What Loving Someone With a Mental Illness Has Taught Me
This story has been published with permission from the author’s husband and daughter.
It’s true how time and seasons pass with a blink of an eye.
Days turn into months, months turn into years. You sit looking back wondering where it went, wishing you could get a little of it back. But the gray hairs on my head don’t lie and the wrinkles around my eyes are the steady reminders that time stops for no one. Try as we might we can’t get it back. We can only treasure the good moments and learn from our mistakes, put the past behind us and embrace life as it comes.
When life is the most chaotic the days seem to go in slow motion. The days and weeks drag on while you wait for it to pass, for your normalcy to return, hoping that one day it will. I’m grateful that somehow we always get back to this place, the place where I can finally sit and reflect, and look back on where we’ve been. Contemplate where we’re going with optimism and hope. It feels life my life’s been on a loop these past couple of years, illness, recovery, triggers and breakdowns, hospitals and medication. And yet here I am, praying that this year things will be different, that we can have a remission of sorts for my husband and my daughter. I live every day with an overly vigilant mission to catch the signs. The mental slide. Because if I can catch it at the first sign of a problem, maybe I can stop it. But that’s hardly ever the case, because typically by the time you notice something’s off, it’s too late. I hope the medication cocktails they are both prescribed will work, and continue to work. But honestly we’re at the mercy of time, only time will tell.
Mental illness has taken me to a place no one can possibly understand unless you’ve been there. The caretakers and family members and friends that stick it out understand. It’s not a physical place but an emotional one, and can’t easily be conveyed with words because it’s a feeling in the depths of your soul. It can be a dark ugly place of fear and devastation, confusion, sadness, anger and love. It’s fear of going back to that place that keeps me up at night, has me on pins and needles all the time. I can’t relax, I can’t let my guard down, because when you start to get too comfortable, that’s typically when everything comes crashing down. And when you fall from such a high place that’s when it hurts the most. Every reoccurring episode feels like I’ve dropped the ball. It’s my job to keep it together. It feels like I’ve failed my family.
This year especially, I’ve stood in the midst of complete devastation, feeling like I’d lost it all. I’ve been on my knees sifting through the rubble of a broken down house ripped down to studs and beams. But I have to speak to the resilience of our family, the foundation of love is strong. We have raised children who are compassionate, empathetic and forgiving. Though our children have had to learn these qualities in the most difficult of circumstances, they don’t harbor ill feelings or resentments towards me or Carmel. They know they are loved, they understand the difference between a person with a mental illness’ character and the true character of a man who loves them as if they where his own. It’s not to say the foundation hasn’t been compromised — there are still cracks and holes beneath the surface. But we’re rebuilding our house brick by brick, moment by moment. We’re building our house on knowledge and awareness, knowing what needs to be done at the first signs of illness. Knowledge is power and we draw strength from that as well.
I am grateful for the life I have, I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned loving someone with a mental illness. My view of people and relationships has forever been altered and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t see from one angle anymore, I recognize many factors influence who people are and why they act like they do. I am in the company of two people who not only see things from a different angle, but feel things differently. I’m trying to learn to be sensitive to that, which is difficult, especially in a relationship with a spouse. It means sometimes not being able to share your thoughts and feelings for the sake of their mental integrity. Ranee is still young and half the battle is helping her learn to channel her emotions properly. She is a beautiful person, her mind is full of ideas and dreams that I want to help her cultivate. Carmelo and Ranee are passionate in a way that is all-encompassing. They are emotional thinkers and sometimes when the emotion comes before thought it’s hard to disentangle the two.
There are qualities within myself as a mother, wife and daughter that I’ve learned I possess only because of mental illness. I have found my voice as an advocate for myself my children and my husband. The depth of love and understanding that I’m capable of go far beyond what I ever imagined possible. As much as I want to contain the disorder for my loved ones’ dignity and my own, I can’t. I believe it is something that should be talked about openly. The behaviors typically associated with it are explosive and loud, aggressive and in your face. So for those on the outside, it’s hard to understand how someone can stay within a relationship like this. A well-meaning friend asked me if I would leave Carmelo if he kept getting sick. Why would someone stay with someone who’s crazy? they seem to imply. But would you abandon your loved one if they had cancer, or diabetes, or dementia? I guess some would. But Carmelo’s illness doesn’t define him and he is so much outside of it. When he is sick he is sick. And when he’s well he still deals with the ramifications of the disorder, the side effects of the medication, the day-to-day ailments that come with a brain that is brilliant but also can be broken.
I stay because he’s a wonderful man, the best person I’ve ever met. He’s whole heartedly in love with me and our family and I don’t ever doubt that. He’s the nice guy who will give the shirt off his back for anyone in need. We never have a lot, but he’s always willing to give something to help someone in need. Sometimes it’s to his detriment, because people easily take advantage of someone with such an open kind heart. He’s had to recognize for himself those that take advantage of him and those who are genuine. No matter how deep in psychosis or depression, he never loses sight of his family. He loves me and sees me in a way I can’t put into words because it’s in his eyes. He feels my emotions in his heart, which is a blessing and a burden for both of us. As much as he does for his family, he longs to do more. You don’t walk away from that when times get tough, you support it. His realness and honesty about what he’s going through, and his willingness to let me be a part of his treatment plan, only adds to our commitment.
I’ve learned to reserve my energy for the battles that are worth fighting, and to let go of the things that don’t contribute to the well-being of our family. I recognize I don’t have the emotional reserves to worry about the misconceptions people may have about mental illness. You can only educate people who want to learn, and not everyone who asks how you are really wants to know. I’ve learned to recognize the difference between polite conversation and genuine interest. I find myself on the outside looking in a lot. Mental illness not only affects the integrity of a family, but also friendships as well. I’ve watched my circle of friends dwindle with each reoccurring episode. As hurtful as it is I understand it, it’s emotionally draining to be friends with someone whose life seems to always be in chaos. I’ve had to take a step back and look at myself and examine what kind of friend I am, and what kind of qualities as a friend I want to possess.
While social media is supposed to bring people together it’s done the opposite for me. I see my friends get together often for girls’ nights and dinner parties and playdates. I can’t say it doesn’t hurt, but I make it my goal to take what hurts me and use it to build up someone who may be going through what I’m going through or feeling lonely. Mental illness only lasts for a time and a season. Mental wellness is what we strive to maintain. During those times our lives are somewhat normal — work, schooling, religion. Just your typical day-to-day stuff with just a little dash of “crazy.”
Follow this journey on Mama to the Madness.
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