Love + Sex, Love, Life Stories, Wellness

My marriage is much more complicated than I thought

Do you deserve love if you unintentionally hurt others?

I’m a complicated person.

You see, I’m married to someone with a mental illness that is characterized by some of the destructive behavior I read in tweets – much of it directed at himself.

My husband has Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depression, and is “on the spectrum.” He is a library of knowledge on a variety of topics, he’s a genius that can do absolutely anything if he gets obsessed with it enough, and he’s the most sensitive, creative, and loyal person I know.

But when that high IQ and rote memory combines with anxiety-induced irrational fears, I get caught in the middle of what feels very much like gaslighting, trying hard stay grounded in reality while his mind spins out of control into a writhing, 200-pound pile of self-loathing.

A small disagreement can quickly escalate to an endless cycle of screaming, self-harm, and apologizing that lasts 24 hours, and it doesn’t matter where we are or who’s around.

We met during a difficult time in both our lives.

He had just experienced the traumatic death of a close friend and was going through a faith crisis, I had an abusive work situation and was dealing with some socio-political issues that were messing with my long-term career plans.

It was a weird time to be dating, but we latched on to each other through the turmoil that only grew more challenging, becoming the only constants in each other’s lives over the past 5 years.

He’s my best friend now, and sometimes I love him, sometimes I hate him.

Mental illness is difficult to talk about, especially for someone like me, who grew up in a household that didn’t believe it was a real thing. I’m more educated on it now, but because my brain doesn’t fuck with me that way, it’s really hard to understand the lack of control someone with extreme anxiety experiences over their thoughts and even physical reactions.

And I guess that’s where it gets tricky for me: Should you be held accountable for your oppressive actions when they’re a result of mental illness?

Do you deserve love if you unintentionally hurt others?

How do the people who love you protect themselves, and receive the love they also deserve?

How are these dynamics different when the person suffering from mental illness is a man? A woman? Gender queer? White, brown, black? Should they be different?

What if the mental illness was caused by systemic violence? Are you less accountable for your actions? How do you decide whether to stick it out, or bail?

How do you decide when to ask someone for help, and when to let them go?

Seeing these situations in my relationship framed as abuse embarrassed and confused me. I was afraid to retweet, worried about what people would read into my engagement.

It’s true, my husband has never hit me, but he’s definitely made me feel scared and powerless during his violent episodes, and I can’t explain that away.

And then, to complicate my emotions further, I started reading tweets that described things I had done in our relationship: sometimes to defend myself against his behavior, sometimes out of rage at this disease I felt was ruining our life, sometimes out of my own capacity for cruelty and anger.

The tweets made me realize how ignorant I still am about mental health issues and abuse and triggered questions about my role and responsibilities (or not) as the committed partner and marginalized wife of a white man who suffers from mental illness.

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers yet, this is just my personal entry into the storytelling bank – complicated nuances I couldn’t fit into 140 characters.

I will say that things have been getting better at home once we got access to affordable healthcare. My husband sees a therapist once a week and visits the psychiatrist once a month for a refill on the medication that helps him break free of the obsessive thought patterns that get him into trouble. But the best lessons we’ve learned have come from experience and intentional conversations: how to de-escalate, how to communicate more clearly and explicitly, how to create a safe space to talk about issues.

Most of this work has been led and implemented by him. But I’m also conscious of the fact I need to start prioritizing my own mental health, especially because of my marginalized background, not just supporting his happiness and well-being.

I’m grateful the internet provided a space for this important conversation, and I’m also hungry for a deeper and more intersectional discussion that includes mental health, an analysis of the systems of oppression (like patriarchy! And racism! And capitalism!) that affect all gender identities and lead to abusive behavior, and perhaps a discussion that reaches beyond romantic partnerships to family, friends, work, and even our abusive relationships with the state.

Let’s keep it going.