When the person you love is diagnosed with a severe mental illness it feels like betrayal. In the aftermath of the first episode, once the shock wears off, we want to scream: I did not sign up for this *crazy* life!
If traditional marriage vows were exchanged in the relationship promising fidelity “in sickness and health,” somehow mental illness wasn’t what we think about in that vow. The flu, heart disease, even cancer are things we’ve come to accept as part of being mortal. But severe mental illness?
For many, perhaps on a subconscious level, life-destabilizing and debilitating mental illness remains in the realm of the unimaginable. You don’t consider the possibility that your sweetheart could become unrecognizable under the influence of severe mental illness.
You never thought that one morning you’d wake up in bed alone because your beloved is across town in a psychiatric hospital bed recovering from a severe psychotic episode or suicide attempt.
For many years, the stigma and shame in faith communities surrounding divorce kept people socially isolated. The church judged divorcees, denied them communion, sending clear messages of unwelcome.
I argue that couples today who are experiencing the impact of severe mental illness find themselves in that unenviable class of the divorcees of previous decades. If your partner is recovering from psychosis, you most likely will find yourself marginalized among the widows, widowers and divorcees. Whether that’s because he or she is recovering in the psychiatric hospital or at home, nobody wants to visit, send flowers or drop off a lasagna.
My brother Scott was married for several years, until one day his wife said she could no longer be married to a person with chronic and severe mental illness. Marriage is hard enough without adding mental illness into the mix. How many marriages can survive the stress and emotional strain of severe mental illness? As we watch divorce rates climb, how much does untreated or under-treated mental illness contribute to the end of marriages?
How can faith communities better support couples who desire to stay together through times of mental illness or a lifetime of mental illness?
In the nervous excitement of the first kiss, the first Valentines Day date, crazy love hooks us. But in the ebb and flow of romantic love, what remains in the long marriage is the promise to be there in sickness and in health, including mental illness. Yet, the burden of mental illness with its significant shame and stigma, keeps many couples suffering through this sickness in silence.
More and more, I believe we can’t stay married alone. In the ninth year of my own marriage I’ve come to intimately know what it’s like to wake up feeling alone because of my husband’s chronic depression and anxiety. Sometimes I wish mental illness would magically disappear from our marriage, but life has taught us that it has more to do with hard work and hope, than magic. For us honoring our marriage vows also means taking care of our mental health.
Those days when we find ourselves married alone, we need the wide circle of support from mental health professionals, family, friends, and the church that married us.