A Marriage of Messy Minds

A Love Story

 “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. Its 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 obscene 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 ten 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 fine for three or four months, and then that elephant began to creep up behind me again and I’m off into another fit. Sooner or later, I was on my own again.

But 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. One 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 ongoing thirty-three 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 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 you freak out on me” 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-Okay neuro-typical, and the rest of us were put on meds immediately. Margaret was to make sure we all took them on schedule. But here’s the thing, I knew we were all going to be all right because Margaret is 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 EMT’s to our house, hospital stays for her, and a rude awakening for me.

“Do you have your wife’s ID?”

I stare dumbfounded 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?”

But 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 have 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 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 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 lives alone in some dumpy converted garage in South Pasadena that she rents from her aunt…

“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 clearly I am. Flash of dizziness, I grab the counter, take a breath. A number drops out of the sky.

“Nineteen fifty-six, her birthday,” I blurt out. She was born in July, nineteen fifty-six. I think that’s right. No I know it is.”

“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 happened nearly twenty years ago. I was in my late forties, seemingly a successful adult male with some degree of sense and I’d just spent twenty 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 failureto find any date, number or name that could 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 kid, and starting in my late 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 a bunch of other junk for maybe a month and a half before that 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, that forty-something me back then was relieved when the ER doc came out and told me that Margaret didn’t have anything wrong with her heart. But then he said that she’d been having panic attacks of increasing intensity, length, and frequency for months. This was serious, he said, nothing to mess around with. 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, earlier and earlier bedtimes, sporadic naps, and compulsive shopping.

 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 comes 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 back then – 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 really 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 a 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.

From my memoir, A Chicken in The Wind and How He Grew.

Originally published in an earlier version in additudemag.com

Posted in

Frank South

Recent Posts