My wife and I were walking around a lake at our apartment complex, holding hands, trying to find a calm moment. A woman had just come out of another apartment building when my wife bolted for her.
"Help me, please help me," she pleaded. "He's been beating me. He's been abusing me. Help me get away, please!"
The woman moved fast to get Sheilagh into the car, and just as fast to see if looks really could kill. She sped away before I could comprehend what was happening. She was gone -- out there, somewhere -- and I didn't know where to even begin to find her. Just to add to the complications, there was a stranger who thought I was a wife beater, who didn't understand that I was not and loved this woman like you can only love your very first love.
We all develop "stuff" as we get older; I was 20 years old when I developed an allergy to poison ivy (never had it before). For Sheilagh it was different. What she developed was mental illness -- manic depression mixed in with paranoid schizophrenia. It didn't really matter what it was, only that the chemistry of her blood changed and her brain started to move faster than she could cope with, and move to places no one could imagine.
Within a few years occasionally strange behavior evolved into severe, "formal" episodes. I was completely unprepared. Most people never encounter mental illness -- it is a fate for the homeless and the abused and the bottom of the barrel. I knew people were in mental institutions but never thought about how they got there, or that they had families.
For several years after, we had one thing going for us. Even though she had times when her thoughts were irrational, a part of her could focus on me, and that I was there for her. Better or worse -- isn't this what it's really all about? I was there for her, to do what I could to help her get through each episode. When she ran away this first time, she asked the helpful woman to take her to a hotel, where she fortunately became enough of a disturbance that they called the police. They also called me. The police decided she was too much to handle, a possible danger to herself and others, and transported her directly to a mental health facility.
Within 30 days on lithium, her blood levels were balanced again, and she was fine. A year later it happened again, then six months later, then four months later. I was in a new job, where long hours and impressive performance were a requirement, but there were long months where I couldn't do my best because I had to leave work and drive an hour to the facility to visit for an hour, then an hour home -- every night.
That night when the Police decided to "get her the help she needed," I followed behind the ambulance she was in for an hour along a dark and lonely Midwestern highway, wondering who she was. Had she forgotten that just a few hours ago she accused me of beating her? She didn't know what was happening to her, but she knew she wanted to flee from it all, and she knew that there was a special lie that would get any woman to take her away. It was probably the saddest hour of my life. I was sad for her and I was sad for me.
But we were married (I took that seriously), and she needed me. I had no idea what or where she'd end up without me to help. First she almost came between us and my parents. She'd think, during bad times, that friends were being unreasonable or mean, so I distanced us from almost everyone, to hide the problem. (Yes, we were young and stupid.) Being alone, trying to handle it by myself just made it worse. What do you do when you have an appointment with a county judge on a Wednesday morning to talk about your wife, but you can't leave the house because she's already started a fire in the bathroom? Do you stay? You have to. Do you go? You have to. I don't think I'll ever be old enough for such decisions. So much of it chipped away at me.
One night when I signed in to the facility, a nurse informed me that they thought Sheilagh had possibly slept with another patient. I realized that I had no response at all; I felt nothing. At this point, there was nothing you could do to me, there was so little left. After almost 15 years, I had disappeared. Only then was I able to take care of someone else -- me.
One day, as an episode seemed to be starting, I found in the garage a big bottle of gin. If the next stage was to try to deal with mental illness and alcoholism, I couldn't. A month later, the moving van I ordered showed up at the door the same day her mother flew in. I gave Sheilagh whatever she wanted, but gave her no choice but to leave. It was the saddest thing I ever did, to give up on a person. For the first time I felt like I was no longer young, and it took a long time to start to feel like I existed again.
I wish there was a message here for you -- that sometimes people suffer complex fates, and it is important that we help each other. I wish I could tell you that if you give your all, you can change the course of a life, but I don't know if you ever can. I can only urge you, whenever in an overwhelming situation, to find help. You can't always know what to do. I've been fortunate to be able to tell this story to a several people over the years who needed to hear it.
To abandon a spouse in a time of need may be thought of as a selfish act. I learned that the opposite of selfish is selfless. I could no longer be selfless; I had to do something to save myself -- to make selfish a priority. I had to start taking care of me. I'm important too, and no one will take care of me if I don't.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
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