I am incredibly pleased to host this story, the first of many (I hope!) stories about loving (and struggling to love) a person who is living with mental illness.
Please be generous with your comments and be sure this blogger knows she’s not alone in this experience!
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“You may not remember this,” a long-time family friend said to my fiancé, “but your dad was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown when you were a little boy.” Silence. “No, I don’t remember that,” my fiancé replied. And the worrying began.
More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law died following a swift and brutal battle with cancer.
My sister-in-law, who is a couple years older than my husband, later told us that she vaguely remembered dad being away for a while. At the time, nobody talked about why he was gone. And we didn’t raise the matter again, not directly anyway.
The funeral came and went. When my fiancé and I married at a destination wedding six months later – we’d made the plans before his mom was diagnosed – only our immediate families came. And my father-in-law looked painfully lonely.
But within a year and a half, Dad seemed to have rediscovered happiness. He had a new girlfriend. He had a spring in his step. We were relieved. Craving a fresh start and now lacking commitments at home, my husband and I moved to the other side of the country.
Then about three years later, we got the call. “I’m worried,” my sister-in-law told my husband.
“What do you mean?” he asked, suspicious. My sister-in-law is notorious for stirring the pot. And she has plenty of her own issues that could be fodder for several more blog posts.
“He hardly ever leaves the house. He doesn’t shower. And he’s neglecting the cat,” she said. We were worried. We went home to visit a month later. My sister-in-law was right to be concerned.
My father-in-law wasn’t well. Any sort of decision – what to have for dinner, going for groceries, visiting family and other simple, everyday tasks – nearly brought him to tears. Though he had started medication, it clearly hadn’t kicked in yet, was the wrong dose, or the wrong drug altogether. Because it wasn’t working.
And there was the girlfriend. She meant well, but she was a control-freak. She kept emphasizing how fragile he was. Yes, he was, but she seemed to be taking some sort of perverse pleasure in her now much-needed role in his life. I began to suspect she had her own mental health issues to deal with. Was she in a position to be his self-appointed caregiver?
But who were we to question it? We weren’t there on a daily basis. She was. My husband felt guilty. His sister was in no shape to pick up the slack. We were needed but couldn’t be there. We were living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford to pick up and move back.
And after we left? I have to admit, it was time for me to feel guilty. I was glad we weren’t there anymore. Relieved. How shitty is that?
My husband rallied around his dad from afar. He called the relatives who did live in town, the ones who had stopped calling because he wouldn’t call back or visit when invited. He was upfront about why he was calling. He called his dad nearly every day – thank goodness for an awesome long distance plan. And amazingly? It worked.
When my father-in-law started to pull out of the fog, he gave my husband power of attorney. My husband hasn’t had to invoke it, but we wonder: when is it time to step in aggressively? When is it time to tell a grown man who raised his kids, paid his debts literally and figuratively, and worked hard all his life that he is no longer fit to make decisions? We still haven’t found the answer.
So every winter, as the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death comes, we keep as watchful an eye as we can from where we live, waiting for any sign that he may be slipping away from us again. He’s had his dips, but none as terrifying as that winter several years ago.
We are now making plans to move back home in another year. And hoping we make it back before my father-in-law’s depression rears its frightening head full force again. Because this time, we will have to step in.