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“Meltdown in the ER”

My wife hid her panic attacks and clinical depression from me, and my own ADHD challenges got in the way of “finding” them.

“Do you have your wife’s ID?”

I stare dumfounded at the RN standing behind the Emergency Room nurses’ station. She waits, gives me an encouraging smile

“Oh, no. No, I forgot her purse at home, I think. Wait, no, the paramedics must have it. That’s it, I’m sure they have it.”

“They say they don’t, but that’s all right. I just need some basic information for now. Has your wife been to this hospital before?”

I don’t hear her. I’ve got my wallet open on the counter between us pulling out cards, money, and paper, none of which has any use or information I need. I’m stuck on Margaret’s missing purse. Think, I can’t think. I’m so godawful stupid. Stupid and dense and stupid. I look up, finally registering her last question.

“What? No. First time. Wait a minute, I’m wrong, maybe she has been here. Last year? I don’t know. We thought it was a heart thing then, does that help?”

“No, but that’s OK, I can find out. What’s her birthday?”

“Uh, June, no July, no June, that’s the sixth month right?”

“That’s right, sir.”

The ER nurse is being patient, kind, trained in how to handle stressed family members who can’t keep it together in an emergency, which throws me into a rage. I’m not like that, I can handle things damn it. I can just see the role playing training she went through with some pre-med jerk named Tag who she was hot on who acts loony so she could pat his hand and give him a hug. Only Tag was never into her because she was so damn condescending that he married her roommate Celine, and they’ve got a glass house in the Palisades with three kids in private school and she alone lives in some dumpy converted garage in South Pasadena that her aunt rents her.

“Sir? Your wife’s birthday? Or maybe her social security number?” The nurse smiles, she’s trying to help me.

Asking for more numbers I can’t find in my head doesn’t help me — what’s her name tag? Phyllis Grant, RN. It doesn’t help, Phyllis. My mind is spinning and frozen solid simultaneously at “No wonder Celine and Tag never call you, Phyllis. You’re always on their case, wanting answers, answers, answers…”

“Her social?”

“If you don’t have her birthday, I could use that to pull up her records if she’s been here before and the doctors will be able to better understand what’s going on with your wife and give her better care,” she says

I know, Phyllis. I’m not an idiot. Well, obviously I am. Flash of dizziness, I grab the counter, take a breath. A number drops out of the sky.

“1956, her birthday,” I blurt out. She was born in July 1956. I think that’s right. No, I know it is. July 1956.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I need the full date,” Phyllis says. Her smile is wearing thin. “The day in July.”

“Sure, sure,” I say, and I grit my teeth, dig in, and push my broken, frozen, spinning synapses down inside to find and pull out the one day of the month that I always remember every year to bring flowers, candy, dinner, trips, books, a Sub-Zero side by side, whatever she desires to my wife, girlfriend, lover, and the only reason life makes any sense at all. But all I can find is Tag and Celine in their glass house in the Palisades making cruel jokes about Phyllis having to deal with me as they have a dinner of blackened tuna and snow peas with a Napa white zinfandel.

“Stop it! You’re not real!” Uh, oh, I just yelled that out loud.

I must now look dangerously deranged. But because God sometimes hands out a miracle for his own amusement, before anyone can call security, Lettie, a family friend who stayed at home with our kids, comes rushing in with the two of them in their pajamas—and Margaret’s purse. She takes over with a relieved Phyllis, and I sit down and hold my worried kids close. I don’t need a brain for that.

This was nearly 20 years ago. I was in my late forties, seemingly a successful adult male with some degree of sense, and I’d just spent 20 minutes in a Pasadena hospital at the nurses’ station stunned and mumbling as I blindly spun down a hyperfocus rabbit hole, focused solely on my failure to find any date, number, or name that can help my trembling, sweating wife as she was wheeled past me and disappeared behind the gray curtain of an ER treatment room. Looking back on it now, I think I was so focused on my own failure and shortcomings that I made up some people to take the blame off me.

I’d been tangled up with my disorderly brain since I was a toddler, and, starting in my teens, had poured my confused heart out to my share of psychologists, psychiatrists, couple and family therapists, and non-medical folks from priests to psychics. Finally, though, I’d been diagnosed with ADHD and Hypomania and a bunch of other comorbid junk for maybe a month and a half before this ER visit, and had begun treatment. But partly because I thought my new meds would fix it all for me, I still hadn’t started the work to understand how my unorthodox brain wiring and my emotional unpredictability connected, or what triggers to look for and get ahead of, and not the faintest idea how to get some control of my responses to unexpected events barging in from the outside world.

So, I was relieved that with this ER visit we discovered Margaret didn’t have anything wrong with her heart. We also discovered that she’d been having panic attacks of increasing intensity, length, and frequency for months. She was prescribed anti-anxiety meds and also referred to a psychiatrist where she started SSRI meds for her clinical depression, which, as it turns out, runs through her family.

She’d hid all of this from herself and us the best she could with a steel-plated cover of energetic super competency, self-depreciating humor, compulsive shopping, earlier and earlier bedtimes, and sporadic naps. But she didn’t have to work too hard for me not to notice. In our house the structure had a gorgeous simplicity: Margaret was the sane, responsible one in charge. I was the nut, with all the privileges of self-absorption and irresponsibility that come with the designation.

You’d think that the serious nature of Margaret’s diagnoses and the discovery of the lengths she took to hide her symptoms from me and the kids might have spurred me into an awakening – a realization that even though I obviously had some mental issues, disorders, whatever, those concerns and whether or how well I was dealing with them, didn’t always come first. And when I let them get in the way of seeing and understanding with any depth what the love of my life and best friend had been and was still going through, my problems didn’t matter at all.

But, no, that realization and the full understanding of what it meant took a lot of work and long time to show up.

In the meantime, the show I was on got canceled. But I got another job, a show in Hawaii. We decided to go all in: sold the house, packed up the kids and moved to paradise. Once we got there, we’d all be fine. I was sure of it. But, what did I know? I was still the nut.

Next post: The show in Hawaii is canceled after one year, but Margaret says screw it, let’s stay – so we do. No money, but we work hard for ourselves, and for others, our kids grow and thrive in Hawaii, and the people and culture help the two of us heal and grow together, and begin to get a little better at being human. Then, after 10 years, we get the call from family back home.

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