Making a Dent

Have you ever read a book and thought, “Wow, the author did not research that topic well at all!” It could be things that were left out, brushed over or pieces that never did add up. One subject where I feel like authors often don’t do research or show a lack of understanding and education is with mental illness. No matter what I’m reading, I feel like I can generally tell when an author has had experience with mental illness—whether their own or someone else close to them—or is well-educated in it and those who haven’t and aren’t. Those who aren’t often write in stigmas and stereotypes that can be false, can be hurtful and actively work against people who are trying to get help for mental illness.

Some examples include deeming any character with mental illness as “crazy” or stating that a character who is “crazy” must have mental illness. I’ve seen both of these in multiple books. Can you imagine how damaging it can be to someone who is struggling with mental illness to read a book where someone like them is described as “crazy” and written off because of it, or is considered the “bad guy” because of it?

Another example is the flippant way suicide is joked about or addressed. I know the pain and darkness that comes from getting to such a low place you feel your only option is to end it all. I know how it feels to tell yourself you are so worthless the world would be better off without you. Unless you have gone through that utter darkness and loneliness, have been close with someone who has or are a professional or have done plenty of research on it you probably shouldn’t be writing about it—just like I would never write a historical fiction based in a time period I’m unfamiliar with.

I was recently reading a book where mental illness was addressed in a way that felt like the author didn’t have experience with it and hasn’t done research on it. While I chose not to get offended (I’m sure the author didn’t realize what they were doing) and will continue reading books from this author because I really like them, I was saddened by it. It can be frustrating and disheartening to see just how many stigmas, stereotypes and lack of education are still around and being perpetuated in a variety of ways.

And that is why I keep writing here on my blog. As frustrating and disheartening as it was it also inspired me to keep writing, to keep trying. If I can make even a tiny dent in the wall of stereotypes, stigmas and lack of education, maybe it will make enough of a difference to one other person to make a dent, who will make a difference with one other person who will make a dent, and eventually we’ll have a domino effect that takes the wall down completely.


Messy Yard, Messy Life

A couple of nights ago a large group of neighbors/members of my church congregation came to help with my yard. For multiple reasons, it’s an absolute mess. A lot of the grass died and weeds galore took over. I’ve been extremely stressed and overwhelmed about how to handle it and what to do about it.

I sort of feel like my yard is a metaphor for my life. The last four months my life has been a mess of weeds and scorched grass that has felt overwhelming and beyond repair at times. From a distance it looks semi-okay, but upon closer inspection I can see all the things that aren’t how they should be.

I was talking to one neighbor about the intended purpose for a certain part of the yard and how I didn’t know what to do about it now. He gave some sage wisdom by telling me that I didn’t need to try to get it all done at once. He said he’d been working on his yard for twenty years and it still wasn’t done.

Isn’t that life? We can work on it for years and years and years and still have more to do, learn from, grow into. There have been times when my yard has looked great. The grass has been green, the flowers have bloomed beautifully, the trees have been full and provided shade in the heat of the summer. And now it’s a mess. Sometimes our lives are full, blooming and beautiful, but that doesn’t mean the work is done or that it will stay that way forever. Life happens. Just like windstorms, droughts and construction beat up my yard that once looked so nice, unexpected difficulties in life also beat me up, have stressed me out and, at times, overwhelmed me. But with work and help I know I can get back to a place where I feel good again.

The amazing people who helped with my yard made the biggest difference! They weeded, prepped and helped with new landscaping. It already looks a million times better. They helped me see that just because something is a mess now, doesn’t mean it will stay a mess forever. We just have to keep working on it and allowing others to help us as we go.

A Tale of Two Marriages

Quite some time ago I asked my husband if he’d write something for my blog. He asked if he could write about the difference between someone who takes steps to help with their mental health and someone who doesn’t. I thought it was a great idea. It took him a long time to finally write it and give it to me, in part, he said, because he felt like a hypocrite writing it because he had left his own depression and trauma unchecked and unhealed. He had purposefully ignored his own mental health, which has caused many difficulties, especially in the past few months—including losing his job and not being able to be in our home currently. He does see it now, and said he hopes he can take his own advice from here on out. I see him already taking his advice and taking many steps toward dealing with his mental health and trying to learn from and heal from immense trauma he’s gone through during childhood and adulthood. I appreciate him following through with writing this, as I appreciate the effort he is making right now.

“Do or do not, there is no try.” Many of us recognize those words spoken by the weird little Muppet, Yoda, in the popular Star Wars movies. The sentence expresses a concrete black-and-white view of an action; you either succeed or fail. Trying isn’t noteworthy, nor does trying, in itself, guarantee success. One is either able to do something or they aren’t, and that’s all that matters. The outcome of the success or failure yields entirely different results. Only the Do (success) or Do Not (failure) matters.

While I normally try not to give much validity to thinking in terms of black and white, there’s one area of my life where I wholeheartedly agree with the creepy little dude: marriage involving mental illness. In my experience, the Do or Do Not of seeking professional help and improvement in our mental health are all that matters and is the crux of a successful or failed marriage. Feel free to read the rest of this in the voice of Yoda if it helps.

In a study I read and verified by professional therapists, more than 70% of marriages include one or both spouses exhibiting one of the varied mental health concerns available in the “Life is Hard Supermarket” checkout lanes. Many include anxiety, depression or trauma while others include more destructive forms of mental illness such as Borderline, Narcissistic or Bipolar Personality Disorders. Not one to be left out of the fun (yes, I veil my emotions in sarcasm), my first marriage was to a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with me exhibiting Depression, Battered Spouse Syndrome and Addiction. I am now married to a woman who has been diagnosed with Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and also PTSD, while still maintaining my own perpetual subscriptions of Depression and Addiction. While I could write a whole other post (or novel) on just how my own mental illnesses affected my marriages, I would like to evaluate here how the outcomes of my two marriages were affected by spouses who chose differently when faced with the Do or Do Not options of seeking help and improvement in their mental health.

In 2009, after almost a decade of increasing strain in my first marriage, I reached a point of despair. I didn’t understand why I felt so badly about my marriage, and I struggled to understand what we were doing so wrong. My then wife, we’ll call her Cathy, often tried enlightening me of what she thought I was doing wrong, and I felt our conversations and arguments only ever ended in more confusion and increased strain. For the first time in my life I felt we needed professional help in the form of marriage counseling. It took months of convincing and desperate exasperation, followed by an eventual ultimatum, before Cathy begrudgingly agreed to attend counseling with me. The first few sessions with the therapist were spent getting to know us and working through diagnoses and multiple lengthy assessments. The 25-year veteran of mental health diagnosed Cathy with “off the charts” trauma, Borderline Personality Disorder and “the worse case of PTSD” he had ever seen. He also diagnosed me with Depression and Battered Spouse Syndrome while planning to address my addiction through individual counseling.

In light of the diagnosis, Cathy declared the therapist incompetent and useless, vowing never to go back. She made her choice of “Do Not” and carried through on her promise to never seek help, despite my pleadings over the ensuing months and years. Her behaviors of ignoring her mental health and disbelieving her mental illnesses only grew stronger and more determined. She refused to believe anything could be “wrong” with her. I sought help and therapy, but Cathy refused to. Our marriage continued to decline. We both suffered. Our children suffered. We both died slowly as our connection was destroyed. The rift between us grew too wide and the painful marriage came to an end in 2016 when I filed for divorce after nearly committing suicide.

I don’t believe, nor will ever say, that our failed marriage was solely Cathy’s fault. I certainly contributed. Yet I often wonder how different our marriage could have been had we both successfully embraced the idea of healing and improving our mental health. I know my own shortcomings and mental illness added to the demise of our marriage, though to what extent I do not know. While it’s impossible to ascertain that, I do have a pretty amazing comparative case study that gives some incredible insight into what can be if the “Do” instead of the “Do Not” option is chosen.

I met Tacy in 2018, and from the start, she was open with me about her mental health struggles. Diagnosed with mental illness as a teenager, she has spent much of her life trying to reduce the stigma around mental illnesses while advocating for mental health. This blog, just one of her many efforts to encourage us all to better our mental health, shows Tacy’s willingness and desire to improve. Throughout our dating years and into our marriage the topic of mental health was discussed frequently. At the time we met, Tacy was not participating in professional therapy or counseling. She worked for years to find ways to manage and improve her mental health and spent time in those activities often. She felt her mental state improving over time and became more confident in her ability to manage her mental illness without professional counseling or medication. All of that changed, however, when we married and I brought a slew of new challenges with me that strained our marriage from the start and aggravated the triggers of her depression, anxiety and OCD, as well as my own mental illnesses.

The first year of our marriage was riddled with extreme difficulty, enough to thoroughly destroy both our mental health. As we each struggled, our difficulties became more profound as our anxieties, fear and baggage were triggered and fed by both our poor communication habits. Our mental health rapidly declined as we felt the other just seemed to want to beat on a droid with a stick rather than help. (Another Star Wars reference . . . feel free to roll your eyes.) After months of trying to force our way through it all (not a Star Wars pun), our marriage was on the brink of collapse.

I decided we needed to try professional help and/or medication. I knew I loved Tacy enough that I couldn’t give up until we had exhausted every effort. When I first broached the subject of seeking help with her, she informed me of her history with prescribed mental health medication. In short, it sucks tremendously for her. Her body rejects it faster than Luke rejects Leia after learning she’s his sister (ugh, I can’t help myself). Restless legs, sleepless nights and nausea are all just the base symptoms, not including the upgrades. And yet, despite already know this, Tacy loved me enough to try again. For months, she suffered through those difficulties, trying various medications with little or no positive effect on her mental health. Her act of trying meant so much to me. I started therapy to work on my own issues, and Tacy exercised her love for me by continuing to look for ways to improve her mental health, too. Her choices bolstered our marriage enough to keep us going.

After recognizing the suffering she endured on medication, I encouraged Tacy to stop taking it and look into professional therapy instead. Her previous experiences in counseling, both in her youth and in her previous marriage, left her wary of it’s efficacy. I became distraught at the thought of another spouse not taking steps to improve her mental health, terrified that I would, once again, be alone in my battle against the effects of mental illness on our marriage. I think Tacy sensed my despair, and she once again exercised love for me and agreed to seek professional therapy with me in the form of marriage counseling.

Holy crap, it did not go well. Much like Luke’s failed attempt to raise his ship from the swamp (I swear I’ve watched other movies!), our attempt at marriage counseling actually made things worse. It would have been easy for Tacy to point out that failure, to use it as proof she tried or that we were beyond hope or to simply stopped trying. She could have easily pointed out my own mental illnesses, put the burden on me alone, or deny her part in our difficulties. But she didn’t. She accepted she had things that needed to be addressed. She accepted that she had areas she could improve in, and she continued to show her love for me.

Tacy found another therapist for herself and we both started making progress in our individual therapy. Through trial and, I believe, divine intervention, she discovered EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy), both of which have far surpassed expectations in their ability to help her. Both of us working on our mental health compounded the healing effect as we asked each other about our sessions, encouraging each other and holding one another accountable. This compounded effect is more potent than we can achieve in our individual journeys. It takes finding the right tools and treatments, built on the acknowledgment and loving desire to improve, both for our spouse/significant other and ourselves. The simple, yet not at all simple, difference between my marriages came down to the Do or Do Not choice and my spouse’s response to it. Despite additional, extremely severe difficulties recently thrust upon us by my mental illnesses, our marriage has steadily improved and I find myself eager for the marriage I’ve always dreamed of.

We, as a society, need to get over the idea that struggling with mental health means there’s something “wrong” with us or that we’re “bad.” Those thoughts hinder healing. If your car starts sputtering do you immediately think it’s bad and give up on it? Or do you even hesitate to take it to the mechanic? What about if you have severe abdominal pain? Do you hide it away in shame or immediately seek professional help? Why does our mental health deserve any less care or concern? We don’t even need to feel broken to seek a tune-up.

Addressing mental health is often very difficult. Simply agreeing to work on our mental health does not mean it won’t take work, patience, trial and error or be pain free. Every marriage/relationship has problems, differences and difficulties that must be worked through. And addressing our mental health successfully is not a magic button or fix for all our problems. We must recognize those things and dedicate ourselves to whatever “Do” is needed.

I could continue to make Star Wars-themed analogies and anecdotes, but they’re beginning to feel forced (pun intended). I do not dismiss my role in my marriages, I only wish to extend an invitation to reflect upon how our mental health and our willingness to improve it can affect our marriage and other relationships. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We cannot go back and change the beginning, but we can start where we are and change how it ends.” If we find ourselves struggling, let’s not hesitate to seek what we can do to improve rather than simply sit back and let the outcome determine itself. Don’t wait. Do or Do Not, there is no try.