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It's amazing how marriage works. The joining of two people in love seems so simple; yet the blending of family traditions, dynamics and even deficits is often so difficult.
My marriage is basically picture-perfect, but my mental illness has made for a few bumps in the road and has left me feeling like a bit of an outsider when it comes to my husband’s family.
I come from a family with a long history of mental illness: alcoholism, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, suicide. I snuggled down right into the family lineage when I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder a couple of years ago. Don’t get me wrong — stigma is rampant in my family. My mom will hardly acknowledge that I see a psychiatrist, therapist, and take seven medicines to make it through the day. However, even without a word being spoken about my mental illness, the support I need has always been there for me.
But as a “new” (we’ve been married nearly 10 years, but I still feel new) family member on my husband’s side of the family, I don’t fit in.
You see, his family tree is riddled with addiction: marijuana, cocaine, heroin. There's probably a family member to represent each substance. Rehab and even jail sentences are pretty common. Much discussion is given to old antics, recovery, and the idea of their addictions being part of the past. But, there is a younger generation who is continuing on the same path.
For me, it is so difficult to hear these discussions. Addiction is normal for them — something they are not afraid of bringing up at any family function. Talking about prison terms, trafficking drugs, and raucous behavior is OK — but a person with a mental illness is seen as lesser, weaker. Over the years, I’ve heard them refer to people with mental illness in many derogatory terms, each comment eating away at my self worth.
When it comes to his family, I've often wished I was a heroin addict instead of a person suffering from bipolar II disorder. Instead of being looked at like a fragile, helpless, lost person with little to no hope, I could be one of them — someone who can recover and be “normal,” putting my struggles in my past and chalking them up to bad decisions made while under the influence.
I’ve had two hospitalizations over the past two years. We kept these a secret from his family for a long time. The stigma of being in “the crazy house” would have caused many problems. Those 10 days away from my husband, children, and job would have given the impression that I was incapable of taking care of those very important, adult responsibilities. When someone finds out that you were in a psych ward, they look at you differently. They question your choices, your parenting, and your worth.
Had I been gone to a rehabilitation or a treatment program for weeks on end, however, I would have been celebrated. Think of the endings of the episodes of Intervention, when families are hugging, crying and cheering their loved one on as they load up in a van to travel to some tropical location to detox and learn coping strategies. Hope abounds.
For these family members, with whom I desperately want to connect, an addiction is just a noun — something that you experience. A diagnosis of a mood disorder, is an adjective — something you are. A descriptor that I’ll never be able to rid myself of, even over time. I will always have a mental illness. It’s the way my brain is wired.
I have one closely related in-law who is currently a heroin addict. He has an addiction that is controlling his behavior, just like I have a mental illness that is controlling mine. The difference: he can make the choice to stop using illicit drugs. I can’t quit being bipolar.
He is in his twenties, I’m in my thirties. The poor decisions I’ve made while depressed, such as quitting a well-paying job, seem so much worse than his choices because we can blame his on a drug. If he were to overdose on heroin, we would blame the addiction, the drug, and even his dealer; if I were to overdose, my suicide will be seen as a part of my weakness. I would be at fault, a failure to my family who only caused distress and pain.
How wonderful it would be to come out to his family and tell them that I have a problem, a fixable problem, and that I am an active participant in my treatment. Maybe then they would care for my kids while I was a therapy, pray for me when I’m experiencing suicidal thoughts, and bring me meals when I mentally and physically can’t bring myself to cook. Maybe, just maybe, if I was on heroin, they would be rallying around me like they have done many times before for other family members.
Luckily, I managed to find and marry one of the only guys in the family without a history of substance abuse. He has learned to love me despite my mental illness. He is there to comfort me in times of deep, debilitating depression and anxiety and hold onto the reins for me when my racing mind wants to make impulsive decisions. I’m pretty sure he's glad I’m not a heroin addict, because he gets it. This is me, who I’ll always be and we have to find a way to make it work.