Have you ever been at a wedding reception when the best man stands us and toasts his glass of champagne to the bride, who is “so much better than the last one”?
An awkward silence ensues, followed by an explosion of laughter.
That was pretty much how last Saturday night went, the highlight of my reunion with my guardian angel, Ann.
There we were, sitting at a nice long table inside “The Summer Shack” somewhere near Boston: Mr. and Mrs. Guardian Angel, my lovely editor Holly and her husband, and our family (kids included).
“I propose a toast!” Ann said confidently (the way she says everything … she does not hold back her opinions, my guardian angel).
I braced myself for the compliments I was sure that would be coming my way: To the brilliant Beyond Blue! To guardian angels! To special friendships! To those courageous souls who are fighting the stigma associated with mental illness!
“To Eric, for not divorcing Therese!” she said as she lifted her glass.
I nearly spit out my iced tea. That toast wasn’t on my list of ones I expected.
“And Therese, he never even thought about leaving you! I ASKED HIM!” she said.
But she was absolutely right to toast to him and his faithfulness and endurance, because as awful as I felt for 18 or more months, I still somehow held the helm. But Eric, he had no idea of what was coming next or what boat he was on: if he would have to be a caretaker for the rest of his life, or if the bride he married would someday return. I know that as terrifying as it was for me in that Black Hole, it had to be just as or even more frightening for him.
He’s come a far way in understanding mental illness and recognizing its potholes since the afternoon of my first severe panic attack, two and a half years ago.
David was pretending to play hockey, wearing a pair of my high heels as skates, using a plastic bat as his stick, and the cap of a peanut jar for the puck. One-year-old Katherine was, of course, naked chasing him around.
I suddenly felt dizzy and grabbed a chair to sit down. My heart started pounding, and I began to shake. I couldn’t breathe, as if I were trekking up Mt. Hood with a serious buzz. Afraid of suffocating, I searched for oxygen like David searched for his hokey puck.
I’m going to die! I thought to myself. I’m having a heart attack! I’m going crazy!
Inhale . . . one, two, three, four. Exhale . . . one, two, three, four, I repeated until I caught my breath about fifteen minutes later. I still felt like I was in a fishbowl, separated from the outer world by a layer of glass. I am alive, right? I pinched my hand to make sure.
I phoned Eric at work and asked him to come home.
By the time he arrived I had resumed a normal breathing pace, but I was still sweating and shaking.
“What’s the matter?” Eric asked me. “You look okay.”
“But I’m not. I’m really not,” I replied.
I explained the panic attack, how I felt like I was suffocating or having a heart attack, that I wasn’t in control, not in the least bit, and that I was afraid to be with our kids when I felt this way.
It was hard for me to explain what I was feeling when I didn’t really understand what was going on myself. So we began to learn together, as most couples do when one person is diagnosed with an illness. Sometimes I’ve had to emphasize the seriousness of my disease to him–why I get really cranky on vacations when my routine is messed up–but most times it is Eric who has had to remind me that I was born with fragile chemistry, and because of that it might not be a good idea to drink that fifth cup of coffee or volunteer to organize next year’s preschool fundraiser, that maybe I should leave it up to a mom with more neurotransmitters and a better functioning limbic system.
My other half’s support is a product of a fair amount of homework: accompanying me to many doctors’ appointments, listening to lectures by psych unit nurses, reading the material that I print out for him.
I don’t know how a partner of a depressive could begin to understand mental illness without gathering all the facts, as time-consuming as that is. But I do know this: all spouses of those with mood disorders deserve a big, loving toast and much, much more!