The Struggle Is Real: Managing A Healthy Marriage While Dealing With Mental Illness

by Elizabeth Broadbent
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It was never this bad before we got married. Sure, I was sad a lot. I cried. I thought I didn’t have any friends. Our wedding was a psychological disaster, with me getting plowed because I couldn’t stand the anxiety of being the center of attention. But I got things done. I did grad school, despite my not-yet diagnosed, un-guessed-at ADD.

We went on vacations — admittedly, I ruined the first part of our Ireland trip with my anxiety, but I turned around after a few days. We did Rome twice. We fostered rescue greyhounds. We kayaked class II and III rapids.

Then I got pregnant, and everything fell apart. I went from functionally anxious, maybe a little depressed, to deeply depressed, highly anxious, and decidedly nonfunctional. Meds helped for a while. Then it got bad again, and again, and again. I spent time in a day-treatment program. There were times when the most important thing to my husband wasn’t — couldn’t be — his job or our kids or our marriage. My mental health took precedence over everything.

And that’s hard as fuck — for everyone.

First, everyone has certain roles they must assume. My husband had to be, functionally, everything: single parent, cook, comforter, soother, monitor, nurse. Most of the times when it got bad, I was able to manage by myself while he worked, so he wasn’t quite a single parent. But he might as well have been because as soon as he dropped his briefcase on the kitchen floor, he was in charge — of the kids, of the house, of the food. I was too drained after a day with the kids to do anything but hole up in bed and sleep (or cry, or cry myself to sleep). The kids wanted him, but I needed him, so he had to put on some crap TV while he came to the back room and became The Great Comforter.

The Great Comforter holds me when I cry and bats down all the horrible, horrible things I say in the grips of a deep depression. I am fat. I am ugly. I am a terrible mother. I am going to fuck the kids up for life.

Then I would realize how horrible this all is — asking your husband to do this for you. “This isn’t a marriage,” I would say. “You would be better off without me.” I would say I wanted to kill myself and try to convince him, in quite rational terms, that this was the best course of action for everyone. I would threaten to divorce him. Not because I didn’t love him, but so he wouldn’t have to deal with me. And all he could do was to say, “No, no, no. I love you. I love you. I love you.” These words constituted his entire arsenal.

In the meantime, the I-can-only-imagine-gutting experience of having your wife threaten to divorce you over her mental health issues left him with no one to talk to. Once, I quite calmly informed him, after he’d put the kids to bed, that my mental health issues would eventually lead to our divorce. Divorce is not an option for us, partially because we’re Catholic and partially because we’re us. But I lobbed it at him anyway because it seemed rational at the time, and he had to take it because there was nothing else he could do but tell me I was wrong. He had no one to talk to. How do you tell people your wife is falling off the deep end, and you’re the only one holding it together?

And while he became The Great Comforter, the one who couldn’t show weakness (or I might fall apart), I became The Patient. I was the one who needed to be tiptoed around, who needed to be queried about medications and doctor’s appointments, and possibly, on a few long-ago occasions, the locations of various kitchen knives. It’s a feeling of terrible impotency, a wave dragging you under. I would weep, in terror, that he’d take our sons from me (he never threatened to do so; I was never bad enough, without help, for that to happen).

And rather than a partnership, the relationship between The Great Comforter and The Patient becomes both a dependent and an adversarial one. I needed him to keep me on an even keel. I resented that, and hence resented him. He needed to take care of me, and while he loved me — my husband luckily thrives on being needed — he resented me, at times, for not listening to reason, for not getting better.

Date nights were not an option. By the time he got home, I was exhausted, and getting dressed took an hour and a half because I “looked fat” in everything. Instead, we salvaged our relationship in other ways. He dragged me outside. I was not allowed to refuse these outings, under the guise of mental health, so we’d take the kids and their bikes and walk while we held hands. I hated it at first, but by the end of the walk it had become a lifeline.

We read things in common. During my last horrible drug withdrawal, which sent me spiraling into despair and misery for weeks on end, we both read the blood-thirsty, historical-ish Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, which detail warfare in Great Britain during the 9th and 10th centuries. This lead to lots of inside jokes and safe discussions about war axes, shield walls, and longswords — stupid things that we could hold in common, stupid things that made us laugh and weren’t about my mental illness. It could have just as well been Fringe or Arrested Development or The X-Files. It just had to be something.

And that’s how we came out of it. Stupid jokes about swords called Wasp-Sting and Serpent-Breath held us together and apart from my agonizing mental pain. And we waited for the medication to kick in. Eventually, it worked. Little by little, I got better, every single time. And we shed our roles, became ourselves. As soon as we possibly could, we went out on a date —just us. We prioritized sex as soon as it became an option. We found our touchstones again.

How do you marriage through a mental health crisis? You don’t. You hang on for dear life. You assume roles you didn’t know you had in you, you flutter with resentment at each other, you try your best to forgive and keep going, and wait, wait, wait, for this too shall pass. You need to believe in your marriage going into it, and you need at least one of you to keep believing in it — usually the sane one — until it passes. You need to share something, even if it’s a stupid book or a TV show. And most of all, you need to believe in each other.