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Waiting by the Door

Trigger warning: bipolar disorder, mania, depression, self-harm

“I’m tired of feeling sad.” He says it as you are both eating breakfast, his expression drained of life. It has been three days of this, and you know, despite what you may be hoping, that it is far from over. It started a couple weeks ago, not with sadness, but what a psychologist calls, “hypomania.”

Your fiancé has bipolar disorder. Until you met him, you, like most people, had no idea what it was really like, and you look back with chagrin, and a little shame, at how you viewed people who “probably” had it. It is much different when you live with someone who deals with it every day, and you come to understand the cycles. There is a steep learning curve, and you’ve made mistakes.

That’s why it took you almost two weeks to catch on this time. He’s been active, much more so than usual, but in subtle ways. The house is cleaner, he’s hanging out with more friends, and he’s taking on new responsibilities at work. He’s also been under a lot of stress, between work and some family matters, and, well… You’ve quit smoking recently, and you’ve been irritable. He’s happy that you’ve quit smoking, but being randomly crabby has him walking on eggshells a bit.

You’ve been trying to be healthier, get up early, eat breakfast, meditate, write in a journal, focus on yourself a bit. He’s a light sleeper, and he’s been getting up with you, and talking. Talking a lot, and it’s not that you don’t love talking to him, but at 7:00 AM, you just want to sip your coffee and eat in the quiet, setting a routine and mentally preparing yourself for the day. You’ve been focusing on yourself, and so it catches you off guard one Thursday morning, when you’re about to snap at him, and you take a moment to think about how he’s talking. Bouncing from one topic to the next in rapid succession, barely stopping for breath, never letting you get a word in edgewise. And his mood has shifted just as swiftly through a cycle of amusement, anger, giddiness, sadness, frustration, all applied to situations that warrant a different emotion.

“Hey,” you said, stopping him in his tracks, “how are you doing?”

He tilted his head to one side. “Why do you ask?”

“Because,” you paused. You didn’t want to say it, because you didn’t want to make him feel bad. “Because you’re acting a little off, babe.”

He cocked his head to the other side and stopped, as though he was listening to the words rattling around in his head. “Not quite well. My thoughts are jumbled. Disordered.” He looked back at you. “I’m sorry, I’m probably driving you nuts.”

“It’s okay. I just realized you weren’t really acting like yourself.” You didn’t take your eyes off his. “I think it’s been like this for about two weeks now.”

He nodded. “I think so, too.”

It was only a mild episode. Not as mild as some. Normally this might go on for a couple of days, a week at most, and then pass as quickly as it appeared. Normally mentioning it was all it took to bring him back to reality. But it had been eight months since the last big one. And there’s a big one every year.

Saturday and Sunday you worked, and you didn’t get to check in the way you’d have liked, because you were both tired by the time you got home. Work has been busy and stressful for you, and you’re still moody from nicotine withdrawal, and you let it slip your mind. You’ll be reminded, in the days ahead, that you are human, and have limits, and that not everything is your responsibility. You’ll still feel guilty.

Sunday night, he went to bed without saying anything. You were watching Netflix together, and he got up, you presumed, to go to the bathroom. You asked if he wanted you to pause it, and he said no. The episode finishes, and you realized he never came back, and the bathroom was empty. He was laying in bed, covers up to his chest, playing on his phone.

“You didn’t say you were going to bed?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt your show.”

“The show isn’t that important, babe, I’d have still stopped it and said good night at least.”

You got into bed and scrolled through Facebook. You weren’t quite tired yet, but you were hoping that laying down would trick your mind into sleeping. After a few minutes, you heard a heavy sigh as he rolled over rather forcefully. Pointedly.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Well it doesn’t sound like nothing.”

“Fine. I’m just irritated.”

“At me?”

“Yes.”

You weren’t expecting that. “What the hell did I do?”

“Well, you’re just laying here and playing with your phone and ignoring me.”

You digested this for half a second, but you were already upset. “Well you didn’t seem to care very much about spending time with me when you came to bed without a goddamn word. You were playing on your phone when I came in here instead of spending time with me and watching our show.” The argument continued for a few minutes, and as you got more and more heated, you suddenly realized you were arguing about phones and television shows and sleep, and it was all pointless. You pulled on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed your keys, and said, “I’m taking a walk.”

Ten minutes around the perimeter of the apartment complex, kicking a couple of retaining walls just to get it out of your system, your thoughts were crystallized by the time you got back to the apartment. You tossed your keys down onto the dresser, still angry, and snapped, “communicate your expectations. If I don’t know what you want, you can’t be mad at me if I’m not doing it.” You walked back out of the room and went to the bathroom.

Just before you flushed the toilet, you thought you heard the sound of rubber bands snapping, and it started to click in your mind. By the time you got back to the bedroom, he was laying on his side, covers up to his eyes, and as you got into the bed, you realized he was laying on his side, crying and shivering. As you wrapped your arms around him, you realized he was not shivering, but convulsing. He had six rubber bands on one arm, five on the other, and marks up and down his forearms where he’d dug his fingers into them instead. He groaned and cried, wordless anguish tearing out of his mouth. He started to claw at himself again and you grabbed his hands, gently but as firmly as you can, and you held him there. He thrashed, and you threw a leg over his legs, pinning them, too.

“Shh.” You were quiet, mouth up to his ear. “Hey. I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re okay, just take deep breaths. I know you’re in there. Deep breaths, babe.” You kept repeating it until slowly, the thrashing subsided, and he stopped fighting you. Stopped trying to hurt himself.

He cried quietly for several minutes, and finally managed to choke out, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

It’s Thursday again. The past few days, he’s been dreary, especially first thing in the morning. Sometimes, he’s very lucid, and almost as talkative as normal. Sometimes, he’s in a dissociative state, glassy eyed and silent, and you have to call his name to snap him back to reality. In the days ahead, you’ll find that both of you face tests of strength. Much of the time, the only thing you can do is be present, or find someone to be with him while you go to work. Not because you don’t trust him, but because he can’t trust himself.

The cycle of bipolar disorder is unpredictable, but only in its timing and severity. Stress can influence or exacerbate states of mania, but it is not the cause. Depression is not the result of any event, other than, frequently, being the aftereffect of a manic episode. There is no strict progression of cause to effect here, and that is the most frightening thing about it. There doesn’t have to be a cause. It is merely brain chemistry that doesn’t work like the brain chemistry we are used to. And the only thing you can do is be there, and be aware.

He will be fine for months on end, and then, abruptly, wake up manic one day. Mania is not an inexplicably good mood. It is hyperactivity combined with disordered thought patterns, or rather, lack of patterns. It is being incapable of focusing, but also feeling everything on the spectrum at once. You only notice when you see the incongruent reactions, like talking about how horrible a murder case is while laughing hysterically. It’s not funny, and he knows it’s not, and you see it in his eyes.

Sometimes, often, it passes after a few days, and if you notice at all, you say something once, and by making him aware, you snap him back to reality and it’s over. He’s had thirteen years of therapy to help him know how to cope, and how to manage his reactions. He’s better at it than most. But sometimes, it is the big one, and he has to have the break.

The break is like firing off everything he’s got at once. All the chemicals his brain doesn’t produce at a normal pace have been building up at a rate way above the norm, which is why he’s been acting the way he has. When the break hits, it’s an overload, and it burns up everything he’s got. Then, when there’s nothing left, the depression comes, because there are no chemicals left to process those emotions. The more severe the mania, the less severe the depression. Since, this time, the mania was short-lived, and was only a hypomanic state, where he didn’t go completely off the rails, the depression sticks around for a lot longer.

You can always tell by looking in his eyes what sort of day, or moment, he’s having. You can tell there are pieces missing, and you just keep trying to maintain a routine and keep some sense of normalcy. And one night, you’ll take him out to Chinese, and you’ll be talking over dinner, and you’ll see all the lights come on and you cry, because you’ve been waiting to see that moment. And you know it’s fleeting, and that you’re not out of the woods yet. He knows himself well enough to know it isn’t done, and he’ll tell you so. So you enjoy that moment, and you clink teacups like champagne flutes and you celebrate that he’s okay for a minute, because you don’t know how long it will last, and you don’t know how long it will be before he’s back to himself completely.

It must be how a dog feels when their owner goes away for a vacation. Someone drops by every now and then to fill the food and water bowls, but for the most part, you’re trodding around a familiar place without company. It’s an empty house, even when the dog-sitter comes by. And so you wait by the door, listening for the sound of familiar footsteps on the porch. Hoping he comes home soon.

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