Tuesday, December 4, 2012

It's Complicated


We cripples have learned a thing or two about the Laws of Physics.  For example, a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest tends to keel over and plant itself face down on the sidewalk.  That’s one of the easy ones.  Gravity claims us all sooner or later, but it claims a cripple a little sooner than most.  We know that aging is the great leveler, we’re just waiting for our peers to catch up with us. We might need a cane or wheelchair in our fifties, but don’t we feel a bit smug whenever some able-bodied person scoots around us, frightened of his own inevitable decline?  That’s okay, we think, you just keep running, buddy, the day will come when you can’t run anymore. You go, Charlie. 

We cripples have also learned a thing or two about love. How spouses, for example, who love us very much, can entertain a twinge of disappointment when we cannot go for an impromptu walk around town, enjoy the rush of blood in our limbs and the air in our lungs, the quickening heartbeat, the children playing catch in the street and the sun slipping towards the horizon. It is an uncomfortable feeling, disappointment, it makes them feel that perhaps they are not good people for having such twinges. So they push it away. 

But these small disappointments can accumulate over time. We are not aware of this, of course, though we do worry that it is being felt. We perform reality checks on an annual basis, we give our spouses opportunities to come clean.  But they reassure us, year after year, that it doesn’t matter, honey, I love you, I’m not going anywhere. And we believe them. We believe them because they dote on us, bring us coffee and cook our breakfast on Saturday mornings. They do all the housework and grocery shopping, open packages for us, chop the veggies for dinner. And they do not withhold affection, we get held and kissed and gazed at lovingly every day. So it must be true. It doesn’t matter. They love us. They aren’t going anywhere.

And yet we have doubts. We push those doubts away and tell ourselves they are of no consequence.  But they infiltrate our bliss in various ways; in my case, in a recurring nightmare. My husband and I are at some event in a large building with a stage. When the performance is over we head towards the exit along with everybody else. The crowd swirls around me and my husband is no longer at my side. I search for him, spot the back of his head a few yards away and push through the crowd in that direction. But I lose him. I cannot see him anywhere. My vision begins to darken and my legs weaken. I hobble along corridors through room after room and decide to head for an exit, he’s sure to be outside waiting for me. By the time I reach the door, the building is empty and I am alone. I step outside into the waning light, hysterical with grief, and peer at the narrow distances, past a now empty parking lot and across a barren landscape, and drag myself in the direction of home. Just before I go completely blind, I awake.

An MSer’s worst nightmare is not physical decline, it is abandonment. A couple of months ago, my husband of not quite two years, my partner for six, my doting, kind, funny, compassionate mate, informed me that he didn’t want to be married to me anymore because he resents my disease. I cannot be his activities companion. He feels like a coward about the future. He cannot be the husband I need and deserve. 

It doesn’t matter, honey, I love you.  I’ll never leave you. Yes, he spoke those very words, year after year. Old reliable, he was. Like a 20th century car that gets an annual tune-up by its conscientious owner even though it never needs the points and plugs replaced. The fact that you cared enough to perform routine maintenance endeared you to it in a human kind of way. Unnecessary maintenance, but cute, very cute. I get a pat on the head for being so aware, so thoughtful, so painstakingly dedicated to taking nothing and no one for granted.

What isn’t cute is that annual reality check was never an invitation to placate me. I was not trolling for the lie, I was courting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. I’m funny that way.  I need to know even if it hurts. He knew that about me, knew that if he wanted out I would want to know about it. I told him that. Honey, if you ever decide that you don’t want to take the whole journey with me, I’ll understand. We’ve all got to follow the path we think will make us happy. And I meant it, every word.

Perhaps it was pride that held him back, or the prospect of getting bad press, I’ll never really know for sure.  Look, there goes that guy who dumped his disabled wife. What a putz. There are not a lot of ways to spin that kind of abandonment in a way that would make yourself a sympathetic character, goodness knows.  Judgments would be harsh, there is just no getting around that. It’s enough to hold a husband hostage in an unhappy marriage for months, even years. Keeping such a grave secret took its toll on him, and when he fessed up to me about his unhappiness, he wept deeply and often while I took in the news; I was at first incredulous, then defiant, bargaining for a delay in his decision until he sought therapy. Eventually, acceptance silenced me. I had just gotten the news that my marriage was dying and I had the grieving ahead of me, but for him it had died long ago and he was simply revisiting the grave with a heavy and regretful heart, only this time, he had brought me along. I had to leave.

He moved me back to my mother’s house where I had lived for twelve years before meeting him. I lay on my old full-sized bed and cried, feeling as though I had been punished and sent to my room without supper.  My mother had painted my old bedroom white after I’d moved in with him. And I suddenly felt as though I had never left that bed, that I’d been in a coma for five years, dreaming that I lived in another house with a husband, two dogs, three birds, a garden, lulled by the sweet strains of marital devotion, and now I had awakened back in my old bedroom, the white walls being the only proof of the passage of time.

A month has passed since the separation. I was sad, grieving, angry, bewildered for the first two weeks, but I’ve stopped crying now. I feel relief, I’m free. Liberated because I am no longer waiting for him, no longer feeling guilty for not being normal, no longer afraid that I’ll disappoint him. The worst has happened, I’ve been abandoned because of my disease. 

But it is not the hardship that I feared it would be. I missed him for a while, for two weeks, but then I stopped, and that in itself troubled me. I realized how distant he had become for the whole previous year and how easily I had made excuses for him. He was tired, he worked two jobs and had other responsibilities besides. He was in a twelve-month rehab program and I figured I was there on a rain check for a year, I’d wait for him to finish it and then I’d get him back again. I championed his progress, felt proud of him, in love with him, desirous and lonely, yes, but he was going through a tough time and I should try not to act too needy. I was very patient. I thought we were happy. I thought I was happy, but I wasn’t. And the fact that I stopped missing him so quickly saddened me, it meant the relationship had been over for me, too, and for quite a while. I simply hadn’t owned it.

I saw a therapist immediately, before I left my husband.  In my first session, I told my therapist that I was suffering from low self-esteem, that my self-worth was in the toilet. After all, I’d just gotten dumped out of a marriage because I was not whole. But by the end of the session, he told me a startling thing:  I possess very high self-esteem, I just think I don’t. We call that cognitive distortion. 

The distortion, it seems, came about when I got the bright idea to abandon my expectations. One should have expectations in a marriage, who doesn’t know that? Apparently, I don’t. I didn’t expect my husband to want to share activities with me, explore the depths of intimacy. I didn’t expect him to make plans with me for the future, be my health advocate in an emergency, I didn’t even expect him to want to be married to me forever.  Gratitude had displaced any reasonable demands I might have made. Gratitude so deeply ingrained that I felt I hadn’t the right to intone: “Please, sir, I want some more.” After all, I wasn’t a starving, abused orphan in a workhouse. I was well-fed and loved.What more could a middle-aged cripple want from a new husband?

And I had my own pride to contend with, my own fear of bad press. The odds were against us, so many women with a chronic disease or catastrophic illness are abandoned by their husbands. I didn’t want to become a cliché. Having expectations certainly wouldn’t tip the odds in my favor. And so I never protested when he wanted to stay overnight on his sailboat Friday nights, join a rock band, rehearse two days a week, and gig on the weekends. He had his freedom and I retreated to my office, seeking refuge in my online patient community of friends. There, I developed the intimacy my marriage lacked.

Now that I am single again, my friendships continue to nourish me, I still have the intimacy. And I’ve made plans to find my groove again as a writer, I’ve long neglected a book I started writing several years ago.  But what continues to haunt me is the notion of expectations. If I ever consider marriage again, I must bring to the table a list of expectations and a promise to myself that gratitude shall be reserved for acts of kindness only and never become the sole tenet of my marriage philosophy. The prospect of such a thing seems daunting right now, in fact, it upsets me to think about it. 

The fact that it troubles me to imagine such a testament to self-worth means I have some healing to do yet.  And heal I shall.  My husband has given me a gift I would never have asked him for: I’ve gotten my whole self back, intact, for the most part. And I won’t squander it.  Not ever.

9 comments:

  1. So sorry to hear about the the separation and end of what was thought to be a perfect union. I am very happy that you have seemed to have come to terms with it , although things like this always leave a scar, no matter how small.

    You know you still have us as support and we will always be there for you, no matter what stage of MS you are in.

    MUch love and many hugs,
    Brenda

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  2. Kim, Thank you for going pubic with this - it must have taken some serious soul searching to lay yourself open like this to the rest of your readers. Your words have to resonate in one way or another to all of us living with a chronic disease but don't openly address the thoughts you have eloquently put out here.
    Love you lots and it's time for our monthly chat - I head to Columbus on tuesday so stay by your phone. lots of love but no pity, Laura

    PS don't ever give up writing - you do it so well.

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  3. Kim,
    My admiration of your writing is ongoing. Your honesty and self-awareness sit seamlessly in your elegant phrases. It's a beautiful experience, reading your words, learning your thoughts and sharing your fears and reaffirmations. It's so profound to read a perspective on life with MS that can only be truly understood when you are "also a member". I salute you in a warm embrace fellow fighter. I have optimism and complete confidence that we will both endure our uncertain future, with bells on. Thank you so much for this gift Kim. You are an amazing woman and I am honored to share in your story. ~Amy G.

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  4. Meems,
    I am so glad I read this.
    You are, like others have mentioned, so self-aware. Your honesty about this experience is bringing tears to my eyes. I am so proud to be your niece.

    With Abounding Love,
    -Alina

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  5. WOW! This story is heartbreaking and life-affirming all at the same time. And your writing - well, your writing is FANTASTIC. It was a pleasure to let your words, and thus your feelings, wash over me. I feel like I know you - and you me. I'm so sorry that your husband left. I'm so sorry that you have MS - but I'm so glad that this community has you!!

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  6. Kim,
    Your words were as emotional to read--as they were to write.
    Thank you for your perspective & insight..much needed on this end!

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  7. Wow...i think you struck a nerve with me. I too have lowered my expectations. How cool you are working through it. sending you love and light. Xo, olivia

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  8. I don't know what to say except...

    I have been out of touch with the world in general and have just gotten back (kind of anyway). Thus the late comments to your well written (but obviously tough subject to write about)essay.

    Thank you for sharing Kim. Your well being is important to us, even if we rarely see each other. May the spirit in the sky keep an eye out for you and make some flowers bloom early, just for you!

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  9. Even though I am in my , lessee, (counting...) 26th year of marriage, a lot of what you wrote resonated with me. I have lowered my expectations. [What ever did I expect?] I have given into gratitude. [Was I always grateful to/for him?] His bar has been set really, really low. [Will I do anything with this realization?] Aargh!

    Anyway. thank you for sharing. I will keep reading you; you have a talent with your written word. Your voice is strong and clear. Take care of yourself.

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