For better, for worse: Partners of bipolar sufferers speak out

0:00

Warning: This article contains conversations about depression and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Ten years after her husband took his own life, Natasha David remembers both good times and very bad times.

"When my husband was 'up', he was the life and soul of the party. And it's very hard...it's hard to distinguish between the marital problems and the personality and the person, and what might be visited upon them,” she said.

He had been battling a bipolar disorder but, like many with the condition, it went undiagnosed.  Ms David remembers vividly the moment, a few days into a trial separation, she learned her husband had died.

"The moment I opened the door to those police standing there, it was like...my entire body knew what they were going to say. And I went into shock, even before they said it. And I just remember calling my mother and just crying, 'He's gone, he's gone.'"
 
Among the many "what ifs," she wonders if things would have been different if his condition had been detected and treated.

Finding connections

Ms David has now has written a book about her experience, Marrying Bipolar, and hopes it will help others in her position. In the course of publishing her book, she reached out to National Mental Health Commissioner, Lucinda Brogden, and the two women have bonded over their shared experience as partners of people with mental health conditions.
 
Lucinda Brogden's husband, former NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden, resigned in 2005 after a very public breakdown. His subsequent suicide attempt sparked a national conversation about mental health.
 
"We have incredible parallels in our stories," Ms Brogden said. "But others can see elements of their life in [the book] and I think to know you're not alone is really one of the first steps towards feeling safe about disclosure."

Bipolar disorder is estimated to affect up to one in 50 Australians each year, according to SANE Australia, which also says people with bipolar also have an increased risk of suicide.
 
Ms David, who also struggled with suicidal thoughts as she processed the death of her husband, says she made the choice to embrace life, after recognising the profound implications of her actions would have on her family.
 
"Suicide only transfers your pain to everyone else," she said. "And it's inescapable"

"It's a little bit like trying to work out, 'Who am I going to wake up next to tomorrow morning?'" - SANE CEO Jack Heath

Diagnosis

SANE Australia chief executive Jack Heath says bipolar is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as depression, because people are more likely to present to GPs during a down-swing

"Unlike depression on its own, it can be matched with these periods of very high activity. So you can see people who, for example, may end up spending lots of money,” he said.
 
He says the misdiagnosis may lead people to be wrongly medicated, or given inappropriate treatment. And the condition, left untreated, can have negative impacts on relationships.
 
“One of the challenges is that, in those moments of extreme excitement, people can do things they later regret,” he said.

"Suicide only transfers your pain to everyone else."

"For the partner, it's a little bit like trying to work out, 'Who am I going to wake up next to tomorrow morning?' And having to sort of calibrate that can be very, very challenging."

Mr Heath says supporting someone with bipolar can be an emotional roller coaster.
 
"And then if someone's had an extended period of depression and has been really down in the dumps then, when you start to see them a bit elevated and excited, you sort of think...'Oh, well, this is good.' But the risk is then that that level of excitement then careers off into a much greater extreme."
 
He says another reason people may go undiagnosed is that they can appear on the surface to be functioning very well.

John's story

A partner in a top Sydney law firm, John Canning, lived with undiagnosed bipolar for years, and at times his manic periods helped him to thrive, but they also led to impulsive and reckless behaviour, followed by deep depression and extreme irritability.

"Once you understand bipolar, there are elements of behaviour that go with the territory in manic phases. I had an affair. And, you know, I own that, and [my wife] Mary and I worked through that. But that was devastating for both of us and the children. "

His wife prompted him to seek help after filling out a survey, on his behalf, on the Black Dog Institute website.

"He'd always been stressed. He works in a very stressful environment. But this was more than just ordinary. He was just really irritable," she says.

Mary Canning says the pair are now working to tackle the stigma around talking about mental illness.

"It can be okay," she said. "We stared down the barrel of our marriage ending. It's taken us many years to get beyond that. But it's possible."

Those suffering from mental health issues can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

You can also continue the conversation, find resources or connect with others who may share your experience at SANE Australia.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch