In Sickness & in (Mental) Health

Shelby and I got married in January of 2017 and the “honeymoon phase” lasted approximately…5 minutes. We were so sublimely happy with each other up until the wedding and then for a few short months afterward. Being naive is a real blessing sometimes. Then, real life came and knocked the wind out of both of us. Spoiler alert: we’re still fine, we’re just tired and being tired makes it hard to feel happy.

The short version of this story is that Shelby has been seriously reckoning with his mental health for the last two years and I have been along for the ride. It’s affected our relationship in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Between this reconciliation and the grief associated with my mom’s death, 2017 and 2018 broke me all the way down.

Here’s the longer version: Prior to us getting together, Shelby was dealing with anxiety and PTSD related to a number of things, including his time as a first-responder/EMT. Emergency lights and sirens were a specific trigger and usually caused some sort of episode where Shelby seemed checked out, but could be brought out of it fairly easily.

Shelby’s anxiety was getting a little bit worse so with some encouragement, he went to see a therapist and talked to his primary care doctor about medication. We both thought we were finding a solution, when it turns out we were just getting started.

Shelby’s relationship with that therapist was short lived, and the SSRI that Shelby was taking was actually doing much more damage than good. As time went on, grief was taking its toll on me, anxiety, PTSD, and what we later found out was Bipolar II were taking their toll on Shelby, and it was all taking its toll on our relationship.

Throughout 2017, Shelby and I fought like we had never fought before. Shelby wasn’t acting like himself, making decisions that made trusting him more difficult than it ever had been, and I was scared. I couldn’t believe that less than a year in, my marriage was a mess (for the second time, but that’s another story).

In the early spring of 2018, I was working on a Saturday. We were on our way back from an event with kids in Dallas, and I was at least 2 hours away from home. Shelby had been out with some coworkers but at some point, had seen lights or heard sirens and had been triggered. He later learned that what happened next was dissociation. What he experienced in the moment was getting lost while driving in a different part of town, and I wasn’t home to help.

The 90 minute phone call where I tried to figure out where Shelby was, tried to convince him in his completely panic-stricken state to not drive and just wait for me, and then listening in as he drove home using Google maps were probably the scariest moments of my life. That was also the night when I decided that enough was enough and that Shelby had to get help.

It’s been a long road for us. It seems like the last couple of years have been an endless series of tiny victories and huge setbacks and there’s no real end in sight that I can see. I am trying to take the wins when they come, no matter how small.

Shelby established with a new therapist shortly after that scary night and she has been a godsend. She’s exactly the right blend of great listener and bullshit detector that Shelby needs, and she’s also such a steadfast advocate for Shelby that he trusts her enough to be truly honest.

In addition, Shelby also started seeing a psychiatrist to manage his meds, and thank god he did. As it turns out, the meds prescribed and “managed” by his primary care doctor are actually one of the worst someone with Bipolar II can take…often leading to suicidal ideation and more. We finally had an explanation for why the previous year had spiraled so dramatically and someone to help guide Shelby through getting off of those meds and onto a new regimen, prescribed with Shelby’s specific and nuanced needs in mind.

Though I am grateful for the support Shelby has gotten, I am also tired. This is the first time in my life I’ve experienced something that didn’t have a clear solution or end date. I’ve always been able to do the thing that was necessary to get the results I wanted or change the path I was on. I have not been able to do that in this case and it is truly terrifying.

I’m not being dramatic. Our lives, our marriage, our happiness, our ability to embark on our future have all been upended by this struggle. At first, I was hopeful, but over time I have realized that there’s no way to know when or if things will be different. Losing hope is scary.

I don’t blame Shelby for this being part of our life, quite the opposite actually. Along the way, I’ve blamed just about everyone else involved because so much of Shelby’s life has been defined by what other people thought was okay to inflict on him. Regardless of who is at fault (and really, it’s no one, because that’s not how mental illness or health works), the truth remains that it’s left its giant handprints all over us.

Our wedding, 2 years ago

Even though this is not the ideal way to start a marriage, I am so glad we were married before things got bad. Marriage gave me a sense of permanence I have leaned on throughout the last couple of years. When fights were at their height, when I don’t know which Shelby I’m going to get on any given day, I remind myself that I made a commitment, and that Shelby is the person I want to spend my life with. I remind myself that this is temporary and that Shelby is working his ass off in therapy. I remind myself that I did find my person, and that that person is Shelby, and that we can get through anything if we do it together.

We’ve been in counseling together for about 8 months. It’s wildly different than my experience with my therapist…usually I leave my own therapy feeling refreshed and energized to take on the day, whereas when we first started, I was leaving our couple’s sessions feeling drained and defeated. It turns out that that may be part of the process, as our sessions have recently felt more hopeful and energizing, but man, I was struggling for a long time.

The point of all of this, though, is to say that I believe the work is worth it. I’ve gained so much perspective these last two years and have so much respect for partners who have played caregiver roles at some point during their relationship. I have incredible perspective on mental illness and the journey to mental and emotional wellness. I have immense gratitude for Shelby’s willingness to dig into this messy, ugly shit.

I’m also proud of myself. For advocating for Shelby and our relationship, for keeping our bills paid, for never getting on I-10 and driving west until I saw the Pacific. I’ve made it through what I believe to be the darkest years of my life. We’re still fighting, and we haven’t gotten where we want to be quite yet, but we’re closer than we were, and we’re doing this together no matter what.