Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Unseen Illness

A few years ago, our friendship with another couple disintegrated.  The friends probably have their own version of events, but my version is that I had a front row seat to the wife's very public affair with a much younger man.  I was horrified, and angry that she would do that to her husband, who I liked and admired very much.  He wasn't perfect (no husband is), but he didn't deserve to be very publicly cuckolded.  The circumstances at the time were complicated, as I was in the middle of a very complex and high profile matter at work, as was the husband, as was the woman, as was the object of her affection.  It was rather ugly.

Under different circumstances, I might have confronted the wife about her bad behavior, or I might have gone to her husband, but given everything else that was going on, I felt like raising the issue at that juncture might do even more harm, if that was possible.  And, I was reluctant to get involved in someone else's private matter, regardless of our friendship.  It was awkward.  So instead, I told no one but my husband of the situation.

Unfortunately, the affair was flagrant enough (and the town small enough) that tongues were wagging all over town.  While the husband was caught up in his business matter in a different city, his wife was painting the town red with her new beau, and everyone noticed.  More than one friend raised the issue with me.  It was exceedingly tawdry.

T. and I debated--even argued--over whether we should tell the husband.  It was such a delicate situation.  Finally (and without my knowledge), he raised it with the husband's best friend.  He felt an obligation to ensure that the husband was at least aware of the situation.  This other friend confirmed that it had come to his attention, and we left it at that.

In the end, the husband supported his wife and stayed with her.  Our friendship noticeably cooled, and we thought it was probably because they knew that we knew of her affair, which made a friendship awkward.  We heard that the husband didn't wish to be divorced.  We also heard that she blamed the affair on her mental health problems.  We knew that she had some issues, but also thought that was a cop-out.  She had some problems, but she also made clear, poor choices.

During a much later conversation with the husband, T. discovered that the husband believed that everyone (ie, other friends; members of the community) had learned of the affair from T (because T had discussed the issue with the husband's best friend; he had concluded that T must also have been responsible for everyone else in town learning of the affair).  T. never told him the truth, nor did I.

As I told another friend at the time (who also knew of the affair, albeit not from me), I would rather he blame us based on bad information than know the full truth and be hurt by it.  I don't think he does know the full scope of her actions, and really, what does it matter.  He knows some of it, and he chose to work through it with her.  That's enough.

I've stayed casual acquaintances with the husband, who works in my field.  When he got a big promotion a while back, I emailed to let him know how excited i was for him.  Truly, I was thrilled for him.  He deserved it.  I haven't spoken to the wife in a few years.

I learned recently that she had published an account of her struggles with mental health, and I read it.  It documents her decades long struggle, including deep depression, medication, therapy, and several periods of hospitalization due to suicidal behavior.  One of the last episodes she mentioned happened shortly after the end of the affair, when she apparently spiraled downward.

Reading her story made my mind swirl.  I knew she had problems, but I never knew the depth.  I thought she flirted with depression and anxiety.  I never knew she was afraid of the world.  I knew she was a little off.  I never knew she composed suicide notes in her head.  I knew that her husband took good care of her.  I never knew he was the glue that held her together.  It was enlightening, and sad.

On the one hand, it puts so much of her behavior into context.  While it doesn't excuse her bad choices and bad behavior, after reading about how fleeting happiness has been for her in her life, I better understand those choices.  She wanted a shot at the brass ring of happiness, even if that meant making bad choices to get there.  She was hoping to find it in something shiny and young and bright.  And when that didn't work out, when it ended terribly, as it only could, she fell apart.  Not only did she not find happiness, she very nearly destroyed the one person, the one thing that had been holding her together:  her husband, her marriage.

And in the face of this, her husband showed uncommon grace:  he picked her up, and he dusted her off, and he got her the help she needed, when she had even given up hope herself.  I have to say, I think most other humans would have run in the opposite direction when faced with a cheating, mentally ill, suicidal spouse.  It's just a lot to take on.

As I read her account of her last spiral into mental illness, I could only think of her husband, and what it must have been like for him to walk that road behind her.  I was seeing him almost every day at that point, and had no inkling that during a time when I was secretly reveling in a much-desired and as-yet unrevealed pregnancy, he was driving to a mental facility after work each night to visit his sick wife.   He must have felt so very alone, and so very unable to share what was going on.  I felt terrible that I wasn't there for him.  I remember thinking that he was acting odd, but chalking it up to him feeling weird around me because of the affair.  How little I knew.  I wish I had asked, rather than assume.  What a kind and decent man he is, to have quietly and quite willingly bore that burden.  How terrifying it must have been for him.

On the other hand, it also made me wonder how much leeway we should give people for their bad behavior.  Yes, she suffers from severe depression.  But does that excuse what she did?  Honestly, her behavior still troubles me, even knowing all that she has endured in her life.  She clearly knew her actions were wrong, and she still had the ability to choice between right and wrong, even if she was depressed.  It is an issue I am still muddling through in my head.

On the whole, though, I am so impressed by the fact she went public with her story.  I am blown away by the kindness of her husband.  And, I hope that her story will be one of many forthcoming stories which causes our society to look at mental illness anew, in order to affect positive change in our system.

It's got me thinking, too, about the other side of the coin that we so rarely see.  I know I am all too guilty of judging someone for what I perceive as their careless slights--someone who I perceived was rude to me in passing, etc.  I think our world has become quick to judge, as a whole, and less likely to reach out a helping hand.  We presume, in this fast-paced, tech-focused world that we know all that is going on.  But a number of times recently, I have discovered after the fact that what I perceived initially turned out to not be true at all.  Or, as here, there was so much more to the story.  It has been a good reminder to slow down, give the benefit of the doubt, and reach out a hand when I can.

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