Eighteen months ago I found myself in a confrontation with my husband, and saw a look in his eyes that I had never before seen. He stared at me up and down, as if I were a stranger: a predator not to be trusted. And for the first time in our relationship, I took both a literal and metaphorical step back.
In this moment, the man that I had loved loyally for most of my adult life didn’t seem to know me at all, setting in motion a vicious cycle of mistrust that would quickly threaten to drive an irrevocable wrench into our marriage. If TC no longer trusted me, how could I trust him? His behavior was extraordinarily out of character, blindsiding me entirely by its suddenness. The husband I knew would never look at me this way.
This month I delve into an issue in which I’ve rarely ventured. For a long time, it felt too personal, too raw, to discuss the topic of mistrust. In my blogging, I’ve always approached my descriptions of my husband with caution. After all, TC has been a willing and patient subject of my writing for several years now. The respect I have for the man he is and the character he demonstrates is unparalleled. But, like the rest of us, he is not perfect. And neither is our marriage.
Of all the things I was warned about following TC’s brain injury diagnosis, no one suggested the idea of mistrust or suspicion. I didn’t anticipate waking up one day, twelve exhausting and painstaking months into his recovery, to find myself on trial, accused of harboring ulterior motives and secret plans to break apart our family. I consider myself a resilient person, but the accusations being tossed around by my most sacred partner were enough to completely unhinge me. I loved my husband. Throughout all of the chaos, I had remained both loving and faithful to him, even in times when I was losing faith in the outside world. It goes without saying that not every decision I had made in TC’s recovery was the right one. I wasn’t the world’s most patient caregiver every moment of every day. At times I greatly resented the set of circumstances I’d been handed, and, unquestionably, I was grieving. But I was still fairly certain that I didn’t deserve this upheaval.
Sadly, my experience with TBI mistrust is not unique or especially unusual. While perusing caregiving blogs, I have stumbled across heartbreaking tales of TBI-related delusion and suspicion. For some survivors, TBI is responsible for serious hallucinations and episodes of psychotic behavior, adding yet an additional layer of stress for families who are already under strain. For TC, this difficult episode seemed to stem from growing issues of confusion and self-doubt.
To talk with my husband now about this challenging period sheds much needed insight into his behavior at the time. TC openly admits to being confused and ungrounded during these months. While he was aware of the facts about how he sustained his injury, the first few months of his recovery were foggy. He relied on friends and family to fill in the gaps, understandably causing him to feel a loss of control over his own life. He was struggling to remember who he was pre-injury, how he might have reacted in various situations, and to whom he turned to as trusted confidantes. All of this doubt and uncertainty about himself quickly began to color his perception of other parts of his life, including his relationship with me.
I wish I could say that I took an objective, non-emotional approach to addressing TC’s mistrust. Rationally, I knew it wasn’t fair to hold him entirely accountable for this behavior. He was still healing, trying to pick up the pieces of a life that had been so violently shattered. The truth, however, is that I still felt enormously betrayed. I had championed and advocated for TC during the hardest year of his life, and I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. Being put in the position of trying to convince him of my intentions felt preposterous and insulting.
There are no easy solutions when mistrust begins to breed in a relationship. Therapy, both individual and as a couple, are essential. In retrospect, I wish we had leaned harder on this resource. Wading ourselves out of the muck of that dark period has proved to be a lot of work. It has required time, space, and heavy doses of forgiveness (both for ourselves and for each other).
I’m still uneasy discussing the ugliness of this phase of recovery. In many ways it’s a tender wound, one that is gradually closing, but exists nonetheless. We all have our breaking points and in the caregiving experience, this episode of mistrust proved to be my own Achilles heel. It was the moment I recognized my own fatigue and was forced to accept that I could not continue down this path without help. For TC, it was the moment he realized he could not entirely trust himself anymore. Although it’s been trying, I’m grateful we chose to put in the work and stay the course. With each day, we put a little more distance between our marriage and this difficult time. With each day, our trust continues to heal and grow. With each day, we are a little stronger than the day before.