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.
The most memorable scene of the whole book, for me, comes in the last 35 pages. Greenberg and his wife are fighting about their eviction from their apartment, and violence erupts:
I slap her face, a hard nasty snap.
With a quaking, startled screech she throws a boot at my head. It hits the mark, knocking off my glasses. My head is roaring. The tensions of the summer seem to mass in me, and it is as if I am walking beside myself, hollow and enraged….
I lunge at her, pushing her against the wall.
‘Don’t touch me!’ she shouts, and runs into the bathroom, locking the door.
I kick and smash at it, calling for her to come out, until the panels splinter and I take each cracked piece and break it into smaller pieces and the better part of the door is lying in a pile of spearlike fragments.
Pat is sitting in the dry tub, with her hands around her legs, watching me with an odd mixture of dread and anthropological detachment.
I sit down numbly on the floor for what seems like a long time.
Of course, there is much more to Greenberg’s marriage than this one incident of violence, but it did drive home the fact that even when it’s not a spouse who is inflicted with the psychosis, a marriage can still suffer as a result of mental illness.
I’ve seen the stress a child’s mental illness can put on a marriage at my NAMI support group. The most common problem I hear about isn’t violence, it’s parents who are unable to get on the same page about the child’s illness and the boundaries they need to set.
Frequently, only one parent shows up to the NAMI meeting. Oftentimes, it’s the mother who has more difficulty setting boundaries. But it’s usually the father who has trouble accepting the illness in the first place.
One of the biggest losses I experienced when John was psychotic was the loss of my partner, my support person, my friend. Even though their partners are sane, it seems as though parents of mentally ill children can feel this loss also, particularly when they’re unable to agree on a united approach to helping their child.
Greenberg and his wife are still married. Even after the violence—perhaps even because of the violence—they find their way back to each other.
“I won’t blame you if you’ve had it with me,” [Greenberg says.]
“Is that an invitation for me to leave?”
“Maybe you think it would be easier to go it alone with [your daughter.]”
“All I meant was, this whole mess, it must seem more than you bargained for.”
“I wasn’t bargaining.”
… I tell her of my worry that the job of mothering Sally is more than she can reasonably accept; it will take too much out of her, she needn’t darken her life with what she’s not to blame for…
“I would do anything for that girl. I’m amazed you think otherwise.”
What I took away from this exchange is that marriage isn’t a one-sided street. It’s not something you enter into with an agenda.
Those vows, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” don’t give you an out, they give you a roadmap for navigating life together, as a team. Whether mental illness affects your child, your partner, your parent, or your friend, the stress of the situation doesn’t have to push you to anger or violence. To survive as a couple you’ve got to figure out a united way to tackle the problem, as a team.
Just being honest with each other (as Greenberg finally is, about his fears, in the last 30 pages of HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE) is a good place to start.
*In my NAMI Family-to-Family class we learned an excellent definition of denial: A protective response giving us time to process the painful events that have turned our lives upside down. We decide all this is not really happening and/or there is a perfectly logical explanation for these events and/or it will pass, etc. We “normalize” what is going on.