When news started pouring out of Arizona last weekend about a massacre that nearly killed a Congresswoman and did kill several others — followed by a different kind of crossfire: leaps to judgment about violent rhetoric and family responsibility in our coarsening culture — Monique Colver felt she had something she must say.
Colver’s blog post, “My husband brought a knife to a political rally,” details her attempts to understand, and get help for, the man she loved as he descended into severe mental illness. The blog was featured on Salon.com, an online magazine of news and commentary with 5.8 million unique visitors per month, and has been widely read, Colver said. Read it at http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/01/11/husband_mental_illness_knife_rally_open2011/index.html.
“I’ve recently seen comments on webites regarding the Arizona shootings: People say the shooter should have gotten help, that his parents should have done something, that something should be done about (violently mentally ill people) before a thing like this happens,” Colver wrote. “As if we hadn’t considered that before.”
The painful journey she describes in the piece culminates in her now-late husband’s attempt to bring a weapon — a knife — into a political candidate’s rally in Vancouver. Colver says she doesn’t remember which candidate it was; what really sticks is her tremendous relief hearing after the fact that Stew’s “legendary fury” had been stymied because he couldn’t find a parking space. If it hadn’t been for that mundane obstacle, she thinks, someone might be dead now.
Stew himself died of fast-moving cancer in 2008. Colver’s blog was published on Jan. 10, which would have been his 40th birthday. And Colver, a Vancouver business adviser and freelance writer, spoke with The Columbian on Thursday to share her story — and to urge people to loosen up and face the reality of mental illness in our community.
“It’s important we talk about it. People don’t like to talk about it, to talk about how bad it gets,” she said. “It’s not easy to get help. Sometimes it’s impossible.”
When her ex-husband returned from that political rally to tell Colver what he’d almost done, “I was straight with him. ‘If you ever do anything like that again, or give any indication you might, I will have to call 911 on you,’” she wrote.
Stew was a professional person who worked for a major health insurer. When mental illness became a factor, he was insured and able to get himself help, or get to the hospital when he felt suicidal. Eventually, though, he was spending more time in outpatient treatment than at his job.
“When I went to tell his boss what was going on, he stood there and listened, and then visibly stepped back from me, as if I might infect him with the contamination of mental illness,” Colver wrote. “He began backing away, waving feebly as if to shoo me and mental illness away.
“Despite having been a valued employee and a likable guy, Stew’s co-workers ignored him during this period. Perhaps they thought the less said the better, but Stew would have greatly appreciated knowing anyone cared.
“This is how it starts, the isolation. Let’s ignore the mentally ill guy and no one will catch it,” she wrote. Eventually, she said, he was unable to work and lost his job. His post-employment health insurance eventually ran out, and so did some costly forms of help — certain medications and psychiatric help they couldn’t afford anymore.
“I monitored his medications. I kept track of him. And both of us lived in a state of isolation. Sometimes we both collapsed under the weight of our isolation and desperation. I sold anything I had that had any value,” she wrote.
Some agencies offered some help. Others didn’t even return her calls. “One agency told us there was nothing they could do because he still had a roof over his head,” she wrote. “Come back when you’re on the streets, they said. And then we can get you on the list.”
Part of Stew’s illness, she said, manifested in his tendency to fall in love with other women. That led to an amicable divorce — but Colver never stopped being Stew’s best friend, she said.
How could she?
“People ask me that all the time,” she said. “It’s simple: I couldn’t just abandon him. The marriage part stopped working, but he was still my friend, still a great guy.”
This is the main point she’d like to get across, she said: “When someone has mental illness, they are still the same person. They’re still there. They’re ill. And they need love and support — even more than they did before.” People who have cancer are able to discuss it and share the burden with friends and loved ones, she pointed out. Why should discussing mental illness be taboo by comparison — especially when its worst outcomes are making headlines?
When you’re taking care of someone so demanding, though, Colver said, it’s also crucial to take care of yourself. “I didn’t do that at first, and it was calamitous,” she said. “I broke down.” She’s been diagnosed with clinical depression herself, but today she’s doing well and has remarried. Her new husband accepted Stew as an ongoing part of Colver’s life, and he became Stew’s friend, too.
“Stew came to our wedding,” she said. “He was living with his parents in California by then.” Stew even helped the couple move, she said.
He was an intelligent man and a good writer, she said, and before cancer took him the two of them were working together on a book manuscript called “An Uncommon Friendship” — their shared story of handling Stew’s illness over the long haul. What is was like for him to live it and what it was like for her to live with it.
She is determined to see the book finished and published, she said. The book is “a hard sell” because it doesn’t end happily — but it tells the hardest truth: Life doesn’t always dole out happy endings. “You have to enjoy it the best you can, while you can,” she said. An editor friend is working on the book now, she said.
“I am so sorry that people died and were injured in Arizona,” her blog concludes. “I’m so sorry we pretend mental illness always happens to someone else and we shouldn’t be concerned. I’m sorry about so much. I’m sorry that today Stew isn’t here to celebrate his birthday with us, but we’ll celebrate anyway, because he would have wanted us to. And I will keep telling his story, like I promised I would.”
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.