I’m a Husband With Mental Illness, and My Marriage Is 22 Years Strong
Twenty-two years is a long time to be married to me. Yet, somehow, we have managed to keep things going. We were together almost six years before getting married. My wife, Sherawn, deserves a medal.
For those of you who know me, I know you are probably thinking two things.
1. “You must have gotten married when you were 7. You don’t look a day over 28.”
2. “She deserves two medals.”
To the latter… you’re probably right. And to the former, while I wasn’t 7 years old, looking back to July 17, 1999, we really were just a couple of kids. We thought we knew what life had in store for the two of us, but we had no idea. Neither of us would’ve guessed any of what we have experienced.
Well, maybe one thing we could have guessed. After 22 years, we still like each other. Notice I didn’t say we liked each other for the full 22 years. We always loved each other. But like is different. Especially when the chronic mental health challenges I have, have made me feel as if I wasn’t the same person, in the eyes of either of us.
It isn’t fun for me to talk about, but I feel disingenuous if I don’t. Being married to someone who struggles with their mental health can be incredibly difficult. For both of us.
In the past, Sherawn has told me she has felt like a single mother, even though I was around because I didn’t have the emotional capacity to be present for my family. She has had to change her lifestyle around the fact I have a dual diagnosis, mental health struggles and addiction. Over the years, she has spent so much time on her knees begging God to bring back her husband, asking God to restore me to the man she walked up to at the alter.
For me, just having the diagnosis I have is challenging enough. I have a brain that seems as if it is actively trying to kill me. I walk a tightrope every day between acknowledging my struggle and not letting my struggle define me. I need to be open with my wife about what is going on, but it rips me up inside to see the terror in her eyes when I say I am spiraling. I am the one who is supposed to protect her, yet I am the one who makes her afraid. Will I sink into a depression I won’t come out of? Am I going to relapse into my addiction? Will she come home and find out my suicidal ideation has become too much for me? I hate that I do that to her. But for some reason, if you were to ask her, she would say she would do it all over again. She would still choose me.
We both signed on for, “for better or for worse.” Overall, we have had far more “better” than “worse,” but the “worse” has been significant. For us, divorce has never been an option. No matter how hard things get, we will never divorce. We don’t have the philosophy a divorce is never an option for others. If there are safety concerns — physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse — these are never OK, and seeking help is absolutely the best thing you can do. But we don’t have any of those in our relationship. Despite all our adversity, we are still absolutely over the moon in love! We still fight over who loves who most, we still go out on dates like we are teenagers, we still laugh, we don’t get tired of being around each other and we even get told by our daughter, “oh quit it already” when we flirt with each other in front of her. We are really, really good.
Being in love doesn’t mean we don’t struggle, though. We need to be open about that. Our relationship has taken a lot of work, support from friends and family and faith in God as the ultimate example of how to love each other. What we have we worked up to, we built.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just over 50% of people will experience a mental health struggle in their lifetime. Many of those people are married or seriously committed. In light of that, we must learn about the role mental health plays in our relationships. Both for the person who is struggling and for their partner. To get us started, there are a couple of things I want to suggest.
1. Seek counseling.
My wife and I could never have reached the 22-year mark if it were not for the support of the people we are close to. Whether it is from a therapist, pastor, marriage coach, etc., lean on the people around you.
2. Find a mentor.
Early into our marriage, Sherawn and I grabbed hold of a couple who modeled the kind of marriage we wanted to have. We looked to them for guidance in marriage, not just as people we would call when things were tough, but also for when things are good. Learn from the people who’ve been there.
3. Keep getting to know each other.
When we know more about who a person is and why they do the things they do, it is much easier to offer grace in the times it is needed. I do silly stuff all the time, but Sherawn knows my heart. She has a default pattern of assuming good intent because she knows me. She trusts me.
4. Say you are sorry. Then, live that out.
When I mess up, I should be quick to own up to what I have done, quick to say I am sorry and intentional about doing what is in my power to try and prevent a reoccurrence. I may do something more than once, but if Sherawn sees I am making an effort to change, it shows her I respect her enough to care about the impact my actions have on her. Respect is a key building block to a happy relationship.
5. Celebrate the good.
I can say, “we’ve had far more better than worse” because we acknowledge the better. The hard stuff is really good at getting in my face. By looking for the good in our relationship, I find the good in our relationship. And there is a lot of good. Try not to let the bad push away the good.
Relationships are not easy, especially when there is a deep emotional attachment to your significant other. There is a lot at risk when we put our hearts out on the table. Wounds go a bit deeper when we care. At the same time, being married to my wife for 22 years has also helped me to really, truly, understand what love is.
Having a mental health struggle adds a layer of complexity to a relationship, but it doesn’t have to keep us from having loving, caring and passionate relationships. Having a diagnosis doesn’t have to remove us from the joy of experiencing love.
Unsplash image by Edward Cisneros