SURVIVING MARRIAGE WITH A MENTALLY ILL PARTNER

July 5th marks the celebration of 33 years of marriage to my husband. I have done much reflecting back on those years recently. As in every life, there are memories of great joy and happiness, even those of pure bliss. Then there are times of sadness, loss, and great pain.

When you live with someone who suffers with symptoms of a mental disorder, as my husband does with me, another layer plays out in your life. That layer is one of confusion, despair, darkness, and at times hopelessness. You don't ask for that to be. No one would. Sometimes as the saying goes, "It is what it is," and what is a horrific revelation becomes the norm through radical acceptance.

When the sole of his shoe hit the concrete and the door of his hot cherry red Nissan 300 ZX opened back in September of 1985 ... I followed the shoe up to the eyes of the man I knew I would marry in just that second. He had me at shoes! Love at first sight just happens that way. We were mutual friends of the wedding we were attending and participating. Joe was a groomsman, I a bridesmaid. I begged my best friend since childhood to switch partners from her brother to Joe and walk the aisle. Of course, she obliged!  Joe was business partners with her new husband. I will thank them both always for uniting me with my soulmate. We walked the aisle at their wedding, and shortly after at our own on July 5th 1986. Joe and I shared back then the love for which they write songs. The kind of love that causes one to write poetry or romance novels. We were inseparable from the minute we met.  Even though I was living in Florida and he in Long Island New York, we had the long distance phone bill record of all time! I remember falling asleep with the phone to my ear after talking for hours after I got home from my job as a legal secretary. We wrote letters back then. Yes, that was a thing! Letters of love and yearning to be together.

When Joe flew down to meet my family in FL, we were embracing at the airport. The connection between us was magnetic, palpable, and now I realize, spiritual.  An "old man" (he was probably early 40s!) approached us and said wistfully, "Man do I ever want what you guys have!"  We both thought at the time our love was indestructible. It was the type of love others envied. We existed in our very own bubble of bliss and we never imagined anything could enter to disrupt it.

I believe that, in this life, God gives us those special times and memories to sustain us through times of tribulation. I believe He knows we will need to reflect back and remember WHY we made a commitment to something like a marriage, parenting a child or a calling on your life that takes everything you have… like a doctor, nurse or missionary. The initial passion is so great so as to sustain us through the hard times. I was very transparent and up front with Joe as to my traumatic childhood and deep scars it left on my heart and mind. We could not be more polar opposite in our upbringing. He came from a stable, loving family who supported and nourished him to be the man he is today. I was neglected, and deeply traumatized my entire childhood. My parents gave me up to the Foster Care system when I was 12 yrs and signed parental rights over to the State of New York. We had suffered a severe family trauma that rendered my father unfit to parent and my mother suffered a nervous breakdown. I was never the same after living through it.

The closer our wedding day got, the more clingy and insecure I became in my relationship with Joe. In retrospect, I was displaying the symptoms of my mental disorder. We were uneducated and unaware at the time and the symptoms were quite frightening. My husband called the wedding off one week prior to walking the aisle on our wedding day. I was inconsolable.

I remember when he decided to go forward with the marriage. It was so poignant and to me it meant more than our wedding vows.  He admittedly concluded his deep love and affection toward me and felt compelled to follow through with the marriage.

Looking back, I realize it was the hand of God that moved on him and supernaturally gave him the courage and gumption to step up to the plate of committing to someone like me. I saw a fear in my husband's eyes of the unknown for the first time. I held great fear in my heart as well. What we both realized in essence was a third party had entered into our bubble of bliss.  That third party was mental illness. We did not know the scope or definition of my mental illness at that time. Nor did we perceive of how that third party would monopolize our lives to teetering on the edge of destruction in the future. Like any young couple in love, we assumed love would conquer all. I can say 33 years later, that saying is true. Love does conquer all. There are obstacles in living with such a thing as mental illness however, that wish to nullify that fact.

Thus describes the journey of living with anyone with a mental disorder, whether it be a spouse, parent or child.  The mental disorder will rear its ugly head, looming in the background waiting to destroy and end the relationship with the loved one who suffers.  The mental illness wants to suffocate the lives of those it enters and deconstruct not only their life...but all those that love and care for them as well. It can cause destruction of relationships, health, finances, social life, careers, security, and well-being.  What the relationship morphs into is a war against that destruction.

The 33 years I have been married to my husband have delivered many blessings, such as our only child, Niki Langston. To us, she is perfection and if you know her, you are blessed by her.  Our little family shared many 'normal' times of vacations, allegiance to our local church and fond memories of fellowship there, gymnastics, dance and theater lessons for Niki, sleep overs, giggling girls, braces, boyfriends, proms, graduation, college … yes there are many rich memories our marriage holds.

Interspersed throughout that time and always lurking in the background was the mental illness I suffer from.  That meant times of much crying, fighting, discord, yelling and screaming, visits to doctors, hospitals and psychiatrists, therapy sessions, financial hardship, loss of friendships. The breakdown of trust and security, rage and bitterness, loneliness, fear, the introduction of psychiatric medication that will last my lifetime, upheaval, misunderstanding from in-laws on both sides, threats of divorce from much disillusionment, fractured careers, suicide attempts by me and at times complete feelings of hopelessness and despair.

During those hard times, our family clung to a scripture and we still do today. We have since added in our daughters precious husband, a Pastor she met at college and our God given son. That scripture is Ecclesiastes 4:12 "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." I even made up a silly song about it, which I will not share, as it is much too corny.  That scripture defined us as a family.  It spoke to the glue that held us together vs. ripping us apart. I was the problem, not by my asking, yet we were a TEAM in solidarity against that problem. We still are today. It is important with a mentally ill person, to separate the symptoms they suffer from the person. My family always tries to remember during the bad times that those are my symptoms, not me. This allows our family and me to hold the title of Victor.

During these 33 years, I have seen many who suffer as I do, fall on the sword of mental illness. Whether it be by taking of their life by their own hand, divorce, abandonment, or living in silence and denial of their plight. I have watched those give up the fight and hold the title of Victim.

For that very reason, every single day and especially on the date of our anniversary of marriage and commitment, I thank my husband.  I know without a doubt, I would not be alive today, were it not for his commitment to our wedding vows. Specifically vowing, "For better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, till death do us part." God allowed a man of great substance and loyalty to be my life partner. I am blessed beyond measure for that. Even though I never asked to be born with or live a life with mental illness, I am. God knew I would need such a man by my side.  The selflessness and sacrifice my husband has given to me over the years, the loyalty and advocation he has displayed, is exemplary. I would give him a trophy, a ceremony, a marching band, a ticker tape parade! Such nonsense would only downplay his sacrifice. Is he perfect? No, none are on this earth. I will not enumerate the things he has gone through in having a front seat to my illness. Things that threatened to make him run, not just walk, away from our marriage and me.

One of the biggest changes in the dynamic of our marriage is that over time, my husband had no choice but to take on the role of my husband AND my caregiver. Seemingly overnight, we went from sharing a busy, productive life and planning a bright future ... to merely surviving the numbing drudgery of daily 'Take care of Alice tasks'. The passion and friendship we took for granted fell away and sadness and mutual resentment crept in.

For Better or Worse is the vow. However, when the symptoms of mental illness seem to creep in and change the personality... the very soul of your loved one, how do you keep going in the relationship? I am now going to share some very import things Joe and I have done over these last 33 years.

POINT ONE: I am not saying it isn't hard but, try to preserve the kind of interactions that have always been a part of your married life. My husband and I love to go out to dinner at any one of our favorite restaurants. We love to take long walks outdoors and have our favorites on Netflix. It is imperative to keep those certain, familiar FUN parts of the relationship alive as much as possible.

POINT TWO: My husband is a very private person and that has not changed. We realized however, if we wanted to be on the same page, he was going need support and education as to what we were dealing with. He started attending therapy sessions on his own as a necessary outlet for him to vent and receive guidance from a trained clinician as to what he was living through in dealing with my symptoms.

POINT THREE:  Another very helpful idea is to find a local support group. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), has them every week and they are FREE to attend. The sessions I speak of are geared specifically toward the family members of those with mental illness. They are called, "Family to Family".

POINT FOUR: When in a relationship with a mentally ill person, you will inevitably face emotions like grief, confusion, guilt, loss, anger, loneliness and at times, complete despair. The temptation is to isolate. WRONG! The key fix here is communication, communication, communication.  It is vital to continue to keep the conversation going, no matter how difficult that may seem at times, even if you end up yelling the conversation. Scream it out if you must. Yes, that may seem unhealthy...but it is important to keep in mind that, not speaking, living denial, bottling things inside and shutting down is probably the worst thing you could do. Often, during our conversation, my husband and I will write things down as to new ways to approach things. We even role play to make sure that, when things get heated, we are prepared to respond in a better way. Keep talking!

POINT FIVE: It is no joke having a spouse with mental illness. At times, you may feel as though you've lost your partner in the marriage. Trying to cope with the loss of resentment, sexual distance, any physical touch, is very difficult. It can lead down a dark road to adultery or a pornography addiction. I am thankful my husband has not chosen those paths. During the good times, be as physical as possible with your spouse. Even if it just means holding hands or a snuggle on the couch while watching a good movie. Sometimes I turn some slow music on and we will hold each other and slow dance. You want to keep as much physical connection as possible in the relationship.

POINT SIX: I have always remained open and honest with all my family as to my symptoms. If an episode happens that causes discord, mend it immediately! The saying we live by is, "Don't let the sun set on your anger". Even if we are spitting mad at each other, we apologize, ask for forgiveness and/or say, "I love you". At times, it may be robotic, yet forgiveness is key. Without it, you have resentment. Set BOUNDARIES that allow for space and repair of the individual so they can be their own person. This goes for all family members.  Setting boundaries is not only necessary it is healthy.

I want to finish with a fact that those who have walked this path with the challenges I have spoken of will attest. Ironically, struggles such as I have described actually make the marriage richer and much deeper. You become a true Team. What emerges is a love and bond that is indescribable. It somehow manages to transcend all the obstacles that mental illness puts in its path, and THAT my friends, is what my husband and family celebrate on this 33rd Anniversary!

With You on the Journey,

Alice

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