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.