Marriage and Mental Illness: The Ups and Downs
by Dave Brennan
When you think of married life, what comes to mind? Are you in complete bliss or just plain miserable? Maybe you’re floating somewhere in between. In order for a married couple to remain together, each partner needs to put in time and effort, as issues do not get resolved on their own. However, what does one do when mental illness enters the equation? I will personally share my experience with you and let you decide.
I have dysthymic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and, more recently, a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. My wife has generalized anxiety disorder and paranoid personality disorder. While we are able to relate to each other and understand each other in a unique way, because we both have mental health challenges, our genetics and disorders also clash and create complications.
I was always shy, even from a young age. My shyness had improved into young adulthood, however, sometimes the way I would think and feel would come out wrong. I had friends during college, however, as we know, friendships come and go. I always had this yearning to find more, even when I was with my friends; kind of like eating, not to the point of fullness, yet not enough to even be satisfied. But things were different when I met my wife. I felt like I could be myself and be accepted for who I am.
Like finding the right life partner, finding the right therapist was like trying to find a needle in a hay stack. After having seen three therapists on and off for eight years, I finally found one who I felt understood me, didn’t judge me, and didn’t tell me I was doing well when I felt differently. Getting on the right medication took time also. There really is no magic pill to make it all better; that alone is not the answer. Above medication and counseling, it takes discipline.
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I will admit that I’m not the easiest person to live with. I’ll get into moods where I just don’t want to be bothered. This does upset my wife and she’ll ask why I have to give her such a hard time whenever she asks me to do something. I don’t always know what to say. There’s times I may not be completely sorry for my wrongdoings and she’ll tell me not to say it if I don’t mean it.
I’m not always the best at expressing myself. My wife is good at sensing when something is wrong, especially when I am silent. My mental struggles get to a point where I just don’t feel like talking about what’s bothering me, it’s not a good time, or I feel like I just don’t care what happens to me. I eventually do open up. But my wife will say, “You could just tell me.” Sometimes I wish it were that easy.
My wife will tell me to stop trying to change her and I will assure her I’m not trying to do that. I would like to see her improve her issues for her own sake at the same time understanding that she could make her own decisions. Sometimes I can’t help myself but get more involved than I should be.
In April of 2009, my only sibling passed away unexpectedly. This was devastating news, particularly for his eleven-year-old son. So many emotions for me were released, including pain, anger, guilt, denial, increased anxiety and depression. My wife was there for me as much as I needed her.
My father suffered a fatal heart attack in October of 2011. I felt the same assault of emotions I experienced after my brother passed away, especially since the deaths occurred so close to each other. Again, my wife was there for me. After all, she was my best friend. We could help each other see different perspectives for each situation. Unfortunately, this support wasn’t enough.
While her steadfastness, counseling, and medication helped, I felt withdrawn from family and, at times, I dissociated. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. This was one of the most devastating turning points of my life. When I would discuss these feelings with my wife, she made a conscious effort to understand however, deep down, I knew that she couldn’t. She still had her mother and, although not close relationships, her father and sister were also still alive. That was something I envied.
I really began to worry about myself following a major depressive episode. My wife and I just sold our home in 2015 and were renting a townhouse temporarily. It was a rough move and nothing seemed to go as we had planned. I think the stress of everything just snowballed and hit me at once. One day, I was searching for something through boxes in our basement and came across some old photos of guys my wife was with, in her younger years. I became inquisitive and started asking a lot of questions. I felt jealous, but not enraged.
I was losing sleep and having very negative thoughts. This did not make sense to me. Why was I caring so much about this now? Luckily, I realized enough to make a call to the Employee Assistance Program to speak with a counselor one day when I felt at my lowest. I then reached out to my counselor and got an appointment the same day. I followed up with my doctor who saw me frequently during a one month period. With some adjustments to my medication and counseling, I finally felt back on track. I did feel very badly about the onslaught of questions I had for my wife, who was patient at first. Then she became upset with me and asked me to stop asking her all of this. She told me she is with me and that’s all that matters. Once my brain chemicals were realigned, I had no idea why I acted the way I did.
A major turning point occurred during the summer of 2016. I saw a huge difference in my wife when her anxiety took a turn for the worst. When I would pick her up from work, she would often end up crying because of things that she heard during the day. Each day she told me she would hear people talking about her at work, knowing things that were said or done outside of the office. There were even things said that were not true, such as that I was filing for divorce and my mother was paying for it.
Her behavior was getting to a point where we would go places and she would think people were talking about her. In the car she would speak in a low tone, thinking there may be some type of bug on the phone. She even thought that our own neighbor was saying things about her. She was living in constant fear; at times yelling to the people she thought was listening to her, “I hope you got that!”
More recently we had some issues with our marriage as a result of her paranoia and a culmination of things over time. We went for couples’ therapy, which my wife was reluctant to try at first. By the second session she hoped that would be the last: it was. She found our counselor to be biased. A good portion of the time was spent discussing her paranoia. He told me privately that she has paranoid personality disorder and she has an obsessive way of thinking. He did, however, suggest to her that she see a psychiatrist. After some reluctance, she did, but it only lasted two sessions. My wife felt the appointments were too short and she did not think they were helping her.
Her resistance to treatment made me think back to when I saw a psychologist for the first time in my sophomore year of college. I was scared, but I knew that my problems wouldn’t get better on their own without intervention. I felt relief when the sessions were finished because I knew I was getting what I needed to off my chest. I was reassured and given tools and guidance to use every day. It felt great that I didn’t need to feel alone and had a sense of empowerment over my life. Why would my wife not want the same?
I was glad my wife was receptive to taking her medication, but I know from experience it’s not enough. It took many years until I was finally on medication where I saw an improvement in my overall well-being. I would also attend counseling and use self-help guides. Getting better takes work: lots and lots of work. I thought for sure I would’ve rubbed off on her in a good way, but I was wrong.
I truly felt alone after she decided to stop seeing her psychiatrist. I always tried to have her best interest, but I didn’t feel she had mine. Dealing with my wife’s behavior became too much for me with my own issues. It was a very difficult decision for me, but I felt I needed time to think. One day I packed all of my things and left. I planned on separating and even sought the advice of an attorney a month earlier. After being away one night, I realized I couldn’t be without her. All of the things I was so tired of turned out to be the things I missed the most, and never thought I would. The very next day I returned home, and it felt good to be back.
We started communicating, which is what we had not been doing. I’ve had loving feelings for her return; feelings that had been absent for too long. Things did improve without the need to return to therapy, at least for right now. We decided what we needed was the chance to get to know each other again. After being together nearly two decades, you might wonder how it is even possible to not know your significant other. But mental illness masks our true identity at times, even when we long for the other person to “just snap out of it.” It takes patience and understanding to get the love of your life back, and to get yourself back, too.
We continue to share many hopes and dreams. We are holding out for a new home that will better serve our needs, planning to start a family one day, and working toward moving further in our careers. Teamwork has always been one of our most positive attributes in marriage.
Marriage is a lifelong commitment that requires the joint effort of both partners. We’ll continue making decisions together and work through our differences. We’re not alone in sharing our goals and aspirations. Without being a fly on the wall, it’s impossible to know the trials and tribulations in each married couple’s household. Therefore, I don’t consider us to be that much different from other married couples. But we are unique in the sense that those of us going through mental illness could truly relate to the other in a way that others would find difficult to understand. I suppose having this special rapport is what makes us work.
Through all of the rocky roads we’ve been on, she still puts up with me. I thought for sure by now she wouldn’t want to spend the rest of her life with someone quite like me. There have been many times where we’ve tested muddy waters, but we always came out clean in the end.