How Mental Illness Affects My Marriage

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I am curled up on the bed. I have just told my husband that I am useless, I am worthless, none of the work I do is valuable, and when I die, I’m going to hell. It doesn’t really matter what precipitated this sudden break. Sometimes my brain just breaks. Because of my ADHD, my anxiety disorder, and my bipolar II, my mental illness constantly affects my marriage. And when my mental health nosedives, my husband has to deal with the fallout.

This isn’t pleasant for either of us.

He’s developed some tricks to cope with it, after a decade and a half together. He’s given up trying to talk me out of it, for the most part. The same way a depressed person needs to learn that they can’t “talk themselves out” of their own depression, the partner of a person with a mental illness needs to learn that they can’t reason their partner out of the depths of their illness. You can’t talk me out of a bipolar episode. Telling me to calm down when I’m anxious is about as useful as asking the dog to please, please stand on his head. This frustrates him. He wants to help, and his first line of defense is to try to fix it. The easiest way that he can imagine to fix it is to talk about it.

That’s a shit way to fix mental illness.

The second way to fix it? Tell me to go to sleep. This is also, generally, a shit way to fix mental illness, though an effective one. Chances are I’ll wake up feeling better. But I also never dealt with the situation to begin with. I never had a chance to learn or heal or cope. Plus, when I’m asleep, the onus of parenting/dealing with the house/cleaning/whatever falls directly on him. I’m no help, because I’m asleep. Not convenient for anyone. But at least I’m not demanding his attention by crying, moaning about how miserable I am, or taking attention away from other important tasks. Sometimes the poor man is forced to triage. The kids take precedence.

But luckily, I’m fairly stable. My meds mostly keep me on an even keel. Except sometimes they don’t. Unfortunately, in addition to all these issues, or perhaps because of them, I’m highly empathetic. I simply can’t cope with other people’s strong emotions. Particularly his strong emotions.

Did my husband have a bad day at work? If he comes home in a bad mood, I’ll be in a bad mood. Because it feels, to me, like his bad mood is directed particularly at me, like I’ve done something horribly wrong, and I stand around waiting to get screamed at. This is my mental illness talking, not reality. But I can’t separate the two, because (obviously) mental illness. If my husband gets angry at the kids and yells, I feel like he’s about to yell at me. If he’s mad at his work email, that rage feels like it’s pointed in my direction.

This makes it very difficult for my husband to experience authentic emotion without worrying about how it’s going to affect my mental health. This is grossly unfair to him. I know that. He knows that. It’s a vicious cycle that’s almost impossible to stop, and which we’ve found no good solution to, other than my hiding when he’s in a bad mood. Which is what I try to do. So he’s stuck in a bad mood with small children to mind and deal with while I hide in the back bedroom.

Even worse, when I know my mental health is skidding downwards, when I know it’s for no good reason, I’ll often refuse to say what’s wrong. Because I know nothing’s wrong, and because, frankly, I don’t have the mental energy to say something coherent, like, “I am not in a great headspace right now and I need some room. Nothing is actually wrong but it feels like something is.” Instead, I just sulk and slam around and generally look like I’m about to break into tears. My husband logically assumes something’s deeply wrong. When I refuse to tell him what’s wrong (because nothing really is), he assumes I don’t want to tell him because whatever’s wrong is his fault. 

This does nothing to help us maintain a functional marriage.

The vicious cycle sets in: he thinks something is wrong and feels guilty. I start to feel guilty for making him feel guilty, which means something is actually wrong, so something really is upsetting me. I get sadder. My mental health deteriorates. And on and on and on.

We sometimes have to cancel plans if I’m not doing well. Or, at least, I have to cancel. My husband may still do things with the kids. Which means he’s stuck solo parenting (he does a lot of solo parenting, the poor man. That also doesn’t help our marriage). He might end up taking the kids to my mom’s while I stay home and lie in bed. Or watch hours of TV. Or just stare at the goddamn ceiling.

Basically, mental illness can wreck a marriage.

Luckily, we went into this with eyes wide open.

My husband knew I had mental health challenges.

My husband understood that I required extra patience, extra time, and extra help. He makes sure I take my medicine. Most importantly, we love each other. We made a promise to stick together, and we do. We make an extra effort to have fun when we can, and those fun times carry use through the bad ones. Truthfully, the bad times aren’t very often. I’m pretty stable. It’s just that when I’m not stable, it can get ugly. But my husband understands that my mental health is worth taking care of, so he does the best he can to give me the space and grace I need to take care of it. Even if it’s inconvenient for him (it is). Even if it’s annoying (it is). Even it if puts him out (it does).

I picked a good guy. He’s gentle and kind. I’m very lucky. My mental illness affects our marriage. But my husband mitigates it as best he can. And for that, I’m grateful.