Mental Health is a subject a lot of people are uncomfortable with. I recently had to learn that it is real, and it is okay. We can’t draw blood and see if someone is clinically depressed, dealing with debilitating anxiety, has ADHD, or if they are bipolar, but that doesn’t make it any less of a real condition. Our brains can be healthy or sick, just like the body. Our hormones can be balanced and healthy or they can become unbalanced and unhealthy. Those who suffer from a mental health issue are often misunderstood, specifically by the people who love them the most. How, they wonder, were you fine before and now you aren’t. If they themselves have never experienced any struggles with mental health it can be even more difficult for them to relate or to even take it seriously.
When someone we love becomes physically ill or hurt we can SEE it. We can’t deny their broken bones from an accident, or the loss of their hair from the chemo, or the tubes extended from a frail body as they fight for their life against a terrible illness or disease. Faced with the reality of their physical pain we more easily become caregivers, we step up, put ourselves aside for a while to love them and care for them. Maybe out of their pain they snap at us or make us feel like we should be doing more when we are trying our best to care for them; but we don’t take it personally, we keep on loving them through it, we keep showing up, we keep on helping them fight for their wellness, for their lives in some cases. Because we love them and we know that they are in a real struggle and that if they can make it to the other side of their struggle, they will enjoy life again.
Somehow it is much harder to willingly become caregivers for someone we love when theirs is a mental illness. It’s much, much harder to not take personally their short temper or their withdrawal from us. When it is a spouse who isn’t meeting our needs anymore because of their mental illness, it isn’t always easy to be compassionate with them or maybe even feel loved by them. From their outside appearance they look normal and okay; we may wonder why they don’t snap out of their funk or just choose to be happy.
Someone dealing with a true mental or hormonal issue doesn’t have that choice any more than someone with a shattered foot has the choice to get up and run a marathon, or a chemo patient to will their hair to grow back overnight. Healing takes time, it takes support, it takes a level of patience and compassion from their loved ones. Although this story is about a couple, the principals apply to any relationship when one of the people ‘decides’ to have a mental breakdown.
There was a beautiful couple, Chris and Ivy. Chris and Ivy met over 20 years ago. It was practically love at first sight. They dated for about three years, getting to know one another and falling in love with one another. While dating it was easy for Chris and Ivy to put their own wants and needs aside to see the love of their life smile, or just to hold them when they needed to cry. All they wanted was to be together forever. Ivy loved coming up with ways to show Chris how much she loved him, but to her it never felt like enough, there weren’t enough ways… she truly loved him with her whole being and would do anything for this man, making him happy made her happy. And he returned that love with unselfish acts of kindness and compassion, making her feel beautiful and appreciated.
Chris and Ivy married, and a few more years passed. Some of the newlywed feelings wore off and gave way to a more rooted and grounded love that didn’t need all the outward expressions they once went to all the effort to make, but their love was still very real. Now, they had jobs, bills and a mortgage, a home to care for and two beautiful children to tend to. Over time the way their love looked on the outside was different than when they were dating or newly married, their love appeared a little less selfless and a little more self-serving, most their friends marriages looked similar and they figured it was normal, after all, they were tired and busy, who had the time and energy anymore to keep putting their spouse’s happiness ahead of their own, this is real life now. And then it happened…. Chris ‘decided’ to have a terrible car accident.
Ivy got the call at work on a Thursday, Chris was being rushed to the local hospital in critical condition. Ivy was irritated, didn’t he know she had an important meeting this afternoon. She informed the hospital they could expect her to come to see Chris after work. She thought it was awfully weird for Chris to ‘decide’ to wreck the car. He had never wrecked the car before. He had a few close calls and even a fender bender once, but he had never been so selfish as to wreck the car.
She arrived at the hospital that evening, exhausted from a long day at work, all she really wanted was a bubble bath and a funny movie followed by a full 8 hours of sleep, not a needy husband in the hospital. As she checked in on him that evening, she could see his face was bruised and swollen, the machines he was attached to were beeping and giving her a headache, he opened his eyes and reached for her hand. Ivy reached out, but only enough to give him a little reassuring squeeze to let him know she was indeed there. But wasn’t he even going to ask how her meeting was? He knew this was a big day for her. Frustrated by his lack of attention, she gave him a kiss on the forehead and turned and left. Left him in the hospital bed alone. She loves Chris, but what can she do? She isn’t a Dr. she can’t help him, what does he expect of her anyways, she already showed up to see him at the hospital and check on him to see if he was ok. She thinks to herself ‘whatever I do it won’t be enough for him anyway, I have kids to feed and a house to clean, I can’t possibly sit at his bedside, what good is that going to do?”
Chris’s body ached, but his heart hurt more watching Ivy, full of frustration, turn to leave and head out to take care of everything but him. Ivy is the love of his life, and while he is lying here dying she looked frustrated, inconvenienced, and went back to her evening chores as though it was just another day. He couldn’t understand it. He hadn’t meant to wreck the car, it just sort of happened. He wanted to ask her about the meeting, but the tube in his throat wouldn’t allow him to speak, how could she be mad at him? He thinks to himself ‘I just want Ivy here at my side, I want her to help care for me so I can get better, so we can laugh and smile together again, don’t I mean anything to her anymore?”
This doesn’t feel like real love, Chris thinks to himself, maybe Ivy never loved me to begin with, maybe Ivy only loved me when I was useful to her and making her feel loved and valued.
Ivy woke the next morning and almost forgot Chris had ‘decided’ to wreck the car, as she showered, she began to recall in her mind seeing his battered body at the hospital yesterday, but she had another busy day ahead, time to hit the ground running. About noon the phone rang, Ivy was informed that Chris had passed away earlier that morning. The breath left Ivy’s chest…NO… NO….. he was fine yesterday morning! How could he leave her to do life alone and with all the responsibilities, who would tell her she was pretty now, who would make her feel better when she was stressed, who would mow the lawn? Her heart broke, she loved Chris so much and now he’d went and ‘decided’ to ruin everything for them, for her. This didn’t feel like love to her, she thought “maybe Chris only loved me when I was more available to him and could make him feel loved and valued, maybe he never truly loved me to begin with or he would have never ‘decided’ to wreck the car.
This is a ridiculous story, right? Obviously, if their love was real from the beginning, no matter how busy and stressful life had gotten, when Chris wrecked the car, she would have dropped everything and got to the hospital as quickly as possible. When she saw his battered and bruised body hanging on by a thread she would have forgotten yesterday’s argument, or the way he didn’t fix her coffee anymore in the morning; none of the petty stuff would have mattered. She would rush to his care, she would help him any way she could and be there every step of the way for the love of her life until he was whole again, walking on solid ground right at her side. She probably wouldn’t focus on the upcoming hospital bills or the messy house waiting for her, she would likely turn her focus to being a caregiver and loving Chris back to health. Sure, Ivy would have to be more intentional to show him love, care, and support in a way different than she had in previous years, but knowing that one day they would look back and say they made it through this rough patch when he had wrecked the car and that they made it through TOGETHER would be worth any sacrifice she had to make today.
Depression, anxiety, mental disorders aren’t a ‘decision’. Just as Chris didn’t wake up and ‘decide’ to wreck the car, to leave Ivy feeling unloved, and to ruin their lives. Your loved one didn’t wake up and ‘decide’ to have a mental breakdown, to make things more difficult for you, or to selfishly demand more of you. Even when it's hard on your emotions and inconvenient to your life and you feel like there is nothing you can do or it is never enough, remember Ivy thinking to herself that there was nothing she could do, after all, she wasn’t a Dr. so she turned her back and left Chris to try to heal alone. More than likely your loved one doesn’t expect you to heal them or put them back together, they just want you to love them through this, come alongside of them and to help care for them.
Maybe you can’t SEE their pain or struggle, but it is real. Their struggle needs the same caregiving as if you just walked in the hospital room to see them bruised and battered, connected to a beeping machine fighting for their life because they may indeed be fighting for their life in a battle you don’t understand.