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Margaret and Me: A Marriage of Messy Minds

The day that my calm-at-the-tiller wife was overtaken by squalls of panic.

Keeping emotions in check saved my marriage. A couple holding hands.
Just married couple holding hands in the cafe and drinking coffee together.

“Its life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.” – Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

“Oh, God! Listen to me, will you? Just for one stupid second try to understand what I’m feeling! I’m… I’m… I don’t know, balled up inside! I can’t say what I mean! I’m scared of myself!” At this point, I’m sobbing, and I can’t catch my breath. I’m dizzy, hyperventilating – good thing I’m in a fetal position on the bedroom floor of Margaret’s and my new duplex apartment in Los Angeles. Don’t want to start off our relationship falling down and breaking furniture. It’s 1984, we’ve just moved in together, and this is Margaret’s first time with one of my fits.

After a short disagreement with her about nothing, I’m having an extreme panic attack (though I didn’t know that then). In my late twenties and early thirties, I let my unacknowledged, untreated mental mess take me over, head to toe, and raise an obscenely monstrous ruckus. That way people who cared about me could appreciate how miserable I was, and do what I wanted, whatever it was, which would make things better, which it never did. In my fits with my two previous wives and multiple previous girlfriends, I rode this hot drama hard, spurring the confusion and self-hatred on until it spewed out at my companion in blaring, tear-filled, chock-full-o-blame chaos. Later, I came to see that all this crap was a futile stab at dodging a 10-ton depression I could feel creeping up behind me on little elephant feet. It would wait. Until, drama done, I was safe, spent, and cozy, then stomp me flat. Hence the many failed relationships.

The pattern of all this had a rhythm. My girlfriend/wife would stay in the mess of the moment with me – argue, reason with me, and sympathize. We’d make up. I’d get flattened, go dark for a week or two. When I pulled out of that, we’d be OK for three or four months, and then that elephant began to creep up behind me again and we’re off into another fit. Always, sooner or later, I was on my own again.

Margaret doesn’t fit the pattern. As I writhe on the bedroom floor, I notice that I’m not hearing any reaction from her. I get my breathing under control and sit up to face her where she had been sitting on the bed. She isn’t there. I look around. She isn’t here at all. I’ve been playing to an empty room. I call her name but no answer. I get up, wipe the snot and tears off my face and, calling her name again, go downstairs to the living room. Margaret’s sitting on the couch, arms crossed, looking straight ahead. I sit down next to her and reach out. She pulls away. I say I’m sorry, I say sometimes I can’t express myself, I get anxious, my feelings take over…. Not a peep from her. She stares at the wall. I shut up. It’s quiet for a long time. Cars drive by outside. A car parks, people get out, walk away chatting. Another car goes by. Another. A dog barks.

After a century of this, she takes a breath, turns her head and looks at me. “You were out of control,” she says. I start in with my emotions are hard to control, that I’ll work on it, and, and…

She holds up her hand. “I need to feel safe, Frank. If I don’t, I can’t stay here. And right now, I don’t feel safe at all.”

Always in the past this was my cue to grab my bag and strut on out like Popeye, leaving with  “I am what I am and that’s all that I am. If you can’t accept that, then too bad.” I’ve always protected myself first. I knew somewhere inside there was a part of me that was not all right, and, that, if exposed, could break the rest of me to pieces. The pattern of my relationships kept me safe. But now for the first time I knew that the safety of the person next to me was more important to me than my own. And I had no idea why until I said it out loud.

“I love you, Margaret,” I said, “And I promise I’ll do anything you need to keep you safe.” She leaned against my shoulder, took my hand.

“No more yelling would be a start,” she said.

We got married the following year, and through our 33 years together, with the help of plenty of couples therapy and individual therapy, especially on my side, I never yelled again. At Margaret, anyway. We had a couple of kids, and when I began to yell at them, we added family therapy, and that yelling stopped, too. We weathered medical, career, and financial disasters and rebirths, buy house, sell house, so what? Baby needs open-heart surgery? Let’s do it. Margaret was calm at the tiller, keeping a weather eye on my moods, with an occasional sharp “Don’t freak out on me, OK?” shot across my bow.

Then both kids and I were all diagnosed with ADHD. I had – for me – a relatively quiet and relatively short breakdown. Margaret was diagnosed as A-OK neurotypical, and the rest of us were put on meds immediately. Margaret was to make sure that we all took them on schedule. But here’s the thing, I knew we were all going to be all right because Margaret’s big-hearted and tough. And she’s got a clear reality-based vision of life and a weird, edgy sense of humor to prove it.

A couple of months later, everything seems to be working well—calm waters, clear sky. And Margaret had the first of three completely quiet, completely incapacitating severe panic attacks that brought EMTs to our house, hospital stays for her, and a rude awakening for me.

Next: A big steep learning curve for everyone. And someone keeps flying off the edge.

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