Once upon a time in 2007, I met and later married a pastor's son. He was about two years out from a psychotic break and I was not even a year out from a major depressive episode. He had a brilliant mind and was refreshingly honest. He was rigid but clearly yearning for some degree of flexibility which I easily provided. Sometimes his responses struck me as slightly rude, offensive, or detached but I chalked it up to his inexperience with dating. Like all young romances, my heart got away from my head. I went from having no desire to pursue another relationship to wanting nothing more in the world. The fact of the matter is, if he had asked me to attend medical school closer to home, I would have, even if it meant delaying to start for a year or two. But he never did, so I assumed he didn’t want me to. Six months into our relationship I went off to Virginia to pursue my medical degree and he stayed in New Jersey with a good job and the bustle of his father’s church ministry. We distance-dated for over a year which led to a distance engagement and, finally, a distance marriage for several months. I don’t count it as good or bad that we spent nearly two years of our relationship as a long-distance couple but it’s worth acknowledging how formative it was to our foundation. We put the work in to stay emotionally connected during that time because we both knew we had no other choice. Once we were under the same roof, I think we both assumed that continuing that same level of communication and intimacy would be easy. In some ways, it became harder.
Before we ever thought about having children, we gave birth to a psychological stronghold. Before we had Ellie or Ezra, our first child was Denial. In our earliest days of dating, we talked at length about our respective mental health histories. He told me about his psychotic break in 2005 that landed him in on a psychiatric unit. He described having full-on hallucinations and delusions mostly based on retellings from his family members rather than what he could fully recall. Ultimately, he stopped the medications because they made him feel awful and plunged into a depression which he apparently was able to ‘will’ himself out of at some point. No ongoing group therapy or one-on-one counseling; no maintenance medications. Just good old-fashioned willpower and prayer. If anyone else had told me that story—be it a patient, friend, or other family members—I would applaud their efforts but strongly caution them that they should always be on guard for setbacks. At the very least, I would have urged them to consider maintenance psychotherapy or have a very low threshold for initiating it when, not if, symptoms of psychological distress resurfaced. Instead, we both decided that he was fine and would stay fine.
I told him about my wrist-cutting and feeble suicide attempt with a pill overdose at the age of fourteen. I was also honest about the depressive episode I had right after college precipitated by heartbreak and losing my nerve to pursue medicine for a few years. I took to exercising twice a day, working three jobs, and writing feverishly (the end result was a large collection of poetry and a young adult novel). I also got serious about being a Christian. I took a college-level hermeneutics course and got baptized. I did nothing specific to address my mental health. No therapy, no medications, no accountability. I just decided that I was cured one day. If that’s not textbook avoidance, I don’t know what is.
We applauded ourselves for being so transparent with one another. Neither of us batted an eye at the other’s story. In fact, this common history of psychological struggle was just more evidence that we were made for each other. We were two people who had fought our way out of the mental health trenches in unconventional, self-reliant ways. We saw no need for caution or concern because we had relegated these pieces of our story to relics of the past. All was conquered, contained, and no longer a threat. This was how Denial was born.
We dove headfirst into an unconventional marriage with an obscene number of external stressors coming at us in rapid succession. Juggling the pressures that medical school, the Army, and relocating nearly every year placed on us was hard enough. He was launching a small business and finding it harder to execute than he imagined. Then came the traumas. First, it was infertility. Then, it was recurrent miscarriages. Then came the major rift in our family followed closely by devastating church hurt. This would turn out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.