At the start of lockdown, my husband, Nick*, decided he wanted to help a friend run his coffee bar. The kiosk was by the local train station, serving key workers who still had to commute. The owner had decided to shutter the café in mid-March, so was delighted when my husband offered to keep it running. Nick soon had grand plans for the business.
I was pleased. Nick had a history of depression and I thought that getting out of the house would be good for him. But I was not prepared for the creeping obsession he developed with selling coffee – to the point that he would be out all night, serving drinks to patrolling community policemen, and plotting how to put every mainstream café in our Hertfordshire town out of business.
Earlier this week, the American reality TV star Kim Kardashian published an Instagram post about her husband Kanye West’s bipolar disorder. It’s the first time I have agreed with a Kardashian. “Anyone who has this or a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand,” she said.
The 43-year-old superstar rapper was diagnosed in 2016, but his behaviour has become more extreme in recent weeks. On July 4, he announced he was running for president. Then, a few days later, he did a rambling four-hour interview with Forbes magazine where he announced his running mate would be a preacher from Wyoming. His White House organisation would be based on Wakanda, the fictitious country from Black Panther, a superhero film.
This all sounds bizarre – laughable, even. But it’s horribly reminiscent of my husband’s behaviour during his recent psychotic breakdown.
Nick and I have been together for 30 years and have an 18-year old son, Tom. When we first met, he was a promoter for stand-up comedy gigs – gregarious, full of ideas. He also had a caring side: one of my first memories of Nick was seeing him push his aunt around in a wheelchair, both laughing their heads off.
Then, 20 years ago, Nick’s dad died. For the first year, he was rushing around, looking after everyone – but then he crashed. He couldn’t get out of bed, was hiding from his family. Nick eventually agreed to to see his GP, who diagnosed him with depression and put him on antidepressants. In the following years, Nick had several relapses where he had to take a month at a time off work. He also suffered with severe insomnia, which affected his mental state.
Three years ago, he was about to start a new job. After a sleepless night, he became obsessed that something would compel him to crash his car into a queue of schoolchildren. The only way to keep the kids safe, he reasoned, was to kill himself. At 5am – so as not to wake me or our son (Nick is always considerate) – he went into the alley behind our house and stabbed himself in the abdomen. Thankfully, a neighbour saw this, and dialled 999.
Nick was admitted to hospital, but was only treated for his physical injuries. But suicidal behaviour is a symptom of the condition. In an interview two years ago, Kanye West said: “Oh yeah, I’ve thought about killing myself all the time. It’s always an option. I flip through the manual. I weigh all the options.”
Nick saw a psychiatrist, who suggested he keep a “mood diary”. But the consultant really should have known that people with serious mental health conditions don’t always comply with such tasks. Nick didn’t bother, and any talk of bipolar simply disappeared. My husband seemed to recover, and on we went.
A year or so ago, we were at a festival, and Nick was definitely on some sort of a “high”. He declared himself “Entertainer-in Chief” and was rushing about all over the place. My sister, a nurse, asked me if he had been diagnosed as bipolar. But I didn’t follow this up. Nick didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. How could I get him to a GP?
When lockdown happened, Nick was excited about the coffee kiosk. He started to refer to himself as “The Manager”. At first, his enthusiasm was infectious – but gradually, by degrees, it became more extreme. He spent more and more time at the café, trying out new recipes. He walked the streets, trying to tempt people with his new flavours, handing out free drinks. He lost a stone in a month.
By mid-April, Nick’s excitement stopped being fun. It wasn’t like having a husband anymore, it was like having an irritating flatmate. There were no cuddles, he stopped cooking for us, or even making cups of tea. All he wanted to talk about was the coffee. Nick spoke so quickly, our son Tom and I couldn’t understand him. When we failed to understand his incredible plans, he got annoyed.
Tom was tearful on a couple of occasions, but his main reaction was to get angry. He felt his dad was “being a knob”. For example, if one of us dropped a teaspoon, Nick would jump up and down with rage.
“Those that understand mental illness or even compulsive behaviour know that the family is powerless,” said Kim Kardashian. She is absolutely right.
But then, two things happened. One evening in early May, Nick went out at 8pm and didn’t come back til four the following afternoon. The next morning, I woke up to find our possessions strewn all over the house. A mirror was blocking the stairwell. Nick’s explanation made no sense: he was convinced we had been burgled, so had to move our stuff. The front and back doors were wide open.
At the end of my tether, I rang my sister. She arranged for the mental health crisis team to visit us. When they turned up in full PPE, Nick became even more distressed. It took several visits over several days to convince the professionals that Nick needed admitting to hospital. When he refused to attend as a voluntary patient, he was sectioned for 28 days under the Mental Health Act. (I’ll never forget the skill of the paramedics who talked him into that ambulance.)
I felt terrified, upset and angry – then guilty for feeling angry. But when Nick was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on antipsychotic medication, it came as a huge relief. At last, someone was listening to us.
Nick didn’t get better straight away: his grandiosity and lack of insight – both classic symptoms of bipolar disorder – continued. He started calling himself “The Priest” to the people on the ward. Because the pandemic meant we couldn’t visit, he sent me furious emails. He smashed his glasses. But, after a couple of weeks, Nick started to improve. I don’t know whether it was the medication, time or simply the course of the illness, but he calmed down, starting to sound upset and scared, rather than angry.
Nick was in hospital for 21 days, which Tom I had used to rest and “heal” – we finally realised how on edge we’d been with Nick around. We didn’t actually want him to come home at all. But the hospital discharged him.
If Nick and I hadn’t been so happily together for so long, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. But, six weeks on from his admission, he is doing “better”. Today, he did the washing up, and picked some blackberries from the garden. These sound like small things, but given what we’ve been through, they are huge. We are a damaged family – but we are a strong unit. We are recovering.
* Names have been changed. As told to Miranda Levy