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Getting off the Roller Coaster

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By Janet Seever

When the maintenance crew gathered at our house for afternoon break, I chatted with them as I set a plate of banana bread on the table. I had known all of them for the three years we had lived at a mission center in Australia.

Suddenly my husband turned to me and said angrily, “When the men come to our house for their break, I don’t want you talking with them. Our conversation is none of your business!” Deeply embarrassed, I wondered if the others in the room were as shocked by his outburst as I was and if they had been noticing other things like this lately. Unexplained behavior. Strange demands. Illogical thinking.

Dennis’ supervisor sat at the table. How I wanted to ask him privately, “Have you noticed anything strange about my husband’s behavior lately? Anything which might indicate mental illness?” But of course I never asked those questions.

Life on a Roller Coaster
When Dennis and I married in 1975, our goal was to serve the Lord through mission work, and everything went well at first. Then gradually, puzzling things happened. When he was feeling down, his dark moods often showed up as anger. He thought it was my responsibility to make him happy, and I didn’t know how. The “how-to-be-happily-married” variety of books didn’t work. Wasn’t I trying hard enough?

In spite of happy and fulfilling times, the moods kept returning. For years Dennis was so good at covering his feelings around his co-workers, that they thought of him as a kind, extremely helpful person.

Life was very much like living on a roller coaster. He fell for “get rich quick” schemes, had a brilliant new idea every couple weeks, and invested (and lost) whatever extra money we had in the stock market. He didn’t trust my judgment on anything, so I always had to make him believe any idea was really “his” in the first place, since all of “my” ideas were automatically rejected. What mental gymnastics! During those difficult times, I found my solace in the Lord. I poured my heart out into my journal, sometimes writing prayers, sometimes just recording the pain. I felt so alone.

Help at Last
By the time we returned to the U.S. for furlough in 1990, the situation was unbearable and some of his thinking was downright bizarre. When he told people what he was planning to do, they reacted with fear. Swallowing my pride, I sought help from our mission’s counseling department where the counselors were very supportive. They also recommended a co-dependency support group, which I found helpful.

Getting help for Dennis was another matter. Often those with emotional difficulties are the last to admit they need help. At first he reluctantly went to a few counseling sessions, but quit because they “weren’t doing any good.” It took eight months and the advice of a number of skilled people before I persuaded Dennis to seek help. I was waiting for someone else to persuade Dennis he needed help, but when the mission’s counseling director told me I was a “brave person,” I realized God was asking me to do it.

Dennis was finally willing to go to our family doctor, who made a referral to a psychiatrist. I was sure that he was bipolar at that time, but the psychiatrist only diagnosed depressive disorder in September 1991—he saw nothing else. An anti-depressant brought relief for many of the symptoms within two weeks. Later in 1997, a caring Christian psychiatrist finally diagnosed the bipolar part of my husband’s illness. It took about four years to come up with the right combination of four medications. Now, after ten years, she still sees him monthly to make certain his medications are balanced.

What did I feel when he finally got the diagnosis of bipolar mood disorder? Deeply relieved and thankful to God that my husband was finally getting the help he so desperately needed. I was also thankful that medication was available, which wasn’t true years back.

Things That Have Been Personally Helpful to Us
What would my advice be for those in a similar situation? The following things have been personally helpful to us in dealing with my husband’s illness:

Be aware of the symptoms and don’t pretend everything is “normal” like I did for years.

Get help. Trained counselors are available. A family doctor can prescribe medication for a simple case of depression, but it takes a psychiatrist to diagnose the more complicated cases. Get a referral if necessary.

Love unconditionally and be sensitive to your spouse’s needs.

A mood disorder caused by a chemical imbalance is just as real a disease as diabetes and requires professional help and medication. Don’t let anyone tell you that a Christian should never experience depression, or that the moods will go away “if a person is a better Christian, prays harder, etc.”

The illness may be long-term, requiring medication for the rest of the patient’s life, as is the case for my husband.

It was very helpful to find a network of trusted friends to pray for me and my husband and listen to me. A support group also helps.

I learned to rely on the Lord in a way I never have before.

One of the most valuable resources I have found in coming to terms with my husband’s mood disorder is the book Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? Helping (Not Hurting) Those with Emotional Difficulties (InterVarsity Press), by Dr. Dwight L. Carlson, a Christian psychiatrist. He shows in a very helpful chart that as low as the average person feels when depressed, this is only the beginning point for someone with a mood disorder. According to Dr. Carlson, telling a person with a chemical imbalance that “Jesus is all you need,” and telling them if they were obedient to the Lord, they wouldn’t be struggling with depression, only heaps more guilt them. It’s no sin to hurt.

Through all of the struggles, I am now much wiser than I was seventeen years ago when I first began identifying my husband’s moods as a problem. God’s grace has been sufficient, and I am no longer alone. Help is available; we have found it.

©Janet Seever, 1999 updated 2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bio:
The mother of two adult children, Janet Seever lives with her husband in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she edits Prayer Alive magazine, a publication of Wycliffe Canada. Her articles and stories have appeared on Internet and in various publications, including the books Celebrating the Season, Expressions of Gratitude, Opening the Gifts of Christmas, and Grace Givers. Her stories “Dark Threads in the Tapestry of Life” and “The Sun Still Shines” appeared in Comfort Café in past months.