Much has been written and discussed about the devastating effects that the pandemic has had on mental health outcomes across populations and demographics. Towards the middle of last year, pediatricians reported record spikes in kids suffering from depression and anxiety. In older populations – a group already susceptible to involuntary isolation – national lockdowns and social distancing mandates exacerbated feelings of loneliness, triggering mental distress.
I wrote recently about my own challenges with mental health, and on (some of) my social media platforms, I’ve talked openly about what it was like to grow up with a parent with an undiagnosed/suspected mental illness. It has been gratifying to see more and more people in my generation and younger discuss being raised under similarly difficult conditions, and to participate in conversations about healing from that trauma – or the impossibility of reconciliation from it. (The movie ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ tackled this beautifully.) This has helped elevate the conversation beyond platitudes that include, “It doesn’t matter what your mom/dad did, that’s still your parent”, to providing useful tools to a new generation who will hopefully parent with more mindfulness and self-awareness.
Now I think there is a new stigma to address; one that is shrouded in equal shame. Conversations about being the child of a mentally unwell person abound, and we have a strong sense of what that’s like…but what is it like to married or intimately partnered with someone that you suspect of suffering from mental illness? For the first time in 16 years of marriage, I am ashamed to admit that I have never pursued that line of inquiry. What’s it like from the other side?
Admitting that a loved one is sick frightening and takes wells of courage. It’s a thorny issue. How do you “prove” a person is suffering from a mental disorder? They are so vast and varying in their types and manifestations. How do you distinguish what is a disorder and what just might boil down to a peculiarity? After opening up about my own issues, I spoke to the partners of people suspected to suffer from mental illness. While I can/will not go into some specifics, what was striking about these varying stories and circumstances were the similarities in emotion: namely terror, isolation and confusion.
“My wife is convinced that every man was in love with her. I cannot tell you how many fights I got into over the years.”
A and B have been married for 17 years. The business they run together requires them both to be public facing, but with B doing most of the interaction with the public. B is warm, loud and funny, qualities that drew her to A. “Look, she might not the most gorgeous woman in the room,” he admits, “but I guarantee you that you can’t take your eyes off her. She just has this way of drawing people in.”
That perceived magnetism is what led A to believe the numerous reports that B brought back to him about clients hitting on her (male and female) and numerous altercations in attempts to defend B’s honor. And A’s ego as well, if he was honest. It was exhausting.
“She would often talk about how so-and-so was in love with her. Everyone was in love with her, according to her. If the post man shared a picture of a vacation he took recently, she took that as evidence of his romantic interest in her. Why else would he share such personal information?”
Over time, B began to report conversations that she ‘knew’ people were having about her. Malicious gossip from women who were bent on her destruction. B tried to get A to open a suit against one woman in particular.
“When I asked her about what proof she had that these people were trying to destroy her reputation, she flew into a rage. She said I never took her side, etc. B has her tempers, but I’d never seen her like that before.”
A believes that his wife suffers from paranoia and erotomania – a delusional disorder. He is unsure how to manage and is “just taking each day at a time.”
“If I wasn’t in the kitchen when he got home from work, he would beat me…often in front of the kids.”
C and D have been married for 20 years. C is a housewife, while D is a well-respected financial services professional. From the outside, D is the ideal man: athletic, good-looking, serious with just enough of a funny side to make him affable and successful. But at home it was like, “Living with the devil,” according to C.
The two were married after a two-week courtship, which she found spontaneous and romantic. Problems and physical abuse in their marriage began shortly after, with D beating her so badly one time that it resulted in a miscarriage. This was after she came home a few minutes late from running errands in town. C suspects that D suffers from PTSD and abandonment issues.
“D’s mother left him when he was quite young. I don’t think he’s ever dealt with that. I think the fear of being abandoned by someone he loves and trusts provokes this irrational reaction. I love him. He’s a wonderful man when he’s in his right mind. We just can’t live together.”
C and D are still legally married but separated. D has refused to sign divorce papers.
“She told our kids she was dying from breast cancer.”
“It was my daughter who found the radiologist’s report in her mother’s purse last year. It said that the results from her latest scan showed no signs of cancer. She came to me in tears, asking if what she was reading was correct…asking why her mother would lie about something like that. For more than a year, my children have been convinced that their mother was terminally ill.”
E and F have been together for 27 years and married for 17. The couple are high school school sweethearts. Although F embraced the duties of motherhood with bravado – calling bearing children “her sole reason for living – E has never been convinced of his wife’s fervent proclamations.
He says he’s grateful for the traditional role that she plays in the household. It allows him to go to work and earn a living without putting much thought into what goes on at home with the kids, he admits. But when F began showing up at his job ranting and causing scenes, it led to a loss of one job after then next. The fallout from F’s behavior took a toll on the family’s finances.
“I don’t know what to think,” said E. “I love my wife. And when she’s my wife, she’s amazing. She’s smart, she’s lovely, she’s amazing. But on the days when she becomes this other person and I don’t know what to do. No one ever talks about what you can or should do.”
E confessed that he feels alone, confused and scared. He wants to get F the help she needs, but is afraid of how forcing a hospital admission will make him to look close friends and family. F has already been branded an abusive tyrant who conceals his true nature to anyone who will listen – and according to him, more people are beginning to listen. He is afraid of what the implications are for him and the children if the state should have to intervene.
E does not want to hazard a guess and what kind of undiagnosed mental illness his wife has, but without support from either side of the family to acknowledge that it might be a possibility, he feels his hands are tied.
“All I know is that I’m devoted to F and I want to see us through this.”
If you or someone you love is feeling unwell in this regard, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional or organizations equipped to deal with these problems. Let’s work towards ending the stigma.