There are some stories we are only ready to share long after they happen. This is one of them.
Readers of my book, Blessed are the Crazy, tell me I’m bold and brave to speak of such things as untreated and severe mental illness in my family. When I hear this compliment, I try to recieve it as the blessing it was meant to be, however, each time, it reminds me that I’ve broken the unspoken rules that reinforce a culture of silence and shame around mental illness.
For a moment I feel as if I need to go sit in a timeout for my misbehavior of speaking out. But then the truth hits me in the heart and it burns like a fire: I’m not finished breaking the silence. There’s more to tell. I’m not ready or willing to be silent. And I’m terrified.
While sitting at the computer three years ago writing the story that became the manuscript of my childhood experiences with mental illness in my family, I was struggling with a marriage plagued by mental illness. The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out what exactly was going on in my husband’s brain and then how to make it better. Before our marriage could get better, we needed to get better as individuals. And I chose to talk about it with hardly anyone. I was too ashamed.
I didn’t like what untreated anxiety and depression did to my husband, to his ability to parent and to our marriage. Before we married, we learned the hard way that my husband’s way of coping with anxiety was through excessive drinking. Alcohol made him feel more comfortable in his own skin. This is how he puts it, “Mostly I drank to feel less anxious, not to cope with my depression. Drinking helped me loosen up in uncomfortable social situations.”
After weeks of going to an out-patient treatment program for addictions (his family helped pay for the program), we both knew more about the disease of alcoholism. The better way to treat his chronic mood disorder was not by self-medicating through drinking, but through seeing a counselor or therapist and taking anti-depressants.
This whole process of figuring out his brain was allergic to alcohol and that it was also chronically depressed and anxious took years. After a year of dating, we began to consider getting married. But I straight out told him: I need you healthy. I can’t stay with you unless things change. And he did, by the grace of God. He stopped drinking alcohol and it continues to be a challenge.
We moved to Florida and began our married life together near the sea. I began to notice my husband experiencing a pattern of panic attacks and increasing social anxiety related to my new role as solo pastor of a church in a small town. It was hard not to get angry or feel irritated with him. I am embarrassed to admit that I was less than compassionate. It seemed to me that each time he had a panic attack, it would ruin whatever it was we were trying to do. I felt sorry for myself, asking, “why me?”
What was difficult to navigate was that his behavior stemmed from a brain disorder: anxiety. He wasn’t intentionally trying to sabatogue my career by freaking out in church or at the charity dinner. He was having a medical emergency. Looking back, I wish I could have been more patient with myself and with him.
Once we realized the pattern, he talked to his doctor and began taking anti-anxiety medication. This helped. But medication alone did not bring the healing we needed. We also continued marriage counseling, a practice we started as pre-marital counseling.
When our son was born, the combination of stress and sleep deprivation pushed our mental health challenges to a scary place. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was scared. Things were getting out of control.
My husband is a loving, kind, big-hearted, intelligent, loyal, creative and handsome man. He is not a monster. Yet when alcoholism, anxiety and depression get their hands on him, he is a sick person. In our marriage vows we promised to love one another in sickness and in health. The images that typically come to mind for me are an elderly couple sitting, holding wrinkled hands with age spots…he’s got heart disease and she has arthritis. I don’t think of a couple in their prime, he’s got bottles of psych meds and she’s got appointments scheduled to see a therapist.
Our married life is significantly impacted by mental illness. I’m thankful that chronic anxiety and depression are treatable and that recovery is possible. I’m extremely thankful that it is not worse, (as I very well know it could be). But most of all, I’m thankful for my husband’s sincere desire and faithful efforts at recovery and healing.
Last fall we made a big move from our life at the beach to a life in the Midwest. People often think we are crazy for leaving Florida. But for us it was time. Our marriage needed more stability and more resources in order to thrive. And our growing child needed us as his parents to be healthier, more whole.
It’s a big experient with intentional living. We’ve recycled the American Dream, so to speak. Meaning, we didn’t necessarily throw it away, but we discarded it with the hopes of exchanging it for something more sustainable.
We chose to sell half of our belongings so we could move into a much smaller home. We didn’t want to hide from each other inside a big house. We also went from a house in the suburbs to a condo in the city. We wanted to stop driving our cars as much. We wanted to walk to the park, to school, to the store and to be part of a neighborhood community.
My husband has called this his “year for healing.” I said to him recently, “I think it might take more than a year.” He’s taking care of his mental health: he’s in regular therapy with a mental health professional who specializes in men’s issues, addictions and anger management. He’s taking care of his physical health: cycling, acupuncture and chiropractic care, and eating healthy (cut way back on sugar and eats more organic). And he’s taking time to develop and nurture friendships with other men.
I’ve also intentionally experimented with alternative ways to live out my calling. I’m leaning into the flow, following the natural path of opportunity instead of chizeling one out on my own with a walnut pick.
I’m learning to work less (that’s hard to do!). It’s so easy for me to pour myself into work. When things are tough in my marriage, then there’s other ways for me to feel successful. It’s an addiction to work that can easily consume me. What I’m learning now is that mental health is about physical health and emotional health. It’s about relational health, too.
After ten months talking about breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, I wanted you to know that these issues are alive in my own home, even though my father is dead and my brother lives far away. I’ve got not only crazy in the family blood, but I married into it, too.
Here’s the thing, we are committed to honoring our marriage vows: in (mental) sickness and in health. We take comfort in knowing that we are not the only ones.
Dedicated to my devoted husband who said “yes” to breaking this silence.