By Mark Soppitt

Do you remember the day you stood before witnesses and read aloud your wedding vows? They probably included words of commitment such as “…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

These are weighty words, and yet they offer so much hope in life’s challenges, such as when mental illness enters a marriage. It’s at such times that the words we spoke, perhaps decades before, really matter. This was so for Janet and I, who married at 22. Whilst Janet poetically recited the famous covenant words of Ruth to me, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…” and added her own, of staying with me through “the mountains and valleys of our journey together”, I promised something much less creative!

15 years later, in 2005, we moved from the UK to Canada to pastor a hurting church, with our five young children, including a three-month-old. We were excited and ready to go! However, we soon learned that God’s call to a new land did not exempt us from hardship.

The initial years bore fruit, with the church growing in many ways. But we faced personal struggles with unexpected culture shock, followed by the sudden passing away of Janet’s Dad. Finding support from an organisation that supports ministry couples in crisis, not only helped us at the time but also prepared us for bigger challenges ahead.

In 2008, I experienced months of spiritual ecstasy where I would wake at 4 am every morning to pray, followed by a deep dive into the agonies of a dark, hopeless depression. We didn’t realise that this was the onset of a seven-year severe, medication resistant depression and a later diagnosis of bipolar II. Life’s vibrancy faded, and even simple tasks felt impossible.

My battle with mental illness reached a critical point with an intentional overdose of prescribed medications. Thankfully, Janet’s timely intervention saved my life, leading to a desperately needed three-month hospital stay. The ensuing years became a blur as I stood down from pastoral duties with recurrent hospital admissions and a search for effective treatment.

At home, Janet was having to face overwhelming trials. With an incapacitated partner, financial strains, and the challenges of raising our children, the question arose from on of our children, “Why don’t you just leave him?” The sad reality is that 80% of marriages facing such challenging circumstances do not survive, yet, through these dark times, God’s presence remained steadfast and He was faithful in providing the help we needed.

So, what helped our marriage to weather such a storm, and what would we advise now?

Invest in your relationship. Before my illness and throughout our marriage, we had intentionally sought regular times of meaningful connection. This created a rich source of strength we could draw on during the darkest times. This priority was a lifesaver for us.

Understand the seriousness of mental illness. Taking so long to understand I was depressed made my situation more severe. Now, that we know more, we can offer our help and experience to others to seek the support they need earlier.

Self-learning and advocacy are key. Janet learnt as much as she could about depression and bipolar and this helped her advocate for me when I had no voice and was overmedicated in the hospital. She also asked for, and received, a second opinion on my treatment and diagnosis which led to changes in my care.

Self-care is crucial. Pastoral couples can easily neglect this area of life but it became non-negotiable for Janet’s well-being, as she sought to balance the demands of supporting me, working full-time and being a mother of five. She took time early each morning to pray and exercise. She would often sit at the piano and play a hymn over and over until she actually believed the words she was singing. One day she was ‘shout-praying’ to God about having a puppy (which she learnt could bring comfort to the depressed) and not being able to afford one. The next day someone asked her whether she wanted the very breed of puppy she had been praying for at no cost as it had just been rescued.

Having a good support network. Janet also sought close friends she could talk to and draw encouragement from – this proved vital for both of us. Our whole family had counseling support at times during these years, and we were constantly amazed at how God went before us and provided us with Christians who worked in the public health system.

Develop the right perspective. One of the challenges Janet faced was acknowledging and understanding that some of my behavior was due to the fact I was ill and not because I was deliberately being rude or selfish. It wasn’t until I took an overdose that it really began to sink in and even then it was sometimes hard for her to keep that changed perspective that brought compassion rather than conflict and judgement. Talking to people who are knowledgeable about mental illness can be helpful as you navigate your relationship.

Believe that God can raise the dead. One day when Janet was at the end of herself, and had nothing left to give, she saw a counsellor friend, who encouraged her to be honest with me about where she was at, go and watch the newly released movie called The War Room (which was all about the power of prayer), and believe that God can still raise the dead! That was a transformational moment for Janet, for me, and for our marriage as we began to witness God slowly turn things around.

In 2015 we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and Janet was determined to have a party. With the help of our close friends, she put it all together. I had a problem though: I felt this was the worst year of our marriage. I mentioned this to Janet and said I was struggling in our relationship. Her reply, “Welcome to my last 7 years”, stunned me! I honestly had no idea how tough it had been for her.

There are no easy answers to fulfilling your marriage vows in such challenging times, but digging into God’s grace, holding on to His Word, and finding the support and self-care you need make it truly possible.

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