There were no warnings.
Not when Silas and Natalie met that fall day of her freshman year in 1995 at Seattle Pacific University. Not in the two years they dated. Not during the stress of planning a wedding, not even in the honeymoon years of marriage when couples are reevaluating their expectations of each other.
But during their third year of marriage, in 2000, Natalie began experiencing feelings of panic and depression. What started as stress from her new job as a social worker escalated to the point that she felt the need to attend a counseling retreat in nearby Seattle. Natalie remembers sitting in a café and thinking everyone was talking about her and plotting against her.
In the course of a three-day outpatient counseling, Natalie remembers experiencing the delusions and paranoia for the first time. They became strong enough for her to believe that she was demon-possessed. So she escaped to a local graveyard, where she was discovered by her family and taken to the hospital where she was involuntarily held for the first time.
She remained in the hospital for weeks, initially diagnosed with schizophrenia. But it would be many years and doctors and diagnoses later before they would correctly identify her condition as schizoaffective disorder—a hybrid of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Typically she would experience manic or anxious phases, followed by thoughts that became increasingly detached from reality, and ending with a long, slowly improving depressed period.
The Curfmans had no idea Natalie would experience these issues when they said their vows. "I had struggled with depression/crying spells in high school as well as being overly perfectionistic," Natalie says. "But that was nothing, really. Overall there was no clue of the problems yet to come."
But then it happened, and the commitments of their marriage were put to the test in a way that few couples have to face.
Determined to keep their vows
Of couples who do face mental issues in marriage, most end up divorcing. One estimate by Psychology Today puts the divorce rate for bipolar disorder at 90 percent. But even in the midst of the unthinkable, even as he watched helplessly as his wife deteriorated emotionally, Silas did not consider divorce. He didn't know what to do, but he did know a few things.
"I knew this was not the 'real' Natalie," Silas says confidently. "I knew that divorce was not going to be part of any path out of that darkness. I knew that we were not alone. Most of all, I knew that God had not abandoned us. The only things I could be sure of were that Natalie was very sick, that we needed each other more than ever, and that God was still with us."
He tried to come to grips as she was in the hospital. And when Natalie began to come back to the real world, he was there to care for her the best he could. As she returned to normal, he treated her as he did before the mental health episode. Things slowly got back to normal, and before long, they'd put the whole episode behind them.
Silas and Natalie always wanted to have children. Silas had reservations because of Natalie's condition, but she was driven by the maternal desire to nurture. They knew pregnancy would mean Natalie going off her medications that manage her schizoaffective disorder, but throughout the pregnancy she did well. In 2002, their daughter Adia was born.
The nightmare returns
But as Adia entered toddlerhood, the joys of parenthood gave way to the same emotional pattern as before for Natalie—mania, then psychosis, then long depression, followed by years of good health. It was a pattern that would repeat itself every few years throughout the Curfmans' marriage.
In 2009, they had another normal pregnancy and welcomed a son, Aksel. But Natalie would relapse a few months later… and again… and again—five times over the course of their marriage so far. Each time took its toll on them, especially early on, because each time, they hoped the normalcy was going to last.
"The first couple repeats of relapse were pretty surprising … devastating to see it all happening again," Silas admits. "At that time we still didn't know much about how the illness works. After a few years we learned more about it, found out what worked and what didn't. At this point in our marriage, it's almost like a fire drill. No one wants it to happen but we have a plan for what to do should it happen again. There is no guarantee of health but it's the best we can do."
Living with two different marriages
So Silas and Natalie Curfman have learned to navigate life in two very different marriages—one when she is well and the other when she is sick and it's hard to know what to expect. For Silas, it requires shifting his role from husband to caregiver. "Going through these is like hitting the pause button on our marriage and taking on completely different roles."
Natalie's psychotic thoughts have caused her to think and act out in irrational ways that can be nothing short of heartbreaking. On one occasion, she misinterpreted Silas' habit of taking off his wedding ring at night and laying it on the bedside table as a sign that he didn't love her. She ran away from their house to the freeway, where she told a man who picked her up that her husband didn't love her. The man used her mental condition as an opportunity to assault her.
During the most recent episode several years ago, she had repeated dreams of being hanged, and she begged Silas to kill her with a handgun. Other times, she acted by herself to end her life: one time attempting to drown herself at a mental health facility, another at home with an overdose of her medication.
"I was having very strong delusions that [my entire city] was out to get me," says Natalie. "I was living in the terror of paranoia and overdosed on my antidepressants. I came and laid down by Silas; but by God's grace decided to tell him what I'd done. He rushed me to the ER where I began blacking out from the overdose. I was overwhelmingly relieved that I had been rescued once my paranoia subsided. Silas was unsure if he'd ever see me alive again."
For Natalie, the illness not only undermines her role as a wife and mother, but also her perception of who she is as a person. And coming out of these episodes is painfully slow and difficult for everyone.
"My depression and paranoia affects the kids," Natalie says. "During the most recent sickness, my daughter, who was only 13, took on a lot of responsibility taking care of her 6-year-old brother. It has been a transition to have her release that responsibility and let me be ‘Mommy' again. Recovery and relapse are just a reality of this illness. We do our best to keep up hope, one step at a time."
In a twisted way, Natalie's self-destructive behavior is, as Silas says, "a backward attempt to protect the ones she loves." When she's sick, she assumes that her presence is the problem for her husband and children.
"I become convinced that I am a bad mother. It becomes difficult for me to maintain discipline because I have no self-esteem," she confesses. "I believe that I don't have anything to teach or give the kids. I also have the delusion that I am not good enough for Silas and that I'm putting him in danger; these paranoid thoughts cause me to repeatedly ask for a divorce." Despite her insistence, he stands firm.
"He is so patient and kind with me. No matter how determined I become about divorce he reacts with love toward me. Going through difficulties strengthens any marriage by helping us grow in the fruits of the Spirit. I know that my struggle with depression helps me learn more about the depths of joy."
Battling for their marriage
Silas says he struggles with his inability "to protect my wife from an enemy only she could fight and see. It takes a long time to feel safe to take risks after this time. Fear, anxiety—those are my shackles."
And there are also the shackles of guilt from a bad decision he made in the first few years of marriage that added to Natalie's pain. "Early on in our marriage pornography had become a coping mechanism for stress, and when we went through our first roller coaster ride with bipolar there was suddenly plenty of stress," Silas admits.
"I shared with Natalie that in the months of taking care of her that first time I made some really bad decisions involving pornography. She was understandably hurt. I damaged her trust in me and put in jeopardy all the things that she needed to be sure of during a time when what she needed most was assurance and love.
"Her forgiveness has been the primary thing that has made me who I am today—a better man. It's important for us to remember, that she didn't marry who I am today, but by loving me through our marriage she's made me who I am today."
Natalie says that sometimes it's a battle to remind herself of the vows they made to each other 20 years ago. She approaches it differently when she's sick than when she's well. When she's healthy she focuses on making "love deposits" for Silas—acts of love and kindness that she's unable to offer when she's sick. For example, "Silas is a real introvert, so one of the greatest gifts I can give him as a husband and dad is time alone. When I'm ill that's nearly impossible because I'm so desperate for company as mental illness is a very isolating experience."
When she's ill, she says the biggest way she fulfills her vows is to "remember that Si loves me and wants me." Often she thinks he wants someone else. "Usually these are constant moments of sheer will power over the unreal thinking."
Help and encouragement
The Curfmans have drawn comfort and encouragement from the support of friends, family, and medical professionals in times of sickness and in health. They are fortunate that close friends weather the storms with them, and that both sets of parents are committed Christians and live in the area.
"Both moms have given endless hours of childcare which is really hard for me to do when I'm sick," says Natalie, appreciatively. "They also listen to me when I'm crying and in crisis, take me on outings for a diversion from my thinking, visit me in the hospital, clean my house, and even exercise with me daily."
And then there are the health professionals and counselors, who Silas says they maintain regular contact with, even in the good times. Natalie says, "Counselors have reminded me who I am in Christ; given me action steps to deal with psychosis, depression, or anxiety; and provided general encouragement and a listening ear," Natalie says.
Silas says he has found comfort in the Scriptures that God knows them and their situation intimately and cares for them deeply (Matthew 10:29-31), and will never leave or forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:8). He is reminded that the trials are producing opportunities to grow in joy and maturity (James 1:2-4).
He's also motivated by passages that remind him to love his wife as he does himself (Ephesians 5:25), and how he can show that love when she's in the depth of her illness. He reminds himself of 1 Corinthians 13—that love is patient and kind; it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Natalie takes comfort in knowing that despite all of the confusion and trouble illness brings to her and her family, God has a greater purpose—one that gives a future and hope (Jeremiah 29:11), peace in the chaos (John 14:27), and one that God means to use for good and not evil (Genesis 50:20)
The Curfmans have also drawn strength from the ministry of FamilyLife. They attended Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways several times to learn more about applying God's blueprints in times of health so that they can endure the periods of sickness.
"If the struggles in our marriage have shown us anything at all, it's that you can't do life alone," Silas insists. "No one can. It's the fundamental human condition: from conception to death, at no point in our lives are we ever really self-sufficient. We need others, and we crave to be needed by others. In fact, it's in both needing and giving ourselves to others that our greatest potentials are realized.
"Nowhere is that more true than in the marriage between a man and a woman. FamilyLife has been right at the very forefront of sharing and defending God's design for marriage and family. It has been both a great resource for us as we learn and grow as husband and wife. From podcasts, to weekend events, we've really benefited from the wealth of knowledge and experience made available to us. It's also been a great outlet for us to share with others by hosting the The Art of Marriage® and working with Weekend to Remember events."
As Silas and Natalie look back to that day on June 28, 1997 when they exchanged vows, they still see a bright future for themselves and want to share that help and hope with others. In spite of all the heartache and pain and uncertainty, they continue to faithfully fulfill their vows to each other, and to see the goodness of God even through the depths of despair.
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