February 21, 2014

Mental illness hurts loved ones, too

I was sifting through banal emails at work, deleting junk in my inbox.

Then one from my wife caught my eye. The subject line read “Your submission to teen ink.” I settled in with a warm cup of coffee, hoping to find another uplifting poem or story written by our 14-year-old daughter, Sutton.

Then I read the message from my wife at the top of the email. “Check out her link. It breaks my heart. I hate to think to think she feels this way.” 

I clicked on the link and found this poem she’d written…

This thing, 
This monster,This demon.
Depression.
It is a black hole, endless and infinite.
It swallows me whole, Shredding my soul.Ripping my body to pieces.
Thought by thought, Word by word, It presses on.Consuming me. Controlling me. Changing me.
This darkness, This plague. It takes over me.
Until it is me. 
It has conquered me, and it has become me.
The darkness and I are one.
I can't remember how to turn on the lights.



My heart sank. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. I panicked. Thoughts raced through my mind at warp speed.

How could I, of all people, have missed the signs?
How long has she felt this way? Did she inherit my disease?
How could this happen to such a bright light in a dark world?
Where can we take her to get help?

My wife sat down with Sutton to talk about the poem. She insisted it wasn’t about her. It was about her daddy.

Mixed emotions filled my head after hearing the news. I was touched that she understood and shared in a profound and powerful way all that I have felt. I was also troubled when I realized how much young people sense and know about their parents.

My wife and I had a talk and agreed we had to be more careful. I had to find a way to “fake it” when possible, although I’m sure Sutton would see through it. She can see it on my face when I walk in the door after a difficult day. She senses it even on the weekend, if I’m listless and disengaged.

We decided if we had any disagreements due to the strain bipolar puts on marriages, we couldn’t have them in front of our kids.

The experience caused me to think about the devastating impact mental illness has on families. Here’s a sobering statistic for you: Ninety percent of all bipolar people who get married end up divorced.

I suspect the majority of those divorces happen because the patient's partners just can’t do it anymore. They can’t endure the manic highs, which often result in impulsive or reckless behavior. They can’t handle the devastating lows, which leave their partners wallowing in a pit of misery, unable to show compassion or emotion.

Severe mental illness hurts more than the patient. It hurts loved ones, too. They pray fervently for help that doesn’t always come. They lie awake at night, wondering what happened to their husband or wife, son or daughter. They wonder if it will ever get better, doubting how it could after failed treatments and years of suffering.

My wife and I have been married for 18 years, but my illness has taken its toll on our marriage. She’s often left frustrated and exhausted during times when I’ve struggled to do much more than roll out of bed and get dressed.

Mental illness hurts more than spouses. It hurts children, young ones and old ones with parents who can hardly function and often become a burden. It is hard for me to imagine how difficult it must be to care for a mentally ill parent years before they reach old age.

Patients like me have all sorts of resources. We have psychiatrists. We have therapists. We have drugs that may or may not work but at least give us a chance.

Other than therapy, I’m not sure what loved ones have. They probably don’t have time for therapy either since they often become single parents by default.

Churches don’t do much—at all—for the 25 percent of their congregations suffering from mental illness. They do even less for loved ones hurt and confused by the mental illness sucking the life and joy out of their homes.

I do not have the answers, but chipping away at the stigma of mental illness is a start. If an individual can’t or won’t let others know they suffer from mental illness and need prayers and support, they don’t get any prayers or support. 

The reason some never drag their illness out of the dark and into the light? Stigma. That’s what that word we toss around really means.

My mind and my prayers aren’t on me tonight. They are centered on my family and other families struggling to deal with a loved one’s mental illness.

They need our help as much as I do.