This post contains sensitive material, and may be a difficult read for some folks. Read on with caution.
I’ve been drafting this blog in my head for what seems like a year. In reality, it’s been nearly six months. Emotionally, it feels like a lifetime.
With two cold coffees staring ominously at me in my half-dark kitchen, with the dishes in the sink and a make-shift lunch of bologna on a white tortilla, I figured now was as good as any to finally get real. Real about a topic that most of us shy away from.
We’ll hear a lot of talk about it over the next day or so. And then it may fade into oblivion just to be addressed again next January as a call to action.
But the fact is, we need to talk about it everyday. We need to talk about Mental Health.
I’ve written before about what it’s like to be the person without a mental health illness living with someone who does. I’ve written before about having been diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and having overcome many of the struggles. While you are never fully cured of the flashbacks, the triggers or the initial emotional stress, eventually you come to cope and survive living with PTSD. In my life, I’ve learned that my diagnosis has played a role in my identity. But identifying with PTSD does not compare to identifying living with someone who lives each and every day in a war with their own mind.
Imagine. Using that wonderful, creative muscle/organ/tool in your head, imagine. All of those memories you’ve got locked away in that beautiful brain of yours, all of its functionality – your person, your one self – is now a traitor. You count on your brain for the subconscious physical tasks of your body – breathing, lifting, smiling, blinking, sleeping. You count on your brain for your swift survival instincts – when to not touch something hot, when it’s safe to cross the street. You count on your brain to remind you to eat, to send healing neurons when you’re sick, when it’s time for sleep and to wake you when it’s over. You count on your brain to retain the very information that you need at a moment’s notice, or when you’re reminiscing during some idle Tuesday.
But your brain is now the enemy.
The trouble for those of us without a diagnosed mental illness is that we won’t get it. And that we won’t understand.
We can’t. And ultimately, we shouldn’t.
But what can we do? What can we do when they’re at home, not answering the phone and your immediate instinct is to rush to the apartment just to make sure they’re not cutting, or bleeding out on the bathroom floor? What can we do when we’re rushing out and running errands and suddenly a Facebook message stops you in your tracks? That they’re not okay. They’re broken into little pieces, sobbing uncontrollably in a bathroom stall at work and unsure how to get themselves back on track?
What can we do?
We know that they love us. They love us. They hate themselves. And it’s not even that they hate who they are. They hate what their disease is doing to them. And they accuse of us of not understanding, or taking them seriously, because no one does. No one gets it. These are the things they tell themselves.
They sit in little rooms and talk with people with major degrees who attempt to tell them what little white pill to take at what time and how many times a day and assure them that this will help them cope.
They listen quietly and intently across from someone who wants them to talk about how they’re feeling, and are they working on those coping skills they talked about last week?
Our loved ones are right as rain one minute – joyful, laughing, eating, smiling, parading their charisma in all their lovable glory. And then – snap – they are sullen. And sad. Tearful. Mournful. Full of regret and self-doubt. They are churning on the couch, unable to sleep, and incapable of turning off the noise. They are watching TV to distract from the one thing they thought they could count on the very most – their brain. They are battling the very thing we all count on the most.
And you wait, and watch. You snuggle and reaffirm. You lay beside them, stroking their hair. You quietly tuck them into blankets and prop them onto pillows. This isn’t the flu, and it’s not a cold. It’s not something you can cure with dry toast and gingerale. You can’t promise them it’ll be over soon.
What you learn when you live with someone with a mental health illness is that it’s not purely mental. It’s so much more. It’s physical; emotional. It’s watching them sleep for days, then watching them heave over toilets and beg for mercy with tears pouring down their cheeks. You watch their hands shake. Their knees shake. Their lips quiver. You watch their eyes redden, see the back of their hands brush away their shame from their eyes.
For a week, you’ll see them brush their hair, and take daily showers. Get suited up, and march out to own the world. Then the universe crashes and suddenly they’re curled up in the fetal position on the floor.
What can you do? Because you know you can’t understand. And you can’t tell them you understand, because it’s not the truth.
Our loved ones are in there. They really are. Behind the pain, the sadness, the madness, the manic states and the mental cool downs. They’re in there.
When they’re lucid, and happy, and lovely and wonderful and when they’re tired, and scared, and worried and challenging – they’re in there. And all of these things makes them who they are. You have to decide who you are. Are you ready?
I thought I was. And now, months later, I realized I so very the opposite. I thought I could just tuck him into bed on the bad days, and not get cross when our plans would fall through. Buy candy when he was having an off day, and soak up the good days, like cherished, borrowed time.
For most of that, it’s true. When he’s present, and awake and aware, I do snag those moments, those days, to dance in the kitchen. To go out on a date. To make plans and talk about our future. To make grocery lists and invite him to read my work. I offer him my dreams, goals, desires, fantasies, and schedules. I give him everything I’ve got in those precious, precious hours. Because an attack could very easily be imminent. And when it strikes, I suit up right alongside him. And I battle with him, in the only way I’ve learned how.
The attacks can last a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days.
Deep breath in. Breathe with me, babe. Slowly. It’s okay, I’m right here. Concentrate on the sound of my voice. I’m not going anywhere. Are you warm enough? Do you want to watch a film? Do you need me to be quiet right now? Do you want me to lay down with you? Are you going to be okay while I’m gone? Blow up my phone while I’m at work, it’s okay. You can message me all night. I’m right here. Who’s my future? I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.
The attacks can be scary. And violent. Never towards me, but unto himself.
“Some days I think, what if I just slashed my throat? Then I think, no, that’s too dramatic. Just slice a vein in your ankle. No, that’s not fair to her. She’d have to find me. So I just went to sleep.”
And then I’ll find out that he became so fed up with the battle, that he took matters into his own hands. Literally. Hearing him bang his head against the wall as if he could jumble his thoughts back into place is the scariest part of all.
I’m in the minority of lucky ones. Because my partner’s severe attacks are far and few between. But for many, many others, these attacks can happen monthly, weekly or daily. My heart bleeds for victims of these cruel, and unrelenting diseases and for their partners who just never know to whom they’re going home with.
What can we do?
We can get real about Mental Health. We can. We can finally step up to the plate and admit that we know absolutely nothing except how to survive. And lean on one another. Lean on each other. In support groups. With our partners. We can do much by just being present.
Both Jekyll & Hyde love me. How do I know for sure? Because Hyde has never hurt me. And Jekyll is always concerned that Hyde has in one way or another.
I’ve got my scars from his disease. The fear of leaving him alone when he’s having a bad day. Those are probably my deepest wounds of all. How do you walk away when your partner is falling apart? How do you forget what he was like when he was manic, loud? Or hyperventilating? You’ll always remember the time that he said I’m afraid I’m letting you down. Or when he told you I’ll never be the man you deserve. His relentless insecurities during his anxiety attacks haunt you days later. You wonder – am I enough for him?
Here’s my answer. Trust.
When he can’t trust what’s happening in his brain, he’s got me. And I trust that he knows that. What I can’t understand, I trust that my instincts will be there when he’s falling apart. And I trust that he’s not going to hurt himself. I trust the medications he’s taking and I trust our relationship. I trust that we have a working partnership and that he knows we’re in this together. He trusts that I’m not going to give up on him. And I trust that he knows we’ve got this. Together.
So let’s get real about Mental Health. Stop being afraid of it. These are good people. Wonderful people. Hard-working, honest, loving people. And they deserve our respect. The respect to say: I don’t understand, and the strength to say: But I am here for you.
Thank you to Aaron for letting me share his story.