The awakening began when I met my wife, Pam. She is a beautiful person, with all of the traits that I needed in order to find peace. Pam is patient, reserved, tactful, kind, understanding. We are complete opposites, but we are complete. Pam and I found each other at the right time. Meeting at thirty, we both knew more of what we wanted in a partner. I had been quite successful at playing the role of “happy” with a “healthy” existence. I was a teacher, I went to church more than not, I led a decent life, I tried to be on good terms with everyone in my family. When I married her, I was not prepared for the emotional turmoil it would dredge up for me. I had successfully stuffed all of my anger tightly inside. It took the serenity of marrying normal to bring it spewing forth.
I recall one night in early spring when I sat on the front porch of our new house. I had just finished a full day’s work of planting and mulching, and sat down to enjoy the peace and calm of a cool April night. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of pride–I was a man working the land, enjoying a well deserved beer after a hard day of work. But there it was, that voice inside me, reminding me that all of this was a sham. “Who are you kidding? This can’t be yours? Don’t forget where you came from. You’ll never escape that.”
In a funny way, it reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”:
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife …You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Indeed, I asked myself, How did I get HERE? I truly felt I didn’t deserve to be in that house. Perhaps it was my Irish Catholic guilt, but I was burdened with the idea that I was living in a single home on a beautiful corner lot. A far cry from the twin I grew up in–the small house I shared with nine others, the bedroom where 5 boys slept, the one shower. Rather than feel I had achieved a goal of having more than I did as a kid, I felt guilty. Why me? What’s so special about me that I can have a better life now? And with the guilt came the pressure. How can I live a normal life? How can I have a happy home? I don’t know how to be happy. And, as I went through the motions, I knew that I had a lot to reconcile before I could ever feel deserving of this new life.
About six months into our marriage, I had a panic attack. I didn’t see it coming. Emotionally, I had stuffed so much shit inside my mind, that it was literally on overload. Naively, I thought marriage would be a chance for me to reinvent who I was. I had married a normal woman, and was therefore beginning my life in my normal family. It doesn’t work that way–I still had all the flaws and hang-ups as a married man that I did when I was single.
It was a dreary day in February. A Monday. We had just spent the weekend in Punxsutawney, PA to witness the groundhog seeing its shadow. It was on my bucket list since I saw the movie with Bill Murray. There I was, in a classroom, telling a story to my students about something funny from the weekend’s festivities. I love telling stories, and students always oblige me with their attention. But that day was different. I felt their eyes staring through me, I could hear them blinking… Laughter was always my method. And I had made people laugh for so long that it became my refuge, my way of deflecting, my way of poking fun at the world. Even the twisted stories of my youth are all ensconced in humor–and in many ways I find comfort in that, even still. But that day, the laughter turned on me. I found myself too conscientious to care about the laughs. I was exhausted–tired of pretending I could just move beyond all the pain of the past by simply ignoring it. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can tell you it is exhausting–you feel like you’re running a marathon and having a heart attack at the same time. It seems to block out all the noise except the muffled beating of your heart. All of the saliva from your mouth seems to drain into your palms. Amazingly, I held it together. I wanted to just run out of the room, but I managed to stay. The story came to an awkward end, and then I quickly assigned the reading of the day to be done silently. The kids were unaware of what had just happened, but I was forever changed.
When I got home, I was very quiet– emotionally and physically exhausted. It was as if three decades of pain climbed onto my back and refused to leave until I acknowledged they were there. At dinner, when I told Pam, I could see the fear in her eyes. I tried to assuage her concerns, but I was fearful myself. The following few weeks were a fog. I continued to teach, and waited for the next attack to come. Pam was so sweet, offering encouragement, leaving me cards, even investigating possible causes. I remember her telling me how she read that artificial sweetener can be a cause of anxiety, knowing I used many packs of Equal in my coffee each day. But I knew the toxin–it wasn’t saccharin– it was years of suppressed anger and pain.
After that initial attack, I do not remember having any other full-blown episodes. There were times when I would get nervous, and feel the symptoms starting, but I was able to keep them in check with breathing deeply (don’t knock it til you try it) and positive thinking (talking oneself off the ledge). Yet, from that initial anxiety attack, I slumped into a terrible depression. I was so removed from any daily connection. I felt exhausted all the time. I felt sad. I felt hollow. For so long, I tried to be optimistic. I tried to pretend the past wasn’t as bad as I remembered, that everyone has their “cross in life”. But now my body refused to let me pretend anymore. It was shutting down, saying, YOU BETTER WORK THIS OUT OR I WILL. Before this, I often wondered how one would know if he was depressed–I mean clinically depressed. Trust me, you’d know.
I can remember confiding in a few friends about my situation, but unless you have experienced something similar, you really can’t understand. In one conversation, with a very close friend, I tried to convey how sad I was.”Really? You seem the same. I don’t notice anything different about you.” How could I be completely different and seem the same to those around me? I guess it’s the power of the facade we put up for others. At home, Pam and I were tentative with each other. I didn’t want her to think I felt as bad as I did, and she didn’t want me to think she was as worried as she was. Yet, what fueled my anger, and my depression even more so, was the fear, the threat, that I was recreating a dynamic that I had grown up with– a distant father, a man who closed himself off from the world; a husband and wife who could never find equal footing; a home where unspoken angers and fears were as present as the people who occupied the rooms. It made me question everything. Should I have kids? Could I ask Pam to stay in this marriage if I was no longer the person she thought she married? How was I going to ever get beyond these feelings of emptiness and sadness?
I knew I it was time to see a therapist (finally). I made an appointment and waited for my life to begin again.