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 Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - NEWS - STORY KRISTINA OLS­SON POR­TRAIT DAVID KELLY

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.

Sound

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.

When

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.

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