Layers and Layers

“There are layers and layers of being left,” she said to me on the phone. I heaved a ragged sigh. A low moan escaped and cascaded down out of my mouth, down my body. Then another. So much sorrow. So much grief. I realized that what I was feeling had to do with my fears for my husband, yes, but deeper than that, the aching hole left by my father’s death. He, after all, is the one who has left forever.

My husband has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It was self-diagnosed years ago, thanks to Internet research, and his family doctor prescribed Lexapro. That was just a few weeks before we started dating. Before that, he had thoughts of suicide. In previous relationships, the anxiety haunted him. He once threw up at the dinner table, and his girlfriend had to apologize for the mess. His particular version is an obsessive thought loop that usually goes something like this: “I should love this person. Do I love this person? Sometimes she annoys me. Does that mean I don’t love her?” Then his brain tries desperately to prove to himself that his feelings are real, and valid. But the overactive hypothalamus keeps telling him something is wrong. Unless he’s taking the meds.

When our son, Jack, was born, the thought loop was about loving the baby. I had had a Caesarian section, and Brian was the primary baby carrier for the first couple of days. Those two days in the hospital, he barely slept. He ate Slim Jims and sugared orange slices. He suffered from nausea so strong that he dry heaved several times a day. Brian had gone off his meds, thinking he was OK and didn’t need them. He discovered in those first few days of our son’s life that he did, indeed, need them.

This year, something different happened. The meds didn’t help. The new set of meds didn’t help, either. The panic set in, clenching his stomach. Terrified one afternoon, Brian began to sob. It scared the baby, who cried. Which made Brian cry more, because he realized that he was frightening his own son. Jack howled, reaching for me, trying to escape his father’s arms. We called everyone we knew and begged for someone to watch Jack while I took Brian to Urgent Care. It was Labor Day weekend. Everyone was busy. We finally called a friend who was able to come, but by then it was after eight, and all of the urgent care facilities were closed. We drove to the hospital emergency room. The lady at the front desk told us that if she got us on the “fast track” line, it would still be two to three hours before we could see a doctor. And it was an emergency room: busy, hectic, loud. It made us both more anxious to stay than to leave. So we left.

On the drive home, Brian apologized. “I am so sorry,” he said, over and over again. I tried to reassure him. “I’m sorry, too, honey. This isn’t your fault. You don’t deserve this. It’s not fair.” I almost added, “It’s not like with my dad, who was an alcoholic, who chose to drink.” But I stopped short. My father was an alcoholic. Yes, at some point, he made a choice to drink. But once he started, I’m not so sure he had much control over what happened to him. It shed a new light on the man I thought I knew.

I’ve derived a lot of energy from being angry with my father, for resenting him for his weakness, his dependence on alcohol. I swore to myself that I would never marry an addict. I would never live that way again. I had firmly decided not to be my mother: codependent and apologetic. I’ve seen that story before. I know how it ends. I’m not interested in seeing the sequel.

So, instead, I fell in love with a man with a disabling anxiety, a condition that makes him as absent and unavailable to me as my father was for my whole life. The distinction I have been making is that Brian suffers from a physical malady, a disorder that requires medication. But according to the research, alcoholism is also a physical condition, resulting from a combination of genetic, environmental, and constitutional factors.

My father did quit drinking, once. I was a sophomore in high school, and he got a DUI ticket on the way home from a bar. He was court-ordered to six months of Alcoholics Anonymous, which my mother attended with him. He was embarrassed and ashamed of himself. And he also saw people at those meetings who were much less functional than he was. I’m sure he told himself, “Well, I’m stronger than those people.” And he was, for four years. He quit drinking, cold turkey. He did his time at AA and then stopped going to the meetings. He served alcohol to guests at parties, but as far as I knew, he didn’t drink again.

Until my sophomore year of college, when his mother had a heart attack, then a fall, then a series of small but debilitating strokes and other setbacks, which ended up making her bedridden for the next five years, until her death. When Grandma got sick again, so did Dad. And he continued to drink heavily until the week he died. (He told the Hospice nurse that he usually had between six and eight drinks every night.)

All this time, I believed it was his choice to leave me, to ignore my mother, to spend every night at a bar or the Elks lodge. But as I watch my husband, as I see his tortured face and hear his apologies, I wonder about choice. I wonder about the hell our own brains can put us through. At one point during this latest episode, Brian said he felt like he would never get help, would never get better, would have to be institutionalized. He could only lie in bed, paralyzed, begging me to sit next to him, not to leave the room. The psychiatrist did, actually, consider sending him to the hospital. But she decided to try one last medication to see how it worked. Within twenty-four hours, Brian could eat again. He still had bouts of anxiety, but they weren’t as debilitating. After two days on the new medication, he went for a three-mile run.

I sobbed into the phone, and my dear friend Debbie listened, gave me space to cry, to grieve. Once I’d spent my despair for the moment, she talked me through the advantages of having Brian going to the hospital. They’ll check his vital signs, she said. They’ll test his blood levels. They’ll be able to find out why this is happening, why he hasn’t been able to respond to the medication. I took deep breaths. She made sense to me. I agreed. Then the new medication started to work. The next morning, Brian walked out onto the street as Jack and I returned from a walk. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. I wanted to snatch the baby up and run to Brian, but Jack has had enough frights lately. So we crept toward him at a toddler’s pace, and then when we reached him, I held him so tightly he had to cough and say, “Hey.”

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