A word of caution to readers: This post deals with suicidal ideation and impulses to self harm.
When I was just three years old, a teenage boy from up the block grabbed me out from the driveway of our duplex and held a switchblade knife to my throat. His identity, his motivations and his current fate are unknown to me. He held me just long enough to let go before my panicked older sister could return with my bemused and skeptical father. My parents didn’t believe that it happened and for years that memory remained mostly buried but it never quite left me. I knew the feeling of cold, sharp steele, below my chin and any time I felt panic or fear I held it up against that seminar memory. For more than 30 years this incidental memory just hung out in the background, I thought I might have made it up in my prolific youthful imagination but my older sister remembers it exactly the same.
If you’re anything like me, dear readers, you spend a good portion of your mental and emotional energy contemplating the small decisions that add up to your path in life. Purchases, conversations, personal gestures, appointments, trips, and activities clog the mind competing for evaluation. We make choices on all of these things every day hoping to cobble together a meaningful, ethical, fulfilling existence yet our present condition is governed as much by the law of unintended consequences as anything else. Life offers us few moments in life where the time, necessity and weight of a decision is abundantly clear. Those moments are gifts. I call them wake up calls. This is how I got mine:
I married-myself a nice guy from a middle class family, at the tender, idealistic age of twenty. At the time, I felt like I was flying in the face of the notions that my peers had about life and relationships. As far as I knew, I had found something that made me happy and I wasn’t going to let it pass me by just because of some presumed rule book about how old I was supposed to be or how long I should date.
For years, from the outside and even from the inside, my marriage looked like a successful partnership. We both finished college, we started careers, bought a house, had a baby all in good careful succession. Sure I had things that I wasn’t happy about but relationships are all about compromise right? Sometimes he spent money in ways I didn’t agree with but it wasn’t like he was out gambling. Yeah, all my vacation time and money was spent on activities with his family, who blatantly disrespected me but we lived near my family. Okay, so what if made me feel like my family was second class and that they didn’t deserve respect? And well yeah, maybe, I didn’t trust him with my sexual needs because he shamed me about my body during sex early in our relationship. I mean he made fun of my night terrors, and treated my anxiety like it was an inconvenience but it really was silly right? My ex-husband was a nice guy, he never ever yelled at anybody, and he said I was his equal, he had a job (most of the time). He took the garbage out (when I asked him to). He walked the dog (for a week after I gave birth). I was a broken neurotic person, from a dysfunctional family and he was normal I didn’t really deserve him in the first place.
My ex-husband is a charming and socially affable man, he makes friends easily. I on the other hand, am socially anxious and occasionally outlandishly blunt. People viewed him as being charitable and patient with me. He was a nice guy. I was a handful. I accepted that narrative and willfully ignored all the little things. I supported his plethora of hobbies, schemes and dreams as I waited for my turn. I fed his constant unending need for praise while I subsisted off of crumbs of reluctant approval and cooperation.
For fifteen years I lived with a man who treated my emotional needs like they were secondary and I accepted it as normal. Like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot I seeped in a slowly warming stew and paid no attention to the rising temperature. In order to live with i, I had pretty much completely cut myself off from my ability to feel my emotions, I was proudly numb. I wore my ability to endure indignity and call it compromise as a badge of pride. But then something happened. The temperature abruptly ticked up and I started to feel the heat.
When our marriage hit the rocks, he was the one veering us off the charts. He started behaving erratically and betrayed my trust, by violating explicitly agreed upon boundaries. In the course of a few weeks, he went from saying he was depressed to talking about leaving me. He refused to go to therapy. He refused to make changes to his behavior but said he still wanted to maintain our life and our home together. I couldn’t see that all he was really conflicted about was how to get out and take as much as he could with him on the way.
During this time, I started struggling with thoughts of self harm and suicide. The health professionals I talked to asked me to commit to going to the hospital if I had any urges to self harm. I tried literally begging my ex to come to counseling with me. I literally groveled begging him to tell me what I could change to fix things. My thoughts about hurting myself came from a very dark place in which I saw myself as the source of my partner’s unhappiness.
One night things came to a head. We were cleaning up dinner, (ok I was cleaning up dinner while he glowered over me from the other side of the kitchen counter). Our daughter was upstairs and we were having one of our circular arguments. In that moment, in the middle of the argument, I looked at the kitchen knife block and had a very strong suicidal ideation. I formed the intent to use that knife to hurt myself after my daughter’s bedtime. I had formed plan. Somehow the guard rails were still on in my head. I felt the pulse that was the thirty year old memory of a blade at my throat.This was a life threatening situation, but this time my own hand was reaching for the blade. I remembered that this wasn’t good and I was supposed to ask for help. I did as my therapist and doctor had asked me to do.
I looked at my spouse and in a measured, serious tone, a tone I had used before to in real life and death matters, “I am having suicidal thoughts and urges to hurt myself. I need you to take me to an emergency room.” For background, I had never made this kind of request before, I had struggled with depression and anxiety and sought care on my own. I had no history of destructive attention seeking behavior, rather I had a history of deferring self care.
He balked and by balked I mean he made the sound “BALK” “You’re just manipulating me for attention.”
In that second the world cracked open. I was awake. Suddenly I saw clearly. This person cared more about his pride than my physical well being. I didn’t have to un-be to solve this situation. I wasn’t the problem. He was the problem.
The next thing I said to him was, “You need to leave right now,” and that was the moment I divorced from him, in my mind.
When he left the house, to sleep at a friend’s place, that night I felt like a gigantic weight was lifted from me. The darkness that had been engulfing me that night abated. I went through tremendous grief and angst in the oncoming month and battle, but I knew one thing was right, I could not go on living with that man. I was done with him. I had woken up. I hear about messy divorces that have back and forth efforts at reconciliation there was zero doubt in my mind my relationship was over because I woke up.
When it comes to the ways of love we all have to make our own mistakes and learn our own lessons. But as I look back, I know that one of the things that lulled me to sleep was the ridiculously low standard of expectation I had developed for the men in my life. The role models I had for fatherhood and marriage were scoundrels, drunks, and child abusers. I had uncles who terrorized my cousins and aunts, and a drunken and absent father and grandfather’s who’s sins I will not list. The women in my family treated me like I had truly won some sort of lottery for finding myself a man who didn’t do these things.
The bar we have set for middle class white men to be considered good husband’s and family men is ridiculously low. Have job, do a few chores and refrain from hitting anybody and you’re considered an A+ catch. We let them say they are babysitting their own kids and throw a parade when they do chores. We expect their wives to organize their social lives, set up a perfect facebook and instagram image of the family, and keep everything in order. They help with the just some of the big chores around the house but in the end they are helping and aren’t they precious for it?
Stumpers if you are living with a relationship where you are made to count yourself as blessed just on account of the absence of blatant abuse, I hope you don’t have to come as close as I did to true peril before your wake-up call comes. Taking out the trash and watching the baby twice a week so you can go to the gym does not a hero make. It can be better and you do deserve more.