2014 is coming to a close, and I am so glad. This has been one helluva year. I’m having yet another brain MRI today–the day after Christmas. The year has to go out with a bang, I guess. Well, I say, let it! So long as 2015 is inaugurated with celebration. We made it through 2014, and we’re better for it.
My girls and I spent an afternoon with one of my favorite friends the day before Christmas Eve. Our two families have had a tradition for a decade now. We get together and make gingerbread houses. When we began this tradition, our children were young, and it was really just the two of us frosting and decorating the cookie cottages while attempting to keep the little hands from stealing all the candies. Odd traditions began. My friend would unfailingly put the roof on her house upside down. Every year! She would yell out in frustration, “How could I do this again?!” This year, however, we reminisced about all those imperfections and repeated errors. It has become mandatory that she put her roof on upside down. It’s part of the charm. Our kids, however, took over all the decorating this time. Eadaoin is sixteen this year. My friend’s daughter is eleven. The kids no longer needed our help or advice.
We were able to relax in her living room with our warm beverages and chat while our kids decorated the gingerbread houses completely on their own–even Grace. What a strange feeling. She asked how I was doing. Being a close girlfriend, she went for the jugular: “How’s the marriage?”
Isn’t it funny how girlfriends waste no time? We simply ask. There is no chit-chat. My answer? Everyone who reads my blog knows that this year has been grueling. “Better.” 2013 ended on a precarious note where my marriage was concerned. 2014 will end on a better note. Perhaps in a major key.
So, what happened? I’ll be as honest as I can be in hopes that it might help someone else should they find themselves in a similar spot. The day I began writing this blog, the clinicians treating Grace–and there were many–believed that she was bipolar. Within a month of that diagnosis she declined rapidly and was then diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. She was not yet 11 years-old. Her overall decline from healthy child to psychotic happened in less than a year. It changed our entire family life. Eadaoin is in therapy today, in part, due to witnessing Grace’s psychosis onset. Doireann is a completely different young woman today because of Grace’s disease. We are all different now. Severe mental illness in a family affects everyone, and everyone behaves differently in terms of coping strategies.
Ordeal has a way of distilling personalities and bringing forth cracks within character and the relationships therein. I am inherently tenacious. This is both a blessing and a curse. I do not give up. I will hone in on a problem and attempt to fix it until it is no longer a problem or until I have died. This approach to life worked well where Grace was concerned. This approach to life worked well in almost all former circumstances. It does not work well within a marriage when the problem is perceived to be a person.
My husband is as avoidant as I am tenacious. This is his primary character flaw. We are both exceedingly stubborn in our positions. The more I pushed him to deal with those things that increased his anxiety, the more inert he became. This only increased my drive to “solve him”. What I did not understand was that he was coping with watching his daughter fall apart by using avoidance–his primary coping strategy. Avoidance behavior is one of the go-to coping strategies used by those with anxiety disorders. I do know this, but I couldn’t grasp it at the time. How does one avoid one’s entire family? Why? One does this because one really lacks the capacity to deal with what is happening.
I observed this and insisted that he see a doctor in order to start anti-anxiety medication. After almost 17 years of living with his anxiety disorder, I needed him to get his head in the game. I needed my partner, my friend! I couldn’t do all this alone. So, I issued him an ultimatum. How awesome. Ultimatums are never great, but he did see his internist for a physical. It was then that he casually mentioned his anxiety. He was given the standard anxiety check list; he passed it with flying colors. He left with a prescription for Zoloft. That’s it.
I must pause and say this. If a person sees a psychiatrist, then one goes back to the psychiatrist every four weeks after beginning a new medication to discuss how one feels after beginning the drug. The drug is tweaked or even discontinued in favor of a better or different one. Internists should not manage psychiatric conditions. This is where we went wrong, and this is also where I knew we were going wrong. Recall what I said about my husband’s inertia. Inertia was settling in at this point.
My husband had never taken a medication for his anxiety. He had self-medicated with alcohol. He stopped using alcohol at this point in favor of Zoloft.
A word about Zoloft: Zoloft is an SSRI. On the spectrum of SSRIs, it is the most emotionally blunting while Prozac is the most activating. Zoloft is also not a well-known anti-anxiety drug. It does have some effectiveness for social anxiety, but it is not effective for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Lexapro, on the other hand, is in the middle of the SSRI spectrum as far as emotional blunting and activation. It is also known to treat depressive symptoms as well as anxiety without some of the better known side effects like suicidal and self-harming ideation for which Zoloft is known.
My husband, however, had never known life without his crippling anxiety, and Zoloft’s emotional blunting was just what he was looking for. That dead feeling inside that the drug provided helped him cope with his own life as a father, provider, husband, and man. He liked it. He liked it a lot. Perhaps he even needed it. I, on the other hand, despised it. He went from an anxious but likable man to a vacant, emotional corpse of a human being. It seemed that there was no middle ground. It was one extreme or another.
He disappeared from our entire life, but, in his mind, he was present. He wasn’t. He was like a wraith. We stopped having sex. For two years. He had no desire. In fact, he had no desire for anything. He described it as feeling paralyzed under a heavy blanket, but he sort of liked it. He just wanted to do nothing. He wanted to lie in bed all the time or sit in his room. He slept all the time. A ridiculous amount of time. He, however, was not anxious. I don’t think he felt anything, and that’s the point of Zoloft. Imagine a person who feels too much or a person who is completely overwhelmed to the point of being almost non-functional. Zoloft would be very helpful because it would provide a much needed emotional balance. Or, perhaps not feeling very much for a time would be helpful in order to learn to think rather than feel all the time. A drug like Zoloft can be very helpful given the right brain and circumstances. It was, however, not the right drug for my husband.
After living with him for almost two years on this drug, I truly began to believe that perhaps I was worthless and unlovable. He did almost completely ignore me almost all the time. There was, however, much to be learned here. At some point in the middle of this, I realized that, as a woman, I gleaned a great deal of self-worth from the success of my relationships. This is a rather female point of view. I gave up a career to stay home and raise my daughters after all. It’s not as if I have a career to fall back on at this point. In my mind, what does it say about me if, after all this time, I come out of this with a shitty marriage and mentally ill children? I thought I had to be Martha Stewart for Pete’s sake!
What now? What if he really didn’t love me anymore? I had to get a life. That was the loudest message that I heard throughout 2014. Build a life. I saw it everywhere. A stranger in a restaurant even came up to me and told me that very thing if you can believe it–“Don’t wait for your husband to figure out what he wants. Go out there and do what makes you happy. Build a life for yourself.” What an empowering message. So, I stopped looking at him and what he was doing. I started looking at me. I aimed that tenacity at myself and left him alone. I let him sit alone in our bedroom for months on end. I let him sleep the days away. I started making weekend plans with the girls. I started…living. It was hard because I felt like I was leaving something behind. Something symbolic. I realized, however, that we must always be bringing something vital into our relationships. We must always be building our own happiness and internal resources as individuals if we are to attempt to build something worthwhile with another person. Grace’s illness tapped me out, and I became so focused on her and my other daughters. I forgot that I was a separate person, too.
So, what happened? He felt my emotional departure. I didn’t abandon him. I simply left him alone, and that changed the dynamic in our relationship. He started asking to join me on our outings. He was still emotionally comatose, and I was still seething with resentment; but, something was thawing. Two months ago, he finally saw a psychiatrist, and she switched him from Zoloft to Lexapro. He recently told me that he had no idea just how dead he felt on the inside on Zoloft until he didn’t feel that way anymore. He then said, “I should have never been on that medication.”
Yes, I wanted to punch him. The past two years have gutted me. Our marriage has suffered in ways that I never thought it would, but perhaps it needed gutting. There was never going to be an easy way through this leg of the journey with Grace. It was always going to be horrendous. We did what we had to do. I, however, wonder if my health would be better today had he not abandoned ship as he did.
So, what’s the takeaway? I suppose that it’s this: Even if everyone else abandons you, don’t abandon yourself. There will be crises in life. Once those crises settle, come back to yourself. In the end, no one is going to take better care of you than you. Man or woman, we must always invest in our own development and healing. That says that we are worthwhile and lovable. We can’t expect others to love us if we don’t love ourselves. It is, therefore, crucial that you find those expressions of self-love that are meaningful to you and claim them. Make them a part of your life in a consistent way. In this way, you will learn to weather the storms in life be they circumstantial, relational, or existential. And practice the art of forgiveness. This has been my greatest challenge and lifesaver. Learning to move forward without giving up self-respect and, at the same time, granting pardon. This is the grittiness of life. This is the hard stuff. Knowing that pain and love often weave themselves together as we grow, and one doesn’t cancel out the other. They often coexist. Forgiveness doesn’t ease the pain, and pain doesn’t minimize love.
This is what I’ve learned in 2014. It’s been a very painful year, but, as I said, I’m better for it.
I hope that as 2014 ends you are able to see where your paths have taken you, find a new horizon line, and begin the next leg of your journey with hope.