About a week ago or so I got an email from someone who had watched “Born Schizophrenic: Jani’s Next Chapter,” asking me how Susan and I have kept our marriage together.
It’s another question that defies a quick answer.
More recently, we got an email from a producer of VHI’s “Couples Therapy.” I’ve never seen the show but it seems be along the line of Dr. Drew’s “Celebrity Rehab,” except without the celebrities. I was told that the show takes real couples and sequesters them away like a jury and provides therapy in an attempt to “strengthen their relationship.” This producer had seen us on Oprah years ago and was “impressed with our ability to stay together as a couple through such difficult circumstances.” She would like us to come on and do a segment on “enduring love.”
We’re not going to do it. Putting aside that I am not going to risk destabilizing Jani by taking a day to appear on a reality show, I really wouldn’t know what to tell these couples.
What is “enduring love” anyway?
It’s an interesting choice of words. What springs to mind when you read “enduring love?” Roses? Romantic dinners? Still making out like teenagers every chance you get? 25th wedding anniversary? Growing old together?
Probably. Even though the root word of “enduring” is “endure.” What springs to mind when I say the word “endure?” Pain? Suffering? Pushing your physical or psychological limits?
We do not “endure” something pleasurable. We “endure” something we would rather not experience.
So put that together with “love” and you get “a love you would rather not experience,” a love that will cause you pain, suffering, and test your limits.
Well, that doesn’t sound very romantic, does it?
But you want to know how to keep a marriage together under “difficult circumstances” so I well tell you.
The easiest answer is the age old axiom observed by every generation before the Baby Boomers: Stay Together For the Kids.
Except that alone won’t work. Because kids aren’t stupid. I saw my parents’ marriage disintegrating years before they realized it. When it finally happened when I was thirteen, it was almost a relief. Having your parents lead separate lives in the same house is no different emotionally than having them live separate lives apart. You just don’t have to shuttle between houses. My father couldn’t handle my mother’s journey to where-ever she was going. My mother couldn’t handle living what my Dad reasonably saw as a pretty good life.
I’m not saying that staying together for the kids isn’t noble. It is. It just won’t work. And it won’t be any easier on your kids when you split when they are 23 than when they are 13.
Right now I am reading the pass pages (or “proofs”) for the Australian version of January First to make sure they are correct. I had to read the book over and over again for the US version. Now I have to do the same thing for the Australian version. At least I get spared having to do this in foreign territories where the book is being translated.
Because I hate reading it.
Not because it isn’t good. I hate reading it because every time I read it I have to relive it. Sure it’s nice to remember how far Jani and our family has come when I am finished but that doesn’t help when I am on page 108 and I just left Jani at her first hospitalization all over again. It’s like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Every time I read the book I get pulled back in time and have to relive the worst moments of my life, I have to relive watching Jani suffer. I have to relive the feelings of powerlessness and despair, exacerbated by the fact that the book is written in the present tense. I read it, and you will to, as it is happening. Right now.
The moments with Jani are so intense that it is easy to miss the growing resentment and anger I feel toward Susan though the story, unless you have to read it multiple times like I have. Almost from the beginning, though, it is there: a bubbling hostility toward my wife that keeps building. Although it might first appear that Jani is the cause of this hostility toward Susan, she is not. She is actually the distraction. Throughout the book, I keep having to push it down, keep it under control, because my main focus has to be on figuring out what is going on with Jani and getting her the help she needs.
It is this hostility that eventually contributes to what I do in the penultimate chapter, which, of course, I can’t give away.
However, it gives nothing away that I grew to hate Susan.
Yet we are still together and our marriage is stronger now than it was then.
How is this possible?
Because at the end of the book I do something that showed me it wasn’t really Susan I hated.
It was me.
Whatever the surface cause of the dissolution of a marriage may be, it always boils down to a single emotion:
I CANNOT CONTROL THIS.
“This” is a person. This person could be the person you are in a relationship with. Or it could be your schizophrenic daughter. Or your bipolar son. Or your severely depressed wife. It could be a child or spouse with a chronic and severe illness that will forever alter your life.
You can’t control them.
And I don’t mean “control” in the sense of making them do what you want them to do. If you are looking for a slave for a significant other then you have bigger problems than I can help you with. Go on “Couples Therapy.”
“Control” does not mean making someone do as you wish. It means the feeling that you are in control of your OWN life. It means confidence that you can solve any problem that comes along. And what kills marriages is when something comes along that you can’t fix, that you can’t solve. And if you can’t solve the problem, then it is out of your control.
You become a bystander in your own life.
To not feel in control goes against every fiber of our being. All animals seek to control their environment in some manner because that is how we derive a feeling of security, one of the base desires of animal life (assuming you have a central nervous system). So unless you are a jellyfish, when you are not in control of your environment you panic. And you try to grab on to something that you can control.
This usually leads to engaging in some sort of risky behavior: drinking, drugs, sex. You can’t control your environment so you default to what you can control, which is your own body. Essentially, you are trying to escape your life. You justify this as “trying to forget” but what you are really doing is trying to switch out your current existence for another.
And it won’t work. I didn’t turn to drinking or drugs (partly because I’d already been through that in my teens and party, honestly, because it gave me a false sense of moral superiority). I didn’t go get a prostitute either because a few minutes of paid sex is not swapping out your life for another.
No, I went after another woman. A co-worker.
In my irrational state, I thought she was everything Susan was not. Strong. Determined. Fearless. The fact that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about my children completely went past me.
I was in pain and I was looking for her to relieve the pain. Susan couldn’t relieve the pain because she was in pain as well. She turned inward. I turned out.
This occurred in the summer of 2008. It was included in the original draft of the book but was cut because it dealt more with me than with Jani.
No, I didn’t sleep with this woman, although I had every intention of doing so. I was fully prepared to throw away my marriage. It’s not like Susan was helping Jani. Susan was an emotional trainwreck. Jani needed a strong woman in her life.
Yes, that is what I actually believed at that time.
So what happened? There is another old axiom: Where-ever you go, there you are.
In other words, no matter where you go, you are still the same person.
And I was still in pain. I was still powerless to fix Jani. I had no control over my environment.
What was fun validation from a younger man for her was me desperately trying to keep my head above the ocean of despair and pain that, if I let myself feel it, I feared it would destroy me.
And as I was drowning, I tried to grab onto her. And she pulled away. And I broke down into a sniveling mess in the CSUN parking lot.
That was not my last attempt to escape, although it was the last to involve potential infidelity.
There would be one more, and that one is in the book, at the very end.
They say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Except what do you do when the problem is permanent?
I am here writing this, still alive, still married to Susan, still Jani and Bodhi’s dad, for the simple fact that eventually I got it through my thick skull that there was no escape.
I had to “endure.”
Because what was destroying me was not Jani’s illness. It was my inability to “fix it.” It was my feeling of powerlessness in the face of her illness. I could not deal with feeling powerless so I did what everybody does when you feel powerless: I turned on the person closest to me. Everything I hated about Susan was everything I hated about myself. Weakness. Powerlessness. Lack of control. The struggle to keep functioning.
So you want to know how to save your marriage?
Go look in the mirror.
What you hate about your spouse is what you hate about yourself. And what you hate is what you can’t control.
The reason Susan and I are still together is because we understand that the only things we can actually control are ourselves.
For awhile there in the summer of 2008, we literally were just staying together for the kids. Susan felt betrayed, as well she should. We had just spent six months in a foxhole and I tried to get out.
But the war is out there, too.
And for those of you who are wondering what life is like “out there,” the war doesn’t stop just because you leave the battlefield.
When I look back now, I cannot fathom what I saw in my co-worker. Because she has never fought this war. She had no understanding of the place I had been to, nor did she want to go to the places I still had to go.
So I guess, in the end, I have the same answer for both the person who wrote asking how we keep our marriage together and the couples on VH1: I have been to a place that very few people ever go. Even other women with severely mentally ill kids haven’t been to exactly the same place I have.
Only Susan has been to that place. Because she was with me the entire time.
So for those of you who are struggling in your marriages, remember that: The only person who has been where you have been is your partner. No-one else will ever quite “get it.”
That is what “enduring love” means. It doesn’t mean to “endure the love.”
It means to endure life together, whatever it throws at you.
To endure together, to rise together, to fall together, to fight together.
To persevere together.