How dealing with one partner’s mental illness made a couple’s relationship stronger
Mental illness often drives couples apart. But sometimes it brings them together.
The beginning is a movie script. Boy meets girl, or not quite. But eyes lock across a room crowded with people and laughter and the ghosts of their own histories. They look at each other, long seconds, and turn away. Three months later, the same room, the same people and, miraculously, these two again. Sharon Stocker, then 36, and Vinay Nair, 23. She finds herself before him. Waves of chatter and noise recede. “Where have you been?” she asks earnestly, as if they have met before in some impossible time and place; as if they’ve gone missing from their own lives.
But like the opening scene in all good movies, this one contains the seeds of a drama, one that will enfold and threaten true love and require heroism, deft moves and a supple sense of humour before boy and girl ride off into the sunset together. Well, towards the sunset. Even now, 13 years later, they don’t take anything for granted. “A day at a time,” they say.
Ten years ago, as an uncommon love flowered between Sharon and Vinay, their histories exploded into their present, and old ghosts, malicious and fearsome, swept into their home. The grief of her previous marriage that went “terribly wrong”, the strictures and demands of his traditional Indian upbringing and culture. Who knows what else? They don’t. They didn’t see it coming: the incorrigible forces that swept suddenly through Sharon, that spun and flashed and raged for five days. Each day worse, each day louder and louder like an approaching police siren. “It was very confronting,” Vinay says in his understated way. “It was like a bad Bollywood movie.”
Eventually, a neighbour intervened. Sharon was taken, one wild night, and locked in a room at a Brisbane mental health facility. Medicated until she felt she was drowning, paralysed. She didn’t understand. Everything that mattered was forbidden: visits from Vinay and her small daughters, cigarettes. She was frightened by the power of those around her. What else might they do?
Label her, that’s what. “Schizophrenia,” she was told. Meanwhile, outside the room, “bipolar disorder”, Vinay was told. He understood only because Australian cricketer Michael Slater had
just been diagnosed. It was strangely comforting. But what did it mean? He knew only and absolutely that she was not dangerous, not to him, or to the children.
After a long month, Sharon came home, four hours one day, then overnight, two nights, before she was free. By then, Vinay knew what he wanted to do. “I didn’t think twice. I didn’t stop to doubt,” he says. “The diagnosis could have been a turning point. It could have broken the relationship. But only if it wrapped around one person. We wrapped it around both of us. We saw it as an opportunity to grow, and decided to create a safe space for each other. Which is really what a relationship is. And we could do that because, by then, we were completely transparent, completely permeable, to each other. I saw the situation a bit like the picture of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree. I was the tree. I would support her, and she would recover in her own way.”
And she did.
miraculous? It was, and it wasn’t. From their first meeting, the couple worked hard to find and develop a relationship based on trust, honesty and open communication. A relationship, according to Vinay, without guilt and judgement. “It’s been a negotiation. And I had a lot to learn,” he says. “I wasn’t as intuitive as Sharon when we first met. I had to reflect all the time. How do we do this? The answer was to look within.”
According to Sharon, they both had to find their own courage, to trust, to be open and utterly honest. It was hard work – Sharon had felt “nothing that resembled trust” since the trauma and collapse of her earlier marriage, during which she had also experienced postnatal depression, so despite her intuition about Vinay, they proceeded slowly, developing a strong friendship first. The deal-clincher was the day Vinay came to her and said: “There’s nothing I can give you.”
“I laughed,” she says. “At last! My relationships with men until then had been based on manipulation. With Vinay I knew exactly what was on the plate.”
But in those early days of their relationship, neither could know that Vinay’s parents, at home in the south of India, would change that completely. His was a traditional family that expected this only son to return to the fold with his new university degree, marry as arranged, and join the family social circle. “They had big expectations of me,” he says. “There was a huge uproar when I finally told them about Sharon.”
Still, neither expected his parents to turn up unannounced and rent a house in Brisbane’s north, around the corner from their own, from which they would proceed to make their demands. Their son would return home with them, they announced. He would leave this woman. If necessary, they would use their financial power to make it happen. “They tried to buy me off, bribe me,” Sharon says. “They offered me money to give him up, and money for the girls’ education.”
They kept stressing the 13-year age gap between the two, insisting her girls would never accept him. Every night, Vinay relayed messages from his parents to Sharon, telling her openly what they had said. Caught in the crossfire, Sharon was increasingly overwhelmed. She found it impossible to sleep. “How can human beings do this?” she would ask. Her mood escalated. Confused and sleepless, she began to smash telephones and ornaments and, according to her daughters, “have weird conversations with people who weren’t there”.
The girls don’t remember it as frightening, which Sharon attributes to the constant talking and unrelenting honesty she and Vinay used to explain the situation. “For me, though, the feeling was one of anger and liberation,” she says. “I was dizzy with it.” They both eschew terms like “breakdown”. For Vinay, those five days were “Sharon coming out of her shell. This was her breakthrough. She had to let go of everything. She was holding on to a lot of things. This was her catalyst for change,” he says.
Sharon finally left hospital, with a range of medical advice they found contradictory and confusing, the couple had decisions to make. It wasn’t hard. They decided to take their own, unconventional path to Sharon’s recovery, to keep trusting each other, and to be patient. They would approach this their way; not as two people, but as a unit, collaboratively. “Like being in love,” Vinay says. “It wasn’t about fixing or saving someone, it was about patience and letting someone be in an authentic space.
“I didn’t think twice. I just did what needed to be done. She knew best. So, for a year, I just tuned in to her. As humans, we look at our history to see
The diagnosis could have been a turning point … but only if it wrapped around one person. We wrapped it around both of us.
VI NAY NAIR
ourselves, but because I was apart from my history, I had control. All I had was in front of me. It’s just me and her. But there is no growth without taking risks. That’s become our motto now: we take risks, and we don’t look back. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be here.” Still, there were days when the journey to recovery wasn’t easy. “Sometimes,” Sharon says, “it felt very hard, but we knew we could do it; that we’d get there. It was as if we were the only two people on Earth we could trust.”
They took this attitude into Sharon’s eventual decision to stop her medication. “I needed to know who I was without it,” she says. She took a year off work and sat with her feelings, recording them, talking to Vinay to “process the hurt and damage of the past”. Being off medication, she said, was like “taking off layers of protection”.
“The more I did this, the more I was able to reshape my beliefs. It was an awakening,” she says. She also became an advocate for the rights of people in the mental health sector. “They are having this raw experience and they don’t know who to trust, because they don’t know if they trust themselves.”
As the couple learned more and involved themselves in the mental health consumer arena, they discovered the privately run Emotional CPR program, which reflected the approach they’d used so successfully in the aftermath of Sharon’s hospitalisation. Drawn by the tools it offered to empower people who are, or have been, in crisis to build trust and strength in relationships, they have undergone formal training and now run the program in Queensland. “We feel like we’ve walked the talk,” says Vinay. “Sharon has had this unique experience and come out the other side. She can be authentic with people because there is nothing to lose, nothing to hide. She knows what she is doing.” He grins. “Sometimes I just have to shut up and listen.”
Life is still a day at a time, because who knows what tomorrow holds? They say they look at the road through the windscreen, not the rearview mirror, to the future rather than the past. The important thing, they say, is that they’re both looking at the same part of the road.
Neil Barringham, from A Place to Belong (which connects people experiencing mental illness to their communities through friendships, for instance), based in inner Brisbane’s West End, and who worked with the couple in establishing the Emotional CPR program, believes Sharon and Vinay’s story flies in the face of the stereotype of mental illness as burdensome, hopeless and frightening, something from which there is no recovery. “It is a poignant and potent example of resilience and recovery,” Barringham says. “It reminds us that people can grow from the pain of mental illness into a more empowered life, with a sense of depth and purpose. Some people prefer to call it a ‘breakthrough’ rather than a ‘breakdown’.
“This is not to glorify the pain or to discount the hard work people like Sharon and Vinay have done. But very often people develop richer emotional and spiritual lives – and, in this case, a new family with a new sense of purpose. It’s also an example of the huge impact of trauma in mental illness, and how, for many, there are non-medical solutions.”
Barringham says any decision to come off medication is best made in collaboration with close family and supporters, and a person’s medical practitioners. He says the Emotional CPR program was developed by a doctor in the US who had experienced mental illness himself. “It’s about upskilling people in neighbourhoods to respond to the distress of family and friends. It’s a non-medical, non-diagnostic, non-clinical response to people’s distress. It’s relatively new and unknown in Australia, so it isn’t generally endorsed by mental health professionals here.”
A community inclusion worker, Barringham helped the couple pilot their new program, which he says encourages more connection in communities to ensure people living with mental illnesses have all the options available to them beyond “pills and tablets”. Sharon is also branching out to offer her “lived experience” in one-on-one sessions.
Meanwhile, she and Vinay, who is a counsellor, still walk the talk. Vinay’s parents have returned to India and the couple plough energy into their relationship with each other and the girls, trying to ensure they, too, think outside the box, look at things in a non-traditional way, that they remain aware and mindful. “They’ve watched us work it out,” Sharon says. “They’ve learned how to process things.”
And this Valentine’s Day? They like to think they celebrate their relationship every day. Though this year, there will be one day they do that publicly, with their daughters. They are planning their wedding.
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or SANE Australia helpline on 1800 187 263.