A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, was bipolar, but he wasn’t diagnosed until thirteen years into our 25-year marriage. However, the ups and downs were a part of my life from the beginning. Larry could be fun, smart and affectionate. He had a wicked sense of humor (including clever puns), tremendous energy (sometimes too much, manic energy), a great “joie” and endless enthusiasm.

Larry in a jocular mood

He loved to read and was interested in a wide variety of subjects, ranging from physics and biology to history and sociology, to law and mysteries. He also loved the arts, particularly the theater and at one point we had five theater subscriptions at the same time. In addition, we also went to Broadway shows quite often, which kept us very busy and very up to date on the theater scene of the day.

One of Larry’s passions was shopping and when manic, he was a true shopaholic. He couldn’t resist buying anything that tickled his fancy, which was a lot of stuff. On the other hand, I loved it when Larry would shop with me in my favorite stores; craft shops, art galleries and jewelry and clothes stores. He would even come into the dressing room with me and help me pick out what clothes to buy. He had wonderful and sophisticated taste, though his taste was often a lot bolder and flashier than mine.

I really shouldn’t complain, because Larry loved to buy things for me. However, when he was manic, he would overspend and buy everything in sight. I was in charge of the budget and it was frustrating to see all my budgeting and saving go out the window with Larry’s shopping sprees. It got to the point that I would pretend that I didn’t like things we looked at because if I said I liked it, it would be mine in no time flat!

Two pendants with matching earrings Larry bought for me on trips out West

Once my son, David, then around twelve, went to an electronics store with Larry. Before they left, I pulled David aside and instructed him to try to keep his father’s purchases down. They returned with not one, but two VCR’s and I asked David why he had failed to rein in his dad. “Hey!” he said. “I talked him down from three, so don’t complain!”

Another positive side to Larry’s love of shopping was that he was always an active partner with me in decorating our homes, helping me choose everything from wallpapers and fabrics, to furniture and window treatments to bathroom fixtures and door knobs. We also designed our house in Easton, Connecticut together with the help of an architect. It was a wonderful, shared experience and the house meant so much more to both of us for the experience we had in creating every nook and cranny and picking every design element. I remember jumping out of bed late one night to draw out a new plan I had just thought of for the kitchen/breakfast room area. It was a wild idea and it was the design we eventually used in the house. I still love it 30 years later!

The kitchen design – with rounded eating area and round sunroom off of kitchen island area

Larry exhibited his sense of humor and fun one Christmas when he and David, like many other Jews, went to the movies on Christmas day. Before the show started, as a joke, Larry stood up and started singing the Jewish classic “Havanegela”. To his delight, the rest of the audience joined in and Larry acted as conductor for the group sing-along!

Larry didn’t sleep much and was always on the go. I needed a lot of sleep and ample amounts of downtime, which created much conflict between us. On weekends, he would get up early and want to go out and do something, get something to eat or just window shop. David was also not a morning person so we would take turns appeasing a very persistent, and often annoying and inconsiderate Larry.

Larry playing with David, 6 and Sarah, 1

One day, when Sarah was about eighteen months old and couldn’t talk yet, Larry got up and started pestering David, who was six and a half, and me to go out with him. Suddenly, our toddler ran into her bedroom, grabbed her coat and then ran to the front door. It was her way of saying “Take me, Daddy! I want to play with you!” Now Larry had a new playmate for his early weekend excursions and David and I were thrilled! When Sarah could talk, she’d say to Larry, “Let’s go sopping!”

Larry and Sarah continued their ‘sopping’ trips for the rest of Larry’s life (he died shortly before Sarah’s 21st birthday). He and Sarah also traveled and went to lots of shows and movies together from early in Sarah’s life and it was something wonderful she shared with her dad. Those memories are important and comforting to her now.

But there was a dark side to Larry’s bipolar disorder. When he cycled manic, as he did every year or so, he became volatile, paranoid, angry and agitated. He would fly into rages about the slightest thing, real or imagined and he would become verbally abusive. To our frustration, he would often ‘forget’ these episodes as soon as he calmed down. He was what is called a “rapid cycler.”

A classic example of that syndrome happened one Thanksgiving when we were supposed to drive from New York to Larry’s sister in New Jersey. In the morning, Larry was curled up in a ball on the bed, refusing to even get up. I eventually got him up and we started to drive to New Jersey when he suddenly went berserk over something.

I don’t remember what it was on that occasion, but once the kids were making too much noise in the back seat of the car and once I left the dirty dishes in the sink. To Larry, that proved that I didn’t care about him, that he didn’t matter, that he wasn’t important to me and that I was a bitch.

The four of us when David was 13 and Sarah was 8

On this Thanksgiving drive, Larry pulled the car over to the side of the street and stormed off, refusing to come back to the car. David finally talked him down and got him back into the car, because, as usual, Larry refused to even talk to me. We eventually made it to New Jersey, but Larry had gone from paralyzing depression to raging mania in the course of one day.

Another holiday in New Jersey ended badly because of Larry’s manic overreactions. He stormed out of a lot of rooms, houses and cars over the years, often on major holidays with family. But this one was special, even for Larry.

We were playing a game with Larry’s sister, Robin and her family, my kids and Larry. Larry was being hyper-competitive and was trash talking everyone constantly, which I think he thought was funny. After asking him to stop several times, Robin finally got exasperated and told him to shut up and Larry snapped.

The four of us when David was 16 and Sarah was 11

He stormed out of the house, but this time he took our car and disappeared. We eventually got a call saying he was at the train station and was taking a train back to New York, even though he was supposed to be going back to Connecticut with me and the kids for the long holiday weekend. Robin had to drive David to the train station so he could drive our car back to Robin’s so I could drive back to Connecticut with the kids. Robin talked to Larry at the station and they patched things up, but Larry still insisted on taking the train to New York, disrupting and appalling everyone. I was mortified and everyone else was shaken and upset. This was not an uncommon situation for me, but each time it happened, it was like a punch to the gut.

In some ways, it would have been easier for me if Larry had always been abusive and impossible to live with, but he wasn’t. He was eventually put on Lithium, which worked well and contained his mania, but he kept going off the meds.

I loved the non-manic Larry, so the hope that Larry would get help, and then that he would stay on his meds, kept me with him for 25 years.

18 thoughts on “A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

      1. It was a sad story.When not manic, Larry was insecure and wanted love and approval and acceptance but didn’t know how to get it. When he was manic, he couldn’t see that he was being destructive to himself and his family. He was genuinely hurt by our strong reactions against his extreme behavior. It has the elements of a true tragedy.

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  1. Thank you for sharing, Ellin. I read every word and can understand the joys and sadness you felt being with someone who could be so nice one day and strange another. I think being ‘bipolar’ is something anyone could become in this world of uncertainties. The important thing is that those around such special person are there for him/her in good times and bad. Larry had created good memories for both your children, a dad they shared fond memories and someone to be proud of irregardless.

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    1. I think Larry would be pleased to know how much he is missed and how much his family thinks of him – often fondly. Much more is understood about his bipolar disease and the medications are better and more sophisticated today. But I don’t think he ever would have accepted his diagnosis and stayed on his meds for any length of time. That’s the sad fact I had to accept before I finally left him for good. (actually, he left me, I just refused to take him back as I had done twice before).

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      1. Certainly when someone is ‘sick’ or mentally, physically or emotionally unstable, those around them suffer. You had been through so much and your article of Larry still portray him as a loving husband and father and that is most important. Cherish the good memories and hopefully that could comfort and ‘dilute’ the unhappy ones, knowing he was bipolar, that sickness that affected him and those around him. Larry is now gone, RIP and taken bipolar with him. You had been brave by sharing so treasure the good times and look forward to all the beautiful things (walks or just sip coffee, read, etc) you can do in front of you now. Every cloud has a silver lining.

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  2. You would have to be a very strong woman to be able to continue under those conditions. Unconditional love to my way of thinking. There comes a time when it becomes unmanageable I would think. I applaud the love dedication and affection under such difficult circumstances.

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    1. Part of the reason I stayed was because I was afraid of what he would do if I left. Larry threatened to tie me up in court with expensive and emotionally damaging custody battles and when he was manic, he certainly would have. We would have spent all our money fighting each other in court and I would have been left with nothing to live on except whatever alimony and child support I could pry from him. I also worried about the visitation time he would get alone with the kids, which could have been destructive to them and frightening for all of us.So I often stayed from fear as much as compassion and hope.

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      1. I get that. I ‘ve been around bipolar, but not involved, just know the mood swings can be bad and they can be self destructive and some harm others. It’s sad. You’re a strong woman indeed.

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    1. Very tough situation. The kids mostly remember the bad, manic times, but I remember some of the wonderful times Larry and I had together. It makes me very sad to see how much damage our chaotic and often destructive lifestyle did to our kids. I realise that kids need stability and security above all else and my kids had neither.

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  3. I can see where Larry would be a very interesting and exciting man, however, to live with those excessive mood swings had to be difficult. I’m beginning to wonder if my father was bipolar.
    Leslie

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    1. I think that many more people are bipolar than were diagnosed. It took 13 years in therapy and a total breakdown for Larry’s psychiatrist to realize that he was bipolar, in 1987. Even a few years later, it was much more recognized and doctors told us they couldn’t understand why it took so long to figure out what was wrong with Larry. To them it seemed obvious. But in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was considered rare and had very specific symptoms profiles that few people met exactly. For example, they didn’t know about rapid cycling – changing moods within short periods, even one day. They thought that manic depressives had to have long cycles of months, even years. The doctors at the time used to think that rapid cycling meant you were not bipolar instead of realizing that you were a particular type of bipolar. My life would have been very different if the psychiatric profession had been more advanced.

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  4. I worked in mental illness/addiction dual diagnosis for many years, sometimes primary psychiatric care and other times dual diagnosis with adults and children. I worked in involuntary “not guilty by reason of insanity” for 7 years as well. Bipolar manic/depressive is, when manic truly exhausting, and major depression as well, ECT was used as a last resort and I’ve seen good results. Lithium is useful but has side effects, and often these medications are so bothersome the person taking them just doesn’t comply, sooner or later, and the long term effects are often irreversible. They were my patient’s and I spent 40+ hours weekly with them, treatment teams, 1:1 sessions, we discussed all kinds of things about the disease, All were there due to “not guilt by reason of insanity” so criminal acts were done by them. Court mandated to psychiatric hospital with strict guidelines, and if don’t take medications after several attempts and refusals, approval for mandated injections and whatever else needed for safety of self and others was the procedure. These patient’s were on medications and there was good results from continuing use, with medical and psychiatric treatment, counseling and on-going therapy. Most stayed for years, long term treatment. Things have changed and they’re treated and discharged to outpatient and group housing now. I enjoyed many of the patient’s, they were smart, funny, and just interesting to work with. One of my patient’s (bipolar?manic) sat up one evening and made me a CD of wonderful music from the 70’s, I still have it. He used to make me laugh and we had a good rapport. I understand what you went through, and yes, they are fun, exciting and make your world a roller coaster ride! I worked with about 22 clients, later became the supervisor of the entire building, 3 floors, we had deaf mentally ill as well. 50-60 clients in the building, I had a good rapport with them and we always talked when they needed someone to just listen, 1:1 is often not something a nurse can do when she has so much to do on the unit. I learned alot and psych is everywhere, my experience and education has helped me deal with people in every day life….it wears me out some times but I know I have helped others by just understanding and mediating when needed. I understand what you and your family went through.

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    1. Larry didn’t suffer any side effects from lithium, yet he wouldn’t stay on it. He claimed it did nothing for him, so the doctor told him to think of it as a placebo that made his family feel better. I learned that there is a syndrome called “lithium aversion” – bipolar people refusing to stay on their meds is an actual symptom of their disease! And Larry would lie about taking his meds – he’s say he was still on them until his symptoms became noticeable to me. When I confronted him, he’d admit that he’d stopped but always tried to justify his decision. I never understood why he wouldn’t stay on the meds if it meant keeping his family. Going off the meds was more important to him than staying with us. That’s what hurt the most.

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  5. Oh Ellin, this was a real shock for many reasons; but the main one is that your ex – in his younger years and w/o the beard, just ressembles so much my Hero Husband, also much younger at the time of similarity with Larry….

    I don’t know why; but I happen to know more bipolar fates than I care. I did know nothing whatsoever until the first known human tragedy of a couple who were friends of my parents. The man was a genius with many books written, with 4 children and a brilliant and tormented mind. After many years we followed from close by the depressions, the manic reactions and the suffering of the family, the separation and cutting off of love within the family circle…. it was terrible. That man finally killed himself – sadly one of the four children committed suicide too in his early twenties. I know quite a few other families & couples and the suffering this bipolar disorder brings, are truly incredible. So, I do very much understand what you went through and I applaud you for taking the courage to bring this on the ‘table’. We all don’t really know too well how to cope with our dear friends who suffer from their partner’s illness.

    What strikes me most, is with how much love and tenderness you describe your family life, for your understanding and your patience. You are a wonderful human being and your children have surely learned in their early life the understanding of sufferance and love under difficult circumstances. Thank You for this post, it is touching and the photos are beautiful. What a stunningly beautiful family you were, and you seemed so happy in those pictures!

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