, and we walked her together every night. She loved walking around campus and was a magnet for Dartmouth students. She was medicine for me.
It’s been over five years since that trip to the Emergency Room and Chad and I are still together. Time and space have allowed me to more fully accept the beauty of life lived with mental illness since the intensity and helplessness I felt so deeply has faded. With routine and medicine, Chad has successfully managed his bi-polar. And, indeed, we live a full, beautiful life together.
I share this story in honor of mental health awareness month and because I no longer wish to hide that my husband is bi-polar. I firmly believe no one should suffer in silence because of a mental health diagnosis. I share this story to help create a more open culture that fully values the complexity of being human. Dear reader, won’t you join me?