October 19, 2007 was a beautiful day. It was unseasonably warm, but comfortable enough for this Florida girl. I can still remember the feeling in the air. It was heavy and humid, and the grey skies lit up with the occasional flash of lightning, like energy coursing its way through universe.
Red and yellow leaves cracked beneath my stark white heels. And while the ground was wet and muddy, I didn’t mind; everything was perfect.
But then again, it’s easy to remember your wedding day that way. Relationships, however, are not perfect — they are far from it.
In fact, the years that have followed since my wedding day have been extra trying because of my mental illness.
Of course, my husband has never known me without it. I was diagnosed with depression when I was 15. I first heard the term “anxiety” when I was 19, and learned I was bipolar in my early thirties. Mental illness has always been a part of me — a part of us — but that doesn’t mean he fully understood what he was getting into when he promised “in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”
Because when I am “sick,” I am very sick. I am angry or apathetic. I am drained or overly energetic, and whether I am depressed or manic doesn’t matter. I am not the loving, thoughtful, attentive wife he wants. I am not loving, thoughtful, and attentive woman he deserves.
But my mental illness is more than just a list of textbook symptoms. When I am in the grips of a depressive episode, dishes are not washed and dinner is not cooked. Our relationship becomes loveless and sexless, and our home becomes a physical manifestation of my mood, with floors unswept, beds unmade, mail unopened, and everything in complete disarray … simply because I do not have the energy to function. I do not have the energy to be, breathe, or even live.
I cry over little things, like cold coffee and spilled milk. And I get angry over everything. My temper is fiery, my fuse is short, and my tongue is harsh. I say things I do not mean. And I say things I almost always regret.
And my husband? He is forced to deal with it all — not only my anger, but my apathy.
“It’s hard to not know what’s going on or who I might be coming home to,” he tells me. “You lash out and that’s hard. Some days the house is a mess because you stop doing things. You just stop functioning.”
And I do. There are most definitely times my husband assumes the role of cook, caretaker, house manager, therapist, nurse, and maid.
There was a time when he used to get angry with me out of frustration. He couldn’t understand why I was doing (or not doing) certain things, or why I was acting a certain way. “I try to be empathetic,” he tells me. “I try to help out.”
But despite his sincere compassion, he struggles with a lot of resentment towards my mental illness. Because it’s not only what it does to me, but to our family, and our marriage.
Still, he’s somehow learned to separate my mental illness from me. In fact, he feels doing do is essential. “If your spouse had cancer, you wouldn’t be mad at them for having cancer,” he says. “You need to remember the same is true with mental illness.”
He also knows that love cannot fix mental illness. Specifically, that he cannot fix my mental illness … and that’s OK. In fact, sometimes it’s OK to not be OK. When we talk honestly about my mental illness, he admits, “I feel powerless and hopeless over your illness, and the reality is, I am.”
But there is help; there is hope. And while I fight every day to stay afloat, my husband fights every day to keep me there by listening, helping (even when I don’t want it), and just being present. Mental illness may not be the stuff of fairy tales, but my hopeful new beginnings and happiest possible endings grow stronger thanks to my supportive partner, who offers this bit of advice:
“If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to reach out. If you know someone who is suffering, don’t be afraid to reach out.”