By Rena Lesue-Smithey

I sometimes lost my grip on gratitude, on optimism, when my husband’s debilitating depression dropped like an anchor in the center of the house. For hours, sometimes days, Rick would shut himself in the bedroom. The purple and red sheets I had jimmied into curtains would be drawn across the windows, a menstrual shroud over the dim room. There’d be a stack of frowning pizza crusts on a plate on his nightstand and the lingering scent of pepperoni in the air. He’d be cocoon under the comforter with his laptop, its blue-black hue casting a bruise on the wall.

I felt myself sliding toward him, feet first, arms outstretched to grasp at nearby preservers. My desk. My children. When they rescued me, little savior hands, I could take them away and we were okay for a time, faces set to “happy,” pretending that the Kraken wasn’t lurking in the depths Mommy and Daddy’s shared bed. I’d drive my son and daughter to McDonald’s, and they’d slide down a tunnel or stomp plastic keys of the floormat piano. There on a cool bench, I would read. Write. Holler at the kids to keep their voices down while I doused the lump of loneliness in my throat with Dr. Pepper.

He definitely had an eating disorder. That was the carrot cake I dangled to get him to see a therapist. He’d fast all day and binge on dinner. A whole pizza. Perhaps a family-sized bag of pizza rolls. Then he’d fast again, driven to it by self-loathing. But there was more to it. From the moment I saw the Zoloft commercial with the cartoon navy bean lamenting beneath a rain cloud, I knew Rick suffered from depression. Sometimes he sulked and stomped and raged at the slightest things; passing an exit, screwing up a chili recipe, arriving too late to a movie and missing the trailers. In college, he’d failed two classes due to frequent absences, and for years he had been skipping work to sleep, eat, and watch TV. After he graduated, he was set on becoming a seminary teacher and enrolled in a beginner’s course. His mental illness choked his resolve and he missed so many days that he wasn’t invited back.

I tried to approach him about his transformation.

ME: [Watching Zoloft commercial.] Do you think you might have this?

RICK: I’m not depressed.

ME: But you have all the symptoms.

RICK: I’m just tired. I’ll be fine after some pizza and a nap.

ME: We’re overdrawn from the take-out yesterday!

RICK: [Mopes.]

ME: Fine.


Rick in bed, surrounded by pizza crusts and still woefully listless.

It was 2011, after our ninth anniversary, when he saw his first therapist. Chronic depression, the doctor diagnosed. Chronic. Could there be another word in the English language with a more hopeless connotation? Oh, but the doc was just getting started, rolling out the carpet of mental illnesses. Severe anxiety. Is that what they called his penchant for constant rocking? Could I credit his habit of dead-bolting the door and wedging a chair under the knob of the front door to severe anxiety? Was that the clinical term for trapping our children indoors all day so they wouldn’t be stolen by lurking predators in the neighborhood, whose most nefarious headline might have been about gas-station loitering? And the coup de grace: my husband tested abnormally high for Attention Deficit Disorder. I had to smack my forehead at this one. He’d gone from switching majors three times and hobbies countless times. Habitually, he rearranged a different room in the house once a month. Of course it was ADD.

These labels were cinder blocks on my shoulders.

We’re raised to be moms, we Mormon women. We are given a vision as early as our Primary days. To me, it sounded all very caveman in timbre.

Man works.

He provides.

Woman stays home.

Rears children.

I supplemented with evidence in my surroundings: the woman is pregnant, does all the housework, and keeps the decor at a level of cuteness that is either, at the very least, comparative to the neighbors’, or the envy of the Joneses. She loves it. Genuinely. This is the dream. It’s the aspiration of most women in the church. I wanted it. Until I didn’t.

My disillusionment was a tale as old as 1994.

Once upon a time there was a girl who’d been taught that her worth was in her womb, in her untarnished “flower”. Then one day, when she was twelve, a man tried it out, and she lay frozen, thinking about the time at the pool when a paper wasp landed on her leg and she was too frightened to wave it away. 

Over the next seven years, she felt guilty and careless for losing the thing that made her special.

But in college, she read The Liars’ Club and the world refocused.

Even though, I spent my early twenties defying the norm, targeting pursuits outside the home, and marking the mountain of my evolution with the banner of feminism, when my husband told me of his mental illnesses, I heard the resounding clang of the door to my model Mormon-life slamming closed. The ideal would never be mine, and not because of some progressive choice. It wouldn’t even be an option. I’d never be a stay-at-home mom. What it meant, what it came down to, was that I would be the provider, the parent, the housekeeper. I would be the raft keeping our family afloat. My fear was that as he continued to sink he’d never fulfill any sort of useful role. That he was, in fact, dead weight. A fear realized one summer day. Rick had been on antidepressants for a month. I came home after work and he was on the bed, his laptop laid open on the comforter.  

“This is why I have been acting weird lately,” he said, eyes lost in his lap.

I read the screen, an email from his editor for a freelance writing position he’d taken for the past four months.

I’m sorry to write that we are terminating your employment with _________. You are a good writer, but you do not meet deadlines. __________ depends on reliability, and therefore we must let you go.

I didn’t know if the computer was hot or if it was my fingers, but I dropped it.

“Please don’t make me feel as bad as I already do,” Rick said.

I curled my fists and took a big breath. The wave of vitriol careening from my brain wouldn’t have done either of us any good. “I’m going for a run.” I grabbed my phone and headphones and headed outdoors. I couldn’t be in the same house as him. The only thing I knew for certain is: If I were his employer, I’d have fired his ass too.

Don’t think me some noble sufferer, silently resigned to my plight. I might have stayed in the marriage, but I was damn bitter about it. In my heart, I constantly broke the vow of “in sickness and in health.” I stopped reading scriptures, or when I did I looked for parts to pick apart and contest. I’d look thirstily at other husbands and think, I bet he keeps a lid on the budget. Ooh, that guy sleeps a standard eight hours. I mentally flipped the bird to all the perfect housewives who dropped their little ones at the bus stop in person and then ambled around the neighborhood together, pushing toddlers in jogging strollers all snuggled under homemade quilts. (Never mind that I’d been invited to come along.) It was stupid to be angry at them for finding a better way to cope with their miseries, which they, too, endured. At least a couple of them struggled with fertility issues and another’s child had battled cancer. Logic aside, I couldn’t help but point out to Heavenly Father, during one of my many supplications, cowering in the shower, that none of those women were married to a sinking anchor.

Rick continued therapy. After six months, his meds were tweaked, regulated, and the doctor added a med to manage his ADD. I saw a light in him that had extinguished sometime after our honeymoon year. His focus increased and work attendance regulated. I began to say things like, “The old you would never have done that.” When something minor occurred, tripping over the dog and dropping lunch, for example, Old Husband would’ve tossed the whole thing in the trash and stomped off to sleep or watch Netflix for twelve hours, but New Husband? He’d smile about it, joke, “Day over!” and make another sandwich. That winter, he did something remarkable. He enrolled in an online grad school program. Grad school! A task I’d not thought possible under the circumstances.

We saw a marriage counselor. The first time I heard, from the LDS Services licensed therapist, the definition and symptoms of compassion fatigue, I lost control of my legs. I could feel them one second and gone the next. I went from sea legs to no legs.

She explained: It’s this condition, common in caretakers, that develops over prolonged periods of service. It causes apathy, extreme stress, depression, and often destructive behaviors. I thought of the dirty root beer I ordered while out with my girlfriends, and how it washed away my pain for, oh, a half hour, and forever filled me we empathy for those who turned to the bottle in times like these. I had understood, finally, the desire to be numb. The gloriousness of suspending one’s pain. And yet–as the cliche goes–it didn’t solve anything.

Compassionfatigue.org’s opening line read, “Caring too much can hurt.” Didn’t I know it. What drug fixed compassion fatigue? I wanted to ask. Can you prescribe me something to curb the resentment? Too bad there wasn’t a pill to bring back the joy of those early months of our marriage. A Love Potion no. 10.

Get exercise, eat healthy. Take time for yourself was my therapist’s advice. This was the recipe for my own salvation. How else had I have survived the last nine years? It was the buoy cast on the murky waters. Writing. Reading. Running. Teaching. My kids. Without them, we might have sunk tandem into the abyss.

So things were looking up. He was busy with grad school and we were both getting the help we needed. Maybe we had a future after all. What I hadn’t counted on was the drug abuse.

The second time the D-word wall-papered my mind was December 2012. My husband been on Adderall for over a year. He’d never felt focused before, and now that he could for half the day, he craved a steady stream of normalcy. He’d consume his monthly dose too much too often and detox when he ran out between two to ten days early. This went on for seven straight months. (Fortunately, his deluge of anxiety prevented him from pursuing the meds illegally.) I talked to him about it at the end of every month, repeated the conversation, my concerns and threats to get it together, seven times!

My mom shrugged and reminded me that she tried to warn me. “But,” she says, “No one will ever love your kids like he does.”

My dad’s advice was more pragmatic. “You can’t leave him. He’ll kill himself.”

My friend Tori, who had never been divorced, but who married a divorcé and considered it enough times to fancy herself an expert, said, “You’ll know. That’s what everyone says. You’ll know when the time is right to leave.”

My boss reciprocated an awkward hug and promised me a full-time position, should it come to that.

Erin, a dear friend, was the only one to suggest, “You deserve better.”

On Christmas Eve 2012, he ran out of meds again–five days before he was meant to–and begged me to spot him a hundred bucks so he could purchase it directly from the pharmacy (i.e., without the approval of our insurance company). I refused–who has an extra hundred bucks post-holidays?–and, in the locked bathroom, I crashed to my knees, this time begging God to tell me it was time. I confessed my misery and agony, a prayer weighty enough to bend the will of the Father.

The next day, I felt a crushing realization: he would never change. This was the answer I’d hoped for, right? If he, by the witness of The Almighty, would not get better, that meant it was time to separate. It was the knowledge I sought. And I didn’t want it. Wouldn’t it be simpler for us both if he hadn’t gone bananas? Couldn’t he just be cured?

I spent the rest of the day mourning the loss of my marriage–sobbing inconsolably, and when he came home from work–or was it a day he missed?–I stashed my emotions so far down that I was a robot. I went through the motions, and didn’t speak to him except platitudes. “Dinner’s in the microwave.” “Did you help kids with homework?” “Are you going to lie there all night?”

Finally, I caved. I gave him a three-month ultimatum to figure it out.

He agreed, on one condition. “We should see the bishop.”

Three abrasively silent days later, we did.  In a stark church office and with clinical indifference, I told the bishop everything that had happened. For once, emotion didn’t overwhelm me. I’d used up all my tears. Clutching his fist, the bishop, a young guy with a deep crease over his brow, demanded all the things I’d demanded of my husband. He held Rick accountable via a summary text of his day, including how he’d done on the tasks we’d laid out–finances, spirituality, family, career. Had he refrained from overspending on the family budget? Had he had morning, evening, and spousal prayers? Had he helped with household chores or child management? Was his dedication to work genuine and focused?

After an infallible ten days, the bishop cut back the summary text to a couple times a week.

I wasn’t holding my breath.

A month later, I still felt certain divorce was on the horizon, but my heart started to unclench.

By the two month mark, I could sense a difference. Money stayed in our account instead of being siphoned off to fast food establishments. I didn’t have to panic about bounced checks. Nor did I worry about another “scheduled” monthly detoxes. He became engaged with the children, actively participating in our daily routine, and he was approaching a successful graduation with a MA in Diplomacy.

At the end of the trimester, I openly admitted that we would make it. That he was, in fact, changing.

My heart, too, seemed to transform. Knowing that a man I’d committed myself to for eternity would not be free of his debilitating mental illnesses, I altered my approach. Supportive I could be, but not an enabler; my therapist said that was a no-no. I put my foot down early and often when Depression tried to get away with the old offenses. Nevertheless, I would not allow myself to become a mother figure to him, for when I did it killed the romance and injected me with spite. I became aware of the hazards of his condition, that I was susceptible of getting swept into the undertow, and I gave myself permission to save myself first. It was the same principle behind airplane emergency procedures; flight attendants always tell you to put the oxygen mask over yourself before helping those around you. I needed to breathe before I could help him.

Part of our homework was dates. We had to go out, stir up our stagnant intimacy, and recall the reasons we fell in love. His sense of humor and comedic timing had drawn me in all those years ago. After we’d married, I loved when I’d come home, open the fridge, and find our foot-tall plastic Godzilla ravaging a stalk of celery or I’d find it in the shower posed to appear shocked, a rag in one claw. When we worked at the library, we took turns placing holds on books in each other’s names. When the library aide called, she’d have to tell me, “The book you requested, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, is available for pick-up. Then, she’d have to phone Rick with my retaliation, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Our posttraumatic version of this was finding inside-joke memes to link of facebook or in emails. We shared curious youtube videos, and at night he scratched my head when I had trouble sleeping.

In strengthening his relationship with the kids, Rick built the three-room forts out of cardboard boxes, chairs, and blankets. One had been complete with a Tardis for our Doctor Who-obsessed daughter. Once he stacked a pillow tower on our bed and with the kids played live-action Angry Birds, hurdling himself head first into the pile.  

Now, Rick employs strategies for when the darkness comes. Because it does. It’s chronic, remember? The gloom lurks around the gate, testing his borders for a weak spot. Only, now, he has the tools to fend off the shadows. He’ll unweave the cloak of negative thoughts one thread at a time, unraveling his suffocator. He’ll turn to humorous movies or books or engage in physical activity–wrestling or bike rides with the kids–to lift his spirits. At work or with friends, Rick throws himself into interpersonal interactions, feigning normalcy until it isn’t an act anymore. He pays attention to his meds, notes when they need tweaking or when they simply don’t work anymore, and he visits a therapist as often as is necessary.  But most importantly, he constructed a protocol if suicidal thoughts get him in a chokehold.

This isn’t testimony meeting. I’m not going to snap my fingers and announce, “Everything’s fine! Everything went perfectly and since I put my trust and faith in God, I got precisely what I wanted! My husband’s all better and even makes six figures!” No. It’s not like that. I am a breadwinner. I am a housekeeper. But he contributes half of the income. He does the laundry, makes some meals, and helps the kids with homework. He cleans the showers and takes out the trash. He hangs with friends, tends to the chickens, plays superheroes and Indiana Jones with our son. And when our little girl began to show signs of an emergent ADHD-child, he became her greatest champion.

Rena Lesué-Smithey teaches high school English and youth writing camps. She was a Central Utah Writing Project fellow in 2011 and, for three years, a correspondent for The Daily Herald. Currently, she’s working on an MFA in Creative Nonfiction with Cedar Crest College. She and her husband hope that contributing to the discourse on marriage and mental illnesses will help those battling with their own demons. Rena resides in Springville, UT, with her husband, two kids, and Chihuahua-terrier, Spike (or “William the Bloody” to the avid Buffy fan).

About Rena Lesue-Smithey

Rena Lesue-Smithey is an English and creative writing teacher. Before she began her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from Cedar Crest College, she was a correspondent for The Daily Herald.

Leave a Comment