How My Three-Way Relationship Survived a Mental Health Crisis

When my husband, Alex, saw his life thrown into chaos by bipolar disorder, it left my boyfriend and me in the lurch. But together, the three of us have proved stronger than one crisis.

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Feb 9 2017, 5:30am

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Nothing in life is ever easy, and there's never a guaranteed happy ending. And nobody likes to talk about the hard times in relationships, moments when you begin to think that love won't save you this time.

And it won't. That's the hard truth. There will come a time when your relationship faces a true calamity, and you will have to go beyond love and tap into commitment—that commitment to show up even when it feels so hard as to be impossible, times when you begin to wonder if you even love each other anymore. 

My husband, Alex, boyfriend, Jon, and I recently faced a period like this, a rough patch when each of us considered whether or not our relationship would survive, and what we might look like should it do so.

It's easy to blame a crisis on one person in your relationship. Alex had been struggling for over a year, and much of it was happening far away from Jon and me. He was working on a TV show in Spokane, Washington, and talked about feeling depressed and hopeless. We were in LA, and we had no idea what was happening.

When Alex came home, he saw a psychiatrist. He was initially misdiagnosed with depression and prescribed Wellbutrin, an antidepressant. For depression, that makes sense, but for someone who we would later come to learn was bipolar, it would prove to be a disastrous combination. 

Wellbutrin sent Alex into heights of mania. He would be up for days, disappear for hours, hallucinate and hear voices. In response, his medication was changed. And changed. Each pill caused a new nightmare. Some caused him to sleep endlessly; others took away his libido; others brought on more mania and hallucinations; each one made him feel more out of control.

I began to wonder if he was using drugs. Looking back, it was clear that I was grossly uneducated and unprepared to deal with what he was going through. I knew nothing about mental illness. I kept trying to get Alex to change his behavior, to make him sleep or wake up or otherwise snap back into his old self. There were days when he would just disappear into his own head, and I would start huge fights just to get him to talk to me.

He began looking for ways to self-medicate. The three of us became more isolated from one another and our friends, who we thought were tired of hearing us talk about what seemed to be an insurmountable mountain of problems. 

Desperate after a string of prescriptions and no longer sure where to turn, we found a residential treatment center in LA, where we live, called the Hills. The Hills provides high-end luxury celebrity rehab, but it also specializes in mental health issues. It was one of few places we found able deal with both our triad and Alex's bipolar disorder.

Its program consists of a 30-day inpatient component, followed by 30 to 60 days of intensive outpatient treatment, then another 30 to 60 days of outpatient. Alex was able to stabilize during that time, and he began working on finding the right set of medications. Meanwhile, Jon and I were sent to family therapy and family group therapy, as well as individual and "triad" counseling. 

It would be easy to blame Alex for the chaos that exploded into our lives, but blame assumes a wrong committed, and I don't think Alex did anything wrong. We all fell victim to an illness that seemed to make no sense. 

When Alex and I first met, I was six months sober. I was insane. The combination of any new relationship's ups and downs with my fighting to stay sober caused more than its fair share of problems, but we found our way through it, and I believe it made us stronger, maybe even prepared us for what was coming.

I relied heavily on Jon in Alex's stead, and that's one thing about being in a triad that I hadn't foreseen; when things fall apart, someone will be there to help carry the burden. With Jon, there was someone to help me with the cleaning and the bills and the pets, the little things in life that begin to seem like mountains when you feel like you're drowning. Together, we were able to take on the burden when Alex needed to focus on what was happening to him. 

When we began our search for a family therapist, we strongly believed that we wanted to work with someone who had worked with other triads and poly "families," as well as someone who understood issues surrounding bipolar disorder and substance abuse (both Jon and I are sober). Jorja Davis, who directs the family therapy program at the Hills, happened to have experience treating poly relationships, and ended up making the most sense for us.

"What I've found in working with poly families and triads is this: The more people who are involved in any relationship dynamic, it obviously becomes more complicated," Jorja told me. "In relationships, it's not so much adding more people that's the problem, inasmuch as it's a multiplication of issues, attachment strategies, and communication styles. Couples in traditional relationships usually circle around four major challenges: money, sex, in-laws, and parenting. These challenges also take place in poly and triad relationships, but in poly relationships, we start out by looking at definitions of who we are, what roles each of us take, and how those roles affect one another."

At her office, the three of us sit in a row, with Jon in the middle. Jon also sleeps in the middle. When we began seeing her, we were terrified. None of us had any idea where or how to begin. So she began by asking each of us questions, treating each relationship—Jeff to Alex, Alex to Jeff, Jon to Jeff, Jeff to Jon, Alex to Jon and Jon to Alex—as its own entity, encompassed within the relationship that is the three of us together. Soon, everything began to unravel. 

That unraveling has lead to pretty miraculous changes in how we communicate and interact with one another. It has taught each of us how to properly voice our needs and our fears, and to really hear what each is saying. 

This is a new adventure for us; none of us know what we're doing. And as each of us goes out into the world and makes new friends and meets new people to love, it seems our familial network keeps expanding. What are the boundaries? Who are we, the three of us, in relation to this ever-growing thing we are now a part of? How do we maintain our individual identities as well as our primary relationships within it?

I suppose these are all things we can figure out in therapy. 

You can argue what brought us here was a crisis, but I believe each of us is stronger because of it, and that we are growing and learning through this experience, becoming better people and lovers and friends all the while. And maybe that's the whole point. 

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