The Things You Held Sacred

It’s a slippery thing, sanity. Sometimes it dances drunkenly at the far end of the wave-bashed jetty before being dashed into the vastness. Sometimes it scampers just inside the edge of the forest and darts occasionally into the light on the lawn, tormenting you with its nearness. Sometimes it dissolves in the dark. Come dawn nothing is the same, and you want to tear your hair and rend your garments and scream, “He’s gone! How will I survive?” 

Instead, you consult physicians who recommend psychiatrists who recommend medications and reassure you, “Within a few weeks, you’ll see. Your husband will be himself again.”

They diagnose depression. The weeks pass with no improvement. They adjust the medical cocktail. The SSRIs aren’t working. Perhaps the MAOIs will. If not, we may have to try the old-fashioned tricyclics. They ask so many questions. How long has he been like this? When did you first notice the symptoms? Is he better in the evenings or the mornings? How has your sex life been affected? What changes in diet have you noticed? Can he still enjoy certain of the things he used to? Which ones? Sunsets? Walks? Food? Friends? How is your behavior changing?

They tell you to keep a diary of his behavior. They offer you lists of ways you can be more helpful. They ask, “Have you read William Styron’s book about depression?”

They don’t smile when you answer, “No. But I’d sure like to read Mrs. Styron’s book.”

He begs, “Please, please, please don’t let me be hospitalized. Please don’t let them do electroshock.” But you’ve never heard any of his doctors suggest this. Have they? Is he making it up?


You talk to friends. You have to. You can’t leave him alone or he’ll harm himself. You can’t leave him with the kids or he may do it in front of them. You ask his friends and yours if they can come by and sit with him for a couple of hours. Okay, an hour. You just need some time to get some goddamned groceries. No one does it more than once. You soon run out of friends who can help in that way. They act as if crazy is contagious, and they can’t afford to carry the germ back to their nests. And you know that crazy begets crazy, and you wonder how infected you have become. You do crazy calculus in your head. How much of the toxicity of his disease can you and your children safely survive?

Your friends become scarce. You don’t have time or energy to be friends to them. You have no patience with their conversations about movies or investments or new restaurants. You find one, Tom, who’s known you both for years and who’s willing to talk about “it.” He says he can’t help that he doesn’t want to witness what’s happening. He says that the two of you were his hope. He says, “You two were the proof that two heads were better than one.” He adds, “And what magnificent heads.”

Months pass. The doctors ask how concerned you still are about suicide. You tell them he talks about it constantly. How real do you think the threats are? You tell them very real, and you also worry that he’ll harm you or the kids when he’s lashing out. Hmmmm. How often does he lash out? In what ways? How animated is he when he does this? Is he actually physically threatening? And why didn’t you tell us about this before? You’re sure you did.

They try more medications, and more months slip by with few results. You try to talk to them about his therapy, but you can tell it’s the chemicals they really trust. They re-diagnose. They re-diagnose the re-diagnosis. Finally it’s this: late onset, sudden onset bipolar disorder.

It’s a tidy little bunch of words that you hang onto because, see, right there in the middle, “sudden” shows how it barreled in like a freight train. And just there, at the beginning, “late onset” explains why he wasn’t this way for the first ten years you were together. That word “bipolar” tells you that, yes, this thing is the mental whiplash you think it is. But most comforting, at the end of the bunch, the word “disorder” gives you hope that maybe it can be re-ordered.

You hope that the books you read, the experts you consult, and the therapists you engage will help him and you and the family you created together. Much of your hope is selfish. You long to snuggle your face into the fur on his chest and inhale the smell of him, the smell that riveted the primitive you to him in the first place. You long for him to want you there. You long to see his eyes alight as he “tells” you a movie he once saw. You long to hear his laughter as it used to be, untinged with frenzy. You sometimes see a flickering joy, like the glint of a coin at the bottom of a creek, in those rare moments when he is able to reach beyond the misery or the manic and connect again. Such moments guide you like a strand of beacons across dark water. Such moments offer hope. The books, experts, and therapists offer hope. You need hope.

You need hope if you’re to stand by him, and you need to stand by him because this could have been cancer or a car accident, and it doesn’t matter what form misfortune takes. You made a vow. Plus, you owe him for the ten years of daily happiness. You owe him because when the two of you met, for the first time in your life, love songs made sense. When he asked you to marry him, you asked him if he knew what marriage in Texas meant. You owe him because he listened while you told him that by law he could hit you and it wasn’t assault, that he could take your children and it wasn’t kidnapping, that he could take your money and it wasn’t theft, that he could rape you and it wasn’t rape, and that he could kill you in flagrante delicto, and it wouldn’t be murder. It would be – oh, irony – manslaughter. You owe him because he said, “Then we’ll just have to change the state of Texas.” Then he worked by your side to make that happen. You owe him.


You owe him because his was one of the finest minds you had ever encountered, and the least you can do is help him regain some part of it. You owe him for hugging your friends with AIDS, for kissing your wounds, for explaining the stars and cosmology, for standing up to bullies, for sharing all that he had, and for choosing you and hanging in there when you rejected him at first—for hanging in there because he saw something in the two of you that not even you could see. You owe him because you love him.

You love him now in much the way that mothers of schizophrenics love the beautiful children they raised even as they helplessly watch those children descend into chaos. Of all the people you find, these women are the ones you gravitate to most. They understand that you love him, but you no longer love him every day. Sometimes you are just too angry or hurt or scared to care in the moment. You are not proud of this. You suspect that there’s a frightening truth in what the mothers of schizophrenics try to teach you: that this will never be like it was, and that you must learn to live with it.

The crazy calculus, the mathematics of change, the mathematics of for better or worse, punctuates your days and nights. How many days since he smiled? How many days since he hasn’t smiled? How many times did he threaten you this week? How many dollars left in the savings? The 401K? How much do you owe the IRS? His employees? If you sell the house, how much can you pay them back? How much can you let him do on his own? He needs to handle the checkbook, he says, because he needs to keep his dignity. How much can you trust him?

You try to help him keep his business together, but after that fails you try to help him keep the jobs he finds. For a while he can find jobs. He’s rather famous among software gurus. Before he is fired the final time, as you know he will be as word begins to spread about his strange behavior, you call in all your chits and find a good job for yourself. You must go back out there and leave the kids with a nanny knowing all the while that the nanny won’t last long once she sees how fragile you all are. The hired helpers come and go. And then, of course, you corkscrew further under when he is fired for the last time.

He stays home supposedly to look for jobs. He sits at his computer all day in his briefs and barely acknowledges the kids when they come in from school. Social change organizers don’t make as much money as software gurus, so you take extra contracts on the side when you can, but you still can’t pay all the bills, and you watch the money evaporate. Eventually, paid helpers are no longer an option. So you do all the shopping, the menu planning, the cooking, the homework-helping, the laundry and the cleaning. The kids pitch in wherever they can.

He continues to sit in his briefs at a computer with a cat box not ten feet away. You decide that you will not empty that reeking cat box no matter what. You do more crazy calculus. How many days will he sit next to that reeking cat box without scooping the litter?

While you and the kids prepare dinner one evening he pads into the kitchen to tell you about the amazing computer code he wrote today.

“I knew I didn’t need to be looking for jobs,” he says. “It’s an entirely new satellite technology, really. It cracks a problem that NASA has struggled with for years.”

You turn from the stove to see him grinning and sweating and rocking from side to side. Oh, shit. He’s manic, and you prefer the depressed phases. At least they don’t feel as dangerous. They don’t lead to screaming. Because you suck at being the wife to a bipolar man. Because you are so tired of all this that although you think you are only screaming in your head, you sometimes find yourself actually screaming. When you’re calm again, you try to calculate the effects on your sons of living with a screaming, exhausted mother and a father who doesn’t get dressed.


On a Saturday afternoon, he comes into the bedroom where you are folding clothes and sits on the side of the bed. He is crying.

“Tell me our wedding,” he says. “I’ve forgotten it.”

So you sit beside him holding his hand and tell him about the ceremony in the Maximilian Room at the Driskill Hotel and the reception in the Grand Ballroom. How all your family members flew into Austin from the West and East Coasts and all your friends gathered. How the minister (Remember her? Reverend Bentley?) warned the two of you to be sure that you took care of each other even while you took care of your community, and everyone laughed knowing how dedicated the two of you were to your causes. You tell him how he pulled you out on the dance floor at the reception. You didn’t think he danced, but he surprised you by taking lessons on his lunch hour for weeks before the wedding. You save your favorite part for last, the part just before the ceremony when he called the suite upstairs where you and your friends were getting dressed. He asked them to leave, and then he came in with two flutes and a bottle of champagne. He toasted the future with you and took you by the hand to go downstairs and become your husband.

He seems tired but calm after he hears the story. You kiss his forehead, and he folds himself up on top of the bed covers and falls asleep almost instantly. You rise. You don’t want the kids to see you right now. You walk into his office to be alone, and you reel from the stench. The cats have crapped all around the overflowing cat box. You calculate that it has been four and a half weeks since anyone has emptied it.

You calculate that it has been seven and a half years since he first went mad.

You turn back into the hallway, lean against the wall, and sink to the floor. The battle within you between love and resentment has ravaged your psyche far too long, and you know that, above all, your sons deserve better. You have gambled on your husband, the man whom you trusted more than anyone. You bet on the ten years of happiness together, on the doctors, on the therapy for him and you and your sons, on your will and strength. You bet your future and your children’s futures, your security, their college money. You bet it all like an addict in the action at a Vegas craps table. Come on, sevens! But the sevens never came. Your once impressive stack has been reduced to a few scattered chips. You wonder what to do now that you understand your will to hold on has outlasted most of your means and much of your compassion.

All you know is that can’t do this anymore.


Months later, after the haranguing and angst and guilt of the separation, after the two of you sit down to explain to your sons that this is meant to keep everyone safe and that the two of you will not live together, but you will keep working together to become healthier, you agree to meet him to discuss arrangements for him to see the kids. He chooses a coffee shop at a Barnes and Noble, and he’s poking among the tech magazines when you arrive. He already has a table. You’re surprised at how quickly he appears to have recovered some of his old abilities since you asked for the separation. He found a job within a week, an apartment in two, and was dating within three.

Today he is giddy. He has good news he says as he sits down and fiddles with the napkin holder. The metal tips of his chair’s front legs clack rhythmically against the tile floor as he rocks rapidly backward and forward. His forehead is dewed with perspiration, and he seems to look at your forehead when he speaks.

“The good news is that I know now what’s been wrong for so long,” he says. You try to remember the last time he looked like this. Oh, yes, when he made the NASA “breakthrough.” He beams as he says, “I don’t love you, you see. And I haven’t loved you for quite some time. And the moment I realized this …”

He goes on excitedly, apparently expecting you to share in his joy, but you can’t hear through the ringing in your ears. You feel as though you’ve been holding your breath in one lung for years and using the other lung to just survive. While the tension of the withheld breath seeps slowly out of you, so does your ability to remain erect. You are afraid you will slip to the floor, and you stare down at the tiles willing them to remain at a distance.

“Hey, are you okay?” he asks.

“I can’t stand up,” you answer.

Your sanity dances drunkenly on the salty slickness at the end of the jetty as the sea crashes all around.






Author's Comment

I had never read anything that quite captured, for me, the overwhelming rush of being suddenly thrust into the chaos of a loved one’s mental illness or the extreme push/pull of the dueling loyalties of wife and mother in such circumstances. I wanted to create a record of that time as a legacy for my sons, as an explanation to those who loved us and hadn’t known what to do, and as a tribute to the resourceful women I know who have forged through such storms in their own families.


Phyllis Dunham lives, works, teaches, studies, and writes in New Orleans with Mabel, her Catahoula-Border Collie companion, always nearby. She is the mother of four now-grown sons adopted from Belize, and she worked for over twenty years directing social change campaigns focusing on women’s and environmental issues. Her works have recently appeared in the Cenizo Journal, Drunk Monkeys, Forge Journal, Neutrons Protons and Louisiana Literature and on WWNO Public Radio and will soon be featured in Sugar and Rice.


  1. Dear Phyllis, I am unsure if you will see this note as I have come across your essay some 8 years after it’s publishing. I am in shock that you and your family underwent so much and I was completely unaware. If you would like to be in touch with me you can reach me through this email. Much love, Connie (formerly Sharirli).

    1. Thank you for your sympathy for him. I still grieve for the loss of such a lovely human being and the father of our children.

    1. Oh my goodness, that would be grand. I often felt so little compassion for our family from the professionals in charge of my husband’s care. I hope my case was an aberration, but I fear that many spouses are left feeling inadequate and lonely. Thank you.

  2. Dear Phyllis,

    Incredible writing—even more so because of what you were writing about: the disintegration of a mind and a marriage.
    I’ve noted that some people would rather “go crazy” i.e. depression/bi-polar even dementia, than face a reality of difficulty in the family—Thank God you put yourself first and stopped holding being a wife as sacred.

    1. Being this man’s wife was one of the great joys of my life. Obviously, it took quite a while for me to let go. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Heart breaking and beautifully written!
    They didn’t smile at the Mrs. Styron bit, but I did.
    I was drawn in and felt the pain of the situation. How it went on and on and on. Screaming in your head and sometimes you find yourself actually screaming. I liked that you chose “you” rather than “I”.
    The opening images are particularly good.
    Powerful writing. Riveting. Deeply moving.

  4. I relate to your story far too much! It’s wonderful to know that someone gets what it’s like. One does what one can; one goes on. Love the tension in your writing.

  5. Phyllis,
    Thank you for this story, so painful and so courageous, not to mention very well written. I’m glad you are free and surviving. I will let you know that there are scientific advances in the use of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) for treatment of depression and its variants. I only tell you this because you have sons. If you want specific information and a resource let me know. In the meantime know that you are one of those “resourceful” women you mention in your comment. Thanks again.

    1. Lyn,
      Thank you for your remarks and your concern. I can assure you that, at the time I was living through this, I felt anything but courageous. Frightened, angry, betrayed by the universe, sure, but not courageous. The courageous part, if there was one, began with my decision to remove myself and my sons from the madness. My sons are all adopted, so there is no genetic connection to their father’s illness. We continue to struggle with our own issues, some of which resulted from this experience and others which do not. Again, thank you for your kind remarks. A writer always likes to hear that she has been heard. pd

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