Marrying the mentally ill

Walking down the aisle, nobody ever thinks they will get divorced. Even with well-known divorce rate statistics, and the waning popularity of marriage in general, we still believe blindly, naively, that it will not happen to us.

Because we are in love. Because we are special. Because we will be together forever.

But nobody ever wants to talk about what happens when you marry someone with a mental illness, and when “til death do us part” becomes impossible.

In 2009, I moved back to my home city after being away teaching high school in a small northern community for almost three years. The time had taken its toll. I had started out a fresh-faced, optimistic 21-year-old, teaching students who were only three years younger than myself. You can probably guess exactly what went wrong. A lack of experience and any sort of mentor or administrative support meant that my first serious adult career was doomed from the start. I stubbornly refused to give up for over two years, until the stress, the tears, and eventual alcoholism finally got to be too much.

I packed up and headed back home, desperate to reconnect with my family and to gain some much-needed stability.

I got a tiny apartment in the city, and picked up a few jobs working as a waitress, barista, and cashier to pay the bills. I applied for grad school, and got accepted. Aside from being poor, my life was pretty good.

And then I got back in touch with Matt (not his real name).

Matt and I had dated briefly in 2002, when I was working on my undergraduate degree. We had met in an English class, after I sat beside him on the first day. We made fast friends, and began dating a few months later. Things didn’t end well, that first time around. We broke up the day after Christmas that year, and I spent a good long time being mad at Matt.

I moved on though. I went on dates. I was in a three-year long relationship. And then, years after we had met, Matt came flitting back into my life. He had quit university the semester after we broke up, went home for a year, and was back to give it another shot. I was on the verge of graduating. We hung out socially in groups, deciding to let bygones be bygones. We went to parties together, got drunk together, and went on adventures together. For a time, he casually dated one of my friends.

And then I moved away to go teaching, and we drifted back apart again.

As my teaching career came to an end, I emailed Matt for the first time in years. He was once again back home on the other side of the country, having left university again. Eventually, emails turned into phone calls. And phone calls turned into confessions… Matt admitted that he was still in love with me, all of these years later. So I invited him to come visit, because we had been good friends before I moved, and our first relationship had been so short. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, to see where things went.

Matt came for a visit, but then he never left.

Starting grad school and desperately short on money, Matt stayed with me in my tiny apartment. We began our domestic life together. We were poor, but happy. Matt worked whatever service jobs he could find to help support me while I went to school and worked part-time. We spent many hours just walking around the neighborhood together, holding hands and making plans for the future. And six months after he had moved in, Matt proposed. I said yes.

At the time, I did not fully appreciate what I was saying “yes” to.

Matt had a history of mental illness, but he had been diligent in taking the best possible care of his health. He had been to therapy, and was on prescription medication. He was able to hold down a job, and live a pretty normal life. He seemed every bit the “regular guy”. I finished two more years of school, graduated from my masters program, and immediately got a very good, albeit temporary, job in my field.

Slowly, Matt started to change. In retrospect, the successes I was having in my work life were coinciding, horribly, with Matt’s decision that he no longer needed to make an effort in his own life. He was having trouble holding down a job for more than a few months at a time. I told him not to worry about it, I had a good job, and I could afford to keep us afloat while he looked for a new opportunity. Matt played at being a house-husband for a while, keeping the apartment tidy and shopping for groceries while I was at work. But then that started to fall by the wayside.

Then the yelling started. And once it started, it never stopped.

The night before we got married, he spent the evening screaming at me. I can’t remember the reason. I can’t remember any of the reasons why we ever fought, or why I would suddenly find myself standing in front of a man whose face was red with rage.

Married life was a nightmare. The yelling intensified. Soon it was an everyday occurrence. We moved into a new place. He started throwing things in addition to yelling. I insisted that Matt attend therapy. Matt started to punch the walls. I tried to get him a referral to a new psychiatrist. Matt started to corner me in rooms. I called his parents, desperate for any ideas of what to do. Matt got arrested for assaulting a co-worker. I didn’t find out for 9 months, until a lawyer’s bill arrived in the mail. Matt started grabbing me when we fought. I became depressed, feeling like I was trapped in my life, waiting to die so it could all end. Matt started to choke me when we’d fight.

In what ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back, Matt lost another job. That day he said, for what felt like the millionth time, that he should just kill himself.

I replied, “well why don’t you just do it, already.”

And that was when I knew that it was finally, at last, the end. I had completely lost any ability to empathize with the very sick, very angry man who I had shared my life with. I was doing him no favors by enabling him and holding on to a person that he could not and did not want to be.

We separated, and then we divorced.

Two years on, I have a hard time with identifying as a “victim” or a “survivor” of domestic violence. The labels just don’t seem to fit. All I feel about it is a strange disconnection, as if it is a story that happened to someone else, instead of something that happened to me. The current version of myself has a hard time identifying with the girl who got in over her head, and had bad things happen to her.

I don’t blame Matt alone, for everything that happened. My role in the fiery catastrophe that was my marriage cannot be overlooked. I was the one who made promises I couldn’t keep, based on my own hubris. I thought I was so capable and strong. I was going to be the person who kept Matt well, and saved him from himself. I was going to be the superhero who saved the day and also brought home the bacon, while Matt worked hard on being his best self.

There’s more blame to go around. His parents, simultaneously both abusive and coddling. The doctors, largely indifferent. And the mental health services that should have been there, but weren’t. But the blaming doesn’t heal either of us.

Marrying someone who is mentally ill carries its own particular kind of risks. Unlike long-term physical illnesses, it is hard to get a picture of what the future might look like; there isn’t necessarily a logical progression to the disease. It might be totally fine, or it might be a total train wreck.

We no longer speak at all. Matt’s current mental health professional advised him against it. And honestly, I can’t say that I mind.