This isn’t an attempt at issuing a way-after-the-fact mea culpa. Those are too easy. This is my attempt to shed light on the devastating impact mental illness takes on the family members of the person suffering. It’s taken me six years to realize how close to the breaking point I came. That’s also the same amount of time it took for bipolar disorder to strangle the life from my wife.
In September of 2006 my wife was locked up in mental institution for her own safety. The preceding year-long manic episode was almost too much to believe. She moved three hours away from me and our babies. She entered rehab and was promptly thrown out. She spent a brief period of time in a homeless shelter and was running with meth addicts. She was a police officer which made the surrealism even more difficult to comprehend. Within a period of a few weeks, a crushing depression dragged her into the depths of hell.
Her inconsolable mental anguish inevitably resulted in suicidal thoughts. She felt useless and a failure as a mother, wife, friend and employee. She had harmed so many of the people who had tried desperately to help her. Depression turns the mirror inwards and creates a terrible distortion of who you see staring back at you. The physical and emotional pain was so overwhelming that death seemed like the only escape. I had to protect her. I will never forget the sound of the metal door closing behind me as I walked out into the unknown, alone and terrified.
We were over two years into a nightmare that seemed to have no end. I had already turned to alcohol to numb the pain of watching my wife self-destruct. I was desperately lonely and had lost my best friend and the beautiful human connection we shared. I tried to drink the pain away. I tried to drink the torment away. I drank to forget. And forget I did. I forgot what it was like not to drink.
While she was locked up I went on a business trip. It was an escape from my day to day reality and I was relishing the opportunity to be in a different place – physically and emotionally. I got blind drunk. It’s what drunks do after all. Except this time I came on to someone I worked with. She summarily rejected me as the married, drunken slob I was. It makes no difference if anything physical happened because emotionally I was more than willing. Maybe I was lonely or maybe I was angry or maybe I was just a jerk. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the way I felt when I looked at myself in the mirror in the morning. There had been many low moments in the days leading up to this one. This was the worst by far. My wife was institutionalized and needed me more than she ever had. And I was here, hung over and full of shame. I’d have to face my victim from the night before but nothing was as bad as having to face myself. What had I become? What kind of man, husband and father was I? Who was I and where could I go from here? And I thought I was lonely before.
I knew that alcohol was not the answer. I had to stop and I did. Eight long years later and four years after her death.
The only way I knew how to deal with her illness and the resulting chaos was to pretend I was strong. I compartmentalized myself as best I could. I would navigate this journey using willpower and logic. My heart was a liability and I silenced it by drinking until I could no longer hear it. Or anything else.
The next four years were filled with a never-ending cycle of depression and mania and all the terrible consequences that bipolar disorder creates. I did many things I was proud of during that time and I did some that I was ashamed of. So I drank the shame away because I had no capacity to deal with it. The irony was drinking created much of it in the first place. There were more important things for me to deal with. I was trying to save my wife and raise my girls. Everything else, including my emotional well-being was secondary. In the end, I failed to save her. I couldn’t. No one could. Bipolar disorder was a relentlessly powerful enemy that would not be vanquished. It robbed her of everything worth living for.
My infidelity that night in 2006 was only one act in a ten-year drama. Cindy’s death didn’t mean an end to my demons. The suicide of a loved one is terribly painful and it’s not the end. I was left to deal with the aftermath while trying to find a way to put myself back together. But I couldn’t because I was drunk every night. I thought only the weak needed to grieve and I was one of the strong. Alcohol helped me keep that illusion alive.
It took one thousand six hundred and eighteen days and the love, support and insistence of my incredible wife for me to stop. It took me another year of learning who I really am for me to start grieving what I lost. My grief appears when it needs to appear now that I am open to accepting it. I deal with it by writing and talking to my wife and kids. I also deal with it by trying to help others who are experiencing the incredible difficulties of coping with a loved one suffering from mental illness. Things are better now.
Cindy Anne MacKenzie died on March 26, 2010. She was a wife, mother and friend. R.I.P Cindy. Your girls are just fine.