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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Angry = Ugly, and Other Myths We Learn

October 6, 2010

I came across my elementary school diary the other day. Leafing through it, I found one entry that’s both funny and sad. It reads:

Dumb old Mom! She’s so idiotic! She hit me on the leg and told my brother not to come near me for calling her a meanie! Because she took me away from my book and I’m a bookworm! Meanie, meanie, meanie, stupid, dumb!

P.S. I’m ugly!

I have to laugh a little at my younger self’s temper tantrum (and my mom, by the way, wasn’t abusive. She spanked us from time to time when we were misbehaving, but it was never vicious or cruel), but the postscript is what makes me sad. At ten-years-old I had clearly learned that negative emotions are unattractive.

And I took that quite literally: Negative emotions make me physically unattractive. No matter what I look like, if I can’t control my thoughts and emotions, I won’t be pretty, or happy, or liked.

No wonder I spent my teenage years depressed, lonely, and obsessed with my weight. I had a lot of feelings. And I had no safe place to let them out.

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Binge Eating = Bipolar Disorder?

October 5, 2010

Last week, I wrote a bit about my recovery from binge eating and bulimia. Today I came across a HealthMap for bipolar disorder that lists binge eating as a symptom of the disease.

I hadn’t really thought about the connection between the two illnesses before.

I don’t know why I never made the connection. In my Family-to-Family class we learned that anywhere from 30-60% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring addictive disorder as well. In fact, I believe that my mother-in-law was hit with this double whammy. Never diagnosed with a mental illness because she was never willing to seek help, she drank to modulate the  effects of her disease.

Although it may have helped her in the short-term (although perhaps it just gave her the illusion that it was helping her, as the study cited in this blog post seems to suggest), this approach to mood regulation killed her. She died of liver failure at age 59 after many years of alcohol abuse.

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Eulogy for my Grandma

September 24, 2010

On July 13, my grandmother passed away. My sister called me on the 10th to let me know the end was approaching, and I flew home the next day. My grandmother smiled when I came into the room–it was the last time any of us saw her smile–and she inquired about John. I told her that I was pregnant, but I don’t know if she heard me or understood what I’d said. I hope she did, but at least I know that the news of the pregnancy served to cheer my grandfather up a bit in the days following her death.

About 15 months before my grandmother died, my mother-in-law passed away. Being home for Grandma’s funeral was a very different experience than accompanying my husband to Mary Ann’s.

Mary Ann was an alcoholic. She drank herself to death.

Which is not to say that her family didn’t love her. They did, but it was a difficult kind of love. It was a love for the woman she had been, and not for the woman she’d become. You see, addiction cuts you off from acknowledging the effect of your actions on other people. If you must drink, then you must drink, and you can’t afford to see what your drinking is doing to the people you love. For many years, it was hard for Mary’s family–her three children, her spouse–to be around her, and her death, although sudden, came as (I’ll say it) a relief. Relief that they wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore. Relief that a problem had been removed.

When Grandma died, we were relieved that she was no longer in pain (her lung had collapsed, her back was broken), but we were not relieved that she was gone. Grandma lived for her family; she gave us all so much.

And that, I think, is what I took away from the contrast between the two experiences: I do not want to be a burden on my family. I don’t want to be so self-centered that I can’t see that I’m hurting the people I love.


Here is the short speech I gave at my grandmother’s funeral:

My name is Heather, and I’m the oldest of the grandchildren. One of my very first memories is of the lengths I would go to to spend time with Grandma and Grandpa. I was about two years old, and my parents put me to bed. I knew, however, that Grandma and Grandpa were sleeping on the pullout couch in the basement, so after my parents left, I crept out of bed, snuck down two flights of stairs, and asked my grandparents to read me a story. A few minutes later, my mother appeared at the top of the stairs, frantic because she was unable to find me. I, of course, was happy as a clam, laying in bed between Grandma and Grandpa. Wherever they were, that’s where I wanted to be.

A few years later, Grandma and Grandpa took me and my sister to their Sunday school class. We were a few years younger than the other kids, which is usually a recipe for being teased or ignored. Well, let me tell you, not that day! Those kids loved Grandma and Grandpa almost as much as we did, and they wanted to know everything there was to know about what my grandparents were like outside of class. My sister and I were the most popular kids there that day.

So that is what I will remember most about my grandma–her unfailing love and kindness. Growing up, Grandma was always there with a hug, a smile, and a chocolate bar for us in her purse. Even when she was calling us by the wrong names–Misty, the name of our dog, was her favorite one for me–we knew that Grandma loved us dearly, and we loved her dearly in return.