I Can Neither Calm Your Depression Nor Find Order in Your Bipolar Disorder, But I am Co-Dependent Enough to Try

Joel Eisenberg

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Carrie Fisher and stormtrooper escort. Stock photo.

Part One

Last week, I posted the following article: "Dating a Victim of Abuse and Depression."

Feedback was strong, which showed me News Break readers may be eager for such articles. As my life and in part an early career choice informed a personal predilection to write about depression-related issues, I was compelled to share another.

First, a note: As I state whenever I write a mental health-based article, in disclosure I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. I am an author, screenwriter, and television producer. I have no secret knowledge of depression or bipolar disorder, save for close, personal observations of the difficult experiences of others with whom I have been involved, and my professional degree as a Special Education teacher with a prerequisite course load in Abnormal Psychology.

One of my dearest friends, who recently relocated overseas to “begin a new life,” as she stated, was diagnosed with both illnesses just over a decade ago. She felt better, she said, upon the diagnosis.

“Now that there’s an explanation,” she furthered to me. “I can get help … Like Carrie.”

We are both Star Wars fans. Carrie Fisher was my friend’s hero, as the actress refused to allow the illness to mar her creativity. Behind the cameras, Carrie was one of Hollywood’s top script doctors. She was a multi-time bestselling author, widely considered to be highly intelligent … and plagued by mood swings and a fierce drug addiction.

My friend’s professional goals are (still) to become a top author and screenwriter, but her own mood swings and drug addictions had nearly killed her on more than one occasion. Hers was a years-long habit to take amphetamines to finish her writing, and then Valium or muscle relaxers to settle down. She has been driven and talented for as long as I’ve known her.

We met in college and immediately hit it off. Me, the guy who had never so much as toked a joint or ingested a non-prescribed drug due to a childhood illness and general lack of interest, and her, the troubled artist. I didn’t judge. I cared about her too much.

And then, decades later, Carrie Fisher died at 60, her lifestyle reported to have contributed to her early passing.

My friend does not want to die. She has been sober since the day Carrie passed. “I still don’t have my peace, though,” she said to me on a Skype call. “Every day is a fight, but for the first time I think I have a chance of winning.“

My friend granted me permission to tell her story, so long as I do not use her name. Sharing the story, I said, may do others some good.

“Then go for it,” she said, before clicking off to head to a doctor’s appointment. “Just don’t make me look crazy, and be sure to tell them I love to dance.”

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Pixabay stock photo

My friend was born in 1964. She is the same age as me. We had maintained a When Harry Met Sally relationship to the date of my marriage nearly 20 years ago. That is, everyone thought we should be dating. No one thought we could possibly be platonic.

We were, though, and happily so. She was dating someone when I married, and I believed her when she said she couldn’t be happier for me.

We were also both steadily dating others in college, and we constantly bitched about the “horrible habits” of our partners. We were no bargains either but we were confidantes. We could tell each other anything.

I loved her, but not that way. I love her now; nothing has changed in that regard. I am happily married. She is divorced, and looking.

When in college, she managed to keep her “demons” at bay. I found out later that she referred to her mood swings, or falls into deep depression, as her “demons“ in an effort to remain aware of the loving person she was (and remains), as opposed to the downbeat depressive she tended towards. She considered many of her days in school as performances.

For me, the first sign of something off occurred one night at her place. We were up late studying for a Philosophy exam, and she appeared very jittery. She was drinking a lot of coffee, we both were, and I said that maybe she should relax on the caffeine a bit. My intention was not to nag, but as the exam was a few hours later I didn’t want her to be overly-nervous as she was taking the test.

She responded by throwing the cup full-force against the wall. Glass shattered everywhere; coffee stained her carpet. I was shocked — now I wanted to dump the rest of the brewing coffee in the sink — but she responded by immediately standing and knocking the coffee-maker onto the floor. She cursed at me uncontrollably, calling me every name you could imagine that would be unfit to print here, then burst into tears. I embraced her.

That was all I needed.

“Okay,” I said. “We‘re taking a break. We need to talk.”

”I love you,” she said, through sobs. “I’m so sorry. Just hold me … I’ll be okay.”

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Pixabay stock photo

“I need to be honest with you,” she said, upon calming.

My friend told me that such sudden mood swings were becoming more and more common. She pulled a framed picture off the wall, and showed me a hole that she had punched through the plaster weeks before. She was living in an apartment, and said she’d fix it when she had the money.

”Are you on any medication?” I asked.

“I’ve been afraid to go to the doctor.”

“How long do these … outbursts last, if you don’t mind me asking?”

”Depends.“ I was taken by her very awkward pause at that moment. “I know I need help,” she admitted. “Can you come with me?”

“Of course.”

”Just understand,” she said, “that wasn’t me.”

A week later, she scheduled a psychiatrist appointment … and canceled it the following day. She tried to work on herself organically, but the attacks did not diminish in their frequency. It was not until years later when she worked up the courage to finally get help.

At my urging, she said the same thing to the psychiatrist that she said to me years prior — “Just understand, that wasn’t me” — following a battery of tests a few days before. My friend wrote down everything, believing she could use the experience as fodder for a novel.

”That was you,” the doctor said. ”That is you. Accept the illness, and we can treat it appropriately.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” my friend said.

”Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of extreme depression and periods of mania. We’re unsure of the causes, but heredity and envionronment appear to factor equally. Based on the severity of your attacks, we can medicate. But … you need to be honest with yourself about your moods.”

“Doctor,” I asked, “this is not her fault, right?” I knew the answer, but asked for her benefit.

”Of course not.”

I turned to my friend, who nodded in acceptance. “I actually feel better,”she said, “now that I know what the hell I’m dealing with.”

“I still love you,” I said.

The doctor smirked. “Thank you for accepting my crazy,” my friend said.

“Just keep me away from coffee pots,” I told her.

In short order, she began taking her prescribed meds, which have since been adjusted to a maximally effective balance. That balance, once attained, carried over to every facet of her life. She felt in control, and was able to proceed with her personal and professional goals.

But she had her moments, as expected. There were times during phone calls when she hung up on me without warning. She cried, frequently. She expressed her innermost struggles to me — an inability to be consistently happy (I told her no one is consistently happy, which in hindsight may not have been the smartest thing to say) — overwhelming feelings of guilt, and her concern that she would never meet a man.

Most alarmingly, she expressed to me that she had considered suicide on more than one occasion. She attended my wedding, and though she indeed did appear very happy for my wife and me — and did dance a storm that night — I was concerned about her.

I had no reason to be. She had a great time, and has talked about “that amazing band” ever since.

Her struggles, though, continued. She had attained a greater degree of balance than she had ever anticipated, however, she realized something that was, perhaps, inevitable:

The doctor once said to her that environment likely played a role in the disorder. She told me it was time to move on.

“Where are you planning to go?” I asked.

“France.”

”France? Why so far? What am I going to do without you — ”

”Shut up,” she said, laughing. “Just shut up. You’re happily married now. You have a great wife. You’ll do fine. I have nothing going on here.”

”You’ll be so far away …”

”That’s what Skype is for.”

"Well, Zoom now, actually ..."

I began to notice there was now an order to her struggles. The down periods would last an hour or two. Some were downright scary. If I admitted to you that during her darkest moments she cursed at me like a sailor, that would be an understatement. However, those moments lessened in duration as time went on. She would be very apologetic after, intensely loving, and ask if I was still her friend.

Always.

After all, this was the woman who took a chance and moved out to Los Angeles after I did during my second stab at west coast permanence. I finally acclimated here; she did not. Decades later, she recognized it was time to do for herself, by herself.

Today, my friend and I speak once a week. She faces her battles bravely, and tells me she’s happier than she’s ever been. She’s writing her novel about bipolar disorder, and works full-time at a shelter for dogs.

And she’s actively looking for a man.

”I love you, but moving here is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” she told me. “When I finish my book I plan on speaking to young people who suffer. I want them to know they’re not alone.”

”You’re the best,“ I said.

“If I can help others like you helped me, maybe I can make a difference.”

”I did nothing. I’m just your friend.”

”Exactly,” she said. “And I was never alone … Think about what you’ve done for me, Joel. That’s what I want to do for others.”

The words penetrated. When we ended the call, I fought tears. I had taken our friendship for granted for so long, I never paused to consider that my acceptance meant so much to her.

No one should ever be alone, I thought. No one should ever be alone…

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Part Two

Now, my friend and I were not co-dependent so much as loyal.

The line is a fine one, and as I review the above words I find myself pondering my old dating life where co-dependency was indeed every bit as important an issue.

What if my friend and I were romantically involved? What would the dynamic have been then? These thoughts also go through my mind as I personally have dealt with an honest co-dependent streak.

Though I have been married now for nearly 20 years, the nadir of my single days was reached during an overnight to Santa Barbara. My girlfriend at the time and I were in our hotel room, where we got into a vicious argument about nothing much.

Something about Gone with the Wind being a better novel than Dune set off an argument about money, marriage and taxes. Something that trivial, which led us to cancelling the rest of the trip, leaving the hotel, and arguing at the top of our lungs all the way back to Los Angeles.

She suffered from clinical depression and bipolar disorder, just like my friend. When she told me I was responsible for “exacerbating” her illness, I retaliated with a rejoinder that more than proved her contention:

“I cannot babysit your depression!” I yelled.

Whether I was provoked or not, or whether I believed I was in the right or not, it was simply a horrible thing to say. The point I was trying to make in that moment was, in all sincerity, a partner could only take so much. I have grown since then, thankfully, but at that moment my senses had given way to emotion.

The issue was, every day for the better part of nearly three years was a repeat of this one. We both stuck it out as we were afraid to be without each other.

It took some therapy and introspection to sort out my own issues.

The positive side of my lacking empathy in that moment is the trait has enabled me to look back and write, with a clear head, about my own role in such issues.

For anyone who is dating someone who suffers from depression-related issues, here is a list of do's and don’ts to say or do to your partner …

  • Don’t push. If you are looking forward to consummating a long-term plan and your partner is suddenly uninterested, for example, your partner may be both mentally and physically incapable of moving forward at that moment. Or, they may have been trying to spare your feelings all along. Be bigger, regardless of the reality. Walk away and allow your partner time to breathe, and be on their own, for as long as necessary.
  • Listen. Always. What may not make sense to you may mean everything to them.
  • Encourage your partner to engage in open and honest dialogue with you about their illness, and repeat to them that you know what they suffer is real and not, disparagingly, “in the head.” Let them know too that there is no stigma attached to how they feel, and you will support them in any way necessary.
  • Conversely, let your partner know that you can only do your best, as you cannot feel what they feel.
  • If therapy is involved, volunteer to join them.
  • Never assume you know more about the illness than does the sufferer. You do not if you are not a sufferer yourself, and you will avoid many an angry moment if only you are aware of what you don’t know.
  • Finally, never, ever say anything along the lines of what I said to my girlfriend at the time. It is wrong, and beneath the pale. The truth is, it is difficult dating or living with someone with depression, or associated emotional issues. You will neither save nor help them if you are unprepared, nor will you save anyone for that matter from such issues. You can, though, certainly engage in a happy, healthy relationship of this nature if you appreciate some of these general ground rules going in.

Further, you may want to ask yourself if any of the following applies to you:

  • You are verbally (or physically) abused, and yet you always try to “work things out”;
  • You tend to stay around longer than you believe most anyone else would;
  • You find yourself doing notable things, including losing your temper as you cannot take anymore and returning the disrespect, that are against your grain;
  • You are embarrassed to go out in public as a couple, but you do so anyway;
  • You sincerely try to make things better, regardless of personal cost;
  • During those times (hours? days?) when your relationship is good and on an even-footing, you get your hopes up that such good cheer will continue, and you crash when it does not;
  • Ask yourself why you do not want your partner to leave;
  • You repeat cycles, perhaps threatening to leave, but you never do. And neither does your partner, who threatens the same;
  • During this period of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of the above issues have become exacerbated during your self-quarantine or quarantine with your partner.

If you answered “yes,” to any of these questions, chances are you are engaged in an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship.

Sometimes, external circumstances, such as children or family issues, keep incompatible couples together. Answers as to why remaining together can be complex, but keep in mind that if doing so damages your health, you are not doing any favors for anyone.

What to do if you find yourself in such a relationship?

  • Speak to someone you trust and ask for advice;
  • End the relationship, which will not be easy;
  • Consider individual therapy, following by couples therapy if deemed professionally necessary;
  • Write a list of pros and cons of your relationship, and refer to it often. Ask yourself which is the larger list, and consider what to do as a result;
  • Most importantly, recognize that help is out there, elsewhere, if you prefer to remain anonymous to family and friends. See here:

I hope in some small way my words have been supportive to you.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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