The signs of my wife’s mental illness were everywhere from the start. I missed them all, of course.
It isn’t that I didn’t see them.
I did. I saw her smoking. I saw her drinking; how she conflated events and added embellishments; made outrageous accusations; and had no insight into her own extreme moods. I saw it all. I didn’t make the right sense out them.
I misinterpreted them.
I saw her use of alcohol and tobacco as simple addictions, if addiction can ever be thought of as simple. The concept that my wife was going to become mentally ill did not exist. I did not see illness, quiescent like a sleeping beast, waiting for a trigger to awaken and set it free to roam in her body and mind.
My first book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, was about the promise and hope of detoxification. I believed I could help her to come clean so she could live a healthy life and paint her landscapes for a long time. Or put another way, I was lonely and she wanted to detox. I helped her clean up and she took away my loneliness. I was desperate to have a partner, believing marriage would end the isolation that I felt in my own life. I made up excuses for her, though, and minimized what I was seeing. She was an artist after all. I thought a little medicating might be okay.
By the time our twins were three, my wife began isolating herself in her office, door locked tight and chain smoking on her patio. She was painting though and her landscapes of the Santa Monica range were exquisite explorations. But she was also up to three packs of cigarettes and 18 beers a day; her skin was gray; and her three-octave singing voice was disappearing. She’d begun hacking and coughing every morning.
When she did it sounded like she was dying and her obvious distress and the prospect of her being gone frightened the children most of all. Some weekend nights, she partied so hard, a friend had to drop her off, passed out, at the gate to our home. The kids would see their mom on the couch after I carried her inside.
All of us wanted her to stop but never made the connection she was medicating an incipient, emerging illness that could be triggered at any moment. Instead, I saw the problem as behavioral and perhaps even as a character issue or moral flaw. I was so wrong.
She promised to quit and found a medically supervised anti-smoking clinic in Napa, California where she stayed a week. There, she emailed me notes about being smoke-free and her new online support network. We were in a glide, as if skating on ice, those first two weeks she returned home and she was tobacco- and alcohol-free.
A few weeks later she came into the kitchen in knee-high boots and short leather mini skirt, holding a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. She announced, in a rough New England cant she once had kept hidden, “My father died. My half-brothers will take everything. They’re going to leave me nothing.”
But, in truth, she had never spoken with her father during our marriage; he lived in a junk yard, owned little and was going to leave her even less.
To console her I put my hand on her shoulder. She whirled around and angrily pushed me into the dining room table.
“Quit trying to molest me. You think this is your excuse to get your hands on me too?”
I left her alone that afternoon to let her calm down, but, during the middle of the night, I heard her talking to herself in the office. She was clanging, a word dissociation condition known technically as schizophasia, and clusters of words, sounding similar or rhyming but that made no sense, fluttered up the vent to our bedroom. 36 hours later she still hadn’t slept. I was scared for her.
Another night, with all the windows open, she created electric guitar feedback so loud neighbors gathered at our gate ready to call the sheriff if she didn’t shut the music down.
That night she finally revealed the clinic gave her the anti-depressant Wellbutrin (bupropion). Going online, I learned this dopamine uptake inhibitor is used to improve mood and fight depression but that one of its contraindications was it can cause bipolar episodes in susceptible person …
Everyone’s relationship to mental illness is different but there is no question that it can be shaped as it shapes. Mental illness, when it is at bay, can be an artistic blessing.
Though artists like Vincent van Gogh, Beethoven and Georgia O’Keefe all suffered from mental illness and their lives were tragic, their work stands alone and they will always be remembered for their contributions to humanity. But when mental illness is unleashed, non-medicated and full blown with hurricane force and you are living with it, it is a whole different ballgame.
If I’d have known these, hers were early signs of mental illness, I’d have been more forgiving and understanding. I would have understood that she didn’t do things to intentionally hurt anyone or from weakness. Instead, the drinking, smoking and mood swings were early earth tremors; they were not deliberate or calculating.
Later, after so much was lost and our life resembled the aftermath of a battlefield, all the early fragments of her behaviors now fit, like pieces of a puzzle I hadn’t put together before. My wife was a classic exhibitor of early mental illness.
Here are 5 early signs to look for in your partner:
Anger outbursts. Sometimes, enraged, my wife would throw things and hit me. She screamed, slammed doors and reached fever pitches of outrage that led to accusations of affairs, hidden foreign money and other outlandish deeds she imagined and were swirling in her mind. All these were signs of a mood disorder and indicated substantial mental health issues.
Isolation. Everyone needs alone time to do their thing but if that becomes isolation simply to self-medicate it is also a sign. When my wife became ill, instead of painting, she smoked on her patio with the door locked. She put a fridge in her office to stock beer to make the isolation complete.
Paranoia. During her anger outbursts she would accuse me, falsely, of having affairs with women at the office or our nanny and stealing millions (which we did not have) in offshore bank accounts. Paranoia is an indicator of a more severe illness lying beneath the surface.
Inability to carry out everyday activities, handle stress or problems. When my wife was healthy, she was the school treasurer, did our home budget, loved gardening, scheduled activities for the kids, did everything—but, as she became ill, the garden began to deteriorate and her paints, camera and computer parts all became jumbled and cluttered and canvases were thrown around her studio haphazardly….
Lack of insight into behavior. During its onset, my wife became like Teflon and possessed a distinct inability to see herself as suffering an illness or even doing anything hurtful. This condition is called anosognosia, which means lack of self- knowledge. Her illness, fighting for its own life, prevented her from admitting she was ill or even did bad things. She told me once her sister slugged her during the winter holidays. But her sister said it was the other way around. A girlfriend threw a beer can at her at a party, she claimed. The girlfriend and others there who witnessed it confirmed the lie. People in the midst of their illness may not be aware that they are lying. When dealing with mental illness they have a separate reality. In their mind they are convinced certain things are true. That’s why it is important to remember: preserve your reality.
These lessons came too late for me to save my marriage and protect my wife from a drug she should never have been given. But, now, as the single parent of three children, I am much more sensitive to their needs.
I hope my experience can help others whose loved ones could be susceptible to mental illness. Once you see these signs in your partner, there is much you can do to help. You can throw out moral judgements, first of all, and give love without preaching as you would any sentient creature having a difficult time. You can also trust your instincts and not second guess or dismiss them.
A person, whom you would not have thought could have serious mental health issues, can have them without turning into someone who is defective, chipped or irreversibly cracked. There is a beast inside them that they have to grapple with, too, and it’s what gave them the beauty that made you fall in love with them in the first place. The more you can help them, when the signs are milder, the less likely it is that the creature will take them over completely.
If you’re seeing these signs or congregation of them in your loved one, get help. Where we lived in Los Angeles, I relied on the county’s Psychiatric Mobile Response Team who visited my wife, talked to her and tried to get her help. See if there is a mobile response team in your area.
Throughout the nation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a network that can put you in touch with others who can share their experiences as well as contact health professionals.
Again, if you see these signs, they are probably real. Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t make excuses. The sooner you connect them to your partner’s incipient illness, in whatever degree it comes, the more influence and ability you will have to help.