This guest post, “Spousal Support for the Mentally Ill: What Not to Do,” was submitted by Tom.
I want to share some of the things that I’ve learned from my experience as the husband of somebody who suffers from mental illness. I’m not a model husband or a model anything, but I’ve made some mistakes that might be instructive.
First of all, some context. My wife has been dealing with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for most of her life, including the five years that we’ve been married. Her mental/emotional problems have manifest themselves to varying extents at various times in the following ways: intrusive, repetitive thoughts of violence and suicide that she can’t let go of; intense, irrational fear of losing control and doing something against her will; panic attacks; intense fear of damnation; extended periods of depression. She knows that her feelings and fears are irrational. When she has panic attacks she knows there is no reason to be upset. She has no desire to hurt herself or others. She has never acted against her will. But the thoughts and fears persist and often lead to depression and despair.
I am a very rational, even-keeled person. I don’t experience a lot of emotional highs or lows. I am pretty well able to roll with the punches. So I have no personal experience to draw on to help me understand my wife’s problems.
Some of the things I have done wrong:
I thought that what worked for me should work for everybody. Early in our marriage I was attached to the idea that happiness is a choice. Unhappiness, I thought, could be cured by adjusting attitude and seeking the Spirit. This way of thinking worked for me (and it mostly still does) and I saw no reason that it shouldn’t work for my wife. So when she had problems I explained to her the way that I thought and expected her to just choose to be better. When she didn’t I saw it as a character flaw (I blamed her). I don’t think I ever told her this, but she sensed it. This attitude of mine made her feel worse. Rather than being understanding and compassionate I ended up being obtuse and accusatory. Also unhelpful was pointing out to her that her feelings were irrational. She already knew that.
I blamed myself. Any time my wife broke down and told me about the kinds of thoughts she was having it made me feel like a complete failure. She told me many times that I wasn’t the source of her problems. But when she told me that she had suicidal thoughts, it was difficult not to think that it was because I was making her life miserable. I resented her sometimes for telling me these things because it made me feel like I couldn’t make any mistakes without sending her over the edge, like I had to constantly walk on eggshells.
Rather than listen and be supportive, I tried to fix things. When my wife had breakdowns and told me everything she was thinking and feeling, she just wanted me to listen, try to understand, and express sympathy. She didn’t want lectures and she didn’t want me to try to fix her. This is not to say that nothing I said was ever helpful, but my first goal should have been to let her know that I felt for her and that I cared.
I denied that my wife needed help and discouraged her from getting treatment. I thought that since she was functioning reasonably well as a mother and otherwise, she didn’t have a serious problem. And I didn’t like the idea of her taking antidepressants. I thought of them as a crutch that would impede her ability to overcome her problems by herself and thereby grow from the experience.
I was insensitive and selfish. The worst episode we have had was this past summer when my wife decided to get back on a medicine that had helped her before. Two hours after she took the first dose she went into a panic attack that lasted for the better part of the next five days and left her unable to take care of our two young sons (she and the boys ended up having to spend most of the summer at her parents house in Utah while she recovered). This happened the day after I accepted an invitation to write my first article in an academic journal and the deadline was one week ahead, so I had a lot of work to do and not much time to do it. On the second or third morning as I was getting ready to go to school she told me that I couldn’t leave her alone. I assured her that she would be just fine and told her I needed to go. She insisted that I couldn’t leave her alone. I could see in her eyes and hear in her voice that she was terrified. But I had to get that article done. I wasn’t going to budge. Finally, after more back and forth, I threw down the paper I was trying to read and said, “I’m going to fail!” Bad, dumb, stupid idea. What I was really saying and what I’m sure my wife heard was, “I’m going to fail because of you.” Needless to say, that made things worse.
What is LDS-specific in our experience? Well, I think that my misconception of mental illness as something that can be corrected by simple choice has roots in the idea that the Gospel promises peace and happiness to its adherents. All we have to do is learn the truth and choose to live a certain way and we’ll have peace. While discontentment, turmoil, and unhappiness are the wages of sin. Depression and despair caused, not by choice, but by biology don’t fit very well into this stark, black-and-white conception of the Gospel. This conception is, I think, very prevalent.
Additionally, fear of damnation has been a major source of anxiety for my wife. She often feels very guilty for having the kinds of thoughts and feelings that she has. We are taught in the Church, mostly in the context of sexual morality, that we are responsible for our thoughts and that we can sin in our minds. So it’s understandable that my wife would worry that her thoughts are sinful. She sometimes thinks that her unhappiness and inner turmoil are punishments, signs that she is somehow unworthy of the Spirit. Together, we are trying to better understand the nature of God and of life, which is alleviating some of the grief caused by undeserved guilt, I think.
These aren’t all of the mistakes that I’ve made and I’m certainly not done making mistakes, but for my family’s sake I hope that I can avoid the ones that I’ve already made. And I hope that whoever is reading this can also avoid these mistakes. Let’s not pile on, but instead lift up.