I met Lauren, an attractive middle-aged woman with warm, deep blue eyes, for a perfect cappuccino at Didier Dumas’ in Nyack the other day. She had called to tell me about the support groups at the Mental Health Association in Valley Cottage, for people with bipolar disorder and for their friends and family. I asked her to tell me how she got involved, and here is what she said:

She met Josh, her second husband, after being introduced through a dating service. They talked on the phone and he seemed very interesting, very well-mannered. She had divorced at a fairly young age, and raised her now-grown children as a single mom. Josh had raised four children, all Ivy League grads, now with families of their own. He was divorced after a 27 year marriage, and he continued to work in the highly specialized medical field in which he had been quite successful. Lauren and Josh began dating, and soon Lauren learned that Josh’s career had been marked by a series of repetitive conflicts with colleagues; that he needed a lot of attention; that he could at times be inappropriate and demonstrate poor judgment. Lauren continued to date him because in spite of the “issues,” he was also sincere, kind, loving, generous, adventurous, and fun.

Lauren and Josh were married for about a year, when Josh’s strange behaviors escalated. Lauren needed to tend to her ailing elderly father, and as she became less available, Josh became increasingly resentful. He made big messes in the house and didn’t clean up; he’d be banging around working on projects in the middle of the night; he’d easily get angry to the point of screaming. It escalated to the point where Josh seemed completely out of control. Lauren laid down the law and got him to see a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist arranged for an inpatient hospital stay. Bipolar disorder, which should have been diagnosed when Josh was in his 20’s, was at long last identified, and medications were prescribed. Josh started acting like himself again.

Getting the medications right took about six months. Lauren stood by Josh even though she was wounded, feeling self-protective as Josh recovered. At the same time, she learned everything she could about bipolar disorders, she became a walking encyclopedia on the subject. She learned about the mood swings, from manic highs to dark, depressive lows. The highs involve distorted and dangerous thinking, and self-destructive behavior – extreme irritability and anxiety are common; as are grandiose, euphoric states. The depressions are dark, deep, agonizing. These moods can be mixed, they can alternate, they can be separated by relatively normal periods. Lauren had seen it all with Josh.

Lauren made it clear she wouldn’t be Josh’s nurse or his mother – he would have to be responsible for his medications, for monitoring his behavior, for staying in therapy. And he would need to take responsibility for his impact on her and on the others around them.

Josh and Lauren (not their real names) attend both the Bipolar Group and the group for Friends and Family of people with Bipolar disorder, at the Mental Health Association of Rockland in Valley Cottage. For information on the Bipolar group that meets on Tuesday nights please call Leslie Davis at (845) 638-2576; for the Friends and Family group please call Donna Davidson at (845) 613-7086.

As I left Lauren and told her I would tell her story in this column, she couldn’t help becoming tearful. “I’m so grateful,” she told me. “People need to know about this illness, how to treat it, how to get support.” Lauren, thank you for having the generosity and the courage to share your story; I know it will be greatly appreciated.

© Daniel Shaw 2008