Snapshots of Hope in the Hundred Year Winter

Written by J. Greenwood

When caring for your spouse during a season of mental illness, there will be moments when you ask yourself, “What did I ever see in you?”  It is tempting to let this question stew until your heart feels nice and bitter, but it is not very healthy.  However, “What did I ever see in you?” can actually be a useful question when it is not used rhetorically.

My husband and I were together for 2 years when mental illness started pushing its way into our lives, subtly at first and then all at once.  The following 2 years were almost entirely run by mental illness.  It consumed our time together, dictated our conversations, and determined everything about our hours together and apart.  Like Narnia during the Hundred Year Winter, our lives were under foreign rule and I saw very little of the person I married.   Miserable, self-absorbed, unpredictable, and irrational, he gradually became a stranger to me.

What do you do when you lose the person you love?  This is the brutal thing about mental illness: physically, they are present and accounted for, but mentally and emotionally they are elsewhere.  What people often do not know about mental illness is that it is very pervasive; it seeps into every corner of life and takes considerable time and effort to manage.  As friends and family members, it is draining and confusing to pour out energy and love into someone who feels so alien to you and, to be perfectly honest, is not all that pleasant to be around.  

In the darkest and most difficult days, I gain strength by recollecting our best memories together:  the spontaneous joke that made me fall off my chair laughing, the words that touched my heart, the crazy dancing at a recent wedding, or the unforgettable hike we enjoyed together.  Filed away in my mind is a library of snapshots that I pull out in emergencies.  Literal snapshots – old cards and photos – are also good to have around.  These snapshots, both physical and mental, are breaths of fresh air that remind us what lies beneath the illness.

Another powerful tool is tuning your heart to celebrate the tiny glimpses of good that sneak into the every day.  Even during the worst of the worst, there will little glimmers of hope and truth.  There will be rich bubbling laughter, warm fuzzies, and moments that are pregnant with meaning – sure, they are much more brief and sporadic than might be preferred, but they are still there.  

Hang onto these moments, try and savour them without thinking too much about what life will be like next year, tomorrow, or in 20 minutes from now.  When we approach the days with awareness and stubborn hope, we train ourselves to see the good moments and also to celebrate them, unencumbered by the past and future.