Love, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

As a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t want marriage, I didn’t want kids, I didn’t want a family. In reality, I was afraid I’d never get them, so I tried to deny the desire, cut it off at the root before it blossomed into something I couldn’t control.

Fat, bulimic, and depressed, I didn’t think I was attractive enough to find a man. I didn’t think I was good enough to have a family. If people really knew me, I reasoned, they wouldn’t like me. Why should they? I sure as hell didn’t.

When I met John, I’d been in recovery for four years. I’d stopped doing things that made me hate myself, and I’d gone back and cleared up the wreckage from my past. I knew that I deserved good things, and I wasn’t afraid to admit I wanted them.

It sounds cheesy, but I was ready to fall in love.

When John and I married three years later, I spent the day in a blaze of happiness. I felt blessed, and I prayed only that, whether John and I experienced times of joy or heartache, our love and commitment to each other would remain strong and be used as a foundation to help others.

I never imagined that bipolar disorder would be God’s answer to my prayer.

*****

Two years after our wedding, when John was in the throes of his psychotic episode, I was way too busy providing emotional support, coordinating his care, and attending to the day-to-day details of our life to think about how vulnerable I’d suddenly become. To think that his illness had put me in a position to be hurt, to be attacked, to be damaged. (I don’t mean physically, by the way. John was never violent.)

Once the dust had settled a bit, the realization set in. I trusted John with everything I had, everything I wanted, and everything I was. But I didn’t trust his illness. Overnight, it had robbed me of the man I knew. Overnight, it had stolen my vision of our future.

And so I started having bizarre dreams. Dreams in which John would tell me he’d met someone else and was leaving me. Or dreams in which he was dead.

And in my dreams, there was relief, because now I was safe again. Now I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of his bipolar diagnosis, the possibility that he might end up in the hospital again, the possibility that he might never fully recover.

I would think about these dreams during the day, and wonder if they meant I should end our marriage. Would I be relieved? Was the uncertainty too much for me? Would my life be easier without him?

But as I tried to play out this scenario in my waking mind, I never felt relieved, only saddened. I loved this man, and he was doing everything in his power to get better.

Even with the uncertainty, the vulnerability, I didn’t want to entwine my life with anyone else’s. I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want him to leave me.

*****

It’s not just mental illness that puts people in this position of vulnerability. In a beautifully honest post titled “Love, Cancer, and Vulnerability,” Lynne Dahlborg, who passed away from gallbladder cancer in 2007, writes:

Sandy said that she has thought about the vulnerability of being in an ongoing relationship with me, and she doesn’t plan to go anywhere. We talked about this and we cried. How much easier, I think sometimes, would it be for her to leave now, and not to wait, not to worry with me as I anticipate a scan, not to worry about where this disease will take me. I don’t want to lose her friendship, but I think about this…

Loving someone with cancer means being vulnerable to loss, to pain, to the struggles the disease can bring. If someone you loved had cancer, would you choose to stay in relationship? Would you move closer, or farther away, or maintain your current distance? Do you know? Could you bear the vulnerability?

In the comments, her friend Sandy writes, “Vulnerable – yes. Easier – perhaps. Better off – no… Lynne, I am not naïve about the possibilities given your diagnosis. So yes, there is the risk of loss, heartache, and sadness. But my life is so much richer since we met… and with gratitude I will walk with you on this journey.”

When it comes to John, I feel the same way.

*****

As a teenager, I closed myself off from people and retreated into food to avoid being vulnerable. Relationships were too risky. There was too much chance of getting hurt.

Which was kind of a strange thing to fear, because I hurt myself all the time. I was afraid that if I didn’t do it, someone else would do it for me, in ways I couldn’t control, hurting me worse than I could ever hurt myself. But nobody—except for me—was out to get me.

Did people unintentionally hurt me? Sure, on occasion. But no one—except for me—made a deliberate, continuous campaign out of it. No one did nearly as much damage as I did, over and over again.

Cutting myself off from John, from the life I want with the man I love, because I can’t control his illness would be just another form of self-sabotage.

Because walking away from the uncertainty and vulnerability would also mean walking away from joy.

This post is part of the Self-Discovery, Word by Word blogging series for November.

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7 Responses to Love, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

  1. Angie says:

    Thanks for writing that. I really needed to read that today.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This was a beautiful post!

    Elizabeth-

  3. this was a beautiful post. I am a woman with bipolar disorder and it was interesting and sobering reading your story of vulnerability being married to a man with the illness that you deeply love. I often wonder what on earth it’s like for my husband to be married to me…when he’s a rock there for me, stable and steady, yet I’m all over the place.

    wow. This is something I happen to have been thinking a LOT about lately. Interesting that once again, I come across quite a timely post.

    thank you so much for sharing

    • Hi Julie,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you’ve got such a strong, supportive husband!

      I hope it was clear in my post that the ambivalence I described isn’t something I continually wrestle with — it lasted for about two or three months after John first got sick and was diagnosed. If he relapsed because he stopped doing the things he knows he needs to do to manage his condition (like take medication, stay on a regular sleep cycle, etc.), it would probably crop up again, but as long as he’s taking care of himself, I relax and leave the results up to God. I’m not constantly coming to terms with his diagnosis — I did that once, I’m happy with my decision, and I never even think about what my life would be like without him anymore.

      Thanks for sharing part of your story! And thanks for stopping by the blog!

  4. Wow, Heather, this is absolutely beautiful! It takes a lot of insight and a lot of soul-searching to write this post. Thank you so much for participating in the series, and for offering a different perspective on vulnerability.

    It’s like shame and authenticity researcher Brene Brown says (I wrote about this in my post), you can’t selectively numb emotions, so you’re so right. Without opening ourselves up to the potential for pain, there is no room for joy.

    Again, I was blown away by your post and your courage! Thank you!

    • Thanks, Margarita. The Twelve Steps have a funny way of promoting self-awareness. :) They’ve also opened me up to sharing my experience if I think it might help someone else.

      I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in the blogging series—this topic sparked a lot of thought!

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