Damn it. You know when your other half does something to completely ruin the mood? When you’ve got yourself into the right head-space, prepared the music, had a drink, and then they say or do something that completely ruins it all?
Well, I had my laptop, my hot chocolate, some sad music and I was all ready to write a serious blog post about the descent I’ve taken into negative thought patterns, only two days into the therapy break. And then my husband suggested we play a new card game he’d bought, called ‘Exploding Kittens’ (no actual kittens exploded or were in any way harmed during the making or playing of the game). ‘Exploding Kittens’ has two versions – ‘the original’ and the ‘Not Suitable For Work’ version, intriguingly sub-titled ‘for people who are into kittens, and explosions, and boob wizards, and sometimes butts‘. Obviously, I chose the latter version. And thus my plans for the evening went to pot.
A year ago, I probably would have said that I didn’t feel like playing a game, and that I needed to write a blog post and then go to bed. More than a year ago, he probably wouldn’t even have made the suggestion. We had reached a point where he in essence he told me he’d given up on me. He would stay with me, but felt that the only way to ‘survive’ the situation and to be ensure he could still be strong for the children if I was hospitalised (or worse), was to withdraw and pretend as though he didn’t care. Anything else was too painful, too risky and simply not worth the effort as nothing he tried seemed to work and everything he did seemed to backfire. At that point, we were both in ‘defense mode’ – too afraid of being hurt by the other, to risk any sort of effort or vulnerability.
He had warned me, repeatedly, that he would reach that point. I wish I could say it was the first time I didn’t heed a warning until it was too late. I wish I could say it was the first time I pushed at a boundary to see whether it would hold, or what it would take to break. I wish I could say it was the first time I had ‘tested’ someone’s love for me. Like God, I wanted him to be there when this was all over – irrespective of what I (consciously or unconsciously) put him through in the meantime. But somewhere along the line I forgot that he was only human. That I may have married him partly for his strength, but his strength was limited, not limitless. Although I would never ever have said that I expected him to be perfect, I think, looking back, that I expected him to be perfectly there for me. And although I never realised it at the time, I think being ‘perfectly there for me’ included an expectation that he wouldn’t get angry, or call me names, or be unkind, or shout, or run out of patience, or any of the other myriad things that human beings do when they are under a great deal of strain, are hurting and have reached the end of their tether.
I had never really talked to anyone about my mental health difficulties or really opened up about my deepest fears or most intense emotions. And so when my mental health started to deteriorate significantly after the enormous life change of having children, I didn’t talk about it. I started therapy – but I never discussed with him, any of the things I talked about there. My past ‘coping’ strategies of intense and obsessive relationships kicked in (in the guise of a close friend, and then a therapist, both completely ‘unavailable’). And I picked up a new coping strategy – self harm – of which he is still completely unaware.
Things went from bad to worse. The ‘smallest’ or ‘most ordinary’ things would trigger me, and every conversation would consist of him trying to get me to talk and me feeling under attack and trying desperately to close myself off from pain and being completely unable to bear the thought of being vulnerable or of not feeling accepted. I know that to him, the silence felt like anger, or as if I didn’t care. Instead, the silence was simply self-protection and trying to keep myself together. As these ‘arguments’ started to happen more and more often, my silences started to become filled with thoughts of self-destruction and self-annihilation, which were more and more easily triggered.
Eventually, lack of communication and walking along a knife-edge were too much, and the reality that he had warned me of so many times, actually came to pass. And of course, as soon as it did, the familiar sense of panic and wanting to pull back from that self-destructive brink, took hold. Now I needed to fix it – to recover the situation which seemed irrecoverable. But by this stage we were entrenched in a number of vicious circles. He thought there was nothing he could do to ‘fix’ me – true, but this was not the same as there being nothing he could do to help me; and neither was it the same as his actions and words not having an impact on me, both of which he seemed to believe. He didn’t seem to believe in the possibility of recovery – which meant that other than having the support of my therapist, I felt I was facing my battles very much on my own. My inability to deal with conflict, to get angry, to ‘get over’ an argument quickly – all also meant that we continued to be stuck in a pattern of my distressed and prolonged silences coming across as annoyance or lack of caring.
Though not normally a good sign (!), I see it as part of the progress I have made in therapy, that I now occasionally swear at my husband during an argument! Expressing anger, even if in a not-entirely-helpful way, and trying to put my view across rather than withdrawing into silence, is, I think, an important step. I have also, over the last few months, opened up about a few very personal things, in an attempt to be at least a little vulnerable, and to make a greater effort to communicate. I told him a little about how I’d felt about Jane, my ex-therapist; I have told him that when I’m steeped in silence after an argument it’s because I’m feeling suicidal; I have mentioned how difficult and upsetting I find my current therapy breaks.
But I still have a tendency to expect a ‘perfect’ response to my attempts at vulnerability and communication. And if I don’t get it, it makes it that much harder to try and open up again. I still feel completely at the mercy of other people’s responses to me, in terms of determining how I feel about myself. My husband is not naturally gifted (who is?) at knowing how to react to someone with depression, or someone struggling with rock-bottom self-esteem or suicidal thoughts. He might bear the responsibility for that, but I also need to try and bear responsibility for helping him to understand, and for working on not letting his reactions affect me so much. My therapist is trying to help me reach a place where his responses don’t immediately send me into a incredibly negative downward spiral of feelings of worthlessness and wanting to die. It’s a combination of trying to help me to see where his own reactions might be coming from – a place within himself and his own past – and trying to build up my own sense of self-acceptance and self-validation. It’s very very hard, and even if I can make progress on the former, the latter seems at present, a bit of a pipe dream.
And I still haven’t felt ‘safe’ enough to try and explain to him that my reactions to him also come from my past. That when he triggers me, I suddenly become not a wife reacting to her husband, but a child or teenager reacting to her parents. And so my responses are often not directly about him either. My therapist thinks he ‘sees me’ often as a sibling; I know I ‘see him’ often as a parent. But interestingly, we have both observed that when he is brutally honest with me about how all of this is affecting him and how he feels about it, things improve between us, at least for a little while. I know that he puts that down to me feeling guilty. But I haven’t been able to explain that any change is not motivated by guilt on my part, but by suddenly seeing him as him – a partner, not a parent, a vulnerable human being whom I love and who is hurting.
There has been definite (if painfully slow) movement, over the last few months, though I’m still struggling to accept our separateness and our difference, without letting that impact on my sense of myself. A couple of months ago he came home from a short business trip and said he had missed me. To me, that was a very significant statement, which gave me a little glimmer of hope for the future. And yet, having had that glimmer of hope, I had to ‘defend it’ against my husband’s view that he didn’t see why his had been a significant statement – that it hadn’t been so for him. Somehow I had to try and let our separate views be our separate views, and not allow the way he saw that moment, to destroy everything I had received from it. He places far more value on actions than on words; whereas I place great store by what is said, and I remember it.
Part of our separateness lies in the things that we enjoy. I have been trying to prioritise spending more time with him, and I’ve been counting the time spent watching films or TV programmes together on a Friday night, as ‘quality time’. However, it seems that that does not really satisfy his desire for communication and interaction, and it was difficult accepting that my ‘efforts’ didn’t necessarily have the impact I had thought they had.
But we can both, it seems, appreciate the comic-strip humour of ‘Exploding Kittens’. It’s a fast and fun game – death by exploding kitten is inevitable, for all but the eventual winner. You never know when you’re going to draw an exploding kitten – sometimes you will have a card that enables you to see three steps into the future and ‘fend off’ the attack by a quick reshuffle of the deck; sometimes you will be able to ‘skip’ the explosion; sometimes you will be able to defuse it using various means (including ‘incarceration’ in a cat box – no comment). But sometimes the damn kitten will explode and you’ll be f***ed and it will have ruined a perfectly good and gloomy blog post.
Another day, another exploding kitten, as they say. There will be time – plenty of time – for that blog post on the pain of the therapy break. For now, I’ve gained a little light relief from battles – both domestic and internal. And that’s a vital step in surviving the next six weeks without my therapist – and the next six weeks, months, years (or, very optimistically, decades!) with the man I married.