When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness

I posted a poem last week called Everywhere I Go You Follow. I wrote the poem when I was nineteen years old and experiencing a rough relationship. Daley over at The Invisible Moth asked who the poem was about and I told her to stay-tuned and that I’d answer with a follow-up essay.

I wrote the essay, When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness at the beginning of this year and XONecole published it on their site in March. Even though this breakup story is far in my past, and I’m very happily married nowas you all know. I’m so grateful for this relationship and all that it taught me. Writing this essay cleared my creative voice that had taken me years to rediscover.

Here is the link to the original article.

When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness

Loving someone with mental illness is driving through mountain passes at 2AM in early spring.

Climbing up switchbacks and taking hair-pin turns way too quickly and listening to The Beatles’ White Album. It’s nurturing someone who is running from their demons–holding them on the side of the road while you huddle under a blanket and look at the stars on the edge of a mountain lake, and concurring the darkness and greeting the morning sun while inhaling your victory into burning lungs and gazing into sleepy eyes that radiate relief that the night is over, only to take a new adventure the next night to divert the memories again.

I fell in love with a boy who was officially diagnosed with extreme bipolar disorder, but it took two years to get a diagnosis. We were both 19, young, selfish, and ignorant to the details of mental illness. There were numerous nights when I would get a phone call and the only sound on the other line would be heavy breathing and a shaky, “Help…me.” I would instantly jump out of bed and drive to his apartment and find him in a puddle of puke and reeking of alcohol. I would clean him up and put him to bed and pray that he would be “better” in the morning.

I continuously told myself that I could fix him. My touch would erase the dark circles that formed under his eyes from the impossibly long nights that he couldn’t sleep. If I held him long enough his anxious, tight, wiry muscles would relax. If we partied and had fun we could be a normal couple like the rest of our friends. We could laugh and drink and be silly, not everything had to be so dark and dramatic. I did not understand that when he was on a manic high that it was not his “normal” self. The extreme happiness would not last and inevitably the other ball of fear and anxiety would swing and the Newton’s Cradle that was his personality would slam back down again. The constant swing of emotion was torturing him. I was in a perpetual state of fear that he would die and I was frustrated because I knew that I was not helping him.

He was constantly self-medicating. He drank… a lot. He cheated on me multiple times. Our relationship was crushing me and I was already working and attending school full-time. During the year and a half we were together he ran away more times than I can count, stopping all contact completely. His illness was causing me to have severe anxiety and there were days when I desperately wanted to ignore him, leave him, and forget about him. But then he would call and I would criticize myself for being so selfish. I could never voice my worst fear out loud, especially to him:

What if I’m not there and he dies…

He was finally brought to a rehabilitation center where he was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The words schizophrenia, manic, and depressed, were tossed around like common cold and a possible ear infection. The smell of bleach and ammonia was such a sterile contradiction to the moldy, dusty appearance of the neglected building. There were cracks on the tiled floor and an eerie silence that trailed behind my reluctant footsteps as I followed a nurse to see him. I walked into a fluorescent cafeteria and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember a single word we said. I know, I’m sorry for the let down, but I honestly can’t think of what we said to each other. I remember him being very sedative and his eyes were incredibly sad. I distinctly remember going home and eating some banana cream pie only to expel it into the toilet 15 minutes later. I still can’t eat banana cream pie.

Shortly after, I went off to Western Washington University to finish my four-year degree. He went through more rehabilitation. We began to drift apart. I went to visit him at one more facility that was much nicer than the last. I didn’t know how to tell him that I had found someone else. We weren’t together, but I still felt heavy with a guilty heart that I was moving on. I made the incredibly cruel and stupid decision to tell him the day he was sent home that I was dropping out of our relationship. I will never forget the sound of his voice when he whispered in an exhausted tone, “Why would you tell me that today, the day I get to go home?” I selfishly decided that day that I was done; I wanted to leave our relationship in the past. I was bailing hard because I wanted to enjoy my two years of university life.

We have hardly spoken since that final goodbye where we literally hung up the phone and ended the conversation of “us.” From our brief interactions following our breakup, and the gossip mill of Facebook, it sounds like he is doing incredibly well for himself. He went back to school and we now share the same alma mater. Without my help or influence he picked himself up and made a new life. In my vanity I thought it was me that was holding him together when ultimately he was always in control of his own life and didn’t need me backseat-driving for him. His battle ultimately had to be fought with the aid of professionals and a loving family.

He has a new shotgun partner now. When I think of them driving through life together I feel a surge of emotion that hurls itself through the timeline of “us”. I fiercely want her to be the one for him. I want her to stand strong where I crumbled under the weight of his illness. I won’t ever get a chance to tell him that I am proud of him. Even though we shared soul-wrenching truths about ourselves, there is the ever-present barrier that holds steady when lovers decide to take different directions. After speeding through the dark tunnel of time that was “us” and the discovery of illness, I hope he basks in the light on the other side.

-Rachel McKee

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Author: Rachel McKee

Currently writing a YA novel. I love reading about everything, truly I'm not a book snob. Lately I have been "reading" a lot of picture books to my baby boy. In my past life before motherhood, I was a professional technical editor and writer.

8 thoughts on “When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness”

  1. While I can’t even begin to imagine what this time in your life was like, I can relate in some ways, as I totally understand being in a dysfunctional relationship and feeling like you can “fix” it. I don’t think for one second you were selfish. You had to take care of yourself. He wasn’t ready to be a proper partner, so you actually did both of you a favor by choosing to end the romantic relationship. He did need to do what only he could do for himself, and you should be proud of him. But you should also definitely be proud of yourself. Maybe you wouldn’t be the person you are today if you hadn’t made your “selfish” decisions.

    😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are absolutely correct. We are so much better off now. He is a good person and I was with him at an utterly chaotic time in his life. Honestly it was a chaotic time in my life, still a teenager with a lot of adult responsibility.

      Like

      1. Also, I think it was very brave of you to be so honest about your feelings towards him, then and now. Part of reversing the stigma on mental illness – which encourages people not to seek help when they need it – is to see the person behind the symptoms.

        Liked by 1 person

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