This isn't an attempt at issuing a long-belated mea culpa. Those are too easy. This is my attempt to shed light on the devastating impact mental illness takes on those closest to the person suffering. It's taken me six years to realize the truth of my experience — the toll it took on me emotionally and the self-medicating I did to deal with it. That's the same amount of time it took for bipolar disorder to strangle the life from my wife.
In September of 2006, depression dragged my wife into a darkness from which she could see no escape. Mania had consumed her life for the previous year. The things she did were almost impossible to believe. One day she picked up and moved three hours away from me and our babies. For five months.
She entered rehab and was promptly thrown out for being aggressive and confrontational. She spent a brief period of time in a homeless shelter and was running with drug addicts and street thugs. She was a police officer, which made the surrealism even more difficult to comprehend.
I thought it would never end. But within a period of a few weeks, the mania was replaced by crushing depression. She felt as if she was a useless and worthless human. All she could see was her failures 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 inward 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. She was placed in the locked ward of a psychiatric facility. It was the only way I could see to keep her alive.
I will never forget the sound of the metal door closing behind me as I walked out into the unknown, alone and terrified.
At that point, 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. Before long, I forgot what it was like not to drink.
At some point, 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 whether 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 the co-worker I had made so uncomfortable 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.
Up to that point, the only way I knew to deal with her illness and the resulting chaos was to feign strength. I compartmentalized my feelings as best I could. I tried to navigate each day 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 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 some that I was ashamed of. So I drank the shame away because I had no capacity to deal with it. The irony was that drinking was what had created 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 an 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 10-year drama. Cindy's death didn't mean an end to my demons. The suicide of a loved one is terribly painful. But 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. I was one of the strong, right? Alcohol helped me keep that illusion alive.
I remarried in 2012. It took 1,618 days and the love, support, and insistence of my incredible wife for me to stop drinking. It took me another year of learning who I really am 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 being of service to others who are experiencing the incredible difficulties of coping with a loved one suffering from mental illness. Things are better now.
Share your story. It's the most direct and personal action you can take to make the world a better place.Cindy Anne MacKenzie died on March 26, 2010. She was a wife, mother, and friend. RIP, Cindy. Your girls are just fine.