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Committed to love, tethered to pain

April 28, 2010

Committing to love, August 7, 1993

In that blissful white-wedding-dress moment when you say “I do”, you don’t pay much attention to the meaning of the words “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” You just know you’re in love and “together” sounds better than “alone”.

At that moment, you can’t fully understand that committing yourself to love means tethering yourself to pain.

Only a few short years after saying “I do”, the truth of those words began to sink in. We were expecting our first child.  The ugliness that is depression and its equally distasteful cousin, panic disorder, entered my husband’s life. With a mission to destroy. Though we tried to find help in time, the right kind of help remained illusive. On the darkest day, when I thought he was heading back to work after a few weeks of stress leave, he disappeared. We did everything we could think of to find him. In desperation, my mom and I even drove out to his favourite fishing lake.

That night, we got the call. He was at the hospital. He’d tried very hard to kill himself – to end the uncontrollable, paralyzing pain of panic attacks. When he woke up and found that he wasn’t dead, he says an angel guided him to the hospital emergency ward – an angel who clearly knew that I still needed a husband and our daughter needed a daddy.

Together, we found healing. A few months later, our first daughter was born. Then the next year, another. A few more years and we survived the birth and death of our son. Then the third and last daughter came to join our family. We had over 14 years that consisted of more good days than bad. A few times, depression and/or anxiety knocked on the door, but never stayed very long and never threatened the relative peace we enjoyed as a family.

Then one day, out of the blue, with a fierce and terrible swiftness, the black dog attacked again. It came so quickly we almost didn’t recognize its insidious face before it was too late. I was in Chicago when it attacked – just a few short weeks ago. I considered hopping on the next plane, but I was sure it would pass. Just take a few deep breaths and carry on. Please, just carry on.

Only he couldn’t carry on. He spent a night in the hospital just before I got home – desperate to stay safe and not enter that dark place that had almost taken him from us years before.

The next few days, he fought the hardest fight I’ve seen him fight. He meditated, talked to professionals, did deep breathing exercises, went to the gym, increased his medication, even tried yoga for the first time ever. It should have been enough. We were desperate for it to be enough.

It wasn’t.

I went to work on Wednesday morning, feeling hopeful – relieved that the benefit of past experience was helping us weather this storm. I was so proud of him for his hard work.

Then I got the call. His mother’s frantic voice. “He’s at our house. He’s taken pills. A lot of them. What should I do?”

“Drive him to our house,” I said, and rushed out the door. Numb. And frantic.

Half an hour later, I was driving the most desperate drive of my life. “Stay awake!” I shouted at him. “Talk to me! Yell at me! I don’t care, just STAY AWAKE!!!”

The events of the following week and a half could fill a book. I’m a little afraid of writing about them for fear of what intense emotions might spill out. Concerned for his safety and wanting to protect our children, we let the hospital check him into the psych ward. There were many times I regretted that decision, especially when he was essentially abandoned to his own ugly thoughts for the duration of the weekend. Unless I was there (or the friends and family that rallied round), nobody talked to him and nobody offered to help him weather the panic attacks that were still coming. He wasn’t even introduced to the other patients who wandered the halls dealing with their own pain.

Desperate, I fought a flawed and underfunded system to get him help. I lost track of how many phone calls I made to mental health professionals. I did everything I could to find resources, answers, and support. I argued with rude and arrogant psychiatrists. I challenged jaded and disillusioned people who said “our hands are tied – we can’t really do anything for him”. I found only a few people who would take the time to answer my questions or step past the boundaries “the system” imposed on them.

During the day, I fought the fight of a warrior. In between, I sat for hours with my beloved, sharing his pain. In the evenings, I went home and played the role of “strong mom” determined to offer at least some stability to my confused yet brave children. (The oldest two know what happened, the youngest only knows he was in the hospital for stress.) At night in my pillow, and in the van between the hospital, the soccer field, and whatever place my children needed to be, I opened the release valve and let the tears flow. Thousands of aching, desperate tears.

He’s home now, recovering. We’re all still feeling a little shaky, but we’re healing, bit by bit. Each day I see a little more of the light in his eyes that I long for. Sometimes, he even cracks the jokes he’s famous for, and we all breathe a little sigh of relief. He’s working hard at the healing – exercise, therapy, meditation, etc. He wants to live and he wants to continue to be the great father and husband he knows he can be.

No, we can’t know about this kind of pain when we say “I do”. It’s probably a good thing, or we might say “I don’t”. And then we’d miss those moments when we recognize just how hard we’re willing to fight to keep someone alive and just how desperately we dream of living into old age together.

In the end, we wouldn’t want to miss the joy of that moment when we can believe that the future is once again a possibility. Like this moment right now. Scary but good.

p.s. I have Marcel’s blessing to post this. It was hard to know if it’s the right thing to do or not, but if we want to help remove the taboo that still exists around mental health issues, we both believe we need to share our stories and seek collective healing. Your stories are welcome.

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 2:52 pm

    Oh, Heather. I have no words – only warm and healing thoughts to send your way.

  2. Sandy permalink
    April 28, 2010 2:52 pm

    This was a heart-wrenching, heartwarming, painful, beautiful post. My heart goes out to you both and your daughters. Sending you lots of love and healing vibes.

  3. April 28, 2010 2:54 pm

    Dearest Heather,

    What a brave, beautiful, tragic, reslient story. I am so proud of you both. It’s so brave to look a beast like that in the eye and say, “Okay. You’re here. I’m here. Let’s stand this thing out.”

    I was reading a blog by an Australian artist the other day. She was writing before-during-after a 10 week stay in a treatment facility for bipolar disorder. It was raw, and difficult, and stunning. Resilency is a beautiful thing, even though it is offered in the face of our darkest imaginings.

    I think, if we can, we should tell these stories. They are more real than most of life.

    I am with you.

    Yours,

    Rachelle

  4. April 28, 2010 3:03 pm

    Heather,

    First, I am proud to be called your friend. You are a brave and wondrous soul, whom I am honored to have in my life, and allowing me to help with this…that was such a step in my own recovery, you cannot imagine.

    Second, tell Marcel that I am with him in spirit and that I continue to pray and send him strength.

    Stories, stories, and more stories…only when those of us who have been to the pitch black bottom reveal all the stories will there be a sea change in how those stories are dealt with by the larger culture and by the medical culture.

    When I went in after starting to cut many years ago, the psychiatric nurse told me I had a lovely haircut and here’s a phone number if you feel like killing yourself.

    We have come no steps since that day 14 years ago, and I am sorry that Marcel did not get the care he deserves.

  5. April 28, 2010 3:03 pm

    i can relate to your husband’s pain. i have managed to stay way from actual attempts, i mean, i really am too stubborn to give up and throw it all in, plus fiercely curous; but i do know what it feels like to have no light at the end of the tunnel and seeing ending a life to rid the pain. i get that. i am so glad you are through this much of this enduring process and sharing your story. It helps those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression know that we are not alone. hugs to you and your family and a fist-bump to marcel. one day at a time.

    love and warm thoughts
    k

  6. April 28, 2010 3:15 pm

    Heather, You and your family remain in my prayers. Thank you for being brave enough to share this. And many thanks to Marcel too. You two are right in that mental health issues need to be brought out–there is a taboo that keeps them in the dark and incorrectly labeled as something shameful. I feel that many people will be helped by your story, and am so glad that you both can share it.

    I wish you and Marcel and your girls a time of healing and restoration. I hope and pray that through the storms you cling to each other. As long as there is life there is hope. And I’m so glad that you still have that hope.

    My best friend died very recently; not many people knew that she struggled with mental health issues. She was always afraid that people would find out. We do not know yet if she committed suicide. Losing her has affected me so profoundly I cannot tell you. I wish that people could view mental health and physical health issues as the same and not divide and judge. We are all doing the best we can. We all want to be free from pain and terror; we all want to be loved. I am glad that in your family you have much love.

    Blessings on you both and your family, and continued prayers, O

  7. Kirsten permalink
    April 28, 2010 3:17 pm

    Heather, I send you, Marcel & your family my love. I hope Marcel’s recovery continues day by day & I pray he gets the help he needs. I hope knowing that so many people around the world are thinking of you & praying for you brings you some comfort & continuing strength.

  8. cevraini permalink
    April 28, 2010 3:38 pm

    Heather, I am amazed at yours and Marcel’s bravery in bringing this story to us. Thank you.
    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Take care, all.

  9. April 28, 2010 3:49 pm

    Heather, Marcel &kids – please take our love and wrap it around you like a blanket keeping you warm until the sun comes out. Know our hearts are right there with you.

    amen.

  10. April 28, 2010 3:57 pm

    Heather,
    You are a brave and loving woman. Thank you for sharing this painful piece of your life. Those of us who’ve had loved ones dwelling in that dark place know how important it is for others to share and be open about mental illness. We all need to know we are not alone. I’m holding positive thoughts for you and and your family.
    Terri

  11. April 28, 2010 4:40 pm

    Love you.

  12. ccap permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:52 pm

    The honesty and emotion you put into this post humble and impress me. I’m proud to call you and Marcel my sister and brother.

  13. ccap permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:53 pm

    Also, GOODNESS you look like babies. Are you sure it was legal for you to marry?!

  14. laura permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:54 pm

    thank you for sharing your story…my family has suffered a lot from mental illness..it’s important to share our pain, to let others know that they are not alone…

  15. April 28, 2010 5:12 pm

    Oh Heather-
    I’m really sorry that Marcel and you and your family are going through this. Depression is really difficult.
    It is so good though, when people share their reality. You help to take the stigma away from a disease that affects so many families.
    You’re right. If we knew the struggles we would face in our primary relationships, we might not sign up, but what else would we miss? The good stuff too. Definitely.
    Thinking about you-
    Bridget

  16. April 28, 2010 6:17 pm

    Dear Heather,

    I am so sorry for what you and Marcel have been dealing with and appreciate the strength it has taken (and you both continue to exhibit) as you move forward each moment. Please know that my thoughts, support, and warmest well wishes are with you and your family.

    All my best,

    Shahrzad (@careerconsult)

  17. April 28, 2010 6:27 pm

    Oh, Heather. I wish I could hop on the next plane and wrap my arms around both of you. You have no idea how much I wish I could. In the meantime, fix yourself a cup of tea — this will take a while.

    I was 15 years old, sitting in the back of my 10th-grade biology classroom in my new high school, taking notes from an overhead as my teacher droned on about who-knows-what-now. I was a bit tired (I’d attended a concert the night before) and a lot uncomfortable, because we’d moved to a small town where friendships were apparently cemented during infancy in the church nursery and where I didn’t feel I could find an “in.”

    Then, it happened: I broke out in a cold sweat; I felt as if my tonsils had swollen tenfold and were going to choke me; the “light at the end of the tunnel” was how the overhead projector now looked as I developed tunnelvision. My head felt as if it were spinning around on my shoulders and an overwhelming wave of absolute doom hit.

    I was terrified, but I said nothing to my parents, not wishing to alarm them; it had been a rough few years for our family financially and this was an opportunity for us to start fresh. I chalked it up to being overtired and made sure I got a good night’s sleep that night, hoping “it” would go away.

    “It” didn’t. At first, it only happened in the original offending room. Then, before I knew it I was spending my days in a panic — first in school and then at work. I was scared, because I had no idea what was happening to me, but underneath the fear lay a deep shame: “you’re going crazy,” it whispered insidiously, over and over.

    I’ve never attempted suicide. I do have a callus on my left index finger where I’d dig my thumbnail into my skin, literally trying to hold myself together. I can still hear my mother screaming “that’s self-multilation!” at me when she saw me doing it. It’s rare, but every now and then I’ll still catch myself doing it.

    An offshoot of the panic was a phobia: in my case, a phobia of driving. I retreated further into my shell; how would my peers or my siblings get my not wanting that ultimate badge of
    freedom, the driver’s license? I finally got my license at 17, but I only drove to school, work, and to places in my “comfort zone,” a zone I’d make any excuse not to venture from. At that point my parents did know, and it felt like I had every medical test on the planet trying to find out what was wrong; in the early ’80s, no one knew what panic disorder was.

    I basically went through hell every day for five years, during which I married and divorced an emotionally abusive, controlling man and starved myself down to 95 pounds. (Another effect of my particular brand of anxiety is that if things are going badly for me, I can’t eat because I feel like I can’t swallow. Actually, it’s whatever’s going on around me that I “can’t swallow.” I have figured that much out and don’t have to deal with that problem much anymore.)

    A gifted therapist at my university helped me overcome classroom phobia via use of guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. I couldn’t get over the driving hump without medication (which I take to this day), though, and I still have issues that include a refusal to drive on freeways. I know I would if push came to shove, but if you could see my shoulders right now (they’re approximately under my eardrums), you’d know I don’t relish the prospect.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy in my 20s helped me some; traditional therapy has not. I spend a lot of time disliking myself for my fears and anxiety. I spend a lot of time praying my children don’t inherit them. I spend a lot of time reminding myself to remain hopeful, and to fight for my mental health as hard as I fight the school system about my son’s learning disability.

    Kundalini has helped a lot. For that, I’m grateful. When the dark times come, I try to remind myself of how far I’ve come — and that I still have it in me to go further.

    Thank you for sharing your story. This is the first time I’ve ever completely shared mine outside of a very small group of people. As INXS sang, “bitter tears taste so sweet/I’m seeing my way for the first time in years.”

    Much love to you and Marcel, and to your girls, as you walk through this valley. If I can light a candle to help you make it through, you only need to ask.

  18. JessRS permalink
    April 28, 2010 6:52 pm

    Sending you, Marcel, your children, and all of your loved ones lots of love, light, compassion, empathy, and support! xo

  19. Kelly permalink
    April 28, 2010 8:30 pm

    You are so strong and brave. My heart breaks and my tears flow thinking of how hard this has been on all of you, but I’m proud of how you’ve battled through it. So many people have to deal with depression – I’m sure if we had ‘true’ numbers we’d all be astounded. Many in my family have suffered from it.

    You may know that I lost a 15 yr old cousin to suicide (just a couple months after we lost mom). Nobody knew how he was suffering until it was too late. It’s something that you never get over – especially his immediate family, he had no idea of the impact on them. He wanted everyone to just go on and be happy. I’m so very glad that Marcel has another chance – I hope you all get the help you need and deserve.

    xoxo

  20. April 28, 2010 8:33 pm

    prayers continuing… your support network is wider than you can imagine…

    Polly

  21. April 28, 2010 8:49 pm

    wow, so sorry you all have to go through this! it sounds incredibly difficult and painful and exhausting. i just want to mention something i don’t know if you’ve looked into in which t i have found great hope and wisdom for this life journey–the Enneagram.

  22. April 28, 2010 8:53 pm

    sorry–don’t know what happened–going to finish that post here…as i said:

    wow, so sorry you all have to go through this! it sounds incredibly difficult and painful and exhausting. i just want to mention something i don’t know if you’ve looked into in which i have found great hope and wisdom for this life journey–the Enneagram.

    you can read more on my site if you want to–the Enneagram is a psycho-spiritual system that helps us understand why our personality can get into really difficult places…type Six typically has major trouble with anxiety, so that might be a place to start. understanding why this happens might help focus the spiritual practices he is trying.

    many blessings, katy

  23. April 28, 2010 10:34 pm

    encouraged by your honesty.
    touched by the transparency.
    wishing only deep peace and healing for you, your husband, and your family.
    much love.

  24. April 29, 2010 12:07 am

    You are my teacher Heather. You are my teacher.

    Thank you for letting us in…thanking you for sharing the truth on love.

    My heart is holding you, Marcel, and your girls tight.

    I love you, dearly, truly.

  25. April 29, 2010 7:52 am

    I don’t understand depression like that, but it must be terrible. Hopefully, you both have the knowledge and resources to recognize and fight future attacks should they occur. Meanwhile, I think you are heroic. Hugs from the east.

  26. Sharon permalink
    April 29, 2010 10:03 am

    Heather, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
    What bravery and courage both you and Marcel have.
    Blessings, Sharon Houle

  27. Jane permalink
    April 29, 2010 12:50 pm

    I’m glad things are looking up, Heather. We should talk and write about depression and mental illness often – the “black dog” is very real. I know what it’s like to take the pills and wake up on the psych ward – what saved me, I think, was being given people to look after! I still get anxiety attacks sometimes, and, like Linnea, developed a phobia (of flying) in my mid-thirties (which I conquered by God’s grace) but over the years have developed mental and spiritual defenses against depression in myself.

    Of course, then the enemy turned to my family members; my husband and one daughter have been through similar issues, and I have found myself in the position of understanding what they’re going through and yet having to play “tough cop” with them. It’s like this spring weather; a storm blows in and seems to last forever, and then it’s sunny and you can almost forget the storm–but you know it’s only a matter of time till the next one.

    I’m praying for healing for all of you.

  28. April 29, 2010 1:39 pm

    Oh, Heather.
    I am soooo sorry.
    Being brave is SOOO exhausting.
    I had to quit that, and found that being real feels more right to me. Although it hurts more.
    Will continue to pray. For whatever it is that the two of you need.

  29. April 29, 2010 7:42 pm

    Posting was the right thing to do. I have been inspired by your transparency and honesty throughout this ordeal.

  30. J-L permalink
    April 29, 2010 8:05 pm

    Heather, thanks for an amazing post. It brought tears to my eyes.

    Marcel, my brother. I love you, and I am so proud of you for fighting this terrible illness. Please know that I have your back no matter what. You are never alone. Never.

  31. April 30, 2010 9:52 pm

    Heather,
    I just got around to reading this and wanted to first thank you for your honesty. Thank you to Marcel as well for allowing this to be shared.

    If you think it might help, please pass the following along to him. While I have no idea the hell he, you, and your family must be going through, please encourage all of you to continue to have strength and find joy in even the tiniest of moments.

    Four years ago – almost exactly in a few short weeks – I lost my father to suicide. He was in his 50’s. He left behind a wife, three kids, and at the time, two grandchildren. His decision altered our lives forever. I cannot begin to express the feelings in a short comment, but would be more than happy to chat over email or the phone if you would like.

    Please feel free to get in contact if you want to share more…all of my tears that I’m shedding right now and thoughts of ample blessings are all for you, Marcel, and your family.

    Please, be strong.

  32. May 1, 2010 7:21 pm

    Phew – that was a load off. It was brave of you to say all that, brave of Marcel to let it all hang out too. It is true what you say about being honest and so necessary to say so that this disease is not kept as a dirty little secret. May he continue to recover, I am thankful he recognized the signs when it came back – that in itself is a saving grace. Blessings on you and your family, may the healing be deep.

  33. May 2, 2010 12:08 am

    speaking peace for Marcel — from a heart that shares the pain of depression.
    speaking strength for you and the girls.

  34. Dovelily permalink
    May 2, 2010 10:28 am

    I’ve been wanting to reply to this post, but have needed a few days to process it. I cannot imagine what it was like for you to have to be so brave and so strong for your girls as your husband fought for, and continues to fight for, his life. I am so happy, though, that you and your family are still whole and are coming out of this dark valley. Please know you are all in my prayers. Wishing much love and peace for you all.

  35. May 5, 2010 5:48 am

    first of all, thank you Marcel for allowing your story to be known. It’s “easy” to talk about it a century or more after it has happened, but to allow us into the “now” is a huge amount of trust and beauty on your part. Shame and secrecy has no part in your journey. Understanding, empathy, and support do. I wish there were simple answers, and an easily prescribed antidote to all the black mental dogs. Your transparency, vulnerability, and humility in seeking peace is a gift to us all. You are not alone.
    Peace to you all.

  36. May 14, 2010 9:09 pm

    Heather,

    Your unabanished honesty and authenticity if fresh, beautiful and inspirational to everyone who is dealing with this type of illness. To feel it is not some deep, dark secret that cannot see the light of day or be told to others and shared as we try and understand it, heal from it, and manage it is admirable. And most importantly, to continue to LOVE, support and stand by those that are the closest to our hearts.

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