Brian's Battle: Second-Hand Mental Illness
It was hard to live, which makes it hard to relive by writing it down. But if I wish to accurately portray what life was like not too long ago, then I must share with you my perspective and what I have learned, the ugly and the beautiful.
My heart aches when I think about it. It aches for me, it aches for my wife. I don’t and will not claim to know what clinical depression and anxiety feel like from first-hand experience, but I am very familiar with severe second-hand mental illness.
To start out, let me share a little bit about my personality—it will help paint some context for you. If you ever have heard of or taken the Enneagram Personality Test, then you might be familiar with the numbered results. I am a 3. Three’s are achievers. We own the future (by often living in it) and we do not let our circumstances own us. Three’s will make a name for ourselves before we die.
Much to my dismay, three’s weakness is that we are too image-driven. I do not like this about myself, but alas, it’s who I am and there are upsides to it as well (I have to tell myself stuff like that, so I don’t get discouraged:)). I get crap done! I am incredibly ambitious and very efficient at constructive thinking. I have cared way too much in the past about what people think of me. I am a placater. I love to gain friends and am easily liked because of my psychological DNA: high levels of extroversion and agreeableness. Again, it’s because three’s are driven to be accepted by all, to be admired by all. Unfortunately, I still care more than I should about what people think of me. I must admit, it compels me to achieve. I also fear rejection, and often blame myself in many situations. In the past, I have beaten myself up for my mistakes. That, however, is something I am proud to admit I have gotten more under control. I love myself and see the man in the mirror full of infinite potential. Another fear is unfulfilled potential. Okay enough about me, I think you get the picture.
My wife could not be more opposite. She’s an introvert at heart and doesn’t give a flying f$*# what people think of her. And I’m so jealous:) And I must admit, that heart of hers is what attracted to me in the first place. Her top quality…charity. Because it’s what I lacked. And after all, we are attracted to what we wish we could see in the mirror. We go after what we lack. She completes me and I complete her. She needs my perspective on life. And how desperately I need hers to help me not give so many F’s, to care about others more than myself, and to embrace the truth.
So when I finally learned my wife had been struggling with severe anxiety and depression, I had already found that I had been struggling with her struggling with it too. I just didn’t know it wasn’t her yet. I also didn’t know that it wasn’t me either.
And that is the hardest part to come to understand. It’s not them. It’s not you. It’s the illness.
It scared me to have the thought ever enter my mind, “Is this what it feels like to be in it for the kids?” Not about the woman who I loved and so desperately wanted to love me.
I thought it must be me. It must be that I’ve finally told her about my struggle with porn and now she hates me. Yet, she wouldn’t leave. I didn’t get it. It definitely played a role, but I came to learn it was so more than that. It was years and decades in the making. It was loss, it was having babies, it was stress, it was death, it was betrayal by multiple people, it was trauma. It was one thing after another without a break for her brain, nor her heart to cope and heal.
I wanted to make her happy. It was my mission. It was my purpose. I didn’t like what my kids were observing either in a marriage. There was no affection. I was scared to offer affection, again, because three’s fear rejection. And rejection from my wife felt like the worst possible rejection I could imagine.
I knew I loved her, but I doubted she believed me. It caused me to want to give up trying to convince her I did at times. “What’s the use?” I thought. I began to build walls around my heart to protect it from getting hurt. I felt I was going against my nature to reach out and connect by being conditioned through constant rejection.
I did not know if she loved me. My personality depended on physical affection from her to be happy and fulfilled. I also depended on words of affirmation. Am I doing okay? Am I who you want? Did you see what I did for you? Did you notice I did that because I desperately need to know that you know I love you? And I can count on one hand the times I heard those three words directed at me over this time period. Again, it was not her. It was not me. It was the illness. I did not understand this at the time though.
I felt at a loss. I felt like I couldn’t do or get anything right. I felt like there I felt like a complete failure in my marriage. Yet, I kept telling myself that I was a great guy. That I had so much to offer if she could just realize it. Without the feedback, I wondered. I assume it was really God telling me that I was worth something because I started to believe I wasn’t.
I loved her. I was not convinced that she loved me. I grew to genuinely believe that she didn’t. And that was the part that literally broke my heart. That is how mental illness broke me.
As I prayed through our trial, God kept telling me to hold on. That he would heal things. At times, it was all I could do to hold on to that hope. I did not see my life looking like this. I didn’t see myself feeling like this. Especially when we had enjoyed many fulfilling years of marriage together.
It really felt like a switch was turned off one day. I don’t know how to explain it, but the light just turned off. And we were both left in the dark groping around for answers that didn’t seem to come.
Days turned into weeks which turned into months which turned in years. About 2.5 to be exact.
But what I had learned in life up to that point is that God never abandons. He NEVER abandons us. God began placing people in our paths to help us understand what was going on. Eventually, Amanda told me what she had been denying, she suffered from severe anxiety and depression, along with PTSD. The admission came that she felt crazy and it was okay to feel that way.
I wanted to embrace her and hug her to give her comfort at that moment—to let her know I was there for her. Her arms hanged down as they usually did without reciprocation. She had lost who she was. And I have come to learn you cannot love that which you do not fully know. And self-love breeds love for others. No wonder why I was questioning it so much. I was finally coming to understand that she did not love herself because she had lost the base of all relationships: A relationship with yourself.
She did not know herself anymore and felt she had lost control of her life because her mind was sick.
I’ve shared this before, and I’ll share it again, “Suffering not transformed is transmitted.” Suffering transmitted usually lacks context for understanding. The pain originates from dark places we wish to avoid and is shared with those immediately around us, typically with those we are closest to because we feel safe around them.
To be on the receiving end of transmitted suffering is difficult. But Amanda was ready to be transformed by her suffering. And I was too. She was broken, I was broken. We were broken.
A song I heard years ago on my LDS mission comes to mind
Broken clouds give rain
Broken soil grows grain
Broken bread feeds man for one more day
Broken storms yield light
The break of day heals night
Broken pride turns blindness into sight
Broken souls that need His mending
Broken hearts for offering
Could it be that God loves broken things
Yes, the beauty in all this is that God absolutely loves broken things. When you break in a shoe, it conforms to your foot. When a horse gets broken, it ceases to be wild. When we are broken, we are finally ready and willing to conform to a higher order. Simply because a broken life has lost any semblance of order.
Amanda went to the doctor. She began medication. Her mind began to heal.
It’s hard to describe the difference I began to see. But it was very apparent.
Continue to Part II→