Before I was discharged from the hospital after delivering Iris, I asked the doctor to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant. I knew that losing two babies inside of six months could send me into a dark place. When placed on a six-month holding pattern before trying for a baby again, I became rigorous in my self-care. The medication, weekly therapy, yoga multiple times per week, baths, and natural beauty products became a ritual to stay afloat. I hear the words loud and clear from the grief community: take care of yourself, take care of yourself.
That self-care became difficult while I was pregnant with Autumn. The struggle with anxiety was real and overwhelming. Sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, I would take a bath because it was the only thing I could do to calm myself. Heart racing, shaking, light-headed and irrational fears crowded my daily life. It continued for a few months after she was born, and then subsided.
A few months ago, Ger and I started marriage counseling. The disconnect from nearly three years’ combination of pregnancy and grief had taken its toll. We had put our marriage on hold. My argument in favor of seeing a marriage counselor, after having been through so much individual therapy myself was “Why try to figure this out on our own? Why not let a professional guide us?”
After one particularly trying session, Ger told me the next day that he feels he has been neglected for the past few years. That he had done everything he could to support me in my grief, but I hadn’t given anything back to him. I replayed the words from my individual therapist and my support group over and over in my mind: take care of yourself. Yourself. Through tears, I told him “You’re right. And I’m sorry. I had nothing else to give during that time. I can’t change that, but I promise you I can fix it going forward.”
Ger has had a problem with alcohol over the past few months. With increasing frequency, he would drink more than he should in the evenings. I was very concerned and suggested that he seek some type of treatment, such as a support group or individual therapist. He insisted that it was something he could control on his own because, as he pointed out, he has abstained from alcohol completely for lengthy periods of time in the past, included my entire pregnancy with Autumn.
He promised to go 30 days without alcohol. He made it 25 days. I brought up treatment again. He wanted to go another 30 days. He made it, and then some.
During the same week of our difficult therapy session, I began to sense that something was off. It culminated in him drinking too much again and the behavior became destructive. I was scared for him and simultaneously knew that the kids had to come first. He promised to seek treatment and followed through, beginning sessions with a therapist who is also a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC). Continuing treatment was my stipulation for holding our family together.
He finally sat down with me and said “I have a medical issue. I have anxiety.” It had started while I was pregnant with Autumn. He had panic attacks: those same uncontrollable physical symptoms that I had felt. Marriage counseling had exacerbated it. He wanted to escape and not recognizing it for what it was, he numbed it in the only way he knew how.
Suddenly it all had clicked. He did reading online about anxiety and said “Yep, that’s me.” He has started medication and has increased the number of times he will see his therapist per week, until the medication kicks in and he learns the behavioral coping skills he needs.
I write this for a few reasons. First, because I have been writing for years now about how grief and loss have affected me, but the toll on my marriage is just now beginning to surface. Ger’s feelings of neglect over the past few years are completely valid. I now have to contemplate how that unfolded, and how I missed the message – or maybe the message was incomplete – to grieving parents to “take care of yourself, and take care of each other.” Otherwise you may find that “each other” falls apart.
Second, it has been a week of high profile suicides, with both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives. Mental health is serious and I know that living inside of a mental health issue often means that the individual can’t help themselves – they don’t know how. I saw Ger’s destructive behavior and stepped in saying “This isn’t normal and it’s not ok. You need to get help.” I saw our marriage counselor for a final session, alone, to tell her that we would not be back until Ger was in a better place. Regarding my actions, she said “That must have been so hard.”
“It wasn’t,” I replied. “I did what needed to be done.” And what needed to be done was the firm push that treatment was a necessary step. I had to lean on people starting that the day we found out that we had lost Nelle on September 3rd, 2015. Now I am leaning on the same people again for support as we navigate this. It was hard to say “I need help, again” but my tribe showed up for both of us, no questions asked.
Finally, I committed long ago to writing about this journey, wherever it leads. Details are between myself and my husband, but I can’t pretend that nothing is going on. We need to work on healing and building trust again. Ger took care of me for the past several years, and now it my turn to take care of him.
(Written with agreement from my husband on what we would share. He agrees that the impacts of grief on a marriage, and anxiety as a mental health issue, are two things that need attention and discussion.)