Love is a temporary madness…

We’re currently making some pretty big changes in the way our house is set up. After my husband’s depression set in he began having a hard time focusing on his eBay business. As is not uncommon for someone experiencing depression, his will got lost. For a while he floundered but recently he asked me if we could move his office, something that has always taken up a significant portion of our living room, into our bedroom.

He seemed surprised when I immediately said “yes”, but I hate to see him struggling with something he’s always been good at and it’s a positive change for everyone to look forward to. Besides, I’ve been sleeping in the living room for months and it makes sense for my husband to have access to his office at night, especially since I go to bed so early. Our kids have grown up with a living room in which they always had to respect the space his office was in. Now they have a wide open floor and I’m enjoying going through books that were forgotten in our bedroom and deciding what is precious enough to keep and what we can let go of.

That’s how I stumbled across a copy of Louis de Bernière’s, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Sixteen years ago this August I gave it to my husband, then new boyfriend, as a birthday present. He’d never read de Bernière and I hoped to share something with him that had been integral in supporting me through the difficult times after I’d left my previous husband and worked to overcome agoraphobia. At the time we were newly in love and for the first time in a long time I had hope.

I was alone in the house when I found it; the light was beginning to soften into twilight and I was surrounded by books coated in dust. I remembered that I had written a quote from the book on the flyleaf, something romantic or sweet. When I opened the book here’s what I saw, written in my best handwriting which is still somewhat difficult to make out:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because that is what love is.

Not as romantic as I had remembered though it must have seemed so at the time. But now, estranged as we are, it seems ominous and otherworldly like a fortune you pull out a folded cookie that makes you wonder if the Universe has given you a cryptic message. Maybe that’s the work we’re doing now; trying to sort out if our roots have grown together enough to make us stronger, better, together.

A moment of Us in this desert that has become our relationship

You held me in a hug and for a moment I felt closer to you than I’ve felt in months. I felt both of us relax and soften slowly. I pushed my face up against your shoulder and breathed in your smell. My body responded with an aching that was at once a joy and deep pain. I have no way of knowing where your mind went but I could feel you not let go for several long breaths. When I looked up into your eyes you seemed present and not trying to quickly escape either the embrace or the feelings flooding the space. I wanted to tell you how much I miss you. I’m not sure you know, nor am I certain you want to know. I wanted to tell you we could stay like that for the rest of the day. When we stepped away from one another and I felt the loss, I quickly walked away to hide my tears. I desperately want to share myself with you, to tell you what I’m thinking and feeling. But I’m trying to respect the space you’ve asked for without putting pressure on the walls you’ve so carefully erected. Back in the separateness now, I feel tired.

Uncertainty

above image by HanieMohd on deviantart.com

(post written last week)

I’m having deep feelings of sadness and despair today. Yesterday I talked to my husband about something I thought might upset him but he only thanked me for telling him. I feel like I should have felt relieved but instead it was a reminder that despite being able to tell me about his day and laugh with the kids, he’s not available for being emotionally present with me right now.

I fought against the sadness by focusing on the tasks at hand and by listening to my Happy & Peaceful playlist but when it came time for bed I was ready to go to sleep and escape from the awareness and feelings for a while. As I was getting under the blankets on my couch bed, my husband walked by and suggested we plan to talk about our middle son’s bar mitzvah during spring break. For some reason that sent me over the border of sadness into despair. Vowing to process these feelings the following day and get good sleep in the meantime, I took a sleeping pill and tried not to cry while I read and waited for the medication to kick in.

I’ve had a couple of good weeks and I’m grateful for the break from intense feelings but like birds who tire of flying, they have landed again and the weight feels heavier even though the bones they are made of are hollow. And here it is, the following day, and I’m honoring the vow I made. I ended up doing a therapy homework assignment around the feelings and I believe that’s given me at least a direction in which to focus my processing.

For homework, I take note of anything that feels triggering (in this case I knew I was triggered because my feelings felt bigger than what was warranted by the situation) and I write down the Event, Beliefs that came up around it and the Consequences, or what I’m feeling. Then I write a couple of lines about whether my thoughts are realistic or helpful. Finally, I write down how I could challenge or correct these beliefs when they come up in the future.

The Event was my husband bringing up the need for us to talk about our son’s bar mitzvah while I was already feeling down because of our lack of connection. My Beliefs were “I can’t deal with this while the two of us are so estranged. I can’t plan for something a year and a half away when everything is so uncertain.” The Consequences were feeling sadness, despair and worry.

Are my Beliefs realistic or helpful? No. It’s hard to interact with my husband while we are not connected but we are both capable of discussing important things without any conflict. How can I challenge such beliefs in the future? Planning for the future is sometimes necessary and there are things we’ll have to plan for that will happen regardless of how our relationship changes. I am capable of doing this and am able to plan and negotiate even when the future of our relationship is uncertain.

A big question I have is why is this situation triggering beliefs and feelings born in trauma? It doesn’t look even remotely close to anything I experienced while living with the man who so sadistically abused me. I sat with this question for a while and asked myself what did it remind me of. I think it may be in part connected to something both my dad and Joe did. Both were totally inept at successfully putting a plan into action but they had really big dreams and never stopped making big plans. It was normal when I was growing up for my dad to talk about his next big venture and how it would make us rich. He would take us to house showings and we’d walk around beautifully decorated large houses imagining that our lives would soon be very different and so much better. Joe had gutted his house before I met him and was rebuilding it from the inside. He had big plans for creating a space in which he could have a storefront and sell things he brought up from Mexico. The feeling I always got with both my dad and Joe was that if these plans succeeded, they would be more stable and stop being hurtful. When they failed, or success didn’t happen quickly enough, I felt like it was my fault because I got the brunt of their frustrations. At some point I think I decided I never wanted to make plans with anyone again.

I tried to stay out of the planning and learned to keep my mouth shut about how I wanted things to go because I thought it would keep me safer. It didn’t but it gave me a sense of control.

I think the above is just one aspect of what’s getting triggered by the current situation. Obviously, some of it has to do with feeling emotionally estranged from my husband. Having to sit down and make plans that require big financial and social decisions is challenging when two people are close. I am worried it will be hard for us to talk through the difficult decisions without my feelings of frustration and bitterness getting in the way. Another big part of it are the feelings elicited by having to make solid plans about an important event when I have no idea if we’ll still be married when the event comes to pass. I’m trying so hard to stay in the moment and not think about how we might grow apart because of the challenges we’re facing now. When I think about something that will involve a big rite of passage for our son, as well as family members coming to participate, I feel deep sadness at the prospect of what it will be like if we’re no longer married.

Uncertainty is at the core of my experience right now and I’m trying to learn how to live with it in positive ways, rather than avoiding it by dissociating or ending it by making something, anything, happen just so I am better able to control my experience. I cannot solve or even address the estrangement in our marriage right now. I can only put one foot in front of the other and approach each situation with as much grace as I can muster. I hate going through the trauma therapy without the emotional presence of my husband but the need for me to accept things as they are is urgent. I’ve written about acceptance before; it is not easy or something one does once and then it’s done. It is something that must be practiced again and again, for as long as is needed. So that is what I do: I go through each day and whenever I feel myself wrestling with reality, I turn towards it and look long and hard at how things are. Then I focus on what I can do to take care of myself.

My husband’s depression

Above image found here.

My husband was recently diagnosed with situational depression. The symptoms are essentially the same as major depressive disorder:

  • Sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of enjoyment in activities previously enjoyed
  • Tiredness & trouble sleeping
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Avoiding social interactions
  • Not taking care of important daily tasks, such as paying bills or working

As someone who has suffered from major depression on and off throughout my adolescent and adult life, I recognize these symptoms but it’s different when it’s a loved one experiencing them. At first I was confused and even annoyed. How can my strong, optimistic, functional partner be suffering from depression?

The answer is both simple and complex. As long as we’ve been together I have experienced both chronic and frequent acute physical health conditions. One of my diagnoses is intractible epilepsy, which means I have seizure that cannot be controlled by medication. When we met I was recovering from agoraphobia and had just gotten to the point where I could leave my house and venture out into the world. After both of our sons were born I experienced extreme post-partum depression, which included insomnia, paranoia and suicidal ideation. Through 11 years of on and off therapy, I have come to recognize that both my physical and mental health issues all stem from the same thing: trauma.

It would be simple to say, “well, duh, of course your husband’s depressed. Who wouldn’t be after dealing with that for 16 years?” It would be easy for me to believe it’s my fault, and in fact I did believe it for a short time. But, like I stated above, the answer is also complex. Yes, I have trauma that causes all kinds of personal and interpersonal problems and yes, that impacts our relationship in a big way. Thankfully, I have enough insight and self-esteem at this point to recognize that I don’t have to feel to blame for what my husband’s going through. It’s not as though I knew how challenging my conditions would be for us. Neither of us believed the water was as deep as it is until we realized about two years ago that we needed couples counseling.

My husband has spent the last 16 years taking care of me and being my emotional support through multiple years and modalities of mental health treatment. He often had to leave work or the house to come and pick me up because I was having seizures or anxiety and couldn’t get home. He was my lifeline as I woke with night terrors, experienced massive panic attacks and dissociation. Trauma has taken its toll on me and now I can see how it’s also deeply impacted my husband and our relationship.

So what can I do? First, I can recognize that he is just starting therapy to help him process his experiences and feelings and become educated about his mental health. I have been in therapy most of my adult life and I have two degrees in psychology, one of which focused on trauma and its effects. I need to give my husband time to learn the things I’ve known for many years. For once, I’m the expert and I need to practice patience.

I can also help him by finding other lifelines of support for myself. I can work harder in and out of therapy to learn and practice the grounding skills which can get me through panic, flashbacks and seizures without having to call on my husband. I can reach out to friends when I need to emotionally process, rather than turning to him for support. I can increase my distress tolerance skills so when something intense comes up between sessions, I can hold it until I see my therapist again.

Maybe the most challenging thing I can attempt to do is to not be so reactive. When I get worried or upset about something I generally have a huge response. It’s not as intense as it was 20 years ago when I would scream and hurl glasses at my partner but it still sometimes a confusing and hurtful experience for my husband. I react instead of respond because I’m most often living with my sympathetic nervous system turned on and amped up. In other words, in fight/fright/freeze mode where the amygdala is the part of the brain that is in control. Working with trauma has helped me reduce this activity but I need to work more consciously with the shift from react to respond.

In her article, Are You Responding or Reacting?, Debbie Hampton writes: Reacting is instinctual. Responding is a conscious choice. When something happens, our body is going to react automatically regardless. The trick is to become aware of this initial reaction, resist doing anything, involve your higher intelligence by considering options, possible ramifications, who you want to be, and what is going to be in your best interest, and, then, choose how to respond.

I need to work on that awareness moment so I can hold my reactivity at bay while I decide how best to respond. I need to allow my husband to finish his sentences when he’s expressing himself. I need to listen more mindfully. These days kids are learning mindfulness in elementary school and I can see how revolutionary this is, and yet how simple. I was introduced to mindfulness in the Dune series by Frank Herbert, and later learned and practiced mindfulness while doing my undergrad work at the Buddhist school, The Naropa Institute. 16 years later I was reintroduced to mindfulness while doing DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy.

With all this exposure to, and practice with, mindfulness, why I am still struggling to see the benefits of it in my relationship? That goes back to the brain, I think. For most of my childhood, and all of my adult life, my brain and nervous system were on high alert for danger. Research now clearly shows that when our amygdala is the prominently active part of our brain, we have little to no access to our reasoning and empathetic minds. I believe that practicing mindfulness as thought I were the hero from Dune, and later practicing active listening and tai chi, helped me to survive until I could have access to therapy which would focus on processing and resolving much of my trauma.

I’ve noticed of late that I am better able to track tasks, problem solve and experience empathy and that tells me that I’m no longer stuck in trauma response mode all the time. I’m actively working on further reducing trauma response by participating in CPT (cognitive processing therapy) and learning to identify automatic negative thoughts & beliefs and then challenge them with accurate statements. It is believed that automatic negative thoughts & beliefs trigger the trauma response and create a cycle of events that trigger negative beliefs, that then trigger fight/flight/freeze. All of this serves to activate symptoms such as flashbacks, night terrors, panic attacks, self-blame & shame, sadness and suicidal ideation. By changing the thoughts and beliefs, you can interrupt the cycle and reduce the symptoms to the point where they rarely interfere with daily life because they are either extinct or the survivor has learned to manage them. This means the brain can shift from amygdala to cerebral cortex much more efficiently.

Getting back to reactivity versus responsiveness, I believe I can now begin the practice of noticing when I feel reactive and then using mindfulness skills to intervene before I act on my thoughts and feelings. In the beginning this may simply mean noticing reactivity and telling my husband I need some time to settle my nervous system down before continuing a conversation. From previous skill building experiences, I believe I will soon be able to shorten the time it takes me to notice reactivity in myself and eventually be able to notice, intervene with skills and respond appropriately.

Like most challenges in my life, now that I’m assessing this one I can see that it offers a wealth of opportunity. My husband will learn a lot about himself, hone life and self-care skills, and have more insight into my experience. I will have move from self-blame to acceptance, create stronger bonds with friends and family who love and support me, and focus on doing the work in my therapy that will allow me to change automatic negative thoughts and beliefs and become a calmer person who can mindfully care for myself and respond to others. Pretty cool.


5 ways I’d like for you to be emotionally present

  1. Good, long hugs. Hug me for 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply. It gives me a sense of you being willing to be vulnerable and present and the physical contact allows my body to sync with yours and read where you’re at.
  2. Show appreciation. If you notice I’ve done something thoughtful or helpful, tell me. A really simple statement like “I notice that you bought that honey I like, thank you” helps me feel recognized. I spend a lot of energy thinking about what you like or what would take some of the pressure off of you.
  3. Share the way you’re feeling. You don’t have to use a lot of words. Just say something like “I’m feeling really lost today” or “I feel so relieved that you took care of that errand”. It allows me to know a little bit about your experience and to feel empathy.
  4. Sit next to me. When there’s a seat next to me at the dinner table, sit there. If we’re both doing work on our computers, consider sitting on the couch. We don’t have to talk but I’ll feel a sense of comradery.
  5. Let me help you sometimes. This one was hard for me to come up with because it would mean you letting me giving you something. I know our experiences with depression, anguish, and therapy are different. And I know some things about those experiences are universal. One of those is brain chemistry. Let me make you a tea blend that will increase feelings of joy, comfort and safety. Or ask me take the boys out for a while and give you some space. Or ask me to leave for a while and give you some space. I won’t always be able to do it on short notice but I will when I’m able to. If you ask in advance I can guarantee time alone. Maybe there’s another way I can help that I don’t know about. If so, tell me about it and I’ll let you know if I’m able to do it. I have no expectation of being let into your therapeutic journey. I just want to help support it.

Venting

Feeling cut off from my husband has left me sad and angry. There’s rarely any tenderness from him at all and I understand his need to take care of himself but he’s walled himself off from me almost completely. At our last therapy appointment he said he still wants to hug me but that’s not the vibe I get. It feels like he does it because it’s some kind of normal amidst all this crazy, or maybe like it’s what he should do, or because it’s a small way of extending but without actually being present.

Today he told me he’d gone through the pile of mail that had stacked up since sometime in December. He said everything left was mine but when I went through it there were about 10 things out of 30 that were actually mine. The rest was junk mail, mail for our oldest child or stuff that had been delivered to the wrong address. There were even a few pieces of his mail that he’d either missed or didn’t want to deal with. I know it’s petty but it infuriated me. He’s just as capable as I am of recycling junk mail and dealing with stuff that was misdelivered.

Other than small talk about a random incident in his classroom, our conversations are rare but always serious. And often occur at weird times. Today, as we were making the 5 minute drive to the school where he works, he started a conversation about whether we should set some boundaries around when our oldest kid can bring friends & partners home. He said he isn’t comfortable with having people show up randomly and often stay over night. He asked how I felt about it and I told him I was ok with it right now but will back him up in whatever reasonable boundaries he wants to set. Then he started citing other reasons why these boundaries would be good. And when we got to the school he asked me what I thought. It’s a pretty big conversation and I haven’t really had a chance to think about the things he brought up because I’m fine with our kid bringing their partner home and she’s the only person who’s been coming over on a regular basis; I like this person and she eases the tension I constantly feel when it’s just us. I told my husband I didn’t think it was a good time to talk since I was literally stopped in the middle of the street outside the school. He said he thought it was a good time because we were a little early and we weren’t at home where our kid might overhear us talking. There’s a lot of time when they’re not home but my husband is usually either holed up in the bedroom or out with the kids. It may not be so, but it seems like bringing it up in the car as I was dropping him off meant it would be a brief conversation and one which he could easily leave if he no longer wanted to engage.

When we’re both home, especially if I wasn’t planning to be here, I feel like he either doesn’t know what to do with himself or he resents me being here. I’m very sensitive right now and we’re not talking about our feelings so I could be very wrong about this. But often he wakes up at 7 or 8 and stays in the bedroom for 3-4 hours. To be fair, I’m often not comfortable being around him because he’s so distant with me and has been very clear about not being able to be present with me right now. Even being in the same room with him feels painfully awkward. I feel like I’m in the way. My mom said I should take his rare questions about what’s going on with me as him extending himself a bit; I should see that as him giving me something. But how can I go into how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking about when he feels so cold and distant? It doesn’t feel comfortable or safe.

I’m worried these unhealthy dynamics between us right now will only drive us farther apart. I’m worried we won’t be able to find our way back to tenderness and closeness. I understand he needs to take care of himself right now but does that mean he has to be so far away from me in every way that matters? I’m not asking him for anything right now. I’m going to therapy, working hard to do what my therapist asks of me, and doing as much for the kids and the household as I possibly can. I’m actually doing more than I feel I should; I’m having a lot more pain than usual and I’m exhausted by the end of every day. But I want to take some of the pressure off my husband and give him a chance to focus on himself.

I want to support him and give him the opportunities he’s given me to take care of himself and try and find his way out of the depression that is most certainly a result of years of my trauma and chronic illnesses impacting our relationship. There’s no way I can truly know what I’m like when I’m depressed or how that feels for my husband. I know that on the inside I always continued to love him and want to be close to him. I know that I tried to find ways to reach out to him and connect. I started this blog as an anonymous way to express myself while feeling incredibly depressed and suicidal. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my husband about what I was going through while in trauma therapy and I know he felt frustrated by my distance. As a way of sharing my experience, I shared this blog with him. I wanted him to understand what I was going through and to be as vulnerable as I could. I wanted him to understand that my distance was not a result of me not loving or desiring him. I know that gesture wasn’t enough for him and he deserved more but I couldn’t give much more than that. For a time I followed our therapist’s instructions and spent time cuddling with him every morning. And it was nice but also very triggering so eventually I stopped.

I’ve become more transparent on this blog recently. My husband and I aren’t talking about what we’re going through separately or as a couple and I need a space where I can express myself. I know he has access to it and for a while I would tell him when I’d written but I have no idea whether he reads it or not because he doesn’t tell me if he has. He might read this post and say nothing to me about it. Expressing myself openly and honestly here and not knowing if he’s reading it or not drives me nuts.


The morning brings no comfort

The quiet, early mornings still offer a measure of comfort most days but this morning I feel such sadness that the comfort is out of reach. My eyes are sore from crying yesterday. My mouth dry and stiff from disuse, not saying the things I need so badly to say.

My husband went to visit an old friend yesterday and when he returned I asked how she was doing. His answer was not without empathy for her situation but the casualness with which he described the situation felt like a fist to the stomach. She and her husband separated. They had not felt connected for some time and now they are spending some time apart.

I was already feeling down, even before he returned, and this statement made so matter of factly was like a fist to my belly. He could see I was feeling a lot and he hovered around, tried to make small talk for a while. I hate small talk with anyone but it is most abhorrent when it’s made while there’s something more serious that is being left unsaid. There’s so much unsaid between us right now that it breaks my heart on a daily basis. I could feel few new cracks opening in my already strained heart.

He’s made it clear that he cannot be available to me right now so I said nothing about the irony of his visit with a friend who’s marriage is coming to an end. I was angry at not being able to speak so, rather than say things I would most certainly regret, I busied myself with chores and then took the trash out to the bins so I could be alone. I must have sat out there in the cold for half an hour, half the time numb and the other crying. What will become of us? How can I walk around the house, be with my family, when I feel so much sadness and pain? I don’t want my children to worry so I have to find a way to put the pain aside when they’re around. The visceral feeling of doing that reminds me so much of being a teenager and always striving to appear as though everything was fine.

I don’t think my husband even noticed I was gone or that when I came in I went straight to the bathroom to take a shower. I stood under the hot water and tried to pull myself together so that when I got out I could be present for my children and help them get ready for bed. It was when I came back into the kitchen that he asked if I was all right. What could I possible say? I can’t open myself and be vulnerable when he’s stated several times that he cannot be here for me right now. I told him I couldn’t talk about it with him and how that hurts me. That I’m not okay with the way things are right now. He had no response to that at all. I went to make my bed on the couch and we left it like that. And now I face another entire day of holding a breaking heart because I’ve lost my best friend, lover and partner. Worse, I face it knowing I’ll have to hold everything to myself without the person I love the most to share it with.

Fallen Warrior

I took this photo of Ian the last time we saw one another. He had the kindest and most intense eyes of anyone I’ve ever known.

My friend and mentor, Ian (Bill) Scheffel took his own life on July 8th, 2018. He had been suffering for a while and the help he received from the mental health community was more harmful than healing for his gentle soul. I wrote the following in memory of Ian not long after he took his life. He was a true boddhisatva. One of the last things he said to me was that I should keep writing. I try, Ian. And when I do I always think of you. I miss you.

You would say

Be Mindful

What does that really mean?

Full of mind.

Etymonline says: Of good memory

It’s hard to be mindful when the mind is so full it runneth us over

It’s hard to be mindful when memories haunt instead of

It’s synchronicity, your voice said through the phone.

Me thinking of you as you reached out to me

Both of us fighting to free our minds

Swords forged of the will to find peace within

I fought for myself, for my kids, for my lover

You fought for all of us with full minds and haunted memory

I know you tried to find the right sword, then the righteous sword

Your sword became a flaming inferno of gasoline and steel on wheels

Did the mindful hear your battle cry, see your standard for what it is?

You died a bodhisatvah

A fallen warrior for peace of the mind

I will remember, honor your sacrifice

Be mindful

I try

I hear my children fighting

See the table just beginning to start its day, a cup here, sheet of paper, flattened roll of toilet paper, sticky spot of raw honey darkening as it collects dirt & body oils

Feel the gentle exhale of my dog’s sleeping breath on my toes

My jaw clenched, relax

More than need permits: books, magnets, dresser filled with unused cloth

There’s a place on the sage green kitchen wall where filtered sunlight shimmers.

Fridge drones a single note

Taste of coffee, bitter and dry, in my closed mouth

My mind is not still, jumps between these things

Comes back to your face