Author: Michelle Lumiere
I stumbled across this blog post yesterday and I just had to get in touch with Michelle to share, it is such an honest and beautifully written journey of the effects of mental health on a relationship. We are passionate about de-stigmatising the perception of mental health and mental illness so are honoured Michelle agreed to share her blog with us.
In my website bio, I mention that I have faced four major losses in my life and briefly describe the experience of the first – my mother. Well, in support of Mental Health Awareness Week, this is the story of my fourth.
Youth brings an ignorance to life’s golden moments as they unfold; the moments that will flicker through your mind in years to come like the untouchable beauty of a butterfly’s wings. The best thing about the scars of age, is that we tend to become more mindful of these beauties as they come.
During the latter years of my marriage, I would notice my husband smiling, laughing, enthusing, and I would appreciate every detail, thinking to myself, there he is. I would feel an inner desperation to hit the pause button. I took endless photos, trying to capture what I knew was slipping through my fingers. The boy that I had fallen in love with so long ago, the man I believed I would spend the rest of my life with, had been fading away for years, no matter how hard I fought to bring him back.
Near the start of our relationship, the first holiday we shared together was in the Maldives. We enjoyed each other in paradise for two weeks, cocooned by the Indian Ocean. The image of him beaming back at me from the white sands remains imprinted on my mind to this day as the moment; the slice in time, the beat, the stone that anchored me to him throughout the storm that followed.
Ten years later, I watched my husband’s wedding ring hit the ground as the front door slammed, shaking the entire house and me. Our marriage was over. He was broken. I was broken. There was nothing left to do but fall into darkness.
In 2016, two years before the end, my husband was diagnosed with a mental illness that fractured his entire self-identify. Leading up to his diagnosis we had endured years of confusing fluctuations in his personality that had stealthily chipped away at our happiness. These fluctuations had grown more rapid, more destructive, and had turned into months of blood tests, under-active thyroid talks, sleepless nights, depressive spells and hideous outbursts of anger and despair. When the diagnosis finally arrived, he had only two roads ahead of him; get well or get worse.
I remember the fear in his eyes; fear mixed with shame. He was confused, emasculated and exhausted, and the worst part of his journey hadn’t even started. But it was ok (I assured him with absolute certainty) – if anyone could overcome this, it was him: Firefighter, Urban Search and Rescuer, marathon runner, cyclist, gym fanatic, mathematician, fixer-of-all-things, bookworm, gourmet chef, neat-freak, space geek; my man did not do things in halves. He was a goal-setter, an achiever, a winner, a fucking real life action hero. He was the guy that would roll his eyes at ‘anxiety’ or ‘counselling’ or ‘antidepressants’; spouting how those things are for the weak, not the elite.
But this man, this entirely broken man, couldn’t hear me. Type Two Bipolar?? He was engulfed by brain-fog; a soup of stress over losing himself, losing me, losing everything; a soup thickened by medication that was supposed to help him, drugs that he couldn’t bear to take. He was convinced I would leave him, that I couldn’t possibly love or be attracted to the failure of a husband he had become.
In my mind, failure didn’t come into it. My husband was sick. Yes he had become a nightmare to live with, unrecognisably so, but we had a strategy now. If any couple could overcome this, it was us. I threw myself at research. I read books, blogs, articles, journals, attended support groups and hospital appointments, had mentoring through Bipolar UK and joined my local carer’s charity. I reached out to family to create a ‘holistic treatment plan’ after reading Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder. I was determined to stop our marriage becoming another statistic of the illness.
I felt comforted, optimistic even, that the links between his illness and his highly stressful career were common. I believed we had a chance. And then I watched the boy that had once sparkled for life become entirely defeated by it.
There was no fight in him. He shunned help. Repelled advice. Refused to take the drugs that were meant to help him. He lied to the hospital and to me. He drank excessively. He rarely slept or exercised. His behaviour and thought processes were manic. His physical health plummeted. His career was threatened. We fought, we raged, we cried, we blamed, we threw things, we screamed ultimatums, we held each other in silence, in sobs, we slept in different rooms, we made promises, we took trips away, we moved house, we saw therapists, we lost friends, we lost time, we lost each other.
He needed to lean on me so hard and for so long that I was crumbling under pressure, and I needed him to stand up when he simply couldn’t. And I couldn’t give up. I was physically and emotionally ruined but I couldn’t end us. I couldn’t leave him to drown alone when every month I could see him getting worse. And I couldn’t let go of the hope that behind those deadened eyes the boy I loved might be trapped inside trying to get out.
In those last terrible months, I must have said everything you should never say to a person with a mental illness. I tried to reason with him, listing all the wonderful things he should be happy about. I took his mental state as a personal rejection because I could no longer make him happy. Our marriage was taking the full weight of his illness so I needed him to make a last-ditch recovery and save the day. I pleaded, bartered, nannied and worried myself sick. Some days just leaving him alone was terrifying. As my own health plummeted, I was signed off work with anxiety and offered anti-depressants that I ironically refused to take. I did not have a mental illness, I was just fucking beat from living with one.
In the end, he called it. In a blaze that soon subsided into a chilling calmness, he told me that we were over. He was certain he would never recover and we no longer had a future together. Even though he had screamed this at me several times throughout the grips of his illness, this time was different.
He was speaking from a place of love and no longer wanted me to suffer alongside him. And no matter how much that tore me apart, I couldn’t argue. No person should be persuaded to fight by your side and it wasn’t a war I could win alone. So, he left with a small bag of essentials and I started to grieve the death of my marriage. This was the point that I discovered the only thing that parallels losing a loved-one: Losing a loved one who still has a heartbeat.
Actual death brings with it the painful remedy of absoluteness; a forward arrow that you have no choice but to ride. The death of a loved-one’s essence to mental illness carries the curse of hope and guilt; what if they come back? When and how do you give up? I empathised with those characters in zombie stories who chain up their zombified loved-one just in case a cure is found. You convince yourself that you can control or at least influence the outcome. But with this mindset, you place an almighty strain onto the sufferer and yourself.
There were moments I wanted to phone him and beg him to come home. I wanted to scream at him for being weak, for betraying me, leaving me on my own when all I had done was stand by him. I felt that my love had been abused. I was tormented by the idea that being with this version of him was better than being without him, and I couldn’t get my head around the fact that we were defeated. The fear of starting again in my thirties, without him, was overwhelming. But I had to go with it all, because I knew he was right. We didn’t have a choice.
Because mental illness is not a choice that you can influence. It is an erosive disease of which the true cause is still up for scientific debate – a nature or nurture argument. Whatever the case, the symptoms are inflamed by the pressures and strains of external forces; love, family, friends, colleagues, careers, money, errands, responsibilities and expectations.
All these forces, these facets of everyday life that many of us sail through and mostly enjoy, become a deafening drum beating down onto the sufferer, pushing them further and further until they collapse; psychosis, suicidal behaviour, crippling depression, panic attacks, cluster headaches, self-harm, any combination of these and more.
What I couldn’t grasp at the time, no matter how hard I tried, was that there was no reasoning with my husband’s deep depression. The nature of the ill state he had reached meant that on the days he would wake up numb, tearful, anxious and unable to get out of bed, what he really needed was for me to not go anywhere. He didn’t need a motivational speech or a walk in the park. He just needed to be allowed to be ill, unconditionally. Unfortunately, I was unable to recognise the similarity between this and grief. I was unable to follow the advice in my first two blogs. I was losing my husband, and as a wife, I was desperate to claw him back rather than face the reality of my loss.
What this experience taught me (the hard way) is that there are two types of mental health issues; mental struggles and mental illness. We can all struggle. We can all suffer from stress, anxiety and depression in varying degrees throughout our lives. We may seek help in the form of therapy and medication when the struggles drag on. But mental illness is the extreme.
When a person’s brain reaches a crisis state of bipolar, PTSD, psychosis, schizophrenia, dementia, suicidal behaviour, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia and so forth, the individual is seriously unwell and needs to be treated as such. These illnesses can kill.
Unfortunately, there seems to be very little social distinction between these two different ends of the scale and how to approach them. Even while I was living through this experience, learning and applying all I could, I was still guilty of getting them confused at times. And when the penny did drop, I had to defend my husband’s illness to friends and family who felt that he just needed to man up and sort himself out. Others, who had experienced their own mental struggles, felt qualified to lecture him and us about his illness. But here is the thing about mental illness: It is what it is – an illness.
If a person has cancer, you don’t tell them you know how they feel because of that time you had gastroenteritis. Why, why, do we patronise mental illnesses with our own experiences of mental health issues as if they’re the same extreme? This gross lack of empathy only undermines the very real battle the sufferer is facing, so much so that they become more isolated from their should-be support network, which in turn fuels the illness.
Here’s why: Mental health issues on any scale can make assholes of the best of us. Stress, anxiety and depression can make us seem self-centred, cowardly, socially-awkward, disappointing and frustrating to others who don’t understand. A mental illness can take a perfectly great individual, swallow them up whole and leave a destructive, volatile, hopeless beast in their place. Suddenly, your wonderful human makes all the wrong, worst and most hurtful decisions. They can hurt everyone around them at the same time as hurting themselves. But because the damage is hidden inside, eroding the brain, often people don’t see symptoms, they just see a tedious mess.
I believe that the difference between mental health issues and mental illness is part of the key to better support and awareness for both cases. When a person starts to show the signs of struggling with stress, anxiety or depression, these symptoms need to be identified like an early lump in the breast – with the correct support and treatment from the offset, or else they run the risk of developing. I guesstimate that the subtle signs of stress were unfolding for approximately six years prior to the massive decline in my husband’s health. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
During my desperate research phase of trying to save my marriage, I read a lot about some breakthrough science that came to light in 2017 regarding grey tissue deficiencies in the brain that are associated with bipolar. I also became fascinated by another school of research by Dr Mark Hyman who claims that the source of many mental health issues are the physical outcome of a poor gut microbiom. The point here is that today there is growing evidence to suggest that mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked.
So perhaps it would make it easier if we called mental health issues and illnesses ‘physical symptoms of the brain’ instead. Perhaps, if we started to call it that, those who are suffering on any scale would receive more empathy and awareness of the completely deliberating battles they are facing, and perhaps we as a society would be more tolerant to the difficult changes in personality and behaviour.
For me, it was like my husband concocted a brain bug that neither we or the hospital could remove. Eventually, that bug took our marriage and there were moments that I feared it would also take his life. But while we couldn’t save our relationship, we did manage to save our friendship through love, empathy and forgiveness, and seeing him thrive today has been worth the sacrifice.
Thankfully, once we were over, he started to recover, as did I. Being alleviated from the strain of having to be well for me was liberating for him. And I was liberated from the immobilising strain of trying to keep someone above water. Even though the pain of losing each other was incredible, we both started to heal after a dark period of grief. A psychologist at the time told me about the monkey-trap analogy; where a monkey strives to the detriment of its own health for a precious item that cannot be reached. We had been holding on so tightly to the love of our original relationship, neither of us had been able to let go, to our own detriment.
For some time I wrestled with a sense of failure over the break down of our marriage and my inability to better support someone I loved through an illness. I have since come to understand that he was on a course that neither of us could control. Chastising myself over the outcome is no different to feeling like a failure if I had, let’s say, lost him to cancer.
I hope, therefore, this blog reaches even one individual who has lost someone to mental illness or suicide, who may feel tortured by the notion that they could have prevented the outcome by being better or stronger. I cannot imagine how traumatic that worse-case scenario must be and it was one I lived in fear of for over a year, so if any of you know somebody who has experienced a loss like that, please apply everything I have written about grief and empathy in my first two blogs.
I grieved my marriage and the boy that I had fallen in love with, as did he, and it was a drawn out, chaotic grief in comparison to losing mum, but I am so massively grateful that through the loss of our marriage, two people have embarked on a healthier, brighter future and avoided an intelligent young man disappearing completely from this world. Seeing each other achieve new heights individually since we parted, has only validated the decision to go it alone. To me, that’s more evidence of the happiness and beauty that can rise from the ashes of our darkest times.