Published on August 2nd, 2023 | by Mutha Magazine0
The White Horse
My husband stands in the driveway of our home. He wears slippers and a cowboy hat and carries an acoustic guitar, as well as a pair of cowboy boots. Detritus explodes from his pockets: spoons, a vegetable peeler, four rags, a massive key ring, scraps of paper, pens, and pencils. Corded headphones trail behind him. At age forty-two, he is at the height of his very first manic episode.
“Good to see you,” he says to my mom. “Let’s go visit the white horse.” My mom looks questioningly at me, but I know all about the white horse. It belongs to a neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac directly across from us. My husband has been making morning visits to the white horse for several weeks.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s go see the white horse.”
As we begin our walk, I notice trash along the street. But not just any trash. First, I see our reusable cloth coffee filter, the one I had been brewing my morning coffee with until it went missing a week ago — it’s flattened onto the pavement. A few steps later, a keycard from the hotel we visited last month for our fifth wedding anniversary. Beyond that, the ripped corner of a birthday card from my aunt. My husband stuffed bits and pieces of our life into his pockets, until, like his mind, they filled and overflowed in a chaotic, disorganized tangle. At this point, he can’t even follow a simple command. “I’m sorry,” he says, “Can you repeat that? Whose phone number was I texting you?” The domestic is so intimate and daily, and here it is, turned inside out as though someone has shaken out the pockets of our home. It marks my path like rose petals from hell.
The mania snuck up on us after months of hypomania which I had explained away as stress or loneliness or a nascent period of creativity. But it had become impossible to ignore. I had been prepared for my own mental health to suffer following pregnancy and birth. A psychiatric nursing student at The University of Texas, I had a career goal of supporting mothers during the perinatal period. “The intersection of reproductive health and mental health,” is how I explained it to friends and family. But it hadn’t even occurred to me that my husband might be the one to suffer a breakdown.
Our son was born in May of 2020 and slept through the night beginning at eight weeks old. But my husband’s sleep never returned to normal. On top of this, he held a high-stress job and was the sole income earner in our household — I went back to school full-time when our son was one year old. An extrovert, he worked a remote job and was alone all day.
Truthfully, I was so wrapped up in completing my intensive nursing program while caring for our toddler that I had nothing left to give him. Our animal needs consumed me — the pumping and breastfeeding and cooking and cleaning and colds and stomach bugs. And I didn’t see how much he suffered. Until I couldn’t look away. Until it filled my vision.
We lived for months with his hypomania, both of us sure something was wrong, but clueless as to what. I thought it was a relationship problem. But one day, I realized I was living with a stranger. Everything about his behavior had changed: He shaved his head and started wearing a new choker necklace from which dangled a large silver heart studded with nails. He removed his wedding ring and wore a new ring which, as he described it, represented his newfound commitment to himself. He borrowed a friend’s car and took a long pilgrimage to the desert. He collected trash from public parks because “it told a story.” When I questioned his behavior, he would yell things like, “We’re doing things my way for once!” before pounding a nearby surface with his fist. Once he tried to lock me and my son in a downstairs bedroom — a time my son remembers and refers to, his voice barely above a whisper: “Mommy sad when daddy closed that door.”
Was it the months inside, alone, working remotely during the pandemic? Was it the transition to fatherhood and the stress of parenting a toddler? Was it the stress of his own job, a failing health-tech startup? The answer is yes — to everything. During his mania, my husband became paranoid and spiteful toward me. He refused to accept the help I tried, albeit poorly, to offer him. I was, he said, his trigger. Oh okay, then. So, it was also me.
My weeks in the graduate nursing program had been jammed with tests, quizzes, and skills performance exams. Some weeks I had 4-5 exams, one or two a day, and all this had done for me was sharpened some longing for perfection and control. At the end of the year, I had a 4.0 GPA, but I had also kicked a hole in the wall when I thought I lost a textbook. I had already lost my baby weight when I began the program, but by the end of the year I dropped 12 additional pounds and hovered in the BMI’s “underweight” zone. And not infrequently, my husband bore the brunt of this stress.
“Everyone keeps telling me that I did the best I could,” I told my husband and our couples therapist months after. “But I can’t stand hearing that. All I can hear is the subtext, which is, ‘You fucked up.’”
After all, the best I could do was an A+. I had earned 18 of them over the past year. I passed my nursing board exam, the NCLEX, in 75 questions, which is the minimum required to pass the adaptive exam — meaning I performed really well on that test. And then, as a reward, my family was ripped apart. Just like that. In the span of a week.
What can I say here about women and perfection, about mothers and unrealistic standards, that hasn’t already been said?
Let’s go back to the white horse. (The White Horse is also, coincidentally, the name of the two-stepping bar my husband would frequent each night while manic, regaling me in the morning with stories of the characters he met there, the fights he narrowly avoided, and how, above all, he was the best dancer in the place and everyone, everyone, was jealous of his abilities.)
Now it’s the four of us: my husband, myself, my son on my hip, and my mother, who is here because she loves me and isn’t willing to let me go through this alone. We’re standing at the end of the cul-de-sac, sweat prickling our necks and upper lips. We’re watching the white horse, who looks a little malnourished, swat flies with its long white tail. It’s quiet, and there’s an animal peace blanketing us.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” asks my husband. In a few minutes we’ll return home. Inside our house, everything is labeled with masking tape, upon which my husband has scrawled things in permanent marker like “Bathroom” and “Door handle.” But outside, all is quiet. The midday heat seems to swallow my husband’s chaos and soothe it. Our son reaches out a small hand toward the horse, to touch it or call it. It isn’t particularly beautiful. But the sight of another living thing who is so removed from this mayhem, so oblivious to its blinding light, calms me. Even now, especially now, at the white-hot center of pain, I’m looking for hope. The white horse lifts its head and fixes us in the soft depths of its empty black eyes.
“There’s not a there you’re moving toward,” my best friend tells me over the phone in the months that follow, as I contemplate the future. By which I mean the boundaries of what is possible for our family now, in this new normal. “You won’t arrive one day. You’ll just make a choice, and you’ll probably be confused and unsure, but you’ll decide, and you’ll keep moving and one day it won’t be so hard.”
Of course, she’s right. There is only the wild, unfolding present and its white horses, bending now to take a mouthful of grass, shaking out a tangled mane of yellow-white hair.
We don’t talk about the mental health of dads in the postpartum period — and that’s a problem. Especially for fathers who are already sensitive to sleep and stress, the postpartum timeframe can be a perfect storm that triggers mental illness. Almost a full year after the manic episode, I still fall back on the easy categories of victim and perpetrator. Mental illness is not a crime, but mania feels like something that was done to me. And if my husband is bad, does that mean I’m good? Of course not. And yet — that’s the temptation.
It wasn’t until I watched an interview with mothers who experienced postpartum psychosis that I began to access empathy for my husband. I could give so much love and light to these mothers, yet for my own husband, my feelings were locked up tight. What might happen if I stopped controlling our postpartum narrative? Could I make incremental progress away from bad and good, perfection and failure, and toward — what? Something that feels more accurately like motherhood, with its tangle of misery, warmth, cuddles, mind-numbing boredom, heart-splitting love, lost tempers, and belly laughs. And then one morning, watching my son sleep on his stomach, chubby legs tucked beneath him, I think that the magic of parenthood is that failure after failure doesn’t add up to more failure. It adds up to love.
Note: This essay has been published anonymously per the request of its author. – MUTHA Magazine