You're probably troubled by all of the conflict you see…
This post is an excerpt from the upcoming book “Happy After All: Hope, Healing, and Humor for Those Who Love Someone with Mental Illness or Addiction,” co-authored by myself and my wife, Helen. The drive behind this creating book is all Helen’s because she believes that many spouses are suffering but there are very few resources designed to help them.
I met my wife, Helen, when I was a traveling musician throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and West Virginia. We were married less than six months from the day we met. These are some of our first pictures taken during those first days when I was a full-time musician.
Friends of mine have described Helen as a “light.” She has such amazing energy, playfulness, humor, and caring sweetness about her that people are always drawn to. Everyone loves her and I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world when she agreed to marry me.
She had every quality I didn’t have and more. I was completely in love and admired so many things about her.
The First Disagreement
I still remember the first time we had a disagreement of any kind, about two months after we had met. I was driving in an area that my wife knew well and she advised me to get off at a certain exit. Just as I was approaching the exit, I said, “Wait a minute, are you sure this is the right exit?”
Uh oh. Bad idea.
Sitting in the passenger seat, she turned her head to the right, stared out the window for the rest of the ride, and completely shut down, not answering to anything I said.
We were already engaged to be married at this time and I was totally confused and grew more anxious by the minute. Then the hour. Then the day.
Two or three days later, she came to see me with a little stuffed piggie that wore a sweater that read, “Hug Me.” She apologized and was incredibly sweet—which I perceived to be her true “old self.”
Little did I know that my questioning her about something that she knew better than I did was a trigger for her that would almost always put her over the edge emotionally.
I have a high need to understand my surroundings and the logic behind decisions. I tend to resist fully trusting others until I comprehend something myself. To this day, this tendency of mine understandably violates Helen’s need to be validated, understood, and trusted (and reveals issues of my own).
This incident was the first time that I was left in shock by my wife’s instant, irretrievable, and prolonged anger.
It was definitely not the last time.
After this episode and just before we were married, I vividly remember walking in a park with her as she tried to warn me.
I laughed. Not this sweet woman.
She went on to say that she had “a lot of problems and she didn’t want to hurt me.”
I calmly assured her that everything would be fine, believing in my heart that our marriage was meant to be and that God would help us through it.
“Be ready to buy me ice cream when I’m mad,” she said.
I was unfazed and remained certain that happiness was around the corner.
“Normal” Reactions vs. “Clinically Abnormal” Reactions
People with mental and emotional instability are still people, with natural male and female needs and longings.
After we were married, we had disagreements about the same things that tend to cause conflict in any marriage: money, in-laws, sex, values, priorities, etc.
What’s different in a mentally unstable relationship is the way in which the affected spouse deals with those stresses.
My wife has both Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Bipolar Disorder, as diagnosed by several professionals. There was initially some debate whether someone with BPD could even have Bipolar Disorder but experts now agree it’s very common and that BPD is often combined with other issues, sometimes in clusters.
When reactions to stress become bewildering overreactions resulting in intense, long-lasting consequences, they become “clinical” and require a psychiatric professional to diagnose and treat.
But as a young husband, how was I to know what was abnormal or what was typical of new marriages? I had heard that marriage was hard and that women tended to be very emotional. What I was experiencing certainly didn’t seem normal, healthy or fair, but I didn’t initially suspect mental illness.
After terrible episodes, which gradually escalated from prolonged silence to angry words, to hitting herself, to terrible non-sensical accusations against me and others, fears of every shape and variety, Helen would completely withdraw and then calm down and be as humble and kind and loving as a person could imagine.
Sometimes she would “snap out of it” in an instant and want me to be perfectly happy and forget all about the problems.
Over time, she would resent my efforts to talk and resolve and understand what had just happened. She just wanted me to forget that anything had happened and snap back to normal like she did.
But I was whiplashed and hurting.
“Why Are You Punishing Me?”
Helen had almost no ability to cope with my feelings or my reactions to her behavior whatsoever. Neither of us realized it at the time, but I have Bipolar Disorder II, the depressive version of the more widely-known manic (hyper-excited) Bipolar Disorder.
Because of my issues, when Helen acted crazy, I would get very stressed out and become quiet and depressed.
Helen hated it when I wasn’t happy or talking. She would cry, “Why are you punishing me?” over and over. I thought this was nonsense and I told her so. I wasn’t trying to punish her at all. I tried to explain that I was hurt and shocked and tired from the painful episodes but she was never able to comprehend that.
It took many years for me to realize that Helen was regressing to the mindset of a young child when she was under stress, which is a known BPD coping behavior. So, if I as her husband (whom she thought of as a parent) was emotionally unavailable or stressed out, she took it personally and interpreted it as “punishment.”
The thought that her husband was an adult with feelings and needs of his own simply did not register in her psyche. It was incomprehensible to her no matter how I tried to explain it.
Separations and Progress
Throughout our first year, there were never more than two weeks that passed without some kind of bizarre, emotionally intense blow-out resulting in her lying in bed and staring. Usually, it was every two or three days.
After a year of intensely painful experiences, I decided to separate from her. I prayed about decisions at that time and felt it was the best I could do because I was near collapse.
After taking a short-term, menial, make-ends-meet job for a few months, I was blessed with the opportunity to use my education as a math teacher at a juvenile correctional facility in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, about 6 miles from the nearest little town and 40 minutes from any McDonald’s restaurant.
I had stayed in contact with Helen throughout the separation and we decided to reunite and she would join me deep in this isolated forest where the juvenile “prison” was located.
This isolation didn’t help much because Helen is also a very social person and she likes the energy and excitement of a city.
The Lighter Side: Long Distance Candy Bars
Helen loves chocolate.
It was unfortunate that the closest store was a 15-minute ride down a dark, dirt road in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest. A 30-minute round trip.
But that wasn’t Helen’s problem. “Sweetie, I really want a chocolate bar,” she would say, prodding me in the middle of night. I was astounded at her audacity to ask such a thing at 2 a.m., but she was dead serious. Having learned the penalty for resistance, off I went.
It didn’t take long for me to decide to buy a large box of them, which she soon realized because I would come back with a candy bar in 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes.
But where was this great stash, the mother lode?
Money was tight and she could consume chocolate like inhaling the mountain air. So, I thought of ways to hide and re-hide those things.
There was a side benefit of this arrangement. Helen was bored out there in the middle nowhere and she was determined to find them while I was away teaching my young juvenile offenders. More than once she described all of the places she had looked while I was gone. Like when she traced my tracks in the snow, which led to the garage, which turned into wet, melted tracks that disappeared and led nowhere!
Fortunately, this turned into good-humored joke between us and a funny memory. She never did find those things.
I worked with those frequently dysfunctional, brutally disrespectful young men for over twelve intensely stressful years. During that time my wife and I separated two more times.
The separations were helpful because I was able to ground myself again and I set limits. I was definitely being violated emotionally and it was not healthy to keep going. With each separation, I could sense that progress was being made for both of us.
Individuals with BPD, Bipolar, and addictions need to have limits set or they will run amok in our lives and literally destroy us.
During one of these separations, I had filed for divorce and Helen knew it. Each separation and certainly the divorce filing triggered another fundamental fear for any individual with BPD: fear of abandonment. Psychologists consider this the number one fear of a BPD sufferer.
But this leaves the spouse or family member in a tough spot. They have to set limits to protect themselves and help the BPD individual view their actions from an adult perspective. But setting limits and separating from them triggers their darkest fear: “Nobody can ever love me. I’m unlovable. I will be abandoned, I know it,” which leads to “I hate you” and “You never really loved me” statements. All within seconds. A flash.
Nevertheless, looking back, I did the right thing and our relationship progressed. I withdrew the divorce filing because I saw hope and progress.
Backing up a bit, during our second year of marriage, I learned more about mental health issues and realized that Helen was not “mentally healthy” and needed care. She reluctantly began seeing a professional and was periodically in psychiatric hospitals during times of crisis.
None of the medications they gave her helped at first.
About ten years after we married, Helen was prescribed something that made a world of difference. She looked at me with the most amazingly hopeful, pleading look in her eyes and said, “This is really helping me. I feel so much better.”
But some medications have side-effects, including weight gain. Because Helen also has a paralyzed left leg from the knee down, she needed to watch out for weight gain. So, the years that followed were filled with trying different medications with different results. But the weight gain continued and it was frightening for both of us.
In a moment of incredulous poor decision making, Helen decided to start smoking cigarettes to help her lose weight. I was aghast and absolutely hated it.
Around this time, her mother had passed away suddenly, which was extremely hard on her, and her father began living with us.
Helen’s overall mindset continued to deteriorate and no combinations of medications or therapy seemed to help. She still could rarely go more than three days without a major emotional meltdown over something, which was even harder to conceal with her father close at hand.
I became despondent and one day a voice inside me said, “That’s it. You can’t do this anymore.” The voice/feeling was resolute and I knew I had given all that I had to give at that point in my life. I was collapsing and the Holy Spirit was advising me to protect myself.
I told her we needed to separate and that I would file for divorce (again).
This was astonishing to me and my spouse. “How could this happen?” I agonized. I knew our marriage was right. I had received so many witnesses! Yet, I felt like we were at a dead end and I had nothing left.
God literally advised me to separate and pursue the divorce.
A Life-Altering Accident
We separated for the fourth time. Helen and her father moved into other houses and I remained in Virginia where I had taken a new job.
I bought Helen a home in Pennsylvania where I fully expected she would live the rest of her life and I would move on.
To this day, Helen painfully reminds me of how “cold” I was toward her on the day we moved her belongings into her new house. I had resolved that the relationship was over and I needed to emotionally detach to protect myself. She again perceived it as mean, intentional punishment.
But being a prayerful person, I continued to pray for guidance. I repeatedly felt that I should not rush things to finalize the divorce but that I should “wait for the Lord.”
“Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34, ESV)
When I was at work one day, the receptionist came back to my room in a panic saying that a “crazy woman” was on the phone demanding that she talk to me. It was Helen’s sister, calling in a frenzy, telling me that Helen had fallen and twisted around in her bathtub and that her leg had been shattered. She was going to be in the hospital and the surgeons were going to do what they could.
I knew this was a catastrophe for her and I decided to make the trip up to Pennsylvania through the night.
I went into her hospital room at about 2 a.m. She had a sweet smile and told me the doctors had done surgery, implanting various metal bars to try to make her leg functional again.
With prayer and laying on of hands for a priesthood blessing, it worked. She could walk but never as well as she did before. Within a couple of years, she was in a wheelchair most of the time.
Ultimately, this experience was beneficial for Helen because she was stuck alone in the house with little help. (God did mercifully send our high-school aged nephew to live with her, which was truly a miracle in terms of timing because she was nearly immobile.) She felt the weight of personal responsibility to care for herself and she had to decide how to live with nobody else to blame or influence her.
The harsh boundaries of real life had closed in on her and it was God’s treatment plan and tutoring.
Had she not known that I was pursuing a divorce, she would not have felt the weight of responsibility to truly act for herself. I am not recommending this for you. I am merely sharing what happened in our story as evidence that God was still at work with us. A confusing attempt to divorce turned to our good and ironically, our reunification.
She started listening to religious programming on TV, which filled her heart with inspiring messages and hope. For the first time, she began to live with faith and make decisions to live with the Lord first in her life. She quit smoking. She lost weight (mostly because nobody fed her, she would joke, but in truth she followed a strict diet and quit all of her medications, which is not something we would recommend today).
I could sense the difference in her and naively assumed that everything would be better now that the gospel had truly come into her life. “Perhaps the meds weren’t necessary after all?” I wondered.
I agreed to get back together with Helen and that was our last separation (nineteen years ago as of this writing).
Breaking the Eggshells
As with the other separations, growth had occurred for both of us as a result and our relationship was functioning better than before. But serious problems came back with intensity.
For the first time, I began to realize that I was part of the problem. I was triggering her upsets somehow. In many ways, she had been living with greater peace without me than with me, I could see. And she was getting more upset the longer we were together!
This was deeply concerning. “Were we not meant to be after all?” That made no sense. I had received such powerful witnesses from the Holy Spirit that we were right for each other and that we should get back together again.
With some horror, I also noticed that I was changing mentally too. I was slowing down a little and I wasn’t able to handle her crazy behaviors as well as before.
I was fatigued from it all and that frightened me.
One day, Helen was yelling something outlandish at me—probably another “Catch 22” no-win directive of some kind where I felt trapped by her illogic.
I recall unintentionally ducking behind a reclining chair in our living room as if hiding from her and shielding myself from her words.
It wasn’t until after I had left the room that I realized what I had done. I was afraid of her. I feared that I was being permanently harmed psychologically. Who on earth hides behind a chair during an argument?
Around this time, I discovered the book, Stop Walking on Eggshells, which I strongly recommend for anyone living with a person with BPD.
With that book, I began to understand how, when, and why a person with BPD is triggered and goes “off the rails.” This book satisfied my deep craving to just understand what on earth was happening and how to prevent or minimize the outbursts. (This is why we so strongly recommend that you learn about your spouse’s condition or illness and seek guidance from mental health professionals. For your own sake, you need to understand them.)
I also realized that I had been unintentionally triggering painful emotional upsets for Helen. I understood why she had been happier in some ways living alone. It gave me insight to know what not to do or say. I saw that my efforts to fix and prevent problems were misguided and harmful. I meant well but I wasn’t helping at all. I had lacked understanding.
I tried to do better. But monitoring my words and my facial expressions while watching out for her feelings and mental state was draining. And it is impossible to prevent all conflict, despite our best efforts, even today.
My Near Collapse
I had been so broken down by the stress of our relationship that we decided to start sleeping in separate beds. I was surprised that she agreed to it and I credit a merciful God with helping us both see the necessity.
For years, when Helen was upset she would keep talking even after we went to bed. This was her most sinister, destructive behavior because she kept waking me up at the first sign that I was sleeping. If she was still steaming mad, then I wasn’t going to have the pleasure of falling asleep. “You have to get me out of this!” she would often say.
I would just lay there as still as I could and try not to snore or anything. It was traumatizing because in my near subconscious state, there she would be again, saying crazy things.
It took seven years of sleeping separately before I felt safe enough to sleep next to her again and even then I was nervous for weeks.
At the lowest point in my life, psychologically, the mental fatigue was so intense that I was pretty much in a depression for three years straight. The professionals could not find the right medications; nothing was really helping me.
Somehow at this time, however, Helen became very gentle with me and absolutely mature. Not all of the time, but sometimes. She allowed me to be weak and vulnerable. She would let me fully express myself and share how upset and hurt I was without having a meltdown herself! This was unheard of in earlier years. I can still picture several moments where having such a conversation took our relationship to a much healthier, safer place. What an inexpressible relief.
I also thank God in heaven that he gave me an easy job during that time because I was so worn out, I couldn’t have handled anything more. I worked with kind and caring people who were having similar life experiences. God is so merciful. He has always given me what is needed—even if He didn’t take the full problem away.
Doctors finally figured out my unique mental illness (Bipolar Disorder II) and found the right combinations of medications to help me feel better. Today, I feel amazing most of the time thanks to spiritual learning and healing, my medications, and a much more stable relationship with Helen.
Blessings in the Furnace
Hard times are often called the “furnace of affliction.” The problems hurt us terribly but they don’t necessarily harm us. The intensity of the flame does positive things to our souls—if we accept those problems with faith in God—which is a major theme of this book.
I recall often thinking to myself, “Am I being destroyed by all of these problems? I envisioned my life a lot differently, but is my life being ruined?”
The answer was almost always, “No.”
I had many leftover issues from my immature drug-using years and character flaws that were gradually being addressed and strengthened. “I’m better off than I was before I met Helen,” I often remember thinking.
Her personality and strengths were indispensable to building my self-confidence. She drew so much out of me that just wasn’t there before. Her innate talents, humor, energy, people skills and love of children and domestic things brought us a great deal of joy throughout the terrible trials.
I had better jobs over time. I was effective at work and respected. Sure there were hard days with the stress but I was still considered a solid and sometimes exceptional employee.
I was maturing in my knowledge of God and beginning to reflect more of his character. I could see the “crud” being burned out of my soul and I was spiritually maturing.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
(1 Peter 5:10, ESV)
The Lighter Side: Money and Clothes
It wasn’t funny at the time but one year we were living in a house with a large walk-in closet. Keeping things organized was never Helen’s strength so some clothes were hanging up and some were in a pile on the floor. Because of her physical disability, I often help with organizing.
As I was sorting through the pile and hanging things up, my head snapped back to a shirt I had just hung up.
“Wait a minute. This looks familiar!” I thought.
Sure enough, the same exact shirt was hanging up already and both shirts still had the price tags on them!
I just shook my head and kept going.
At least her tastes were consistent. LOL.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
The key for Helen’s lasting and deep change was the decision she made to attend a full-time treatment program in Pittsburgh focused on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT), which is widely recognized as the most effective form of therapy for individuals with my wife’s conditions.
This therapy “aims to build mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills.” (See https://elunanetwork.org/resources/mental-health-basics-dialectical-behavior-therapy/). In simpler terms, DBT helps the person manage their thoughts and feelings by using specific techniques. It helps them understand the nature of their unproductive tendencies and patterns. She had many thinking and communication habits that she believed were normal and okay, which other people should just accept.
Her participation in this program “popped a lot of bubbles,” as fellow participants often blasted her errant thinking in a safe,”patch you up again” environment and the counselors helped her understand negative patterns and learn better ways.
At the same time as this DBT program, doctors also placed Helen on new medications that really work. She became committed to her DBT skills even though she still needs to review and remind herself now and then.
Happy After All
We still have occasional-to-frequent stresses but overall, our marriage is happy today. It has been a God-inspired union and a blessing to ourselves and others.
We are each better people and more Christlike as a result of our experiences.
While this quote is not scriptural, it is wise and heartening:
“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Friedrich Nietzsche back in 1888. (See the outstanding article on this topic: https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/what-doesnt-kill-you-makes-you-stronger/)
God really does know best, which is why we MUST base our decisions on His guidance during these gut-wrenching experiences with mental illness. God uses the challenges in our marriage and family for His divine purposes in our lives.
Lessons Learned and Recommmendations
- Our difficult marriage was part of God’s plan to develop us into the people He wants us to become. It was not an evil and sinister trick He played on us.
- Living with a mentally ill or addicted person is fundamentally a lesson in boundary setting. Learn and start using boundary setting skills as soon as you can. You will get to know yourself to your core and you will learn a tremendous amount about your relationship with God. You will discover all of the issues you’ve been carrying since childhood and you will learn to grow up and out of them.
Recommendation: Read the book Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud. This is powerfully written and super clear. It will change your life.
- Focus your heart and life on God above all else. We believe Jesus Christ to be God the Son. Your trust in Him will do more to increase your chances of healing and preserving your marriage than anything else.
Recommendation: Read the scriptures and pray daily. Pray together, if at all possible. For a short, easy-to-read, powerful book that deepens your understanding of the story of Jesus and your connection to Him, read Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine, which was written by me during the toughest years of our marriage. Get to know Christ and see how to follow Him.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
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