Committing to love, August 7, 1993

In that blissful white-wedding-dress moment when you say “I do”, you don’t pay much attention to the meaning of the words “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” You just know you’re in love and “together” sounds better than “alone”.

At that moment, you can’t fully understand that committing yourself to love means tethering yourself to pain.

Only a few short years after saying “I do”, the truth of those words began to sink in. We were expecting our first child.  The ugliness that is depression and its equally distasteful cousin, panic disorder, entered my husband’s life. With a mission to destroy. Though we tried to find help in time, the right kind of help remained illusive. On the darkest day, when I thought he was heading back to work after a few weeks of stress leave, he disappeared. We did everything we could think of to find him. In desperation, my mom and I even drove out to his favourite fishing lake.

That night, we got the call. He was at the hospital. He’d tried very hard to kill himself – to end the uncontrollable, paralyzing pain of panic attacks. When he woke up and found that he wasn’t dead, he says an angel guided him to the hospital emergency ward – an angel who clearly knew that I still needed a husband and our daughter needed a daddy.

Together, we found healing. A few months later, our first daughter was born. Then the next year, another. A few more years and we survived the birth and death of our son. Then the third and last daughter came to join our family. We had over 14 years that consisted of more good days than bad. A few times, depression and/or anxiety knocked on the door, but never stayed very long and never threatened the relative peace we enjoyed as a family.

Then one day, out of the blue, with a fierce and terrible swiftness, the black dog attacked again. It came so quickly we almost didn’t recognize its insidious face before it was too late. I was in Chicago when it attacked – just a few short weeks ago. I considered hopping on the next plane, but I was sure it would pass. Just take a few deep breaths and carry on. Please, just carry on.

Only he couldn’t carry on. He spent a night in the hospital just before I got home – desperate to stay safe and not enter that dark place that had almost taken him from us years before.

The next few days, he fought the hardest fight I’ve seen him fight. He meditated, talked to professionals, did deep breathing exercises, went to the gym, increased his medication, even tried yoga for the first time ever. It should have been enough. We were desperate for it to be enough.

It wasn’t.

I went to work on Wednesday morning, feeling hopeful – relieved that the benefit of past experience was helping us weather this storm. I was so proud of him for his hard work.

Then I got the call. His mother’s frantic voice. “He’s at our house. He’s taken pills. A lot of them. What should I do?”

“Drive him to our house,” I said, and rushed out the door. Numb. And frantic.

Half an hour later, I was driving the most desperate drive of my life. “Stay awake!” I shouted at him. “Talk to me! Yell at me! I don’t care, just STAY AWAKE!!!”

The events of the following week and a half could fill a book. I’m a little afraid of writing about them for fear of what intense emotions might spill out. Concerned for his safety and wanting to protect our children, we let the hospital check him into the psych ward. There were many times I regretted that decision, especially when he was essentially abandoned to his own ugly thoughts for the duration of the weekend. Unless I was there (or the friends and family that rallied round), nobody talked to him and nobody offered to help him weather the panic attacks that were still coming. He wasn’t even introduced to the other patients who wandered the halls dealing with their own pain.

Desperate, I fought a flawed and underfunded system to get him help. I lost track of how many phone calls I made to mental health professionals. I did everything I could to find resources, answers, and support. I argued with rude and arrogant psychiatrists. I challenged jaded and disillusioned people who said “our hands are tied – we can’t really do anything for him”. I found only a few people who would take the time to answer my questions or step past the boundaries “the system” imposed on them.

During the day, I fought the fight of a warrior. In between, I sat for hours with my beloved, sharing his pain. In the evenings, I went home and played the role of “strong mom” determined to offer at least some stability to my confused yet brave children. (The oldest two know what happened, the youngest only knows he was in the hospital for stress.) At night in my pillow, and in the van between the hospital, the soccer field, and whatever place my children needed to be, I opened the release valve and let the tears flow. Thousands of aching, desperate tears.

He’s home now, recovering. We’re all still feeling a little shaky, but we’re healing, bit by bit. Each day I see a little more of the light in his eyes that I long for. Sometimes, he even cracks the jokes he’s famous for, and we all breathe a little sigh of relief. He’s working hard at the healing – exercise, therapy, meditation, etc. He wants to live and he wants to continue to be the great father and husband he knows he can be.

No, we can’t know about this kind of pain when we say “I do”. It’s probably a good thing, or we might say “I don’t”. And then we’d miss those moments when we recognize just how hard we’re willing to fight to keep someone alive and just how desperately we dream of living into old age together.

In the end, we wouldn’t want to miss the joy of that moment when we can believe that the future is once again a possibility. Like this moment right now. Scary but good.

p.s. I have Marcel’s blessing to post this. It was hard to know if it’s the right thing to do or not, but if we want to help remove the taboo that still exists around mental health issues, we both believe we need to share our stories and seek collective healing. Your stories are welcome.

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