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I’m kinder to my husband when I write.
I’ve been saying this for a long time, ever since I began writing about living with my husband’s mental illness. My memoir, Rambler: A Family Pushes Through the Fog of Mental Illness, is published now, yet I continue to write. It helps keep his illness in perspective. My husband, Steve, has been stable for many years, but the symptoms never completely go away.
Mental illnesses are difficult to diagnose because there aren’t any reliable biological markers—like blood tests, scans, or x-rays—to verify that something is medically wrong. But the symptoms are real, like mood swings, impulsivity, increased irritability, and irrational thoughts. Because mental illnesses affect people’s thinking and behavior, a diagnosis wreaks havoc on interpersonal relationships. When Steve first got sick, well-established family routines changed, and we lived for years in a fog of uncertainty as doctors worked to find a combination of medications to stabilize his mind.
Steve was diagnosed with… Well, he’s had several different diagnoses.
First situational depression, after impulsively quitting his engineering job when our three children were young. His diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder after an explosive incident in Detroit while at an engineering society conference sponsored by his former employer. And finally, it changed to schizoaffective disorder, which was a relatively new diagnosis in the mid-1990s, when all this was happening. The schizoaffective disorder involves some of the psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia, like paranoia or delusional thoughts, and the mood swings of bipolar disorder. It took several years after my husband’s breakdown for the doctors to figure this out, which meant living with an unstable husband and father for what felt like a very long time.
After a semblance of family harmony returned, I’d spend my Saturday mornings in the local library writing. When I emerged several hours later, I felt kinder towards Steve, less angry about what happened. I knew that having a mental illness wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t really understand this at first. Mostly what I saw then was a man who acted like he no longer cared for his family; I only saw a man obsessed with fixing an organization he no longer worked for. Writing about his illness helped put his illness in perspective. And by attending workshops and conferences sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness—and especially by listening to Steve, who shared his confusion about what was happening—I learned a great deal about living with a loved one’s mental illness.
Writing about it forced me to look deep into the nature of mental health problems, which affect one in five adults in the United States each year. Today I blog about my family’s experience with the hope that more people will better understand what it’s like to have or to live with someone who has a mental illness. Only by understanding and talking openly about these illnesses will we begin to tackle the stigma associated with them. You can read my blog posts at www.lindaschmitmeyer.com.
A former features editor and newspaper columnist, Linda K. Schmitmeyer is a freelance writer and editor and adjunct university instructor. Her memoir, Rambler: A Family Pushes Through the Fog of Mental Illness, was released by Artists’ Orchard on Sept. 25. It’s available on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com. You can follow her on Twitter @LKSchm.