Just Manic Enough? Work’s Role in Harming Mental Health

October 31, 2010

For a long time, I envied my husband his passion for his work. Where I had a job, he had a mission.

As an aerospace engineer, John has always believed that if we fail to push the boundaries and expand our frontier into space, humankind won’t ultimately survive. A little Star Trek, I know, but I’ve always liked science fiction, and the guy’s a rocket scientist, for Pete’s sake. It’s hard not to be impressed by that.

From the moment I met him, I knew he was ambitious. And I admired that it wasn’t money, fame, or a sense of adventure that drove him, but a desire to advance the cause of his fellow man.

So when he put his career ahead of our relationship in the months leading up to his hospitalization, I didn’t complain. We rarely saw each other during the week—I had a teaching job that required me to be at work by 7:00 am and in bed by about 9:30 pm, whereas he was getting up around 9:00 am and coming home after midnight—but I knew that he was trying to build a future for us, and I only wished I could find a job I loved as much as he loved his.

He was working hard, but he was happy, and I loved him for that.

My attitude changed dramatically, however, after his company called the cops to stop by our apartment and check on him because they couldn’t get a hold of me (I was at work) and John was, as his VP of HR described it, “incoherent and distraught.”

That day, as I dragged John to the doctor, the psychologist, and finally the mental hospital, I began to wonder if a passion for space fully explained the zeal with which he approached his job.

Could his unwavering ambition be part of the psychotic illness that had assailed him? And would it wind up costing him his career?

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Work’s Role in Harming Healthy Relationships

October 29, 2010

A few years ago, I had the great privilege of hearing Clay Christensen speak at a conference. A renowned author, consultant, and Harvard Business School professor, Christensen radiated intelligence and humility, and I later learned that he is a man who is extremely committed to his faith.

I was impressed. In my experience, a lot of professional people are agnostic or occasional churchgoers, looking down, just a little, at people who rely deeply on their faith. It was inspiring to see an example of someone living according to spiritual principles who still had a very successful professional life.

It was with great interest, then, that I read his latest essay in Harvard Business Review, HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE? The article addresses the tendency of achievement-oriented people to “underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”

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Top Three Reasons You Should Be Involved in Your Spouse’s Psychiatric Care

October 26, 2010

I never accompany my husband to dentist appointments or routine physicals, but I go to every appointment he has with his psychiatrist.

This wasn’t always the case. When he first came out of the hospital after his initial breakdown, he asked me not to come into the psychiatrist’s office with him. My presence would make him nervous, he said. It would make it difficult for him to be open and honest with the doctor about what was going on.

With some misgivings, I agreed to let him field the appointment by himself. The doctors from the hospital had been terrible about communicating with me, but I assumed that his private psychiatrist would have a better bedside manner toward me, John’s wife.

I was wrong. Although I asked to visit with Dr. Black for a few minutes after John had seen her, she told us that she didn’t have time. When I called her in between John’s appointments to let her know that his psychotic symptoms were resurfacing, she never called me back. She also had the nerve, when I finally did speak with her during my husband’s next appointment, to tell John (and me) that I was part of the problem, and that he needed to set boundaries around his interactions with me.

Her refusal to give my opinion any weight led to misdiagnosis of John’s illness (she thought he had anxiety and depression, when in reality he was suffering from a manic episode with psychotic features), and a second stint in the hospital for him.

Although HIPAA privacy laws can sometimes make it difficult to get involved in a loved one’s psychiatric care, there are three reasons I believe you should always fight to be an active member of your spouse’s mental healthcare team.

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The Toll Untreated Mental Illness Takes in “Unlisted”

October 22, 2010

At my monthly NAMI meeting the other night, we watched the documentary film UNLISTED: A STORY OF SCHIZOPHRENIA. The title is inspired by the main character’s desire to reestablish a relationship with her schizophrenic father after years of avoiding him. She literally became unlisted in the phone book so he couldn’t contact her.

At one point, Delaney’s father poignantly tells her, “I didn’t go to your high school graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your college graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your med school graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your wedding, because you didn’t invite me.”

Murmurs of sadness rippled through the audience when he said it. The man onscreen is sweet and funny, a far cry from the young, unmedicated father who’d climbed telephone poles, gotten his pregnant wife evicted from five apartments in a row, lived on the streets, and constantly disappointed his young daughter.

Delaney’s mother, in fact, is so scarred from her short-lived marriage to this man that she refuses, close to 40 years later, to speak of him or even listen to her daughter say his name. When declining to participate in the documentary, she explains, “I don’t ever want to be reminded of the nightmare of my past.”

It’s a powerful reminder that mental illness, like addiction, is a family disease.

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Healthy Self-Sacrifice in a Marriage Marked by Mental Illness

October 20, 2010

If a woman leaves her husband because he gets cancer, pretty much everyone will decide that she’s a cold, heartless rhymes-with-witch. If a woman leaves her husband because he gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, a lot of people will decide that she’s smart, she’s dodged a bullet, she’s spared herself a lifetime of pain.

I hate the disparity between these two reactions. On one level, I get it. Cancer doesn’t mess with your personality the way severe mental illness does. On the other hand, the second woman is just as heartless and just as cold as the first.

In the words of Edward Sri, a Catholic writer who penned MEN, WOMEN AND THE MYSTERY OF LOVE, both women are committed to their husbands “only insofar as—and as long as—[they] receive pleasure or advantage from the relationship[s].”

They’re both selfish, and they both throw aside their husbands when they decide these men can no longer give them what they want.

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The Martyr Syndrome in Marriages with Mental Illness

October 18, 2010

In the Catholic tradition, a martyr is someone who dies for his faith. In the first and second centuries, many Christians were put to death by the Romans, who had outlawed the Christian religion. England’s Henry VIII created a number of martyrs when he ordered the execution of priests, monks, and powerful men such as Sir Thomas More when they refused to renounce the Pope’s authority during the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church.

Today, people still martyr themselves for their faith, most notably Islamic terrorists. (It’s debatable, though, whether terrorists are really sacrificing their lives for their religion, or whether they’re simply doing it to inflict suffering on those they fear and/or hate.) However, this is not the most common type of martyr you’ll run into nowadays.

Today, you’ll find a lot of “everyday martyrs,” people who willingly—and unhappily, often vocally—sacrifice their own needs and desires for the sake of someone else.

Notice the words “unhappily, often vocally” in the sentence above. I’m not talking about a parent who gladly puts her child’s needs before her own. I’m talking about someone in a codependent relationship who suffers because of another person’s behavior, complains about it, seeks sympathy and support from others, but refuses to do anything to change the situation.

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What My Husband’s Bipolar Breakdown Taught Me about Bulimia

October 14, 2010

Seeing my husband suffer from a severe psychotic episode gave me a new appreciation of the fact that when I was binging and purging, I had truly been mentally ill.

This may sound strange. After all, bulimia is classified as a mental illness in the DSM-IV, and for six years (1993-1999) I binged and purged as many as four times a day. I saw nutritionists. I saw therapists. I wasn’t stupid; I knew something was wrong.

But here’s the thing: I always understood why I was engaging in insane behavior like sticking my fingers down my throat, sitting in freezing cold baths, and trying to burn off my tastebuds.

It made sense to me to ingest fake Russian steroids, stick a weight-loss patch on my arm, and spend four hours a day at the gym. I was under the impression that when I got thin, my life would be perfect, so everything I did was designed to help me lose weight.

My actions always seemed perfectly logical to me.

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The Impact of Mental Illness on Marriage in Hurry Down Sunshine

October 11, 2010

It took me a long time after my husband’s breakdown to read Michael Greenberg’s HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE. The book is a memoir about the summer the author’s daughter experienced her first psychotic break.

It came out in September 2008, just a few months before my husband’s hospitalization, so it was mentioned a lot on many of the Websites I visited when I was trying to figure out what the heck had happened to John, and how we were supposed to cope.

I love to read, but I was afraid to read this memoir. I was afraid that Greenberg’s description of his daughter’s psychosis would hit too close to the vein, and that it would release a torrent of traumatic memories for me.

That isn’t, in fact, what happened.

I finally caved in and bought the book this past July, when I was in Canada for my grandmother’s funeral. I read it on the plane ride home. Scratch that—I devoured it on the plane ride home.

Few people openly discuss psychosis, particularly when it strikes close to home. It was refreshing—comforting, even—to know that Greenberg had been on much the same journey with his daughter that I’d been on with John. The denial*, the confusion, the helplessness, the worry.

But what really stuck with me was the impact the daughter’s descent into mania and psychosis had on her father’s marriage.

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Surrender, Serenity, and the Same Lesson, Yet Again

October 8, 2010

A couple days ago, I ended a post with a story about how drowning victims sometimes fight their rescuers until they need to be knocked unconscious and plucked from danger.

Well, this is me, trying not to drown.


John and I went to see our baby for the 20-week anatomy scan on Wednesday. Everything looked great—baby is healthy and growing right on schedule. That night, though, I saw blood.

It was actually the second time I’d started bleeding. The first was about a month ago, after John and I went hiking in Palm Springs. That time, the doctor chalked it up to dehydration. On Wednesday, however, I was simply doing my desk job. No lifting heavy boxes, walking long distances, or forgetting to quench my thirst.

When we talked to the doctor about it on Thursday morning, he said it was my body’s way of saying, “Slow down.”

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Being the Strong One

October 7, 2010

A recent post by Therese Borchard contained a beautiful Biblical verse, a portion of which reads, “To everything there is a season… a time to break down, and a time to build up…” It reminded me of something my mother said to me when John was in and out of the psych ward: “You take turns being strong in a marriage. This is your turn.”

At the time, I was scared that John would never recover, and that I’d have to be the strong one for the rest of our lives. Fortunately, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

But looking back, I can see that as my husband was breaking down, I was building him up. When he was sick, I advocated for his recovery. I took care of paying the medical bills, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and communicating with his employer about his eventual return to work.

It was sort of a yin/yang kind of thing: I took care of the details of everyday life so he had the space to get well.

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