I should rename this blog something like “Our Crazy Life” because it feels very harried and too busy most of the time, and I don’t subscribe to the American view that busy=good. I agree with Socrates on the topic of the busy life: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Apparently, the ancients even had an issue with it.
Since my husband’s return from Boston, he has hardly been home. Now I remember why I felt so alone in managing our household and so very alone in raising our children. The man is simply never here, and when he is here he’s trying to unwind from being gone all day. It’s not easy for him either. Everyone in our house, except for Doireann, has an Axis I diagnosis. I just realized that yesterday–even my husband, and everyone takes a medication. Grace’s needs are obviously the most profound with Milly coming in at a close second. Eadaoin is starting to display her bipolar colors more and more. She hasn’t been able to sleep, and her creativity is at an all-time high. I take medication, too, and it slows down my brain so I have no access to my hypomania anymore. Honestly, I miss it. I used to get a lot done. My husband has an anxiety disorder, and it felt like the third party in our marriage. He didn’t leave home without it, and when it peaked his alter ego, Lizard Man, would emerge and harass the entire family. Lizard Man was purely amygdala driven–cold, mean, and humorless. Some of the fringe products of the amygdala driven brain are things like excuses, rationalization, procrastination and avoiding commitment or social contact. When it’s extreme, you might even experience gaslighting. You’ll know when you’re interacting with the lizard brain because reptiles have no sense of humor, and they eat their young. They go for the throat in fights and take no prisoners. The amygdala is typically called to action by fear and anxiety, and this part of the brain is incapable of empathy and intimacy. It actually shuts down higher brain functions associated with emotional intelligence and reasoning. In demeanor and personality, my husband was nothing like the man I married, and I grew to hate and pity Lizard Man at the same time for his lack of empathy, coldness, and inability to communicate.
Last November, after nearly 17 years of marriage, I put my foot down and demanded that my husband see a doctor about his anxiety. It was time to take Lizard Man out back and give him the Old Yeller treatment. I was not asking. I was telling. He finally overcame his own pride and sought help and returned with a shiny Zoloft prescription. His doctor had him fill out the standard “How Anxious Are You?” questionnaire, and he ranked as moderately anxious. They then went on to have an honest discussion about anxiety, and he left with an anxiety disorder diagnosis. He seemed earnestly surprised by this turn of events. I wanted to foam at the mouth and roll around on the floor, run from the house screaming while keying cars and knocking over flower carts. I had known that he was anxious for years! I had borne the brunt of his panic attacks and anxious sulks since the first day of our marriage! Damn that third-party credibility! Alas, his journey had brought him to this enlightened place, and he finally knew.
A month into taking his SSRI he felt transformed. He would often say, “I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner! I feel so much better.” I would grind my back molars at these random declarations of mental well-being, thinking, “I have been asking you to get help for 15 years!” Better late than never. That became my mantra.
As he has relaxed more, easing into a new experience of life, his sleep has changed. Firstly, he can sleep now which is new for him; he could never sleep before. He dreams now as well, and some of these dreams are rather vivid. In the middle of the night last night, he was dreaming. I was sleeping peacefully, and something painful awakened me. I realized that he was kicking me quite hard so I tried to turn over and move away simultaneously. As I began to move, his closed fist punched me directly in the face. I was half-awake and stunned. I didn’t know if it hurt or why he had punched me. I think I yelled or cried out, and that was enough for him to wake up. “You punched me!” He was very apologetic. Apparently, he was dreaming that people were breaking into the house, and he was fighting them. I find it a bit humorous now although my jaw doesn’t think so. He never dreamed very much until he began taking an SSRI.
Anxiety disorders tend to run in families so it’s no wonder that Grace is anxious. Milly has an anxiety disorder, too, as does Eadaoin. Doireann is an overachieving perfectionist so you can guess what she struggles with. It took Grace, Milly, and Eadaoin receiving diagnoses as well as medication for their respective issues to motivate my husband to get help for his. Oh, and my foot firmly planted in his arse.
Generally speaking, I do wonder if it’s harder for men to admit that they need help than for women. On some level, women are expected to be hysterical and needy. Statistically, women present with far more somatic complaints than men, and histrionic disorders are more common among women. How many comedians have made jokes about women going on PMS rampages or being sexually frigid? How about that woman who’s the “office bitch”? Someone usually says, “Oh, that bitch needs to get a shrink! She needs to take a pill and chill out!” In other words, culturally, it’s a foregone conclusion that most women will need mental health supports at some point because we are “the weaker sex”–overly emotional, prone to histrionics, and mentally affected. It’s a stereotype that’s continually perpetuated, but it does make it easier for women to seek help because we can use it to our benefit.
What’s the reality for men? My husband won’t tell anyone that he takes an SSRI for anxiety, and my husband isn’t a macho kind of guy. I know a few guys who struggle a lot with mental health problems, but they refuse to get treatment. Why? Shame. It’s perfectly fine for their sisters and mothers to go to therapy and seek treatment, but they would never do such a thing. It’s just not masculine. It’s admitting weakness. Then, there’s their father’s response: “Not my son!” To me, this sounds a lot like poor differentiation in a father-son relationship. Girls can be emotional, needy, and weak, but boys can’t? Obviously, I could write a PhD thesis on this topic, and I imagine people have already done that. The point here is that men ought to feel free to pursue wholeness, too, and part of that is stepping over the stigma associated with mental health problems. Every time a man decides to make a choice towards his own betterment regarding his mental health, he is punching a hole in the stigma that surrounds mental health in our culture. He is setting the standard for other men, and this encourages others to step out of the shadows of generational and culturally imposed shame to pursue their own health and wholeness, too.
It took my husband a long time to take responsibility for his mental health issues, and his daughters paved the way for him to do that. But, he did it, and he’s not looking back. He wishes that he would have done it years ago. We’ve lost a lot in our marriage because of his anxiety-induced behaviors. Because of Lizard Man. I encourage you to ask for the help that you need–even if you are afraid or ashamed–because, contrary to what it feels like, it takes far more strength to step into the light than it does to hide in the dark, and that’s always the courageous, strong, and healthy thing to do. Isn’t strength, courage, and health part of what defines holistic masculinity? It’s something worth considering.