It’s been hard lately — everything, all of it. Is that true for you too? Things are challenging out there in the world, and they’re hard at home.
My sweet crazy uncle died a few weeks ago, victim of his demons, his lifelong grief, and his more recent grief at losing his sister — my mother — last summer. I’m getting uncomfortably good at writing family obituaries: item number one on the list of “skills you never wanted”.
My husband and I flew to Los Angeles for my uncle’s funeral last weekend, and to deal with the absolute mess he left behind. It was truly awful, and heartbreaking.
Things had been stressful already around here. The dishwasher broke, then my husband’s computer died; and that was before we got our horrifying tax bill. My shoulder was already bothering me before the trip — I’d tried to see a doctor for it, but all the providers in our little rural clinic were out sick with the awful flu that’s been going around.
So I ended up in Urgent Care in LA the morning of the funeral, in tears from the pain, begging for any kind of relief. I was given opioids and steroids, and that got me through the weekend, more or less. We took the ferry out to the emergency room on the mainland the day after we got home, and added muscle relaxants and lidocaine patches to my pile of drugs.
The diagnosis? “Radiculopathy.” Pronounced “ridiculopathy,” and that perfectly describes it. It’s a pinched nerve in my neck, radiating pain down through my shoulder and arm, making half my hand numb.
Every provider I saw asked, “Did you fall? Have a car accident, some other injury? Twist it wrong? Anything?” No, no, no, and no.
“Have you been under any stress lately?”
My husband has been a saint through this. He rubs my sore muscles for hours on end and puts on the lidocaine patches where I can’t reach; he’s been driving me everywhere because the meds make me loopy; he’s patiently enduring my freak-outs about the money, about my numb fingers, about the drama around my uncle.
But human beings are not saints, and he’s not getting his own work done, as a result of all of this. He’s also navigating his own set of cascading crises, demands from others, and things falling apart (well above and beyond the dead computer).
It became a perfect storm of too much.
The other night, when he’d struggled all day to make just a tiny bit of progress on something that should have been easy but was proving impossible, he came downstairs in a foul mood. Stomping around and banging dishes and muttering angrily.
I’m no good with anger. If I’m forced to face it, I cry. I’d much rather run away. So I went upstairs and shut myself in the bedroom. Which made him feel like a monster, and like he wasn’t even allowed to have feelings, much less express them.
We weren’t upset or mad at each other. We’re in this together, after all — us against the world, it can sometimes feel like. Yet we were the only ones here, the only ones to see and hear each other. I’m the only audience for his anger; he’s my only audience for my pain and panic and anxiety.
We’re both so frustrated, so exhausted, so overwhelmed.
We got through that evening; had dinner and went to sleep early. And the next morning, we sat in front of the fire with our mugs of coffee and talked about it.
And listened to each other.
Until he met me, ten years ago, my husband had lived largely alone. When he got angry, he could stomp and swear and bang around his apartment until the steam had all been released, and nobody was any the wiser. And once the emotional storm had passed through, he felt better. Bottling it up would only make the eventual eruption worse, so he would let it out when it needed to be released.
When we were first dating, of course it was all delight and bliss at the outset, but then there came a time when he got angry. He raised his voice. I cringed, and cried. He got alarmed, and felt awful, but also confused; he wasn’t mad at me, he was mad at that other driver (who was, it is true, a complete asswipe); why was I so upset?
It took us some time, and a few more episodes, to work this through. To learn what was going on in each of us, and how each of our reactions — my fear, his anger — were normal. Not deal-breakers, not game-enders. We figured out that he had learned early in life to stuff his emotions, and that he had suppressed them so hard as a child that he actually had to learn — in his twenties and thirties — to feel the anger, and then how to express it.
And that I, early in life, had also learned that my feelings were not okay, not allowed. But I took a different path. I learned to display vulnerability, to cry and hide and go silent. Don’t hurt me, my crying says. I’m sorry. I’ll be good.
If I have anger, it’s buried so deep, I may never find it.
Emotions are messy and uncomfortable. Anger clearly doesn’t feel good; my husband does not enjoy getting pushed to that place where he cannot help but stomp and swear. I hate the stymied, frustrated place that gets me crying; I feel helpless and fraudulent, like a child pretending to be an intelligent, accomplished woman, suddenly fooling nobody.
But the thing is: it’s all okay.
It’s okay to get mad and bang dishes around. It’s okay to cry and run away to the bedroom. It’s sometimes necessary, in fact.
In my previous marriage, the trophy wife marriage, none of this was okay. My ex and I had built this perfect, gorgeous, flawless-looking life, and anything messy or uncomfortable just couldn’t happen. We could never speak of his depression, or my insecurities, or his financial anxiety, or my frustrated ambition. Yet they were all there. When he was unhappy — about anything, whether it had to do with me or not — he could not say a word about it. “I’m fine.” “It’s nothing.” I was left feeling attacked and blamed, skulking around the edges of his simmering silent misery, even though I know he did not mean to do that.
It was this awful, soul-crushing code of silence. That marriage ended for a lot of reasons, but I think they all boiled down to one thing: we couldn’t truly talk to one another. We just didn’t know how.
Here, in front of the fire the other morning, my husband and I did. We talked. We talked about all the stressors going on — in the world, with our loved ones, and in our lives here — and how overwhelmed we both feel. We told each other how much we love each other.
But the most important thing we said to each other is that it’s okay to have those emotions — and that it’s okay to react to them, in turn, with our own emotions. He feels bad that his anger sends me fleeing. Well, yep, I don’t like it much either; but it would be even worse if I felt I had to stay and face it, or pretend like it’s not happening. (And I know from sad experience that I would feel just as awful if he tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.) I am never going to smile and shrug, or just not notice when he’s angry; but that doesn’t mean he’s breaking something when it happens.
It’s weather. It’s a storm, blowing through. It will pass, and we will dry off, and pick ourselves up and move forward again.
So how do we stay kind to each other — in a marriage, in our lives?
We keep talking.
We allow the sad and the hard and the messy to exist. We don’t have to love them, or welcome them; but we make room for them when they show up.
Because they will. Times will be hard. The dishwasher will break and the computer will die and the asswipe will cut you off and take the last parking spot and scream at you in the bargain. And there will be nothing you can do but let your emotions out — where they will get all over those closest to you. Your nearest and dearest.
A marriage is made up of the glorious and the joyful and the fun, and the hard and the scary and the ugly. It’s right there in the vows: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health…” We’re all flawed human beings, doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Making mistakes. Falling over and picking ourselves back up again; lending each other a hand up. Rubbing each other’s shoulders. (Okay, that one pretty much goes only one way…I’m a lucky woman.)
We don’t just love each other; we like each other. We are interested in each other, in what makes us tick. In why we are who we are. Even ten years into our acquaintance, I feel like I learn new things about him every time we have one of those conversations like the one before the fire the other morning.
As long as we can keep talking to one another, and keep listening to one another, I know we’re going to be all right.