Marriage With Mental Illness
It is a common belief that married couples fight about three things: intimacy, money, and children (in no specific order). In my house we have a fourth: mental illness. It is sometimes a standalone argument and frustration, but oftentimes it just adds color to the other arguments.
My wife is amazing. That doesn’t mean that we don’t argue or don’t get extremely frustrated with one another. I believe it means that we argue the right amount. I focus on “the right amount” frequently, because when our lives are in balance, much like my own mental illness, overdoing any one area creates unnecessary chaos and anxiety. We are mindful of the right amount of argument (and that amount is increasing as the years go on!). We love each other and our kids the right amount. And we are grateful and spiritual the right amount.
The other important perspective in my life when dealing with my diagnosis is loving myself the right amount. And while that amount is different for everyone, self-care amidst all the other demands in my life is critical. Aside from the big three marital arguments (intimacy, money and kids), we have argued about why I need to nap on the weekends and why I need to take mental health days over the course of the week. My wife and I have been together for over eight years (five of them married). We have been through some rough times together, including several hospitalizations of mine, close to a dozen overdoses, and intense periods of crisis that seem to come every 3 years. My wife has had to deal with my paranoid belief that failure is around every corner, and that we can lose everything. These are just thoughts, but when I am acting them out, they seem very real to me. However, this is not the reality. She has also had to deal with my ups and downs, which may require medication adjustments and frequent naps.
In dealing with my own diagnosis, I was in crisis when my daughter was born in 2012 and again in 2015 when my medications were incorrectly filled by the pharmacy. My wife has stood by my side from day one and constantly reaffirms her love and gratitude for me. In August of 2015, I sent a text to a close friend that read “If I didn’t have kids…I would kill myself tonight.” As a result of dealing with my diagnosis for 22 years, I know that things and feelings come and go, but I can only imagine what it is like to be riding as a passenger in my emotional car.
As a team, we have found that the practice of mindfulness and gratitude in our lives and home help us recognize that life is amazing! For example, we have implemented mindfulness and gratitude exercises with our children. Every night at dinner we have the kids tell us something good that happened in their day. If we forget to ask, my daughter says, “Can we do the ‘something good’ question?” Of course there is a risk that my children will have my diagnosis in the future, which is well known to be genetically inherited. It is something that I worry about occasionally, however, living in the present and giving them the tools to expand their own minds and awareness is the greatest gift my wife and I can give our kids.
My life wouldn’t be the same without my family. They deserve the best husband and father I can be at any given moment. Like most parents, sometime I lose my cool. I struggle with managing my own symptoms, which include rage and irritability. Connect those symptoms with screaming kids, a demanding wife and barking dogs, and life seems out of control. One simple practice that I use to improve my respective relationships is the concept of “leaving it in the garage.”
My reaction to life and work stressors shouldn’t be taken out on my family. They don’t deserve it and shouldn’t receive the results of my inability to manage. The exercise of “leaving it in the garage” is to take deep breaths until I am prepared to be present with my family, when I get home each day. I visualize getting out of my car and depositing the day’s emotions in the garage, to be picked up another day. By introducing this simple practice I am now able to be present with my family, or at least recognize my emotional escalation and excuse myself from the situation.
I used to believe excusing myself from a situation represented failure, but I have come to realize that it represents strength. As I mentioned, early on in my relationship with my wife, this was a frequent argument. My wife, who was exhausted in her own right, would be mad that I got to step away, but that she was expected to continue coping without the same opportunity. We have come to realize together that I do need time to decompress, or at least separate myself from my experiences. The greatest gift that I am able to give her in return is letting her step away as well! While my wife doesn’t share my diagnosis, the self care, love, commitment and communication in our relationship allows it to become a two-way street.
Over time, my episodes have reduced and my ability to bounce back has been improved. While excluding mental illness from my marriage is impossible, it doesn’t mean we can’t embrace our fourth argument topic and apply the same strategy of gratitude, spirituality and mindfulness, the way we do in our other arguments. As I mentioned, earlier, arguments and frustrations are inevitable. Mental illness can only exacerbate the situation at times. Utilizing the proper tools and separating my thoughts from my actions has made me the loving husband and father I wish to be!
On our wedding anniversary, I want to thank my wife for the last five years of my life! I wish I could say that I will be asymptomatic and crisis-free in the future. I am confident that we have the tools necessary to get through whatever life throws at us and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds with my incredible wife and amazing kids.
I love you babe!