How does divorce happen? It’s not a straightforward question. I am not actually asking for your answer. However, it is not a rhetorical question, either. I don’t have a ready answer for you, despite the fact that I have been to brink of it myself. The end of a marriage is I think one of those amorphous places. You don’t realize you are going there when you are, when you are there you don’t quite know how you got there, and when (or if) you manage to come back you are not sure you ever really left. Once the possibility of divorce rears its head, reality becomes harder to pin down. It is like looking at your arm under the pool and seeing that your arm above the water and the image of your arm below don’t quite match up.
There was a time when you could only get divorced for reasons of infidelity (on the part of the wife), failure to consummate the marriage, or physical abuse. Divorce existed in the United States prior to the Seventies, but it was the “Me Generation” that embraced the idea that divorce was a way to find yourself. Hence, the creation of “irreconcilable differences,” the most commonly cited reason for the end of marriage since the late 1960s. Even the very term itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. How can two individuals have “irreconcilable differences?” The United States and current government of Iran have irreconcilable differences. The United States had irreconcilable differences with North Vietnam. If war “is diplomacy by other means,” then irreconcilable differences is what triggers that war. But people are not nations. Nations go to war, ultimately, because they can. In any war between nations, one side or the other will eventually win. War is expensive. Eventually, you run out of money, resources, and human lives. Eventually, the loss becomes too great and the nation must sue for peace.
In a war between nations, somebody is always eventually going to win.
But people do not have the resources of nations. When two people fight, nobody is going to win because you cannot destroy your partner, your spouse, like a nation can destroy another nation. There is no atom bomb you can drop. There are no precision airstrikes. There are no weapons factories to blow up. You cannot win because you cannot stop the other person’s ability to fight. And if you cannot destroy the other person’s ability to fight back, the war will go on forever.
Individuals can fight forever. The only thing that will end a war between two individual people is surrender and the suing for peace, which is what “irreconcilable differences” really is. It is a surrender. Split the money, arrange alimony, and decide who the kids are gonna live with. A family gets divided like land. Children become the West Bank or the Golan Heights, disputed territory for the remainder of their childhoods.
I am a child of divorce, which statistically increases my chances of divorce as well. I guess the idea is if you see divorce as a child your model of marriage is forever polluted. Your parents didn’t stick together and you survived. Therefore, divorce can’t be the end of the world, right?
The end of my parents’ marriage was not a mutual decision. In 1990, my father took a job in Minneapolis. We were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time. My dad would drive up Interstate 35 from Tulsa to Minneapolis on Sunday night and then drive back on Friday night.
Even at fourteen, though, this struck me as strange. My parents could tell me all they wanted that this was only a temporary arrangement until they sold the house in Tulsa and we followed Dad to Minneapolis, but it didn’t feel right.
I will tell you this. Kids are always the first ones to know when their parent’s marriage is over. If you think you are concealing your marital problems from your children, you are deluding yourself. They know. They knew before you knew. They know it is going to end long before you accept it.
I knew then that it was only a matter of time. In my case, my father came home on Friday afternoon, after 700 miles in the car, to find a process server on his doorstep. My mother had filed for divorce and taken me and run across state lines into Arkansas.
I spent the next twenty years telling myself it was the best thing that could have happened to my parents. There was no love left. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time they had been affectionate with each other. Sex, sure. I accidentally walked into my parent’s bedroom when I was thirteen and saw one hump under the bedcovers instead of two, with that hump rising and falling rhythmically like an iron lung. I discreetly withdrew. But sex, I learned twenty years later, is the final attempt to save a marriage that is dying. Let’s fuck our way out of this one. It is only natural. You try to use sex to cover up the lack of real emotion, hoping that you can force the love back into the marriage with each thrust. Unfortunately, if you and your spouse have a dramatic increase in sexual relations, it typically means you are screwed, and not in the way you want. You’re beating a dead horse, to mix metaphors.
But I was convinced it was the right thing for them to do. They weren’t happy with each other. They fought constantly. When they split it was like a relief to me.
Twenty years later, I am still telling myself.
I’m right, right? Wouldn’t I be happier if my parents were happier?
Holy shit. My happiness as a child depended on my parent’s happiness? How did that happen?
So what did my mother and my father think? Did they think this was best for me? Did they think I would be alright? Did they think at all?
I don’t think they did. They just had to get away.
I can understand that. I am not angry at them. This is not me whining that my life would have been different had my parents stayed together. I don’t believe that. We are who we are and whether our parents split, like most environmental factors, will not, in the end, be the defining moment of our lives.
We don’t have defining moments. We just have moments. Every moment of your life you have a choice.
And that is why marriages end. You suddenly realize that you do have a choice. You don’t have to live the life you are living. You can change it.
Or can you?
I swore I would never get a divorce. I was determined to do everything right that I felt my parents had got wrong. And for the first eight years of my marriage, it was easy.
Even when Jani became sick, became violent, it was easy. It is said that marriages do fine until they come under stress, which is when you find out if you made the right choice. Most marriages break under stress, such as the illness of a child. But I could handle the stress. I was good at it. I put my head down, suppressed my fears, and did what I had to do. I had to keep Jani going, along with Susan (who was falling apart because her daughter who had never been apart from us was now in a mental hospital and didn’t seem to care) and Bodhi. I carried the world on my shoulders, or at least my small slice of it.
And then Jani stabilized, relatively speaking. After her second hospitalization (at Loma Linda) and the implementation of the “tough love” approach that they had encouraged us to use with Jani, the violence dropped from 10-12 incidents a day down to one or two a day (she was also on Depakote and Seroquel). She seemed to be getting better. The long nightmare since Bodhi was born seemed to be abating. The crisis was over.
Life returned to relative normalcy for us. I had thought she was never going to come out of it but now she, for the most part, had. We had gotten our daughter back, for the most part. I re-entered the life I had left over six months earlier when Jani’s violence first appeared. It was like I had gone to combat six months earlier and was now back from my tour.
But I found couldn’t re-enter my life as it had been. I was doing the same things. My external life was the same. But I was different now. I had been to hell and come back and I found I couldn’t just pick up where I left off. My world had been turned upside down. My daughter had been hospitalized twice and was on anti-psychotic meds. In March of 2008, we’d tried to take Jani home from BHC Alhambra. We got no further than the parking lot. Bodhi started to cry and Jani started screaming at him and trying to throw things at him. She wouldn’t get into the car with Bodhi. After two hours in the parking lot, we returned to the hospital. They wouldn’t take her back, telling her and us that it would be a “difficult transition.” Jani cut them off by hitting Susan as hard as she could, which immediately made them take her back. As she was led off, she turned back to see Susan crying and said “It’s okay, Mommy. Just visit me during visiting hours and bring me my food.” We drove home that night totally broken, convinced that our daughter was now fully institutionalized. She wanted the institution. She was happy there. Despite all the drugs, she was still slipping away from us. I was convinced she was going to leave our world, and leave us, either physically or mentally.
How do you go back to your life after that? Jani did come home again and she did stabilize, but how could I forget that moment where I was utterly convinced I was going to lose her. My baby girl. The love of my life.
I was not the same person anymore. I could not go back to my life as it was. I couldn’t fill the part of my soul that got ripped out that night.
Then I met someone and she ignited my passion for life again. She woke me up. She was, I thought, everything that was missing.
When a part of your life is out of control, you seek control where you can. I couldn’t control Jani. I couldn’t make her better. But I could make another aspect of my life better. I could replace Susan. Susan didn’t light my fire anymore. We had nothing in common but the children, I thought. I deserve to be happy, I thought. I have done my service to Queen and Country. I deserved to be happy.
Luckily for me, ultimately we cannot hide who we really are. This other woman liked me because I made her feel young, because I was fun, because I was passionate. But I am really none of those things. At the same time that I thought I was being honest with her, telling her everything inside of me, I was actually hiding who I really was. Finally, days before I planned to commit infidelity and destroy my marriage, she saw the real me. I desperately needed her. I needed her to hold me and tell me everything would be okay. But she had plans and had to go. So I wrote a long and incoherent letter which I stuck on her windshield. In my words, the truth spilled out. I was not young and fun. I was an infinite black hole, trying to suck her into me to fill the void left by the near loss of my daughter. I was going down into the abyss and I wanted to take her with me. I was dying inside.
Not surprisingly, I terrified her. She told me she didn’t want to hear from me again.
After this, I had to try and repair the marriage to Susan, who was well aware of my relationship with this other woman (I had told her, thinking there was something honorable in that). Susan and I had more sex in the summer of 2008 than we had had in our entire eight year marriage to date. We were trying to fake it until we felt something again, until I felt something again.
I have been asked how we got our marriage back. The simple answer is that Jani got sick again. In the fall of 2008, she went rapidly downhill again and eventually got to UCLA and got the diagnosis of child onset schizophrenia and the rest, as they say, is history.
The true answer is more complicated. The true answer is that I am not sure we ever entirely came back from my near infidelity. It remains a shadow over our marriage to this day. I nearly left the marriage once. Will I do it again?
Actually, the true answer is that we came back, or I came back, because I accepted what I cannot change. I embraced the sense of powerlessness against Jani’s illness that had led me to want to have an affair in the first place. I re-enlisted in the war against Jani’s illness, and now Bodhi’s autism, for the remainder of my natural life.
What saves a marriage? It is acceptance that this life you lead is your life and will be your life for as long as you live. And once you accept that, you can be happy. Because you have taken away any other choices you had. You have turned away from the life you thought you were going to have and accepted that this is your fate.
The way to save a marriage is to stop thinking you have a choice, even though you do.
Susan and I still argue. Hell, most of our segment in the 20/20 episode was us arguing. Sometimes it feels like I just can’t get my point through Susan’s head, like I’m shouting underwater but she can’t, or won’t, hear me. Sometimes she seems as illogical in her thought processes as Jani.
Just yesterday we were arguing. Susan had done something that I felt was going to blow our opportunity to get the Jani Foundation off the ground. Susan wanted to restart the intern program for other families, which I didn’t want, fearing liability and insurance issues and all the things I have learned about non-profits. I had stopped the car and gotten out to get some money out of the ATM. I told Jani to wait in the car. I was on the phone with Susan, who was telling me that we could do the Jani Foundation on our own, and I was telling her that we couldn’t, that we needed help, that we had to stop driving people away who want to help us, like we drove the interns away.
“Don’t blame me for that,” she retorted. “The interns left because of you! They complained that you wouldn’t give them time with Jani.”
“That’s because I couldn’t trust them. Nobody can do what I do. I can’t trust anyone else to keep Jani safe.” Which includes Susan, I felt at that moment, but I didn’t say. “You are putting at risk everything I have worked hard to build!” I hissed at her.
“I’ve worked hard, too!”
I hadn’t wanted to shout. I didn’t intend to. But I was now shouting. Screaming. Cursing.
Jani opens the door of the car.
“Jani, get back in the car!”
“Why are you so angry?” Jani asks me.
“Just get back in the car!”
She does what she is told, but I can see her watching me through the windshield.
For a brief second there, while I had been yelling at Susan, divorce popped back into my head. I can’t let even Susan stand in my way of what I want to do for other families with mentally ill kids.
But then I saw Jani watching me. She knew. I knew she knew. She knew, just as I had known when I was fourteen.
At the end of the day, all Jani has is me and Susan. And she needs us together. She needs us as one. As individuals we are not enough to keep her going. Only together can we give her what she needs.
And once I accepted that, I felt at peace. If the Jani Foundation falls apart before it even gets off the ground, so be it. If those who work for it don’t like what Susan is doing, so be it. No matter what Susan does, I have to accept it. I have to give in. Because in the end the only thing that matters is that we stay together.
Not that I am a dream to live with either.
My point is that Susan and I are still together, and will remain together, because we can never quit. There is no other life left to go back to. Jani took us across the Rubicon and there is no going back.
Susan and I are Jani and Bodhi’s parents, friends, advocates, and defenders. That is who we are. And that is who we will remain for the rest of our lives. We cannot do that as individuals. We cannot survive this as individuals. We can only survive, we can only prosper, together. Together, we hold Jani and Bodhi’s lives in our hands. Separate us, and we will surely drop them.
I still make the mistake of letting outsiders sometimes come between Susan and myself. I still make the mistake of not defending her as much as I should. I’m working on that. I have to. I will follow her wherever she goes.
I can accept that.
There are worse fates than that.