“…I learned to notice the beauty first. However, it is often difficult to hold that space and life frequently kicks you in the ass (which is sometimes what you need to help you remember you are alive)! Then for some time, you become jaded and sealed up. Doing exactly what you needed to do to survive! Finally, beauty restores itself. Life cycles continuously between the beauty and the suffering, but sometimes there is a balance between the two, and you wisely ride that wave as long as you can…”
When I wrote those words two years ago, I didn’t realize how relevant they would remain. When my family committed to base jumping into uncertainty, I thought we would be riding the waves of joy for quite some time. As we drove from Seattle to Mexico, we were open to possibility. We had no idea how long we would be traveling or where our next home would be. We were prepared for an adventure of a lifetime. We frequently tell people that Mexico offered us time and space. I assumed that meant we would reach a state of bliss unknown to us within our hectic US lifestyle. What I didn’t anticipate was that the open space in our lives would let in joy and darkness. I also didn’t understand that our previous lifestyle included survival tactics, which were indispensable for my boyfriend. He has a huge personality, and many of our friends describe him as having a lust for life. Like many who appear jovial and the life of the party, he silently suffers.
To afford our new nomadic lifestyle, we quit drinking. In the US, alcohol and self-care are almost synonymous. T-shirts, memes, and ads target mothers and espouse mommy wine culture as a positive way to feel joy and deal with stress. Drinking at the end of a hard workday is socially acceptable, almost expected. We like whiskey. It was part of our identity. All our friends knew it, and whiskey was considered the perfect gift for us on any occasion. We enjoyed drinking whiskey under our cherry tree at the end of the workday. It was unquestioned. Completely “normal.” What I didn’t know then was that my boyfriend drank to keep his demons at bay. After several months of sobriety, his demons began poking their heads out from behind the walls where they were confined for decades.
One of our biggest lessons learned over the past two years is that sobriety cannot be the end goal. Not drinking is not the same as healing. It is imperative to address the underlying cause of the drinking (or any other substances that are misused). In the field of substance use disorders, this is where we often go terribly wrong. We focus primarily on getting the person off their drug of choice instead of focusing on why they started using it in the first place. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
After more than a year of suffering, we slowly started piecing together why my boyfriend was falling in. While developing online training for foster parents and caregivers, I became immersed in research about developmental trauma. As I learned more about complex-post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), I began asking my boyfriend questions about his childhood experiences. The pieces of the puzzle started falling into place. Unfortunately, this would only be the beginning of our journey. Although we began to understand what was happening and why it didn’t wipe out the suffering or restore beauty, our lives continued to be tumultuous and filled with sorrow.
We unexpectedly stayed in Mexico. Along with the challenges, Mexico continued to offer beauty, joy, time, and space. We often joke that “Mexico is hard.” We are frequently stretched in ways we never imagined. I continue to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be an immigrant. My compassion grows. The language barrier often makes simple tasks like ordering food, setting up household services, or accessing medical care extremely difficult. We lept over the hurdles required to become legal residents, including required border runs and many trips to the immigration office. We did it all with our limited Spanish skills. During all of these trials, locals were kind and patient with me. I continue to feel welcomed and respected here.
Our next big lesson came when we tried to access mental health care in the US. When we started our travels, we wrote that the mission of our blog was to spread “unfettered knowledge and a love of learning, exploring, and embracing the full range of the human experience through photos, writing, teaching, and providing support.” In the spirit of this mission, my boyfriend and I decided to be public about what we are experiencing. While this has made some people uncomfortable, many have reached out and said they shared similar experiences in their own lives — either personally or with a family member.
Through discussions with friends, family, therapists, and psychologists, one thing stood out to me. The individualistic “put yourself first” mentality, pervasive in Eurocentric cultures, runs deep into the mental health care field. I repeatedly heard that if my boyfriend’s mental health struggles caused me to suffer, then I should walk away from him. The question I kept asking was, “How do we do this? How can we create a healthy marriage despite his C-PTSD?” It seems that no one has that answer.
People seeking treatment for mental health issues are frequently told to focus on themselves. They receive treatment, which may help them contain some of their suffering and may promote self-healing. However, treatment available often does not help them feel more comfortable within their community or families. C-PTSD is often caused by relational trauma. Therefore, healing must happen in the context of relationships. If the treatment doesn’t teach how to be in relationship and how to heal as a family, an essential component is missing.
Additionally, as a partner to someone with C-PTSD, there are few resources available to me. The therapy I have tried to access also follows the “me first” paradigm. I hear phrases like - “he is zapping your energy,” “he doesn’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated,” and “you deserve to be happy.” While there is some truth in those phrases, there has to be an alternative to “leave him.” Many marriage counselors aren’t trained in working with people who have C-PTSD; therefore their approaches aren’t effective.
During the past few months, we have been vividly reminded about the stigma surrounding mental health issues. If my boyfriend had a physical illness that caused suffering and reduced the quality of life for our family, I would be vilified if I “abandoned” him. However, it seems far too many people think of mental illness as a choice. They believe that my boyfriend can simply choose to be healthy again. Unfortunately, I am not alone in my journey as a partner. I joined an online support group with over 170 members who share similar stories and frustrations about seeking support and effective therapy. I continue to search for family-centered approaches to healing.
The initial trauma did not occur in a vacuum. Healing cannot either.
The third big lesson we learned is that amidst the suffering life continues and good things are still possible. Again, I am amazed by how prophetic the words I wrote two years ago turned out to be. “Life cycles continuously between the beauty and the suffering, but sometimes there is a balance between the two.” We are currently in a place where there of balance. After working remotely since leaving Seattle, it was time I got serious about going back to work. Mexico continues to be the land of opportunity for me. Next week, I start teaching at my dream school. The school is bilingual, bicultural, and student-centered. Learning is fostered through discussions, and hands-on activities with class sizes capped at 14 students. I will finally be able to participate in the type of education that serves youth best and is rooted in evidence. At the school, we will offer the kind of educational experience I learned about in graduate school but haven’t been able to witness or implement.
As we enter into the next phase of our lives, I reflect on the words of Don Miguel Ruiz. “Life is nothing but a dream, and if we are artists, then we can create our life with Love, and our dream becomes a masterpiece of art.” I believe these words and am committed to creating a masterpiece rooted in love. I reflect on impermanence again because I cannot even pretend to know what is awaiting us tomorrow, let alone next year.
Impermanence is not the enemy, for it brings joy as well as despair. I am comforted in my darkest times by knowing they too are impermanent. I don’t need to grasp tightly to what is, for fear of it going away. If I savor each beautiful moment, I will have no regrets later. Armed with this knowledge, I step forward with excitement instead of fear. After all, stability is an illusion.
Originally published at https://robinharwick.com.