A Story of Multiple Mental Illness Diagnoses in a Marriage
by Michele Graffam
I discussed my anxiety at length with my soon-to-be husband, Brad. He was active duty military and he believed that we shouldn’t talk about these types of things because they present as weakness. Although I’ve had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) since I was a teenager, he didn’t see this as my reality.
Flash-forward to a few months before his retirement from the USAF, we flew to North Carolina to look at a house we wanted to rent. I paid a deposit to hold the house, which was then lost by the bank. I crammed in phone calls and emails during each layover throughout the duration of our trip so we wouldn’t lose the rental. This is when I had an anxiety attack for the first time in front of Brad. I was crying uncontrollably, gasping for air and shaking. That incident helped Brad realize that my anxiety was real. Although he understood in that moment my anxiety was real he didn’t know what to do. He did the only thing he could think to do which was to hug me and point out that this was an issue we could resolve once we were off the plane in North Carolina.
After several years of learning one another’s behaviors– whether it was through talking about how we feel, watching the other person react to situations, or sharing information on the our diagnoses– we’ve come to an understanding of what we can do to help one another.
I find comfort and safety in our time together. In the beginning of our marriage, life was scheduled around long work hours. Our day started with a morning walk together at five. It ended with a seven at night work out at the gym and dinner before going to bed. This structure allowed both of us to take control of our mental health issues and live peacefully.
I began to be more social while we were together, which was new for me, however, at the same time my anxiety had taken on OCD symptomatology. Organizing things became a method of being in control. My husband doesn’t share in my obsession for order and cleanliness. He often leaves cups and plates out on the counter or in the sink causing me extreme anxiety. Things must be in order.
Counting became a part of my OCD and ordering, especially focusing on odd numbers. I count items sitting out, as I find things that are in even numbers I remove them, reducing clutter. Counting is calming and gives a sense of control for my overactive mind. Counting odd numbers creates a sense of order, things in even numbers somehow in my brain continue on and never stop. Reducing even numbers can lead to zero. I don’t want to get rid of things most of the time I want to reduce them. If you have six pens and that’s too many you can take away more even numbers until you have zero. But now you have no pens. If you have five pens and take away odd numbers you are always left with one.
In addition to PTSD, Brad is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type two. When he was first diagnosed with PTSD it exhibited itself through anxiety, depression, nightmares, and anger. He didn’t sleep and began to stay awake for days feeling like he was able to accomplish more and avoid nightmares. During his first manic episode he decided to collect Pepsi items and spent $6,000 in two days, leaving our bank account in the negative. He saw Pepsi items he liked while driving and knocked on the door of many houses in very rural areas, ignoring the well posted no trespassing signs, to inquire about the items he saw. This once led to his meeting an intoxicated man who asked him to put a gun to his head and walk into the house with him so his wife would think they were getting robbed. Brad didn’t do this, but that’s just one of the situations he has found himself in.
During times of depression Brad sleeps for days, only getting up for restroom breaks and to have a cigarette. During these times his energy is depleted and he hides away in slumber until, once again, anxiety kicks in and he is up and running.
One evening, I returned home from work and was going through the mail. As Brad walked into the kitchen he threw down what he was holding and quickly grabbed the mail from me, then he turned on the water in the sink, pushing the mail into the water. I stood in shock not knowing what to say. He screamed, “Don’t ever touch the mail; it has Anthrax in it!” I began to have my own anxiety from the situation, he apologized and calmed me down—but he had no idea why the mail was wet and I was upset. He was so consumed by the thought he had in the moment. He uses humor as a coping skill so he made a joke while drying the mail. The incident wasn’t mentioned again for many years since. The few times this incident has been mentioned, which was only to medical professionals, he feels extremely embarrassed by it. His fear consumes him in the moment and his only thought is to react to ensure we are safe.
Later the same year, Brad had a heart attack and was medically discharged from the service. We had always wanted to move but couldn’t due to his work, now we had a chance to start a new life.
Being married to someone with PTSD, I must be hypervigilant of the possible lurking triggers for my husband while I also remain calm and keep my own anxiety at bay. Being on constant alert while I am waiting for his mood to change increases my anxiety. At times it feels like I’m holding a lit firecracker and I’m waiting for it to either blow up or fizz out, I never really know the outcome.
We work through this together by being open in discussing these things. We’ve learned not to take it personally if one of us is angry or irritable suddenly for no apparent reason. Having open communication allows me to tell him behaviors I notice that let me know this firecracker I’m holding is about to blow up. One example is while driving in traffic I notice if he’s gripping the steering wheel tightly I quickly point this out to him and we discuss how he’s feeling.
After moving the reality of his PTSD and my anxiety/OCD took on its own life. We no longer had structure in our day created through jobs; we had to make our own schedules. We moved to the country to have space and to be in a quiet area.
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We have a strong relationship but with our diagnoses there are many challenges that most would not understand—like going to the grocery store or out to eat. The people, choice of items and noise is overwhelming for me. We once enjoyed going out to eat but now preparing for an event is a great stress. In preparation to go out to eat the place must be chosen ahead of time along with planning to go at the slowest part of the day for restaurants and for traffic.
Going out to eat the procedure is always the same; order an appetizer and food but the food is to go and we fill up on the appetizer and salad. He can’t sit with his back to the door and I can’t sit with my back to a room of people so even finding appropriate seating is a struggle. He worries someone will come in and start shooting; he must see what’s going on at the door that provides us an exit strategy. I also can’t relax not knowing what’s going on behind me, all the noise and not knowing where it’s coming from is overwhelming. Even in a small setting to hear a glass clink I wonder was it thrown. Our anxieties are put into overdrive. After a meal, it’s a mad dash home to get to our safe places—for him it’s the shed, for me it’s the house or yard.
This adds to the stress of the marriage since we each have our own “safe places” as we call them. My safe place is in our home. I have my garden, the house, our chickens, and a large plot of land so I can see anyone coming up the driveway. For him, it’s inside the shed. It is locked up tight with no windows but all the comforts of home.
We never intended on making specific places where we felt safe but as time went on we had each developed a sense of safety in our own areas on our land. Instead of saying “I’m going to the shed” which can be misconstrued on my part as Brad avoiding me he says “going to the safe place” so I know he needs to hideaway from the world and decompress. We miss out on a lot of time together because of our spaces.
We have started putting time limits on how long we will do certain things so we can slowly become more comfortable in one another’s space. I sit in his shed for thirty minutes researching items he has bought for his antique shop, which I enjoy. He enjoys having a to-do list and working on things in the house and will identify a time he will do tasks. We’ve found a lot of honesty in our communication about our moods and it helps us to see each other’s point of view.
We do our best to communicate via texting. He misreads facial cues and expressions due to his paranoia. When he is paranoid he hears other voices but often can’t make out what they say, he describes it like being in a room full of people all talking very loudly while he is trying to focus on one voice. Often while talking face to face we experience anxiety and have so much to say we talk over one another or assume what the other is thinking. He’s often manic, thinking of things he wants to talk about and playing out the whole conversation in his head, without directly communicating with me. Paranoia comes in when he’s feeling stressed or hasn’t slept.
Being in a marriage in which we both struggle with our mental health is very challenging at times. However, we have a greater understanding of how one another feels. For example, we have a lot of single words we use to let the other know how we are feeling. If someone says “spinning” we know that person is having racing thoughts, the word ”train” means he is feeling angry and out of control. These safe words allow us to know how the other is feeling without causing them too much aggravation talking about it. We share information we find about each other or ourselves so the other can research and be aware of things we just can’t put into words.
We haven’t been to therapy as a couple, being a therapist myself we have discussed at length our mental illnesses. We have engaged in therapeutic exercises with one another. One example is we have drawn out our emotions on paper, then we have talked about our views of those emotions. Brad did go to therapy twice for his PTSD, there the therapist told him to “put your thoughts on a cloud and watch them float away.” I have many therapist friends I speak to when I am struggling with our relationship or with my anxiety.
I do feel our relationship is balanced. One might think with us both enjoying separate things and being very different people that we wouldn’t have a strong relationship; however we make extra efforts to let the other one know they are appreciated. It takes a lot of self-awareness which we work on daily. This marriage is truly a labor of love.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Mental Health First Person Essays, OCD, PTSD