Mental illness is a dirty secret in the Muslim community. It’s seen as a curse, as an embarrassment, as something to be kept hidden. In many countries it’s not spoken about, and certainly not medically treated. It’s something you get over, because you really don’t have any choice.
It goes without saying that for those with mental illness, life is a struggle. What many don’t realize is that for their spouses it is a double struggle, and perhaps for their children even more so. This is the other side of the story, the account of a relatively okay person living with a husband who is bipolar, the account of two children whose father has ups and downs that are unbelievably hard to explain or understand.
First, a caveat: Salma isn’t my real name. When I started writing this narrative, I decided that I wouldn’t identify myself because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. Also, my husband would be hurt if he knew I had written this. Why? Well, he’s a man. And men generally don’t like admitting they need help, that they are incapable or uncertain or unable to cope.
But I find it hard to cope, too, and that’s something not everyone really understands. People keep telling me how lucky I am to have him. Thankfully his job isn’t affected by his depression, and somehow outsiders judge you based on how large your house is or how many cars you have, as if those things equate to happiness. And it’s true, when he’s in a good mood, he’s the most amazing husband a woman could ask for. He’s kind, he’s generous, religious without being a fanatic. But all that never lasts long, and the drop in his emotions when it comes is as sudden as it is inevitable.
I hate myself for hating him in his “down cycle,” as I call it. I tell myself I should be sympathetic, love him through the bad times, and give him comfort. But I can’t when something in his brain is making him shout, cry, hurt inside. I admit that sometimes I get furious when he says life isn’t worth living, wanting to demand how come our children and I aren’t worth living for. But I can see the agony on his face, and nothing I do can ease the pain. In the meantime, he’s like a wounded animal, roaring at everything in his way.
It isn’t always true that things improve with time. I’ve been married almost two decades now, and even with medications the down cycle is vicious, depressing. My children are in elementary school, and they can’t understand why Abbu is so mean sometimes. Why there are days he sleeps all day. A year ago I decided to leave, but then I wondered how he would cope without me. I thought about how my children would fare without a father. I told myself I have to be brave and as long as I’m not in physical danger, stick it out so that we can be a family, even though it’s not a perfect one.
It’s ironic, though, because this isn’t my first experience with mental illness. My father had paranoid schizophrenia, which is a terrible condition that makes bipolar seem like a kitten in comparison. I had a terrible childhood, and I used to wonder at my mother who survived not only the emotional anguish of living with a mentally ill person but also the physical assaults she had to bear. I always blamed her for not leaving, for allowing us to live in that home with a person who was so aggressive, so irrational. Yet here I am doing the same.
But I think my experience is different, not only because bipolar is different from schizophrenia but also because I learned much from watching my parents. I can look back and identify the errors in judgment my mother made, and sometimes hindsight being 20/20 can be helpful. I’ve made a conscious decision to do things differently, and hopefully survive this relationship.
Most importantly, I look at my husband as a human being, not in terms of his illness. During his highs, I spend a lot of time cuddling, holding hands, and generally making him feel happy and assured of my affection. I encourage my children to tell him they love him, to spend time with him, to shower him with kisses. My daughter draws cards with hearts and flowers, which he keeps around him to remind him when he’s in a low. During those dreaded lows, we keep away, although I continue communicating with the kids, telling them he’s acting this way because he’s not well. The biggest mistake my own mother made was that she never explained our father’s illness to me, and I ended up hating him. So when my husband is angry or upset, I take the kids aside and tell them: “Abbu’s not feeling well right now, but he still loves you very, very much. Let’s pray that he gets better soon.”
I’m not always cool with it, though. Sometimes the emotions swirl inside me just as fast as inside him. I question whether he loves me, which aspect of him is true, and which is false. I constantly think if life would have been different if he had been “normal.” I rail at God for giving me not just a father with mental illness but a husband, too. And I worry that the disease will find a home in one of my children.
But for now, my kids are uncomplicated, innocent. The other day my daughter, six now, asked me about marriage. She said, “I love Abbu, he’s a wonderful dad, but I hope I don’t get married to a person like him.” I understood instinctively what she was saying, but I asked her to explain anyway. “He screams at you a lot,” was her reply. Instead of upsetting me, that gave me peace of mind. If I can help my children see him as a person not as a monster, I think I’ve done a good job. They should love him, because he’s their father, not a disorder. Me, I’m coping fine.
This piece is written by Salma Ahmad.
Photo: Thomas Leth-Olsen