[The following is the first chapter of my memoir, Turning This Thing Around. You can order the full book, paperback or ebook, at amazon.com/Turning-Thing-Around.]
What the hell did we do to deserve this? That question has popped into my head a few dozen times in the past several months. I’m in a shit-hole motel somewhere in Atlanta, but it might as well be a five-star hotel compared to my fiancée’s situation: Mary is in a psych ward being treated for severe bipolar/manic depression. I just got off the phone with her. She was hysterical, begging me to sneak her Coca-Cola and muscle-relaxers.
I have no idea what to do or how much longer I can take this. Tears are streaming down my face and I am asking God, once again, for help. My life has fallen apart and I see no daylight ahead.
Mary is still furious with me about check-in night at the “rehabilitation center,” as they delicately call it. She is enraged at me because I refused to give her muscle-relaxers despite strict orders to the contrary. Weaning her off the plethora of medications she was on was the whole idea of bringing her here: sixteen prescribed meds daily and another ten to be used “as needed.” Up to twenty-six different medications a day for one person (and she weighed less than 120 lbs.)!
And they were not helping; quite the opposite, actually.
I stood firm on that first night, refusing to “help her pain” by disobeying facility commands. Mary cried and told me to leave; she said I must not really love her. I stalled for a few minutes, waiting for her to change her mind. She did not.
Hadn’t I proven time after time I would always be there, that I truly loved her and would do anything I could for her? Hadn’t I talked her out of suicide multiple times, holding her on the bathroom floor or in bed as she cried uncontrollably night after night? Didn’t I lay with her in the hospital telling her things would be better someday? And now she’s saying I don’t care and she doesn’t want me around?
So I left the building.
I went to my car to think for a few minutes. I decided to go back to Mary’s room. I asked her if she really wanted me to go. She said if I wouldn’t give her the muscle-relaxers, then I should.
I left again.
The Most Loving Thing I Could Do
sitting outside your prison
where they’re trying to figure you out
wondering why you?
what’s this crazy world all about?
Been trying to read a little
but thinking of you a lot
you’re stuck inside alone
wondering if you’ll make it or not
I keep tearing up
looking to the sky
drops smack the pavement
as I ask “oh God, why?”
I know you feel so alone
maybe someday it will make sense to you
why I didn’t give you what you asked for
that’s the most loving thing I could do
I withheld from you
what I was ordered not to give
even when you said
I should leave
there was no reason for you to live
I would give up us
only if that would help you
maybe someday you will understand
that’s the most loving thing I could do.
–KM (February ’08)
Mary had been manic on the drive down from Knoxville, Tennessee, the phase of her illness when she felt indescribable euphoria. I dreaded this stage because of the devastating low that inevitably followed. And it wasn’t her; it was a fake happiness, a mirage.
She’d had these sporadic manic periods for years, often staying awake for days. Mary would finish entire novels in one sitting or jog for miles, despite rarely exercising normally. It was a fantasy-like high, as if she were on hallucinogenic drugs.
The rehab center was one highly-monitored hallway of rooms. Patients stood inert with blank expressions on their faces. Others stared at bare walls as if there were no life inside them. I could not tell what gender some of the patients were. There were odd, primal sounds coming out of several rooms.
Nearly all the patients had attempted suicide at least once, some several times. Many were in the midst of electro-shock treatments. It was a sullen, grave place, much like the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson.
The huge difference to me, of course, was that in this real-life psych ward, my fiancée was the main character.
Mary was adamant that no one know the whole truth of our predicament. A great number of prejudices and stereotypes are associated with mental illness in our society and she did not want to be judged unfairly. Nor did she want pity. My friends and family eventually began to suspect something was not right, but chose not to pry. I admitted to others that Mary struggled with migraines and insomnia—which she did—but no one had a clue how serious her problems were.
In the meantime, I could feel myself slipping away. I was going down with the ship. My mind was a whirlwind of worry, sadness, confusion and anger. It was overwhelming.
I feared I was losing my mind.
Repeatedly, I asked God for help, but things kept getting worse. What did Mary do to deserve this? She was a good person—so great with kids—yet had suffered almost her entire life.
And, what did I do? I was a good person. Had I not spent years in low-paying jobs helping others instead of chasing a bigger paycheck elsewhere? And for what, so we could struggle with bills and barely afford groceries?
I often feared Mary would finally give up. She swore she could never do that to me, but she talked about it often.
We had no idea how long Mary would be at the rehab center. Thank God my boss was understanding and told me to stay as long as I needed and not worry about work right now (I only told my boss that Mary’s health was terrible and we were going to a center to help her regulate her medications). I had very little money, hence the shoddy motel. My “smoke-free” room reeked of cigarettes and had multiple burn holes in the drapes and comforter. The cleaning crew neglected to clean the shavings from the previous guest, which were still on the bathroom counter-top and in the sink. Yet compared to Mary’s circumstances, I had no right to feel sorry for myself.
After Mary asked me to leave, I drove an hour toward home before I swallowed my pride and returned to be with her. I didn’t know if she would pull through. I didn’t know if either of us would ever be “okay” again. I had no idea how we’d gotten into this mess or if we could get back out.
Visiting hours at the center were 5 to 9 pm. I spent the days reading and writing, but mostly worrying. I also passed time in a small hospital chapel next door to Mary’s facility, meditating and praying. I prayed mostly for Mary, but—for the first time in years—I also prayed for myself.