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The Tangled Web of Marriage, Love and My Husband's Borderline Personality Disorder

When I was young and in love and putting the final details on our wedding plans, I spent an evening curled up on our scratchy goodwill sofa reading through the vows we would be making in a few short weeks. I tried to picture it, all of our loved ones gathered together, our friends standing up beside us, the beautiful Rock River flowing behind as we made lifelong promises to one another. Dreams finally becoming reality, the beginning of our life together, the first day of a grand new adventure.

The line “in sickness and in health” felt so out of place in all the flowery, lovey language. A little bit of real talk smashed in the middle of the wedding day magic. I tried to picture what would happen if a tragic accident or illness rendered this man I love totally reliant on me. Could I feed him, change his diapers, wash his body, attend to his every need? Could I accept the loss of a lover, a confidant, a fellow adventurer? The answer came fast, confident. Of course. Of course I would. I would do anything for him.

What I didn’t know then was how illness was already creeping into our lives, weaving itself into our new rhythms by masquerading as “newlywed fights” or “financial stress.” It wouldn’t be until he was nearly drowning with the weight of it that we realized this was more than “just a hard season.” And even then, once we recognized these were symptoms of a much larger illness, not merely personality quirks or the byproduct of new-parent stress, we didn’t really know what to do next. His GP prescribed a generic antidepressant, we called up the counseling center recommended by our church and then we settled in and waited for our new normal to emerge.

But then nothing changed. And we waited another year, tried new meds, new doctors and continued waiting. Sometimes I think the more doctors and therapies and medications he tries, the more depressing the whole thing becomes. All of this care and still no clear answers? How can a brain be so unwell that it takes this much support and effort just to get through the day? When will it get easier? What does “mental health” even look like?

Watching him weather this journey has given me deep compassion for all he has endured, for the loneliness and pain he carried alone. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the years he shouldered this weight, thinking it was normal, assuming everyone felt as mixed up and miserable as he did. But I’m also frequently overwhelmed by his diagnosis and all that comes with it. When I imagined being a caregiver for my hypothetically incapacitated husband, it was with a clear understanding that our relationship would be permanently altered by some singular event. I would become the caregiver and he would be in need of my care. I would know my responsibilities, what I could and couldn’t expect from him. We would find a new normal, new routines, the limits of both of our abilities would be clear.

But most of us caring for a loved one as they battle mental illness don’t have that luxury. For most of us, the lines are like a tangled web. There’s perhaps the memory of the structure that once existed, or the hope of what could be, but the snags and tears and knots twist up all our needs and intentions and abilities into one big ball that stress pulls ever tighter.

My husband has a borderline diagnosis, and while that information was initially immensely helpful (DBT therapy! New meds! Clear connections between behaviors and underlying symptoms!), it now hangs like a heavy shadow over everything he does. The stigma is a threat — are you as “bad” as the internet says people like you can be? When he is unkind or erratic I feel myself oscillating between dismissal (everyone has bad days sometimes) and springing to action (Set a boundary! Use all the strategies! Lean in!).

It is so hard to know how to be there for someone who is unable to vocalize their need for help. It would be great if there was a narrator for our lives, some wise voice giving me a nudge about what to do when my husband is going into a splitting episode, reminding him to practice his DBT skills when the anxiety starts to take hold, reminding me not to take it personally. I have such a hard time sorting out how to protect him from his own dark thoughts and actions, how to protect me and our kids from the relational consequences of actions taken in a poor frame of mind and how to re-engage with him as a peer and equal when he returns to something resembling homeostasis. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is really him, and what is his pain.

When I am hurt by his behavior while in a dis-regulated state, I am tempted to disengage, pull away, view him as a diagnosis rather than as a person, my person. We have a few firm boundaries around expressing anger, especially towards our kids, and when he crosses that line the enforcing usually falls on me. I feel like a middle aged woman banishing her sullen teen to his room. I hate that feeling. How can I stay connected to a spouse whose behavior I police? How can we stay married if I don’t?

But when he is well, when we are alone without our kids or somewhere free from his triggers, from stress or noise or deadlines or crowds, he is my very heart, my confidant, my intellectual sparring partner, my dreamer, my friend. I feel so privileged to get to see my husband at his best, and also that he trusts me with his worst. I wish I could shout from the rooftops how proud I am of him for all the work he puts in to seek health and healing. I also wish I could shout from the rooftops how lonely and isolating and long this journey has been. How desperately we need friends to take a turn on the roller coaster so I can occasionally get a break, so someone with fresh eyes and a clear head can talk him through it.

I wake up each day not knowing if my beloved will be in sickness or in health. I hope that the more we talk about the day-to-day journey of mental illness, the more de-stigmatized it will become, the less lonely and isolating it will feel. Imagine if an anxiety or OCD or bipolar diagnosis was like any other medical crisis. When our friends and family hear the news they would jump to action, organizing meals and childcare, stopping by to check in on us and start a load of laundry or drop off groceries. They would be patient, understanding when we have to cancel plans unexpectedly, accommodating our limits and needs. They would be there to celebrate the good days, to remind our beloved of their infinite worth on the bad.

This is the world I dream of.

This is the world our loved ones deserve.

Follow this journey on Julianne’s site.

Lead image provided by contributor