SIDNEY — I ___ , take thee, ____ , to be my lawfully wedded (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
Most have heard this vow or one like it spoken at wedding ceremonies of friends and family. Many have repeated similar vows at their own weddings. But few truly understand the depth of the commitment they’re making until the trials of life test the mettle of their marriage and their resolve to stay together.
Steve and Linda (Kerber) Schmitmeyer is one such couple who’s had their marriage tested when, after 15 years together, Steve was diagnosed with a severe mental illness at a time when they had three young children at home.
After years of struggling with Steve’s illness, Linda wrote a book about her family’s experience called “Rambler: A Family Pushes Through the Fog of Mental Illness.” She and Steve will be discussing their experience with Steve’s illness on Saturday, Nov. 24, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Amos Memorial Public Library. “Rambler” will be available for purchase at the presentation; it’s also available through Amazon and on barnesandnoble.com.
Linda Schmitmeyer grew up in Sidney alongside 10 brothers and a sister. It was a typical 1950s childhood, she said. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the University of Dayton, where she studied to become a teacher. There she met Steve, who grew up on a dairy farm near Minster and was studying to become a mechanical engineer. After graduation, the couple married. Linda got a job teaching English at a high school in Kettering, and Steve took an engineering position at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.
After the children were born, Linda cut back on her teaching to be at home with them. Steve eventually left Wright Patterson to take a job as a staff engineer at SAE, an international engineering society with headquarters in Pittsburgh. The family moved to Pennsylvania, and 15 years into their marriage, life was going as they’d planned. Nothing, however, could have prepared them for what lie ahead.
“Three years after moving to Pennsylvania, Steve and I were with the children at BMX bicycle race-track when Steve wrecked his bike and was hospitalized with a severe concussion. Six months after that, everything began to unravel. He came home from work one day and, out of the blue, told me that he’d quit his job,” said Linda. “Looking back, we think of that as the beginning of Steve’s mental health problems.”
Over the next several years, Steve had trouble holding down a job and began obsessing about his former employer. Steve explained, “I started nitpicking at the way SAE was raising money for its foundation. It started as a small thing, but overtime I was consumed with it. I could not let go of the past, no matter how hard I tried.”
Steve eventually confronted his former boss at an engineering conference and was taken away by the police. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder; later he learned that the FBI had been following him because of threats he’d made against the engineering society.
“SAE took over his life,” said Linda, “and despair became my constant companion. The changes I saw in Steve left me wondering how much I could take and still stay with him. I began thinking our marriage was over. If this had happened early in our marriage, especially before having children, I seriously doubt that our marriage would have survived,” she said.
According to Linda, Steve’s illness caused him to act irrationally.
“Oftentimes he was okay and life felt normal, but other times he was shockingly unpredictable and things became chaotic in our home,” she said.
“Doctors tried more than a dozen different medications to stabilize his mind,” said Linda, adding that there are no reliable medical tests to determine if someone has a mental illness. “The symptoms show up in changes in personality and unusual thinking and behaviors.”
The couple worked hard to find a solution to Steve’s mental illness. Steve always took the medications his doctor prescribed and participated in research studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Both Steve and Linda attended workshops and classes offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which helped them better understand Steve’s illness. “It was a slow process, one that took 10 years to overcome,” said Linda.
The couple readily acknowledges the support of family and friends throughout the ordeal. “We did not overcome this illness by ourselves,” said Linda. “We had help in ways we could never have imagined, ranging from my brother giving us a quarter of beef to a friend sending us money when our dog needed an emergency treatment.”
Eventually Steve’s doctor found a regiment of medications that stabilized his moods and quieted his obsessions. But the couple also had to change their lifestyle.
“With mental illness, it’s important to avoid stressors and maintain a balanced life, and both Steve and I work hard to regulate our lives so he gets the necessary down time and sleep to keep him healthy,” said Linda.
Throughout Steve’s illness, Linda wrote in her journal about the family’s experience.
“Writing became my therapy to help me work through and understand our challenge,” said Linda. Her memoir, “Rambler,” took 15 years to write. “I wanted to share our experience with others who might be going through the same thing. We have a good life now, and we want others living with a mental illness to understand that it is treatable and there is hope that things can get better.”
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.