Jayma Anne Montgomery
BREAKING WITH DENIAL: THE STORY OF US (PART 2)
Around 2010 or so, my husband had another major psychiatric episode. We were living in the same household by then but I was away completing a clinical rotation at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. We had a few conversations that struck me as odd but nothing that gave me a clear indication of his vacillating mental state. He seemed off somehow but I was too busy and distracted to pinpoint why. Then I got the call from his sister. ‘You need to come get your husband ASAP.’ Dana’s tone was hard to argue with. She was never prone to hysterics but you always knew when she meant business. She told me that my husband had been staying with their parents and hadn’t been to work or slept in days. He wasn’t making sense and was starting to scare everyone. With barely a second thought, I got into my car and drove non-stop for four hours to his parent’s house. When I got to him, I hardly recognized him. He had a wildness in his eyes that I had never seen before. He was restless, agitated, and talking at warp speed, darting from one non-sensical topic to the next. He was seeing patterns in the sky, in the trees, and even on the palms of his hands. He was intensely paranoid and illogical. He was not my husband. Whoever this person was, scared me to death. That night, we had an intense conversation with his parents and sister. Dana and I were firmly in favor of taking him to the psychiatric hospital nearby. His Dad was staunchly against it. His Mom was on the fence. I was barely suppressing anger at them for not telling me how bad things had gotten. In the end, we all agreed to sleep on it and make a decision in the morning.
My husband and I stayed up talking in the dark for a while after everyone else went to bed. The hallucinations seemed to have abated and the rhythm of his speech slowed to a less frantic, more human-sounding cadence. We reminisced, laughed, and prayed. He asked me to sing to him and it seemed to have a soothing effect. When I thought he had drifted off to sleep he asked me, in barely a whisper, if I would ever leave him. ‘Never.’ I said, ‘But you need help and I can’t do this by myself.’ ‘Thank you’ was all he replied before finally falling limp against my chest with sleep. By my calculations, it was likely the first time he had slept in five or more days. I wept quietly, begging GOD to fix it. I didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with medical school and my husband in a psychiatric hospital at the same time. The last thing I wanted to do was involve my parents, who were not entirely supportive of our marriage in the first place. The timing was terrible and I didn’t want to fight with my husband’s family. My prayer was anguished and heartfelt, but also selfish. I wanted GOD to fix my husband more to preserve my sanity than for the sake of what this could mean for his life.
We slept until late the following morning. When I woke up, he was looking at me calmly, his eyes communicating to me that he was fully present cognitively and in control. I knew instantly that he was back to himself and I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t dare question it. We ate breakfast, packed our things, and drove back to our apartment. We wouldn’t have another discussion about it for years. We both quietly accepted what I believed was a supernatural intervention. I still believe that’s what happened and I remain grateful. For a few years after that, I kept waiting for the lid on his tenuous psychological state to pop off again. I knew that I should be pushing for him to see a psychiatrist and/or a psychologist. I knew he probably needed medication. I knew that had a patient of mine shared this story with me I would tell them, without hesitation, that they were only hurting their spouse in the long run by pretending things would be fine forever. But I couldn’t bring myself to even crack that door open. And after a while, it became easier to ignore my fears and pretend that what had happened was nothing more than an exaggerated response to sleep deprivation.
Then, between 2015 and 2016, I plunged into another major depressive episode. I was having a fourth miscarriage at nearly 14 weeks which pushed me over the edge. The bad news ultrasound was nearly 2 weeks prior and I was waiting to bleed so I could move on. The cramping started while I was in clinic. I ignored it and kept seeing patients, ducking out of appointments to double over in the bathroom if necessary and change out soaked tampons and pads. I managed to finish seeing all of my morning patients and then made my way over to the GYN clinic in my building. By the time I got to the front desk, the pain became unbearable. I collapsed on all fours, no longer able to stifle screams of agony. My body had had enough of me ignoring that it was in distress. I writhed and felt the sweat run down my entire body. I started to wretch from intense nausea. I honestly thought I was dying. Yet, the only other thought that crossed my mind was how humiliating it was to be an attending physician at this facility only to end up bleeding profusely and passing fetal tissue in front of coworkers and strangers. I didn’t know it then, but more were still to follow.
I felt like I was being punished and became furious with GOD. After that day, I wanted less and less to do with attending church, praying, or reading the Bible. I didn’t see the point anymore. I cut my best friend off for almost a year. Her crime was being fertile. I was brimming with envy and resentment. I didn’t want to pretend with her so I just withdrew from her altogether. Somehow, our friendship survived that storm. I will never know how much I may have hurt her during that time but, when I was ready, she welcomed me back like the prodigal friend I was. She has never once made a negative comment to me about it or held it over my head in any way. Thanks be to GOD for friends who are dearer than blood relatives. It took a year of intense therapy, a support group, and finding my way back to GOD’s love to get me out of that dark place. I never stopped to survey the wreckage that was done to our marriage from all of that. We both just kept moving and tried not to look back.
The moral of this protracted story is that Immanuel and I have perfected the art of maladaptive coping throughout the years. We are so skillful at it that we fool most people, including ourselves, most of the time. We have gone about working, managing our household, paying bills, and raising our kids as if there weren’t massive, thorny weeds overtaking the lawn and an enormous hole in our roof. There were interactions early on in our marriage that I internalized as rejection and so I stopped making certain overtures altogether, including amorous ones. As our issues piled on, he seemed to sink deeper into a state of cryogenic stasis. I didn’t reach for him most of the time because I didn’t expect him to reach back. I got used to comforting myself and after several years, it became all I knew. He would go through seemingly unexplained rough patches of self-loathing, despair, and what seemed like an inability to experience any intense emotions. I would get frustrated and eventually tell him to just snap out of it. But no one just ‘snaps’ out of psychological torment.
That he may have been experiencing bouts of depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia never even crossed my mind during those times. As the physician in the family, I should have insisted on mental health services for him numerous times throughout our marriage. I am well aware that most mental health diagnoses are lifelong and are marked by relapses. There are so many occasions that I can now look back on and can plainly see that he was struggling mentally. This should have triggered me to take immediate action on his behalf. Instead, I doubled down on my partial denial of the truth. I convinced myself that he just wasn’t a resilient person who, as a result, was prone to bouts of self-pity. I realize now that he may actually be one of the most resilient people that I have ever known. To endure the last 15+ years without the tools and support that he needed to manage his mental health demonstrates a will of iron and an unflinching commitment to carrying on his role as a husband and a father at great cost to himself. To be married to a healthcare professional who was unintentionally misleading you about your mental health had to be not only incredibly unhelpful but invalidating. Denial grew into one overbearing kid.
Thirteen years into our marriage we find ourselves embattled and weary. I find myself asking if we can really undo over a decade of poor communication and my learned impulse to protect myself from him at all costs. We have been at psychological war with each other probably for most of our marriage instead of being united against our common threat. I now see that despite our best efforts, our Pentecostal-influenced faith traditions had conditioned us to expect only miraculous healings for our psychological illnesses. I have to wonder what drives that fixation. Having a strong belief in the existence of signs and wonders and wanting to see those things manifested in the contemporary church is a large part of that but I think there also exists a more practical reason. Desiring miraculous healing also comes with the expectation that it will occur instantaneously. In this way, it absolves us from personal responsibility or having to do any work at all. If the key to healing may instead involve making better dietary choices, seeking out a good doctor, following sound medical advice, or undergoing a medical procedure, we may abandon it in pursuit of the miracle we prefer. Sometimes, what we want is nothing more than to dictate to GOD the circumstances of when and how we will be healed. In African-American, African, and Caribbean communities mental health disorders are not only stigmatized but are things to be feared and not discussed. The desire to move on as quickly as possible from what had happened to us took precedence over remaining honest with ourselves. We may not have had anyone lay hands on us and declare us healed but I think, subconsciously, the moment we began to see hope and feel somewhat 'normal' again was the moment that we wanted to declare ourselves fully healed and never look back.
Denial has now grown into a wily teenager with dreadlocks, tattoos, and a foul mouth. He's caused me to retreat further and further into my internal world and he's driven my husband to a state of emotional detachment. Most of the time, we have been living around each other rather than with each other. We have gone weeks or months avoiding eye contact, touching, or talking about the herd of elephants that has taken up residence in our home. It’s all been incorporated into a sense of normalcy. We hate it but we keep doing it because it’s all we know to do.
I need to say that without a doubt I have been far more deceived about all of this than he has. He has been throwing up red flags for years and I have been shutting him down. He accused me of gaslighting him not too long ago and it made me furious at the time. But now, I think he may have been right. I think my well-earned, yet irrational fear of facing the truth about our mental health issues caused me to respond that way as a protective mechanism. I have had to re-learn, as I did back in 2016, that denying truth only makes fear stronger. After some recent conversations, it seems we are finally ready to send Denial off packing to a juvenile detention center. I think we are both tired of existing in a lifeless state and want to know what it is to thrive again. We definitely didn’t fully know what we were signing up for when we got married, but all of it, the pain and the beauty of it, is fully ours to restore and revive. I pray that this time we are able to learn what we have failed to learn over and over again in the past. We are better than our failings and our bad decisions. We are stronger than the worst ways that we have wounded one another. Our love is more tenacious and true than we have given it credit for. I more than believe it, I know it now. I hope someday that we both know it and live it.