The monster lurking within

2010-12-07 00:00

ACAPE TOWN journalist, photographer and mother of two, Nina Mensing, has published a book about her more than 20 years of living with a partner who suffers from bipolar disorder (BD). The couple met while still at boarding school in Grahams­town. Bradley was a gifted artist, highly creative, charming, funny and fun to be with, until his condition caused an episode of either mania or depression. Manic Marriage charts the rocky course of the couple’s relationship from high school to marriage and parenthood.

It is a courageous, funny, sometimes alarming and often painful account of what Nina and her sons went through, largely because Bradley refused treatment.

Nina and her partner are now separated and she is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by life with Bradley. The Witness asked her some questions.

Q&A with Nina Mensing

The Witness (TW): Was it cathartic to write this book?

Nina Mensing (NM): Yes. Throughout my years in a relationship that included bipolar I never had a voice, and writing gave me that voice. It was the only time that bipolar did not have the upper hand.

TW: What did you hope it would achieve?

NM: I wanted people to understand the disorder more, and to view it as a family disorder rather than one that affects only the sufferer. I wanted to create compassion and understanding for families living with mental disorders, as we are often questioned and sidelined. I felt a spouse’s experience was something that people needed to hear. Not many books have touched on the impact it has on the family, and even psychiatrists and psychologists have very little understanding of how it impacts on us.

TW: What has it achieved?

NM: I have had great feedback. Complete strangers have contacted me to say how much it meant to them not to feel so isolated; that finally their families and friends can understand that they are not exaggerating the difficulties of living with a partner with bipolar. Psychiatrists and psychologists have said that even they had never realised the full extent to which it impacts on family life. It is embarrassing to admit that one is being emotionally abused, so not many families living with mental disorders speak up about that side of it.

TW: Has reading it affected the way friends, family and others relate to you?

NM: Definitely. People are more aware of our situation, the difficulties we have and that we face, and they are less critical of my decisions. They are definitely more supportive and understanding now. Some friends feel protective over Bradley and feel that I let him down and took advantage of him by writing the book.

TW: After reading it Bradley wrote in the preface: “Who is this asshole and why on Earth would someone want to stay married to him?” Why did you?

NM: When one is emotionally abused like I was, one loses one’s sense of self and inner strength. People wonder why people stay in physically abusive marriages, the same holds for emotionally abusive marriages. I had become too weak to stand up for myself, to state my needs and wants. I also thought those times of abuse were because he was mentally ill, so it was acceptable in a way. I had been told so often that I knew he had bipolar before we married, and I had chosen to marry him, so I should “sleep in the bed I had made for myself”.

I also felt it was my duty to stay and look after him — “in sickness and in health”. You don’t divorce someone just because they have been diagnosed with cancer or diabetes. I was protective over him, and I did not have faith in his family or friends to look after him through episodes, and this would then impact on our children. And when he is well he is a great person to be around — always humorous, a great father, and we had a great life together of travel and our shared history. There was a lot of love and laughter in our marriage.

TW: When your sons read it, how do you think you might handle that?

NM: My eldest son has read it. He is wise beyond his years, and very emotionally intelligent and sensitive. He has great insight into the disorder. He found the book difficult to read, yet remains my strongest supporter. I see many similarities in my husband and my youngest son, and hope that when he reads it he realises the importance of accepting responsibilities and sticking to a treatment plan if needed. Both boys love their dad unconditionally and understand him, so it would never turn them against him, which is the last thing I would ever want to happen.

TW: It seems that only when you threatened divorce, did Bradley get help and stick with it. What advice would you give to people who have a partner who is bipolar but refuses to seek treatment?

TW: I would advise them to get involved with a partner only if that person is medication compliant and sticking to a treatment plan. Although even then that is no guarantee that they will stay well. And never to allow the sufferer to become abusive. Leave. There is no excuse, abuse is abuse and it is not acceptable. From now on I refuse to be in a relationship with anyone who does not stick to a treatment plan, but I cannot advise other people to do the same. They need to come up with what will work for them — sometimes it is a written contract, sometimes it is a threat (like divorce), and sometimes it is a mutual contract of sorts. I suggest supporters have a very strong support system, which would include counselling with a clinical psychologist who specialises in bipolar.

TW: It has been suggested that books like this harm rather than help because they suggest that all bipolar cases are extreme and all sufferers behave like this. Many sufferers take their meds and get on with their lives so that even those fairly close to them do not know. How do you respond to this?

NM: There are different severities of bipolar and Bradley’s is certainly not the most severe case that I know of. I clearly state that the book is from my perspective, as a supporter, and that I supported someone who refused treatment. People do need to know that this is a life-threatening disorder, and not something to be taken lightly. Even those sufferers who are on treatment and getting on with their lives may benefit by being reminded of how important it is to remain responsible in order to remain stable.

Many books written by sufferers neglect to mention the effect their episodes/diagnosis have on their supporters. The effects of bipolar on the supporters is not to be underestimated — many people in my position end up needing psychiatric treatment for disorders which develop as a result of living with a bipolar person — depression, self-worth issues and even PTSD. These are the people for whom this book is written.

TW: That fact that the book is not complete public disclosure seems to point to the stigma associated with mental illness. What do you think needs to be done to counter the stigma and by whom?

NM: Bradley decided to change his name in the book. I thought that my sons were too young to have their names in print. My name, friends and family were completely disclosed. My book was about my perspective and it was not my decision to force disclosure on Bradley’s family.

On stigma, I think it’s always important to speak up as much as possible. The more information available the better in order to educate people. There is no point complaining about it if one does not do something about it. SA Depression and Anxiety Group is doing a great job of educating the public.

TW: How did Bradley react to the book?

NM: He has vacillated between being supportive and proud of me, to feeling as exposed as a spatchcock chicken, and blaming me and the book for anything that goes wrong in his life.

It is two years since I wrote it and Bradley started playing around with his medication dosage again, so we have since separated. The stress around the book is a possible reason he started doing this, so I am partially to blame. I have been diagnosed with PTSD due to living in constant stress and hypervigilance, and so carrying on in the marriage no longer made sense for health reasons — his and mine.

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