When Ann was officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, it was not the major revelation that one would expect. It was just a name. It was a label to the problem I had been dealing with since she left Silver Hill Hospital. It was a label to the “something” that I knew was amiss despite weekly, double session therapy she had been attending faithfully. It was a label to the “something,” insidiously creeping ever so slowly, artfully, into our household despite her compliance with her medications prescribed for postpartum depression.
I had seen the writing on the wall for quite some time. I knew there was something wrong. I knew because I could see the subtle changes compounding on each other, ultimately becoming a glaring sign. The Batsignal had been raised, only we didn’t live in Gotham and Batman was not coming to the rescue. Instead I was left to figure out how to navigate this “something” while keeping our kids insulated from their mother’s illness, the household running and our secret safe.
In the early months when we believed it was severe postpartum depression, I felt I always had to lie when asked about Ann. I lied because I couldn’t let her/our truth out and have people think less of her. I lied because I could not let our children know why their mother was unable to look them in the face or spend time with them. I lied because I didn’t fully understand the illness myself, even though I read multiple books and websites, trying to gain an education on postpartum depression. I lied because deep down I knew this was something more. I lied because I knew of the stigma that came with her diagnosis and wanted to shield all of us from it. I wanted to shield Ann from being labeled “crazy” post-hospitalization, shield the boys from having a “crazy” mother. The stigma kept us isolated.
This great cover-up continued as her condition worsened and I gained more understanding of what was actually happening. Now that a formal diagnosis was established, I was able to communicate with her caregivers from a more assertive position. I knew what questions to ask. I now knew what clues to watch for at home in order to gauge her stability. That was the easy part.
The challenging part for me was being both mom and dad; being the maid, cook and caregiver with no help from Ann.
First, she dealt with being sick. She had to deal with getting better and at times that meant being in the hospital and away from us. My mom, sisters and brother-in-law helped whenever they could but it was still a hard road.
The stress only mounted further when her team of providers was unwilling to put a timeline on length of stay when I simply wanted to figure out how long to have babysitters or to call in for extra reinforcements. I refused to let Ann be alone in the hospital. I refused to miss a single visiting hour even with all the responsibility at home. I took a vow to stand by her in sickness and in health. I was not complaining to the hospital staff that I had my kids. I was asking for clarification in order to determine how to organize our lives better.
What astonished me was the openly hostile attitude I received from the Emergency Department physicians the first time I walked in after Ann’s first overdose. They made a snide remark “Oh, you finally made it….” assuming judgment and lacking any understanding to the simple fact that we have three children that still needed to be cared for while I was at the hospital sorting out what happened to Ann.
This attitude persisted even when I once told ambulance staff that I would NOT being riding with them, that I could NOT leave the children alone. The EMTs in turn told ER staff that the kids were by themselves at home, resulting in a full-scale DCFS investigation into their welfare; complete with both a DCFS officer and police officer banging down the door at 8 pm just as the kids went to sleep. The sheer callousness of the hospital staff was astounding at times. Once Ann asked to wet her throat because it was dry and they refused, telling her “She shouldn’t have overdosed and she would not be in that predicament.”
Ann was ILL. Ann wasn’t on the proper cocktail of medications. Ann, when she is stable, is not in that predicament.
I have had to make some difficult choices at times that Ann’s therapist didn’t always agree with. Things that the treatment team did not feel were in her best interest even though I knew it was in the best interest of our family. (And looking back, I was 100% right to stand my ground.) I understand that her health was and is the most important matter to them but it is disappointing when the family is seemingly left hanging after all the damage that undiagnosed, untreated illnesses cause. Ann told her treatment team, and signed papers that her therapist and psychiatrist that they can communicate with me freely at any point. However, if I called with concerns or questions I found that I would still be greeted with hostility, a guarded manner and receive only the most basic answers.
No one considers the family in mental illness, how they are left to handle everything alone. However, mental illness is very much a family-centered illness. If Ann had cancer, I would have casseroles and support groups coming out of the woodwork. It simply does not exist in the mental health community due to the stigma that all family members feel just as acutely as the actual patient and their fears on speaking out and revealing that secret they worked so hard to protect.
But it is time for the families to speak up and talk about the effects of the illness on them too. I pray everyday that families become a priority in the care of mental illness as well. It is hard having to take care of everyone and managing a household by oneself all the time.
But I did it. I kept everything running, the kids growing, made sure they knew they indeed had TWO parents loved them very much, but that one was ill and simply unable to show it. I did it because I love my wife, and my boys very much and believe in our future.
Keith Roselle is a photographer and graphic designer living in Bethany, CT. He is the father of three boys and husband to his wife Ann, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013 following a difficult battle with postpartum depression. He works alongside his wife to help erase the stigma associated with mental illnesses.