There is a sort of taboo about discussing our relationships on the internet: as if telling the truth about how we feel about those we share our intimate lives with would be the worst kind of dis-loyalty. And for those who write about home, it seems doubly destructive, as if discussing what really happens within our own four walls would break the spell we are so careful to cast.
But in this regard we do the women we so very much want to honestly engage with, a terrible dis-service, because often we are feeding them half-truths. Telling stories of nibbly suppers and red wine, but failing to mention our fraught efforts at conversation met with silence. Describing days spent puttering our house into domestic bliss, but never describing the nights we sleep alone because he has passed out in front of the football and will not be woken for love nor money.
I want to begin this post then, with my assurance that I tell it with Ste’s full permission. That we tell it together at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, and that I tell it from a place of utter safety and love, so there is no need for concern. I met Ste, six weeks after my Mum died and he was a refuge at the most confusing, distressing time in my life. Long nights spent in his arms, while he listened and listened and listened some more, and when I ran out of words, told me to go on, to carry on raking through my feelings because here there was no judgement, just space for me to untangle the flood of tangled emotion.
In retrospect we rushed at each other. Him from a disastrous relationship and me from grief and trauma following a few terrible years. While I, so famously strong, coped in my own way and began to make a home for all of us, for Ste and I, Finley and Ste’s son Stevie, Ste, after only a few months began to withdraw. Withholding thoughts, growling at us all, refusing the merest semblance of intimacy and confusing the hell out of me with his refusal to talk beyond tomorrow, a fierce Daddy bear like protection of his son, there was never any need for, and at the same time, such obvious relief in the love he clearly said he felt.
I did not know then that those who have had a lifetime of suffering, a devastating childhood, sexual abuse and then real trauma at the hands of fatal disaster, could teach themselves to manage joy, and their instinctive expectation of its loss, by actively sabotaging it, and for his part, Ste refused to acknowledge the pain he wore like skin and answered every probing, need to know question of mine with “I’m fine, I’m always fine”.
And so began a cycle of drama, the likes of which I had never known and barely hinted at here. Irrational decisions and a failure to accept responsibility. Rages and (often hilarious) tantrums. The packing of his bags so often it came to be a source of amusement to all of us for we never doubted that despite leaving so frequently to go and live in his childhood bedroom at his Mum’s, he would be back after only a day or so. Drinking, cruel words borne of alcohol, unreliable behaviour, the beginnings of ugly addictions, and worse than all of that, a deep enduring silence he could not be drawn out of to explain what was happening to destroy the man I had met such a short time before. A man so deeply loved by all those who knew him well.
It is possible I wasn’t in my right mind. I sold my little house because it wasn’t big enough for all of us and I so desperately needed to get away from the memories within it and we moved from one rented home to another in a short space of time: him along for the ride and raging in-between and me managing everything from choosing the house to organising the finances and all manner of other kerfuffles, while hoping all the time that he would either transform back into what he had been or somehow emerge like a manly butterfly from the cocoon of rage he had wrapped himself in.
And then the suicide ideation began. He wanted to die. Despite everything we now had, the boys so happy, the lovely house I had created so carefully, hoping somehow that it would be the certainty of domesticity that would liberate him, a shore against his ruin, yes, despite all that, he wanted to die. I couldn’t fathom it. Had never really known the destructive power of poor mental health, had never witnessed such wanton sabotage of something someone said over and over again, was all he had ever wanted.
While people often talk about those who abuse by threatening to kill themselves in an exertion of power, what I was experiencing with Ste was very different. It was instead, an ongoing deep-rooted sorrow he could not shake. The talk of death never a threat but always a means of releasing us from the hell he believed he was putting us through. Initial efforts to get him medical help failed, for he carried on believing that there was nothing wrong with him beyond his very pointlessness. His failures as a man, a father, and a son.
I became exhausted by it. Inflamed and ill. Too many nights spent listening to him either promising me the world, or crying down the phone to the Samaritans as I sat beside him while he sobbed. Some nights bearing witness to the kind of rage that swore at anything inanimate and once, at a turning point for both of us, recording him on my phone as he indulged in a litany of insults coldly chucked my way.
The next day I showed him the recording and his disgust at himself was complete. He knew he could not escape evidence of him turning into the Father that had so willingly ruined his childhood and he agreed to go to the doctor. And so together we fell down the rabbit hole that is the NHS response to mental health. An almost useless course of CBT, and month after month of changing medication, some that merely increased the rage, some that turned him into a zombie and some that seemingly did nothing at all. He took time off from work that at once reduced the pressure he felt in a difficult environment and plunged us into financial crisis I had to carry the burden for. Until there came a diagnosis of sorts: PTSD and such low testosterone he barely had any at all, a combination that was triggering the flashbacks and rages he had been enduring and simultaneously fuelling the deep sorrow he felt inside.
To me leaving was never a possibility. I love Ste deeply and I have been humbled by who he has become once he understood that he wasn’t mad. Or the waste of space he believed he was. That he was suffering both emotionally and physically and that there was light at the end of the tunnel if only he would stop trying to run away from himself.
I didn’t have any answers, beyond my own stoic belief in him, but I knew what had helped me over the years and in an effort to help him, last November, I created a blog for him: a place to untangle his own emotions, to set out a path for his recovery and to document who he had been and who he was becoming now that there were real solutions available to him. And so he began writing, and though he is not a writer, threw himself into telling his story with such honesty and willingness to be seen, it was astonishing and he quickly gained traction: radio appearances and interviews, magazine articles and more, for Ste’s is the telling of what happens when a man stuffs down a lifetime of pain and tragedy and pretends he is “fine”. How to a man like him, happiness can seem terribly frightening, domesticity, threatening and claustrophobic (and something that must be resisted at all costs), and of what it is when finally, someone refuses to give up on him, so that he has no choice but to confront the demons that have haunted him for the best part of his life, and to start to believe in himself as she does.
He began to help himself: reading endlessly, understanding his own fear of intimacy, eating better, getting out on the long walks that soothe his mind, doing the house jobs he had been studiously avoiding and finally joining a local group that has shown him he was never alone: that so many people, from so many different walks of life are suffering too and that there is community in addressing their shared pain. It has been astonishing watching him crawling out of sorrow, standing before others telling his story, blinking in the light of possibility. But we are by no means out of the woods yet. In fact in this recent post of his, you will read how very much he still believes I would thrive without him. But that isn’t what love does, is it?
In many ways he is simply learning to manage himself better. Only this week fleeting thoughts of suicide passed through his mind again and I had to insist that he went to the doctors, that he returned to the heart of his group, because I cannot always do this alone. It is scary and tiring and if I’m totally honest, sometimes desperately boring, and occasionally too much like self-indulgence for me to have sufficient empathy, but I am no longer afraid to challenge him. There has been so much I have learned about myself in all of this too: that all the puttery treats in the world won’t fix a home compromised by mental health issues, that my own way of talking something to death won’t necessarily solve all issues and that simply put, I am not responsible for solving all ills in this house. This life.
Above all else, he is an astonishingly brave man and I am in awe of his willingness now to expose the ugliest parts of himself and examine them. His determination to be a better version of himself. The sheer effort it still takes for him to get up each day and the lovely future he is trying so hard to create for us. Our house is a happier place because he was finally so willing to accept the help he desperately needed and to allow himself to come totally undone and spill the poison that for so long had been spiking his veins. We adore him here. Finn refers to him as “My Little Ste” (being as he is, so very proud about being taller than both Ste and his Dad!) and frets in his own teenage way when he sees the sadness that might always be with us descending again, but now for every ounce of misery, there is a pound of laughter, hope and joy and we are all grateful for that.
I am so very proud of him. I have held off sharing this story, because there is stigma attached to mental health issues and the havoc they wreaks upon even the happiest of homes. But when we suppress these stories, or drape them in rosy curtains, we cheat each other out of the support we so often desperately need.
We need to break the silence. For our own sake and for all those who shouldn’t have to walk alone.