One Marriage. Two Mental Illnesses.

When John and I got married in 2006, he was well aware of my history of binge eating and bulimia. He’d come to Twelve Step meetings with me and heard me talk about all the dirty details of my eating career. He knew that without the FA program, I’d be a heavy, depressed mess. He also knew that with it, I am a happy, healthy, and vibrant woman. With it, I am the woman he loves.

Moreover, John was aware of all the limitations my recovery from this eating disorder—this mental illness—entails:

  • I don’t eat flour or sugar.
  • Unless I’m eating at a restaurant, I weigh and measure my food.
  • I go to three Twelve Step meetings every week.
  • I call my sponsor (my mentor in the program) on a regular basis, and I get up early every morning to take calls from my sponsees (the people I mentor).
  • I spend time in prayer and meditation every day.

John went into our marriage with his eyes open. The fact that I had actively pursued a solution to my problem (versus his mother, an alcoholic who died of her disease) was attractive to him. My limitations were no big deal.

I, on the other hand, was blindsided when mental illness struck John two years into our marriage. His breakdown was sudden and violent and scary. Overnight, psychosis changed his personality radically. I questioned whether the John I knew and loved would ever return.

What a Spouse Experiences During a Mental Health Crisis

Crises like John’s shake the foundations of a marriage. An equal partner becomes a caretaker. Plans and dreams for the future become a thing of the past. Worst of all, the person you love most in the world is suffering, but he cannot see that fact for himself. When you try to help him, he sees your help as an attack.

The limitations his illness will impose upon him are uncertain and severe. The police visit your apartment. Your partner is involuntarily held at the hospital and given powerful psychotropic drugs. He hates the drugs because they make him achy and anxious and tired. You wonder if he’ll have to stay on them for the rest of his life.

You’re anxious all the time. You can’t concentrate, can’t sleep. The only thing that helps is distracting yourself with computer games and television. You wonder when your heart will stop racing, your hands stop shaking, and your crying jags abate.

Different doctors tell you different things. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Anxiety. Depression. OCD. You wonder if you’ll ever know what’s really wrong.

He comes home from the hospital and starts exhibiting symptoms again. His psychiatrist doesn’t believe you when you tell her he’s still psychotic. You wonder if people who’ve met with him for all of 60 minutes can possibly know him better than you do. When he ends up back in the hospital, you wonder if he’ll ever find a doctor who actually values what you have to say.

Your partner is back in the hospital. He won’t sign the form that allows the doctors to communicate with you directly. You wonder how you’ll ever be able to live with someone who is paranoid that you will use his illness against him. You wonder if he’ll ever trust you again.

He participates in an outpatient program with the homeless and long-term unemployed. You wonder if this is to become his fate.

His health insurance drags its heels on covering tens of thousands of dollars of hospital costs. You wonder if you will end up footing the bill.

After months on disability, he returns to work, but his employer tells him that he will have to work hard to regain his colleagues’ trust. Before his breakdown, he’d been a top performer. You wonder if he will ever gain back the credibility he lost, and if his professional confidence and abilities will return.

Making It to the Other Side

Some people can’t—or won’t—deal with these fears and uncertainties. They think, This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t what I want out of marriage, out of life.

And let’s be honest here: If John was still, two years later, denying that he had a problem, if he was refusing treatment and choosing to live in his disease, I wouldn’t want that, either. No matter how much I loved him, for my own sanity, I would have to leave.

But that hasn’t been his story. Like me, he’s chosen recovery. And over time, my fears and uncertainties and doubts have resolved themselves. They’ve all disappeared.

Today, my eyes are open. I know that his psychosis could come back, just as I know that my food addiction could once again ensnare me in its grasp. But I also know that we can fight anything together. And I know that we will both do everything we can to stay well.

I’m grateful that my own struggles with mental illness gave me empathy and a willingness to ask for help when my husband and I needed it. I’m grateful that my recovery program taught me how to walk through my fear without running away. I’m grateful that I was there to help him when he could not help himself, and I’m grateful to know—to really know—what it means to be a partner in marriage.

And I’m especially grateful to know that, for him, I’d do it all again.

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27 Responses to One Marriage. Two Mental Illnesses.

  1. Crazy Mermaid says:

    A very powerful, poignant story.

  2. Anne Costa says:

    What a beautiful and inspiring story! I had a similar experience to your husband… spiraled down very rapidly into a psychotic depression… was totally “gone” for about a month with a long recovery back… my husband was AMAZING! I could not have recovered so completely without his ‘strong like a rock’ support, love and confidence in me. You were, no doubt, a beacon of hope in recovery for your husband. May God bless you both!

    • Hi Anne,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m so sorry you had to go through that, but I’m glad your husband stuck by you and helped you through. John and I definitely found that that there are gifts that come out of even the worst experiences, and it sounds like you guys discovered the same thing!

      Best,

      Heather

  3. P says:

    Oh what a wonderful story. It helps to know that someone has overcome such a difficult and debilitating disease. Unfortunately not all cases end like this one. I too have dealt with and am still dealing with my husband’s mental and drug issues as he has gone in and out of recovery for many years. There seems to be no way out for him but I must get out. I wish him all of the best but after 9 years, most of which have been spent in and out of courtrooms and drug houses, I AM DONE. He can fall or stand I couldn’t care less. He stole the care and the love I had for him a long time ago and now I am trying desperately to pick up the pieces of the life I left behind for him and his children who are also victims of his problem. I pray for anyone who is going through a situation like this because if God does not help us then who will?

    • Dear P,

      I’m so sorry that you and your husband have had such a difficult journey. Drugs and alcohol certainly don’t make it any easier to cope with mental illness. And nine years is a long time to try to help someone who is in and out of drugs and jail.

      Please take care of yourself and your children. Despite his illness, your husband is a grown man who has clearly made a lot of bad choices. I absolutely understand why you want out, and I think you’re making the right decision.

      You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

      Take good care,

      Heather

    • CV says:

      Hi.
      It’s been 10 years now that i am living with my wife’s delusional disorder. After many visits to pastors, consultants, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists, etc, nobody helped me.
      Five yrs ago I started searching internet and began to put the puzzle together. I now know what the problem is – schizophrenic delusional disorder – fitting perfectly to all 5 the variaties.
      But she does not want to go for treatment – because she cannot see herself.
      At least once a week I am being verbally raped. I cant take it any more. My last option now is to have her hospitalized involuntarily, and hope she can be cured.
      If that’s not gonna work, Lord forgive me, then I’m cutting the chord. I’m 63 already and cannot live with her problems when I’m old and in need of care and support.
      C

      • I’m very sorry you’re going through this, C. Ten years is a long time to try to help someone who doesn’t want help and who is verbally abusive. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  4. PN says:

    Heather, Thank goodness for courageous people like you, who are willing to share their stories. I have watched close friends go through the same trials and not fared as well. Marriage is hard work even in the best of situtations, but even more so with mental illness to complicate it. You are true to your vows “in sickness and in health”. God bless you & your husband.

    • Thank you, PN, I appreciate your kind words! I really credit my background with the Twelve Steps for helping me deal with my husband’s crisis. Through the Steps, I learned how to talk about what’s really going on with me, take things one day at a time, and ask for help. I also highly recommend the NAMI Family-to-Family class for anyone with a loved one who is mentally ill.

      Best,

      Heather

  5. Tanya says:

    I give you so much credit for sticking it out through good and bad times in such a very short time into your marriage. Seems now days that marriages do not last long anymore! My Grandparents were married for 75 years.. right out of highschool. YOu dont see that anymore. Back in the day marriage ment something people worked together they communicated.. they accepted the little quirks in their partners. My grandmother would tell me its a lot compromise, work, and communication to make a marrage last as long as thiers have. She would laugh and say there were times I just wanted to leave that man… but my vows were till death do us part.
    Now people wont even discuss marrage until the pre nup is signed.. what is that a piece of paper stating there is no trust so sign this .. whats mine is mine and what is yours is yours and this paper will avoid any possible conflicts about possessions. How can a marrage even begin with out trust? Makes no sense to me…
    I myself have never been married and I am 47 years old.. I wonder if I wver will be or even want to be… I have come to feel that its just a piece of paper that makes it official.. the meaning of those vows should be taken seriously, that is what grandma said.. but now its not about a team a life partner its more like some kind of contract agreement.. sign here ,, here ,,, here,,, and then we can get married.. So sad! Thanks for the story and kudos to you for being true to your partner, and he to you!
    your both on in a thousand … rare indeed!
    Be well and best to you!

    • Thank you, Tanya. I do indeed take those vows seriously, and I’m grateful to have a partner who does, too!

      Best,

      Heather

    • fishrobber69 says:

      ” Back in the day marriage meant something people worked together they communicated.. they accepted the little quirks”

      Tanya, i’m not trying to diss you at all, honest. I just don’t really believe many people communicated very well at all in marriages 30, 50, or more years ago. I think there was more pressure from society and church to stay in the marriage because of the fear of God’s wrath and the neighbors’ gossip. I also think society was more stoic and private, and people just didn’t talk about relationship issues like we do today. I think the cost of staying together was less than the cost of breaking up. When I hear old people “laugh and say there were times I just wanted to leave that man”, I don’t hear a funny laugh; I see a grudging acceptance of their lot in life, and maybe a sense of loss for how their lives might have been.

      Then again, my perception is clouded by my distortions, so there you go.

  6. Susan says:

    Thanks for your insight into this matter. I, too, am married to a bipolar husband, as well as struggling from time to time myself with moderate depression. We were married 15 years before he had his first pyschotic break, which was 5 years ago now, and since then nothing has been the same. We had to sell our dream house and move to a state with a lower cost of living once he quit his six-figure job as a (driven)engineer, and I went from a stay-at-home mom with our 3 small children to being the family bread winner, even though I make 1/4 the money he did. He has been on disability ever since and has had a couple of more stays in the mental hospital to change medications and stabilize him since then. We have to just take things a day at a time, and when he isn’t “rapid cycling” or the like he actually has a few normal days now and then. Yes, bipolar is treatable, but if not treated correctly in time — it may be too late to ever regain the quality of life one once had. Now that we know it runs all through the family we have been keeping our eyes on our children, but so far none of them have shown any real bipolar tendencies. I know he is afraid I will leave someday, but like I tell him, he is my best friend and I’m sure if our places were reversed that he would stand by me.

    • Hi Susan,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry your family has had such a rough go of things. Bipolar affects everyone so differently, and the course of the illness is so unpredictable. It’s a sad fact that the longer people go undiagnosed or incorrectly treated, the worse their prognosis will be. It’s great that you’re being proactive about monitoring your children for signs of the disease, and that you’re so pragmatic about your new lifestyle. I love the “one day at a time” philosophy; when I start worrying about the future, I just have to remind myself that right here, right now, things are fine. If life throws us a curve ball tomorrow, we’ll figure out how to deal with it then.

      Best,

      Heather

  7. Kristan says:

    Wow. This is an amazing post. You are both very inspiring, and I’m glad you have each other. Thank you for sharing your story.

    (Fellow Self-Discovery: Gratitude participant here, just stopping in to read and say hi.)

  8. Heather,
    You post reach deep within my soul. Bless you for your openness, honest and hope. We need more like you who are transparent an open about their mental illness and the road to recovery!
    My mother struggled with bipolar for many years of her life. The four years prior to her death I was her caregiver. Not always the easiest of task, but one I would do over again in a heart beat. Here is my blog post on the lessons I learned from her.
    http://graciesmith.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/my-lessons-from-mom/
    I will be praying for you and John both as you continue to seek recovery and health.
    God’s riches blessings to you both,

    ~b

  9. fishrobber69 says:

    I am the bipolar husband, medicated and usually functional, but struggling for many years to keep from hurting my family in the process. My wife has stood by me the whole time, but I think doing so is wearing her down and hurting her deeply.

    Every day I believe I have failed them. I never was good at being romantic or letting her inside the walls or trusting my wife, but more frequently now I almost give up on any kind of intimacy; sometimes I think we are barely friends. I know my kids have been damaged by my apathy, my unpredictability, and my typical withdrawal and self-isolation; I’m there physically, but mentally in my internal mindscape. I want to leave to shield them from my self-destruction; I stay because I don’t want to hurt them by leaving.

    I often wish she would get fed up and leave me to protect herself and the kids, or at least put a buffer zone between us so I can be part of their lives but hide when the demons are in control. Instead of leaving, she clings to the barely-seaworthy matrimonial raft, struggling to tread water against the pull of my problems and her increasing depression.

    Because it is bipolar, I know it’s not this bad all the time, and maybe I magnify the negative too much. But let me ask this: at what point does she need to be told by someone that she needs to get away from me. And, I am wrong for suggesting this as a solution? I know she would be destroyed if I said this out loud.

    Also: I am starting therapy to work on these issues. I’m letting my wife think it is for issues from childhood.

    (sorry for taking over)

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Fishrobber (great name, by the way!). I’m glad you’re able to function, but sorry that you feel as though you’re hurting your family. I wonder if depression is coloring your view of your marriage and home life, and I’m glad you’re starting therapy.

      Have you and your wife ever done couples therapy? I noticed that you’re not telling her the truth about why you’re seeking additional help, which probably isn’t helping you with that feeling that you run away from intimacy. My husband and I have been seeing a couples counselor since his hospitalization, and it’s been great. There were things we’d been afraid to talk about previously that would gnaw at the edges of my mind/our relationship. But every time we’re aired one of those concerns with each other, its power to silently undermine our relationship has disappeared.

      Regarding your apathy, unpredictability, and isolation, one thing I’ve learned through my Twelve Step work is the principle of contrary actions (good post about this on the Beyond Blue blog). Just because I feel a certain way doesn’t mean I have to act on those feelings. I can feel like skipping work and watching TV all day, but that doesn’t mean I have to do it. (Man, I’d miss a lot of work!) And actually, when I take a contrary action and do something I didn’t feel like doing, I often find that my mood quickly changes and I’m glad to be engaged in the activity I was so loath to undertake. It sounds trite, but the next time you feel yourself withdrawing from your family, try “faking it until you make it” by engaging with them instead.

      Regarding your wife leaving you, I would venture to say that unless she’s the long-suffering martyr type, the thought has probably crossed her mind. I think you need to trust that your wife is a big girl and knows what’s best for her. And if you two decide to try couples therapy, it would be great place to discuss your feelings and find out how she really feels.

      Best of luck to you and your family.

  10. fishrobber69 says:

    To quickly respond:
    1-yes, I have had varying depression my entire life, so obviously the bipolar makes it more challenging.
    2-we have never done couples therapy; I don’t know if she would be open to it, but I’ve never asked.
    3-I do force myself to do what is required, most of the time; “fake it until you make it” works if you make it, but not when the depression never goes away.
    4-I think she IS the martyr type, but a silent martyr. I really don’t think she would leave, even if someone told her it would be best.

    Thanks for your input, and your site overall. I’m glad you are sharing your stories.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, too. Such a tough situation.

      It seems to me like you feel really trapped — you fear you’ll hurt her if you stay, but you’ll hurt her if you go; you’ll hurt her if you’re honest about how you’re feeling, but you know you’re hurting her when you’re not. For what it’s worth, if I were sponsoring you, I’d tell you to stop worrying so much about your wife and do what you need to do to support your recovery, which is probably (based on the little bit I know about your situation) to open up more about your concerns. Therapy is a really safe place to do that, and you wouldn’t even necessarily need to go the couples route; you could probably invite her to a session or two with your new therapist.

      The Beyond Blue blog is a really good one about persistent bipolar depression, in case you haven’t checked it out. It is a faith-based blog, though, so if you’re not into that kind of thing, you might want to skip the more religion-focused posts.

  11. Betty says:

    Thank you very much for you share. I am waiting for my husband to be to come from the other side of the world with my older son tomorrow, he has developed some kind of depression and is very paranoid. I am scared of his homecoming. To his family over there he has said that he will do anything to keep his family together, that he will follow a therapy. I only hope he keeps up the same conversation when he gets here (Europe). I am really terrified because I don’t handle people panicking very well as I am not the calmest of persons myself. I do believe in higher powers and I am letting my own take over here (that is in between my own bouts of worry). I hope you and your husband are still both in recovery. Thanks again for the share

    Blessings

    Betty

    • I’m very sorry to hear about your son’s difficulties, Betty, but glad that you are finding strength in God. I’ve found that the calmer I can be during times of crisis, the faster and smoother they tend to go. Best of luck to you and your son!

  12. jessica says:

    This is a very helpful and reassuring blog.
    I am 19 and my boyfriend is 20
    oddly enough, I have an eating disorder and he has psychosis.
    It’s very difficult because we are living maybe 5 hours away from each other. I don’t know what to do when I’m on the phone with him and he is having an episode, they happen very often, I’m very frightened

    • Jessica — I’m so sorry you’re in this situation. Is your boyfriend getting professional help? Be sure to take care of yourself and get off the phone if you are frightened. Your boyfriend needs to seek help for himself, and there is only so much you can do.

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