By Julie Obradovic
As of this week, I now know five people my age who have been married to or are married to a man with a mental illness. Five. And that's only the ones I know about. Three of the five marriages have ended in divorce because of it. It's alarming to say the least.
The story is always the same, too. Right after they got married and started having children, something changed. For some, it was a subtle change or a pattern of behavior that took years to pin down. For others, it was an intense episode of mania or depression that required immediate psychiatric attention. The man these women had thought they married...who they insist they married...changed. He became selfish and immature, withdrawn and impulsive, irrational and reckless, depressed and sometimes suicidal. He was, in short, like a stranger.
The most common aspect is that it started right after a baby was born. For one, it was after she got sick. For another, the onset began pretty much immediately after saying their vows. One now sees the signs started in college, but didn't realize what it was. All of them agree, however, marriage and children exacerbated it.
For a long time, most of the women chalked it up to rebelling against being tied down. Suddenly, faced with the enormous responsibility of providing for a wife and family, they regressed into their childish ways, trying to live vicariously through their unmarried friends.
The men insisted that wasn't the case, however. They loved their wives and kids, they pleaded. They didn't know why they were doing these things. They begged for forgiveness, support and understanding.
These wives then made excuses for them. They blamed it on their husband's parents or siblings. They fought for them. Sought counseling. Prayed their hearts out. And eventually, got a diagnosis, bipolar being the most common.
Sadly, however, the diagnosis didn't fix anything. Yes, it put a name on it, and that was some relief. But managing such a condition proved very difficult. Finding the right medication and dose was painful at best. One husband literally went crazy when put on the wrong drug. He was hospitalized for it. He then became an unemployed, pot-head, video-gaming junkie, and she left him. This was a guy who graduated at the top of his class from a very competitive university. Who had never done drugs before. It was a stunning and tragic downfall. He was barely in his thirties.
Another husband feels good after the right medication is given, but only for a little while, and only to build up a tolerance. He constantly needs more. He has tried to go off, but his depression sets in almost instantly when he does. He is horrified at the thought of spending the rest of his life on medication. He too is in his thirties.
I've asked my parents if they knew this many people with mental illness when they were in their thirties. My dad knew one. My mom knew a few, but speculated there were more. She wondered if maybe no one talked about it then, making it less determinable. She also said many of them were Vietnam vets who had never been the same.
Fair enough, I agreed, but here's the thing. No one talks about it now either. These women that I happen to find out had a husband with a mental illness weren't exactly advertising it. And none of their husbands were in the military. They talk about it like it's a dark, awful secret, still trying to protect the reputation of the man this happened to...even the exes. There is still such a stigma attached to mental illness that most people only figure out it could be one after they have been a part of it. We don't exactly advertise the warning signs or anything.
Before I knew anything about Autism, I'm fairly confident I would have chalked up all this diagnosing to the pharmaceutical industry wanting to make more money. Many mental illnesses appear on the surface to be nothing more than a maturity-chip or responsibility-chip missing. "If they would just grow up..." many claim.
But I know these men. They are grown up. They were grown up. And something happened. Something changed. The familiarity in those sentences is haunting. It's just like regressive Autism. Something. Happened.
But what? I wondered. What could trigger all of this in so many young men these days?
I did some research and came across a few well-accepted components of their mood disorder. It often starts in the early twenties, and grows worse from 25-40. It is almost always triggered by a stressful event. There is no genetic explanation, although they believe there is a genetic susceptibility. And the environment, although they don't know how, is at play. It is lifelong. It can only be managed, not cured. And the treatment prognosis is actually not that good. All eerily similar, no?
Additional research, however, some that I've been doing to prepare for an annual Autism presentation I give, coincidentally just reminded me of the identification of the disorder. It was in The Age of Autism by our very own Olmsted and Blaxill. Emil Kraepelin, the German psychiatrist who met with Leo Kanner to look for native Americans with GPI (a form of neurosyphilis) in the 1920's, named the disorder in 1902. Throughout the 1800's, mental illness was exploding all over Europe, and Kraepelin made a career out of naming, describing, and categorizing them. He is literally the father of the DSM.
But something else was going on in the 1800's at that time. Men, women, and children were being doused in mercury. From mercuric chloride, used in some syphilis treatments, to mercurous chloride, used as a topical agent for cuts and wounds, there was no short amount of it anywhere. Add to that, the industrial revolution was underway, literally belching tons of it into the air to be sprinkled over everyone. Their book details these incidences in exhaustive and stunning detail.
Which made me think. Many mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder per se, weren't identified until only about 150 years ago. They sprang onto the scene at a time the world was being doused in mercury, medicinally and environmentally.
Today, we are still doused in mercury, especially environmentally, and still by means of our teeth and medicine. And in the mean time, three variations of biploar disorder have been added to the DSM, most of which reflect milder versions. Isn't it at least possible that our chemically saturated environment is triggering a mental break down in young men experiencing significant stress for the first time in their lives? Is it possible mercury, metals, andstress also combine synergistically? It certainly seems so.
Either way, I'm horrified by what I see and what I know. The destruction has become so catastrophic, and at times, completely overwhelming. It's not just our children, it seems. We are all at great risk for becoming or loving someone who is susceptible to becoming very, very neurologically sick these days....particularly our young men.
Julie Obradovic is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.