May is Mental Health Awareness month, and I wanted to continue my series on “Love and Relationships” by addressing the question: Loving through Adversity: How do you love someone who’s broken? Is it possible? Is Love enough? This portion of the Love and Relationship series begins with a guest post from writer, author, and poet, Nikki Williams Rucker. Nikki is also the founder and executive director of "My Sister's Keeper" (MSK), an organization that mentors young girls and gives them with the tools to become better women and future leaders. I consider her a friend and lovingly call her one of my “little sisters.” She’s a phenomenal mother and wife who writes with such authenticity and transparency. Today on the blog, Nikki shares her story of loving someone through adversity and brokenness. Nikki courageously lifts the veil around mental illness in the black community and gives us an inside look into what it feels like to love someone in the midst of adversity. Her story is one of so many in our community, and I thank her for her openness and willingness to share. –D. Sanders
To stay or not to stay
By Nikki Williams Rucker
I'm sure many women in my same position have asked themselves that very question on more than one occasion. It all starts out the same way. Boy meets girl. Girl likes boy. Boy returns the feeling. Boy and girl decide to take things to the next level; smiles, phone calls and all of the other exchanges that come with dating and love follow. Boy and girl can't live without each other and enter into holy matrimony. Lives join; morals and beliefs are in sync. First, comes loves, then comes marriage and yep you guessed it, hey mom here comes the baby carriage. Life is great; boy, girl, and baby even buy a little cute fluffy dog to stand behind their brown picket fence and all of a sudden, the phone rings; Girl answers and life changes forever.
All is going well until the one day you get a phone call that your spouse is in the hospital psych ward. He has attempted suicide. Your world stops. Every argument, misunderstanding, flare up and stern talking to comes racing back to your mind, and you wonder "what did I do wrong?" Was life with you so difficult that it made the person you pledged former to want to leave not only you but the entire world? Minutes turn to hours and hours turn to days of intensive therapy, people in and out of the house and finally you discover that your forever has been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. Something that they don't believe will ever be cured but can only be treated. Your new life together is now marked with bouts of sadness, uncontrollable anger and impulsive thoughts and actions. Your mind races and you think of your children. How will we manage? Can you handle this? How will this ever work? Should you stay or should you leave?
All of these thoughts and more came racing through my mind and my heart when I found out my husband was suffering from mental illness. I thought his sadness and reclusive actions when it came to spending time with our family had come from the newness of being married and becoming an instant family. I thought he was tired from the long drive to and from work to our suburban homeand that was causing his lack of interest in sex, and I thought our constant arguing and his anger were minor growing pains of two individuals joining their lives. What would my friends think? How do I explain to my daughter what is happening to her step dad? I had to tell people something. We had just gotten married, and life was looking good for us up until this point. I mean sure we argued but what couple didn't argue? I put on a brave face and stopped talking to people about our relationship. Instead of telling them, he was tired from work and has issues with his family that caused him to break down. I opted to suffer in silence for the next year as we fought constantly and his fits of rage and sadness constantly gripped our lives. Only a few close friends knew the truth because I didn't want to be told I was a fool or called stupid for getting married. After all, he was never violent towards the kids and me. Never laid a hand on us or near us.
It wasn't until I watched the police take him into custody in front of our home 2 years later, because one of his angry outbursts had finally spilled out onto our front yard with him trying to set our house on fire, did I realize we were dealing with something serious, and I had a decision to make. I packed my things, put a down payment on an apartment for the kids and myself and called in my crew to help me get out of there when a question popped into my mind. If I had been diagnosed with terminal Cancer would he leave me? He was sent to a mental hospital for a week, and my mother agreed to take my kids to her house to give me both time and space to think and clear my head. As angry and embarrassed as I was that he allowed our secret to be shown to our entire neighborhood, I couldn't shake the question. I wrestled with the decision to leave for two days as I removed pictures from the walls of the house, cleaned up the broken glass and items that were broken during his fit of rage and one day I broke. I sat in my closet and cried.
I asked God what I had done to deserve this. Why did I have to marry someone broken? Why didn't He stop me from getting married if He knew the kids and I would be subjected to this craziness? What if he had passed this down to my son? At that moment, I felt God's hand uncover my eyes and show me the man I first fell in love with. The gentle soul that loved me through some very in loveable moments. The man who had taken on my daughter as his very own. A man whose own family had abandoned him and who essentially raised himself. A broken man who was figuring out his way. He wasn’t just my husband, he was my friend, and he needed help. There is such a stigma around mental illness that I didn't even realize I had silenced myself. I didn't realize I too was buying into the idea that black people shouldn't talk about it. Although my husband had been medicated to control his anger and was in therapy, I hadn't truly accepted the idea that his mental illness was real and if I was going to stay, I needed to be ready to take the full ride. And if I was going to leave I needed to make a clean break and accept all that came with leaving, including my own and my kids’ mental health.
After some serious soul searching and talks with my real girlfriends, I decided to stay. I called and forfeited my deposit on the apartment and put a plan in place. I even talked to my mom who revealed my dad, who was also a veteran, struggled with depression and medicated himself with alcohol to cope with his feelings. She stayed for 51 years but never told anyone about his mental challenges, not even my sister and I until he had passed away. When my husband got home, we had a very long talk about him taking his medication, about the importance of including me in his therapy sessions, about how our conversations needed to look and sound when he was feeling well so the kids and I could feel safe. We included time for him to feel how he felt without judgment but both agreed that neither of us had the option to bow out if we were going to make this thing work. If he needed a break, he needed to communicate that, and he asked if I would help him with learning how to be a husband and father to our two amazing kids. One of which has now been diagnosed with mental challenges. My entire family is in therapy. We each have our individual sessions, and we also have sessions together. We go when times are good and when times are tough. My daughter was very apprehensive at first and thought therapy was a place for “crazy “people. Now she understands there is nothing wrong with having a safe space to go to talk about her life. We have a very open dialogue about depression and mental illness, and she is very helpful and patient with her brother as he navigates the world. I have learned to let some things go and accept that while our lives may not be what I thought the picture would look like, it is the life God has given us and I vowed to stop perpetuating the silence surrounding mental illness.
As a veteran and a black man, my husband deserves better than a life of turmoil and ridicule. On one of our many down and dirty, honest moments when I challenged my husband with this idea that in the moments when he becomes derailed, to stop and think about his family and his kids. He shot back something I will never forget. He said “don’t you think I realize what I am doing is hurting you and the kids? Don't you think I want to stop hurting you guys by putting you through this emotional roller coaster? When we become derailed, we can't stop and once we do come back, knowing we hurt the ones who we love the most makes it even harder to get back on track. It's a cycle of shame and anger that is hard to stop”. Society already sends him a mixed message about what his manhood should look like; I refuse to add more confusion by pushing this issue into the closet.
Until we start to talk about and deal with depression and other mental illnesses in our community, our men with continue to be stigmatized, and our families will continue to be burdened with pain. “Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for black men” according to the CDC. As a community, as women, as wives and mothers, we must begin the process of changing the narrative surrounding mental illness not only for our black men but for our families. More people are suffering from mental challenges than you realize. They may not look like what we see on television or visible signs of the stereotypes we have been shown; it can be the man sitting silently or the woman smiling brightly.
My son is the smartest, funniest little ball of energy you ever want to meet. As we teach him how to give his feelings words and help him navigate the world around him with his mental struggles, I wonder how much better off our black men would have been had someone taken the time to help them give their feelings of brokenness, anger abandonment and fear words instead of telling them to “man up”. How many families and lives could have been saved if they knew they weren't the only ones going through challenges? We as a community, must start opening our mouths and sharing our experiences to help one another instead of judging and criticizing. Now more than ever, we must give our black men a safe space to express how they are feeling and give them room and words to tell us what they feel so the healing can truly begin, and lives can be restored instead of ending: DEATH BY SILENCE.
*You can read more of Nikki’s works in her first published book, “Spoken Word” available on Amazon.com. Click the image to purchase. *