This has not been an easy post to write. I wanted to do my part for World Mental Health Awareness Day by telling my personal story. However, World Mental Health Day happened on October 10, and I wasn’t ready yet. And Mental Health Awareness Month isn’t until May, and I didn’t want to wait that long. So think of this as a pre-Halloween Mental Health Awareness bonus, okay?

I am not going to load this post up with PopCult‘s usual flashy graphics, and be warned it’s a long slog to read the whole thing. This has been brewing in my head since July.

I actually would’ve done this years ago, but my story is intertwined with someone else’s, and that person did not choose to be a public figure. I didn’t feel it was fair to tell our story when there was a chance that it might cause her some mental anguish, or worse. Out of respect for her privacy, I will only refer to her by the initial “K.”

Regular readers of PopCult may remember that, over the past summer, I wrote an obituary for my first wife. I mentioned that our marriage was brief and rocky and didn’t end well, and also said that parts of it were not at all pleasant.

This is about the unpleasant parts. I’m not telling this story to villify K. She had her own very real problems. It is my hope that sharing my story might convince someone to get help they need, when they need it. Maybe my story might spare somebody else some pain.

I have to start with my solo story. I was a wiry, rambunctious kid who loved to be the center of attention. Then I started elementary school, and that changed completely. I hated school. I hated being thrust into social situations that were not of my choosing, and I hated having teachers who seemed to single me out for higher expectations.

So I was pretty socially awkward, but I did manage to fit in and hide it pretty well. I had a very small circle of friends in high school, but none of them went to the same college as me, at least not at the same time.

I loved college. I made new friends and found artistic collaborators. I used to do comic strips in the backs of my notebooks, and these would be passed around before class. Some of my friends who liked these comics asked me to write lyrics for their band.

In a short amount of time, I became the sole lyicist and substitute bass player for the band. I was also the designated driver.

I’ve never been a drinker. I can’t stand the taste of alcohol. I have never been drunk in my life. This came in handy with the band, because they all drank heavily and irresponsibly.

But I had friends to hang out with. I got to be friends with their girlfriends, and it was a great time to be alive. I was part of a normal social circle, really for the first time in my life.

One night the band had a show up North, and asked me to drive them. However, it was finals week, and I had a night class, so I begged off.

On the way back from the show, my five closest friends died in an alcohol-fueled car crash. Over the next five weeks, three of their girlfriends died of drug overdoses, at least one of them intentional.

I never talked to anybody about this. I never even mentioned being in a band to my family. I went out to the funerals without saying where I was going. Some of the funerals were just hideous affairs. I had never been to any funeral in my life up to that point, and these were fire-and-brimstone, damn the deceased to hell torture sessions.

I internalized it and kept it all in. The only outward sign of how this affected me was my refusal to ever set foot in a bar or a church.

The next semester at college began and I was prepared to numbly sleepwalk through classes when I discovered that K, my old high school buddy, had graduated and come to follow me into the Communications Department at West Virginia State.

At this point she was engaged to somebody else, so we were just friends, but we became close and I was able to hide my pain from the previous summer.

She wound up moving to Florida with her parents and breaking off her engagement, and we started trading cassette tapes. It gave me a purpose and as we traded tapes…I thought helping her would allow me to redeem myself. I still felt responsible for the death of my band.

K was miserable in Florida. She would talk endlessly about her despair and how, if she could just come back to West Virginia, everything would be perfect. Later I came to the realization that this was a red flag that I’d missed.

K was describing a case of of severe depression. She told me that the only time she felt alive was when she had a new tape show up in the mail from me. I put more effort into making those tapes than I did in my schoolwork.

I never told K about my friends. I don’t know how she would’ve handled it. I’d developed a bad case of White Knight syndrome, which was not a good way to deal with my survivor’s guilt, confusion, fear and downright grief over my friends. I just pushed all that down and turned my focus to making K happy.

It seemed that there was always “just one thing” that would make her life perfect. By Christmas of 1983, that was getting engaged in secret over the phone. It was her call not to tell anyone. Then she wanted desperately to see me, so over spring break I hopped on a Greyhound bus and made the 23-hour ride to Florida. It was the first time I’d gone on a trip by myself, and one of the first times I ever left the state. I was 21.

When I got there, she had already made the appointment for us to get married, again in secret.

The plan was that I would come back, find a job and a place of our own, and then we’d tell everybody and bring her back to West Virginia.

That wasn’t happening fast enough for her, so she left our marriage certificate out where her mother would find it, and we both had some explaining to do. Within a week she was moved into my folks’ house with me.

I’d gotten hired, part-time, at Public Television and we had one great month before her libido decided to exit stage left, never to return for the remainder of the two and a half year marriage.

Living with her, I noticed the cycle. She would do something to make her happy, enjoy it briefly, then need something else. I was also struck by how resentful and envious she was of everybody else. She had a sense of entitlement that was alarming. In private, one of her favorite conversation topics was “Why do THEY get to do THAT and I don’t?” She couldn’t even be happy for her friends if she thought they got something that she wanted.

Here I need to interject something about how harmful the stigma of mental illness can be. K was the first person I ever heard use the phrase “bipolar.” She used it as a slur. She had nothing but contempt for bipolar people, and even in recent years, used the phrase to disparage people. It was among her favorite insults.

I was feeling lots of emotional pressure dealing with her mood swings, but I didnt dare seek out any help for myself at this point. I wasn’t allowed to be weak or sick, she always had to be the one in need of sympathy. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things while we were married.

I really wasn’t allowed to be me.

This cycle continued for a few months. She hated her job and needed a new one. I wasn’t getting enough hours at Public TV for her to quit her job. We needed to move out of my parent’s house and get our own place. She hated her new job and wanted to get a different new job.

We wound up moving into her parent’s old house, which they’d been renting. This was where the marriage really went off the rails.

K put up a good act in public. At work, she was all smiles and jokes. At home, she was dour and moody. Nothing satisfied her or made her happy. If we were out at the mall or a movie, she was on my arm, smiling and kissing and we looked like the perfect couple.

At home I couldn’t touch her.

She was also binge-shopping, which was a real disaster. She appointed herself to the job of paying all the utility bills. Instead, she spent all our money on clothes. I would get the mail and find cut-off notices. I wound up selling off what was once a very impressive collection of Golden Age comic books at pennies on the dollar just to keep the lights on. When that ran dry I had to ask my mom for money. My part-time gig at Public TV had ended, and I was not having any luck finding work in TV or radio.

To give you an idea of how bad her binge-shopping was, her parent’s house had two bedrooms upstairs, each with a closet that ran the entire length of the room. There was probably 25 feet of closet space between both bedrooms. When we moved in, she had enough clothes to take up one tiny corner, maybe two feet of one closet.

Within six months, both closets were packed so tight that it was a struggle to get anything out of them. She held three different jobs at The Charleston Town Center (not at the same time), and every day she’d come home with an armload of clothes. I’d estimate that 90% of what she bought was never worn by her.

That wasn’t the only thing she wanted to buy. One summer day we had gone to a matinee and then went by the Town Center Mall, where K became enthralled by the Encyclopedia Britannica display. It didn’t take much effort for the salesman to convince her that he was giving her a great deal on a set of Encylopedias, plus a three-volume dictionary and an elaborate set of American documents called “The Annals of America.”

It made her happy, so I had to go along with it, and we left the Mall owing Britannica two grand. This would lead to the incident that probably irretrievably broke the marriage.

I should point out that, when she was in a good mood, K had a very healthy sense of humor, and that was one spot where we had always been compatible. If she wasn’t moody and depressed, she could crack a joke as good as I could, and making each other laugh was one of the few joys we could afford at that point.

The two weeks we had to wait for the Encyclopedia to arrive were probably the happiest two weeks of our time together. She was happy, smiling, affectionate in private (something that hadn’t happened for a long time) and she was so excited. I thought maybe those damned books would be worth it after all.

The books showed up while she was at work. Maybe a dozen really heavy boxes, deposited by UPS on our front porch. I brought them in and called her, and she made me promise not to open them until she got home.

When she did get home we got a knife and opened a box of books. It was the Encyclopedia. Rather than unpack them, she wanted to open more. The second box was also Encyclopdeia.

We opened the third box, and it was the blue-binding of The Annals of America. K took a book out, flipped through it, and said something that I thought was the most brilliant, funniest joke she ever made. She said, “I thought they were The Animals of America!”

I lost it. I could not stop laughing. I fell over and was laughing so hard that tears were running down my cheeks. After several minutes I got up, composed myself and was about to congratulate her on how funny she was.

I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into the eyes of someone you love, and had your gaze met with sheer hatred and loathing. If looks could kill, you would not be reading this now.

She wasn’t joking. She had pinned her happiness on being able to sit on the couch and read the big fancy books about animals. And I had laughed at her for that.

She then let out a gutteral scream unlike anything I’ve ever heard come out of a human being, and stormed up the stairs to the bedroom. I could hear her crying but if I set one foot on the steps (they creaked loudly) she would let loose with another scream.

I just sat on our crappy little foam couch and felt helpless for a few hours.

Eventually, late that evening, she came down the stairs with a blank look on her face. I tried to apologize, but she stopped, and then this 5’2″, 130-pound woman picked up one of the unopened 50-pound boxes of Encyclopedia with one hand and hurled it directly at my head. I was able to duck, but the impact took out a lamp and end table that my mother had given us.

Then she turned and walked upstairs, and I cleaned up the mess and stayed on the couch feeling scared, shocked and helpless.

The next morning she was off work. She came downstairs acting like nothing had happened, and asked me what I did to the lamp and end table.

I believe that was her first real psychotic episode while we were together.

She was off work that day because she had a doctor’s appointment. It was fairly routine, but at the end of the appointment I spoke up and told the doctor about her depression, which drew a glare from her. He made an appointment with a psychiatrist.

On the drive home, K didn’t speak to me. When we were unlocking the door to the house, she turned and said “The next time I go to the doctor, you will stay in the waiting room.”

I knew what was happening. I was becoming the “just one thing” that she needed to get rid of to make her life perfect. It was my greatest fear, but deep down, I had an idea that it was going to happen all along.

The Psychiatrist diagnosed her as being bipolar. He gave her a prescription. She wouldn’t get it filled, instead demanding that we get a second opinion, which we couldn’t really afford.

I borrowed money from my aunt to pay for the second psychiatrist. He also diagnosed her as bipolar, but with possible cluster-B narcissitic traits as well. He wrote a prescription for the same medicine.

At this time, I had a car that would break down if you looked at it sideways. It was in the shop the day she started her meds, so she took the bus to work that day.

When she got home, she flung the door open, threw her bottle of pills at me and said , “I’m not bipolar. You’re bipolar. You take these damned zombie pills!”

She proceeded to tell me that the pills had turned her into “a zombie” at work and said that she fell asleep on the bus on the way home and missed her stop and woke up in Nitro and had to catch the bus back to Dunbar.

It was a couple of hours before I realized that, if her story had been true, she wouldn’t have gotten home on time, which she did. I didn’t dare say anything about that.

That night, I woke up in the middle of a deep sleep to find her standing over me with a butcher knife and that blank look on her face that she had when she threw the box of books at me. I said her name, and she turned and walked away.

The next morning she told me I must’ve dreamed it. I looked in the kitchen. The knife was where it was supposed to be.

Three nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night again and found her, once again, standing over me with the knife. This time, when I asked her about it in the morning, she went off on me and said I was trying to gaslight her.

After she left for work, I checked the kitchen and the knife was missing. I eventually found it under her side of the mattress.

For the remaining few months we were together, I never slept in the house when she was there. We’d be watching TV, she’ d say she had to go to bed, and I’d say I wanted to watch one more thing, then I’d be right up.

Once she was upstairs, I would hide the knives in the dryer and watch TV all night, too afraid to doze off. After she’d leave for work (if I didn’t drive her), I’d try to get an hour of sleep before driving over to help out with my mom’s daycare center.

It was around this time that the emotional abuse began in earnest. She would come home, eat dinner, and spend the evening telling me how repulsive I was while we watched TV. She hated me. I ruined her life. I was useless. I’d never amount to anything. I probably wouldn’t live to see 30. She liked to say that last one a lot.

I’d like to think that, if I had ever told her what I’d been through, she might not have been so unfathomably cruel to me. But I never talked to anyone about that until after she was out of my life. I entered into the marriage with PTSD, and being married to her only excacerbated it. Not only was she saying horrible things about me to my face…I was believing them.

I was sleep-deprived, terrorized and walking on eggshells, and she ratcheted up the intensity on her cruelty. One time I had done some artwork for Greg Miller at Comic World–at the time my only point of socialization–and he paid me with new comics. She found them and cut them into neat little triangles.

Then she denied doing it.

She’d say things like: “I’m going to tell people you never owned a toothbrush!” “You know, if you died now, it’d be easier for me to find a new husband than if we got divorced.” “If I left you now, who else would have you?”

Once she woke up, came downstairs and told me about a wonderful dream where she had two beautiful curly-hair children looking out the window waiting for her to come home and they’d run up and hug her. Then she said, “They weren’t yours.”

One night, out of the blue, she said, “By the way, remember how I said I was a virgin when we got married? Yeah, that wasn’t exactly true.” She just casually decided to drop the fact that she’d lied about that to me for two years when it would inflict the most emotional pain.

Then she met a guy who worked at the store next to hers at the mall. She’d come home and tell me how funny and great he was to be around…”unlike you.” “He makes me feel the way you were supposed to,” she’d say.

After she started going on on dates with him, I convinced her to try marriage counseling. The counselors saw us together and separately. At my last solo session, the fellow who was handling our case looked at me and said, “I don’t often say this, but you need to get away from that woman before she kills you.”

She was still dating this new guy, and her birth control sponges were disappearing, but she swore that was only because she was giving them to a co-worker who was too embarrassed to buy them herself. Decades later she still insisted that she never cheated on me. She finally stopped that when I told her “You might as well have. It hurt just the same.”

Because I felt totally worthless as a human being, I had no sense of self-preservation. I took the abuse. I stayed loyal. I still cared for her even though she told me she hated me every day. I fantasized about her finally going on the meds for her bipolar disorder, even though she’d never accept the diagnosis.

It was the lowest point of my life. If I had been mentally healthy, I would have left long before this. Our relationship was toxic, and had been for some time.

Finally, having tired of trying to drive me away, one day she moved out and into her grandparent’s house.

A week later I moved back in with my folks. She made arrangements to move back to Florida. I think she ended up giving away most of the clothes she bought. I got stuck with the Encyclopedia and the debt associated with them. We agreed to divorce, but I still wasn’t happy about it.

She did all the groundwork for the divorce. All I’d have to do is file the papers and talk to the judge.

Her maternal grandmother, one of the most evil people I’ve ever encountered, made sure that I knew she was planning to marry the guy she had started dating while we were still married. She liked to twist the knife that way.

So, I did nothing. I had given up hope of getting back with K, but I was going to be damned if I was going to make it easy for her to marry the bastard who started pursuing her knowing that she was married. It was the first time I’d stood up to her in our entire relationship, and it did help a bit with my healing process. She hadn’t completely broken me.

As her wedding date approached she had to fly back to Charleston to get the divorce. I took her out to dinner and we crossed the “t’s” and dotted the “i’s” on the divorce decree and then I pulled out a credit card to pay for dinner and she hit the ceiling. We had never been able to get a credit card while we were married, and she still wasn’t able to. She was really pissed off and resentful that, just being separated from her for a few months, had rehabilitated my credit rating.

We calmly met with the judge and signed the papers. We hugged and said goodbye, and I was overcome with an overwhelming sadness because, while I had no idea what my future would hold, I had a pretty good idea how her life was going turn out.

I knew that, without medication, she’d be stuck in a cycle. Her relationships wouldn’t last more than a year or two. She’d drift from job to job. She’d wind up moving to new cities, then move back to her parents in Florida. I felt that, even if she ever did come back to me, without meds it wouldn’t last, and she’d leave again. I hated that she’d live her life that way.

It would be twenty-two years before I heard from her again. Bear with me. I realize this is really long, but there are happy endings, so be patient.

At this point, it’s 1986. I’m divorced at 23, feeling worthless, putting on a brave face and handling publicity and wearing other hats at CODA Publishing. I was able to function, and even have fun, but I was a mess inside, and my parents knew it.

I enjoyed being the publicity face of CODA and going to comic book conventions, but our book ended after four issues and I was feeling like a failure once again. I was so depressed I got a job sorting mail. However, in 1987 a few things happened that shook me out of the depths I was in. I had a brief fling. I’m not going to go into details here, but it was a huge boost to my confidence, and put the lie to a few things K had said about me when she was in torture mode.

Also that year, I abandoned my pledge to never set foot in a bar again. The Bears, featuring Adrian Belew, were playing a dive bar in Huntington, and I took some friends from my mail-sorting gig to the show. I had friends again. I was sparking back to life, but I was still lonely and silent about my trauma.

In 1988 I called WVNS radio to complain that they were cutting off the end of the syndicated Lost Lennon Tapes show, and my complaint was articulate enough that the GM hired me over the phone to work there. I was finally working my dream job as a DJ, something I don’t think I could have ever pursued while I was with K.

Her resentfulness extended to me, even before we got married.  On one of the cassettes from 1983, when I excitedly told her about getting to meet Lionel Hampton, she was so angry that she didn’t get to meet him that she didn’t respond to my cassette letter for two weeks. That was another red flag I’d missed. If we’d still been together, I would not have been allowed to have any success or notoriety.

There was a reason why, after our marriage ended, I would often refer to her as “a seething ball of resentment.”

Working in radio led to the creation Radio Free Charleston. That led to me being invited to The Charleston Playhouse by Johnny Rock. That led to my salvation.

That night, when I walked into a bar for only the second time in over five years, I felt at home. When I left that night I had more than a dozen new friends.

I met new friends and I opened up about my band for the first time. And some of my friends were counselors and therapists and with their urging, I sought help. By that point I was doing much better and was on my way to healing, but it took psychodynamic psychotherapy, group therapy and more private counseling to get me to the point where I became emotionally strong enough to handle anything the world would throw at me.

I sorted through my survivor’s guilt, the loss, the anger at my friends and myself, and I got to a point where I could forgive myself and move on. And I realized that I had been a victim of spousal abuse. I went to group therapy to help me process that. It was a little weird being the only guy in the group, but I fit in and I got the sympathy and dialogue I needed so I could comprehend how I wound up in such a toxic relationship.

And while this was going on I started to go out with other women and, for really the first time in my life, had a healthy social and sexual life. After a few months of enjoying this life I felt I was ready for a relationship again, if the right person came along.

And she did. Mel rescued me. We’ve been together almost 33 years now. In that entire time, neither of us has shown a hint of cruelty to the other. This is what life is supposed to be like.

In May, 1990, when the first version of Radio Free Charleston was cancelled, I could have sunk to those depths again, but my friends wouldn’t let me. I deal with everything in life with humor, and the night I got the news that my show was gone I was at The Charleston Playhouse going around saying “Hi, I used to be Rudy Panucci!” Nobody would have any of that. They saw the pain behind the joke.

Dan Jordan took the stage and lead the entire Charleston Playhouse in a version of the Clash song “Rudie Can’t Fail.” I had to walk out of the place so nobody’d see me crying. Because of my therapy, I didn’t feel like a failure though. It felt like a triumph.

In the parking lot I ran into Mel. We weren’t dating yet, but we’d had our first kiss about a week earlier. I busted out my joke, and Mel replied, “You’re still Rudy Panucci, even if you aren’t on the radio.”

I knew I was going to be okay. And I am. That’s my happy ending. Let me give you K’s.

While I didn’t hear directly from K until 2008, there were a few contacts. Her evil grandmother made sure I saw her wedding picture from the paper in Florida. Around 1992 I started getting bombarded with calls from collection agencies where K had defaulted on credit cards and store acounts, some of them she apparently obtained by using my surname. Those eventually stopped after I explained that we were long divorced several dozen times to various bill collectors over the course of a year.

Then in 2008 she got back in touch with me and filled me in on what had happend. As I expected, marriage number two didn’t last as long as ours had. She told me he wound up in a psychiatric faciity for a while. Marriage number three left her as a single mom after that husband dumped her in Chicago with an infant daughter. She drifted from city to city, dabbled in lesbianism, joined a coven (which struck me as hilarious for an Atheist to try), and eventually went to a doctor who told her she was suffering from post-partum depression.

Let me interject for a moment and mention that, following my experiences with K, and finding myself with a large circle of friends in the creative community, many of whom confided in me the details of their own struggles with bipolor disorder, I’m not an exactly an expert, but I do know much more than the average person about such things. Part of my therapy was learning enough to understand what was motivating K’s cruelty.

So K told me about how happy she was to be diagnosed with post-partum depression and what medications she’d been prescribed. And I kept my mouth shut, but I recognized them all as the same meds that some of my bipolar friends took.

She told me she was still taking those meds for post-partum depression, fifteen years and two kids later. I was ecstatic for her, but I didn’t dare risk upsetting her by telling her what I knew. I was afraid she might get angry (she was still very, very capable of that) and go off her meds rather than admit I was right all along, I didn’t need to be right. She needed to stay healthy. That’s why I’ve never written about my PTSD before. I didn’t want to risk upsetting her life.

Those meds helped her settle down and hold a job. She met a great guy and they made a happy life together and raised three great kids. And I am so relieved that she finally got the help she needed, regardless of how she got it. She finally found a peace she never had when she was with me.

I wish K hadn’t been so small-minded about bipolar disorder. I only wanted the best for her, even if it wasn’t with me. I’ve come to a few realizations since my time with K.

First: Her dumping me turned out to be one of the most positive things that ever happened in my life, even though it was also the most emotionally painful. I wouldn’t have anything that I have now if we’d stayed together. I don’t know that I’d still be alive.

Second: Even if somebody could have waved a magic wand back in 1986 and made both of our mental illnesses go away, our marriage was doomed. We liked and loved a lot of the same things and we were great friends, but we were fundamentally different people, and even with the meds, she was too resentful and acerbic to be in a relationship with a creative person. She did not want me to draw, paint or write while we were together. For reasons I never understood, she dreaded the idea of me getting paid to do art.  Even the Spud comic strips in the back of CODA #1 weren’t  done until after we’d separated.

Third: PTSD does not just “go away.” There are still things that can happen that can trigger old feelings and cause flashbacks. While K and I had been in contact for almost fourteen years, by the time she passed away, she was a distant part of my life. I thought of her maybe once or twice a year. Earlier this year was the first time in a long time that I forgot to send her a goofy message on what would have been our anniversary. Her death triggered me. I talked about it non-stop for a few weeks and writing this god-awfully long post is hopefully one of the final parts of me processing her death.

Writing this reminds me that I will benefit from talking to some professionals about what I’m going through at the moment. K was many things to me: my first love; the woman I’d planned to have kids with; my friend; my abuser. This is a flavor of grief that I’ve not encountered before. It’s more surreal than upsetting. Our time together was brief and happened a lifetime ago.

I grieved for her loss when we split up. Now what I’m feeling is a faint echo of that.

I hope this helps somebody besides me, but if it was just me exorcising these feelings, I suppose it was worth it. I do want to point out that, if you read this whole thing, you only got the Cliff’s Notes version of dark days of my first marriage. I left out way more than I put in. I just wanted to give some examples of what happened. I was not trying to villify K. I just need to give an idea of the trauma I endured.

Below you see a drawing I did of K in 1983. I’d traced over a photo of her on animation cel material, and then added silver paint details.  At the time she told me it was her favorite picture of herself and that she’d always treasure it.  When we split, she handed it to me and said, “I always hated this. It makes me look bipolar.” I didn’t have the guts to make the obvious joke at the time.

I want to thank a few people who helped me with this over the last several months.

Mel Larch is my wife and confidant and has had to put up with me talking out all these uncomfortable details about my ex for months now. She is kind, patient and understanding, which I have to say are great things for a wife to be.

William Welker is an old high-school friend and Mental Health professional, and early on he offered me some guidance and encouragement.

Pixie Vanucci is a writer, artist, mental health activist and the author of the blog, The psychotic girls guide to surviving the human apocalypse. She is based in Liverpool and writes about her life with Borderline Personality Disorder and the discrimination that comes along with it. Pixie has become a good friend through Twitter, and has been a big help with encouraging words and additional guidance. And I hope things start looking up for her soon.

Below I’m including a graphic with contact information if you feel you could use some help. Victims of Domestic Abuse can find help at this website.