I just spent the last three days getting trained by NAMI to be a Family-to-Family teacher, which is a free education program for family members who have a loved one living with a mental illness. Out of the 17 people in my training group, I was the only one who both lived with a mental illness and had family members with a mental illness.
It was an intensely emotional experience but more than anything it opened my eyes to the struggles my family have gone through in dealing with my mental illness, particularly for my parents. I was incredibly humbled to listen to other families’ experience and I had so much compassion for them. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own emotions that I forget they are going through their own turmoil. Recognizing that prompted me to write letters to some of the people who have played key roles in my recovery and who were there every step of the way during my last depressive episode – my worst one yet. I won’t share those letters here because they are personal and private, but I did write one to my future husband (I hope you exist) and thought I would share it here.
Dear Future Husband,
At some point in our life together you will have to play the role of caregiver. When you find yourself in this role, my emotional well-being may overshadow your own. I am truly sorry for this. Promise me when this happens, you will take time out for yourself. Do not feel guilty or ashamed to ask for help from our family and friends. If you need help cooking meals or cleaning the house or watching the kids, they will be there. They support you. They support me. Go to the movies. Get a massage. Go to a therapist and say all the things you are bottling up inside without guilt. Hell, take a mini-vacation and go to the beach. I know that as exhausting as handling a mental illness is for me, it is equally exhausting for you. Take care of your mind, body, and soul.
I promise to always be truthful with you and to communicate my concerns, feelings, and anxieties. We both know at this point that sometimes I struggle with paranoia and feel I cannot trust you. I may even believe that what you are telling me is a lie. Do not take it personally. It is the darkness telling me that and I know, deep down, it is not true. It is a scary and difficult emotion to handle when you believe the person you deeply love is deceiving you. Reassure me that I can trust you. Tell me that you love me.
In the same regard, I promise to always listen to your concerns, feelings, and anxieties without judgment. Your feelings are valid and keeping our communication alive will create a safe space in our marriage for both of our voices to be heard.
When you witness one of my downward spirals, your first inclination will be to fix it for me. I know that because you would do anything to protect those you love. But honey, you cannot fix it for me. It is a brain disorder and it is something completely out of our control. There is no handbook on how to handle this but we are both handling it the best way we know how.
I imagine during those times you will also question if the darkness’s emergence is your fault. Maybe you feel guilty and question what you could have done differently to catch the signs earlier. Do not blame yourself and please don’t feel guilty. In all likelihood, I probably downplayed my feelings. Like you, I am a fierce protector and my first instinct is to shield you from any hurt and pain I may cause you.
I promise you I will make every effort to stay well and to take responsibility to get help when I am sick. I will take my medication religiously. I will see my therapist and exercise regularly. I will go to support groups. I will voluntarily go to the hospital if you, or I, feel like it is the best thing for me to get stable again. I will not fight you. I will do all this not just for you but for our children too because you are the most important people in my life.
I will take every chance I get to remind you that you are an incredible human being. I love your heart and your mind and your soul. I love that you accept me exactly as I am, even the things that drive you crazy. Like having to clean up after me because I am so messy or my over-obsessive tendencies or the fact I keep my enormous kayak in the living room.
If we ever reach that point where you find me slipping away, take comfort in knowing I will always come back to you. I am a fighter and my love for you is far stronger than the darkness.
Your future wife