I recently attended the wedding of the son of a very close friend of mine. The ceremony was beautiful and the bride and groom were dazzling. Embarrassingly, I found myself crying while sitting awkwardly alone in the pews without Kanisa–my beloved bride for the past 32 years. I thought of our own wedding day as the subsequent events of three decades of matrimony flashed through my brain like a hastily constructed time lapse YouTube video.
Kanisa and I had met through a mutual acquaintance and it was love at first sight. (Well, maybe second sight.) The courtship progressed quickly and we spent the next seven years in wedded bliss, traveling frugally around the world on a military member’s budget. After Katie was born, Kanisa became the perfect doting mother, pouring her heart and soul into raising our only daughter in the most creative and imaginative ways possible. We continued to travel extensively together as a family, making frequent trips to all sorts of exotic destinations far and wide. All the while, my business flourished and life with family and friends was grand. I didn’t quite appreciate how good I had it at the time.
Things are quite different now. Katie has grown into adulthood and is living in California running her own successful small business. When she left for college 7 years ago, Kanisa suffered an emotional breakdown from which she has yet to recover. In fact, she suffers from severe anosognosia, or lack of insight as a primary symptom of her mental illness. Because she doesn’t realize how bad off she is, she is unwilling to see a doctor for treatment, refuses any sort of anti-depressive or anti-psychotic medication, and has basically isolated herself from the rest of the world. This beautiful, vibrant, and loving person who was so passionate about traveling, gardening, and decorating is now a shell of her former self–literally and figuratively. She spends her days camped out in front of the TV or computer, frequently staring off into space or ranting aimlessly about this or that. Her friends and family rarely drop by anymore, understandably frightened by the bizarre behavior of this emaciated stranger they no longer recognize.
My heart is broken. I’m constantly burdened by multiple levels of pain and guilt. I often feel a deep personal sorrow and a sense of utter helplessness and isolation. It’s an agonizing experience to see someone you love perishing right before your eyes and not be able to do anything about it. It’s especially difficult having to bear witness to Kanisa’s own daily anguish and agitation of being trapped in her own sick mind with no escape. Most tragedies in life, including death, offer some opportunity for closure and peace. Unfortunately, the hellish cycle of chronic mental illness does not.
Pain of this intensity is debilitating. It affects my health, my relationship with others, and my faith. It deeply colors my entire outlook on life. For this is the time that Kanisa and I should be enjoying our golden retirement years together, reaping the fruits of a life well lived. Instead, I spend my days planning for a far different future than what we had ever envisioned. My periods of self-pity and grief usually hit me at odd times–like when I see a happy couple enjoying a simple meal together at a restaurant, or when I run across an especially poignant social media anniversary post, or like when I’m watching a young couple at a beautiful wedding ceremony with families intact and the world at their fingertips.
I think frequently about the sanctity of my own marriage vows repeated all those years earlier…. “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as we both shall live.” It’s especially difficult embracing the “in sickness and in health” part, and I know it’s only through an undying love for Kanisa and God’s loving grace for us that I even stand a chance of upholding those vows. I seem to be surviving for now–proceeding day by day, taking on the immense challenge of caring for myself while also having to provide for all of Kanisa’s essential needs. Often times I feel I’m just one small temptation away from crashing and burning. I covet all your prayers.
But what can you do? Life goes on. Through the relentless support of family and friends, and from organizations like NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness), I press on–facing my grief head on by writing and sharing personal thoughts such as these in hopes of exposing the stigma associated with these cruel and unrelenting diseases of the brain. Writing is therapy for me. Whenever I put fingers to keyboard, I feel an overwhelming and unexplainable sense of gratitude as I’m able to openly share my struggles with those who may not fully understand the devastation caused by mental illness. Through my writing, it also suddenly dawns on me that I’m not alone after all, that many others are battling their own personal trials and private demons. Despite our hardships, we all seek the assurance in our hearts that life on earth is still worth living, even as we long to grasp the healing that is sure to eventually come.
The other day, as I was struggling with something as simple as paying a bill that was held over in Kanisa’s name, I realized that our lives are intertwined now more than ever—truly united together as one flesh, in sickness and in health. Most of the time it’s a living hell, and I doubt if this is the way God intended marriages to be. But strangely, I also still get momentary glimpses of joy when I’m taking care of her basic everyday needs. It’s a definite conundrum in my mind–all part of this mystery we call life. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m trying to—one “crazy” step at a time.