Recently, I asked my in-laws what their thoughts were regarding my sister-in-law Andrea’s options. I love my in-laws and want to engage with them. My open-door policy with "Nan and “Poppa” for the 13 years of our marriage ensures that they have been invited to each of the three kids’ birthdays, school plays, sporting and dancing events as well as every holiday celebration. I highly recommend this philosophy as it is an incredible blessing to have children so identify with grandparents that they know which of the four is best at removing splinters and which prefers a bucket of ice in a Sheraton verses hot tea at a quaint bed and breakfast. Similarly, I adore the undeniable convenience of having grandparents familiar enough with our children to know which one despises or loves ketchup and eats only the whites or yellows of the hard-boiled egg. The only snag in the open-door policy came recently while planning a small trip for my own parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. For this milestone my parents declined a gala event and requested a weekend in New York City including dinner and a show for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. My in-laws Nan and Poppa were not included. One might think a forty-eight hour limit over a thirteen year period might go unnoticed or at least uncontested. No dice. Sixteen efforts via phone and email were made to pierce the boundary. Although at first I found Nan’s pleas of “you’ll need me for the kids” or “I could provide dinner” to be exhausting, I was eventually amused. I appreciated the clear demonstration of stubborn self absorption which typified our relationship yet was difficult to define. This same inability to see beyond themselves characterized the conversation about Andrea.
As I mentioned I wanted to “engage” with them. Andrea seemed like a “safe” subject. I had been separated from my husband, their son, for most of the previous twelve months and although they sided with me on virtually every issue and offered constant "help," talking about what was going on in my life was inappropriate and only talking about the kids redundant. Andrea is far more than just a sister-in-law, she is my dear friend. She chose me as her Matron of Honor and although she lives in Serbia, we Skype regularly and have met up in Washington, DC, New York, Austria, and a remote South Carolina island to enjoy each other’s company and allow our children to bond. Think how lucky you might feel if your best friend’s parents were always near you perhaps because of work, church, or whatever. When major decisions faced your best friend and her husband, you might seize the opportunity to discuss the decision with the only other people who could possibly love your friend as much as you; her parents.
“Andrea’s contract is up in June, what are your thoughts about what she and Mark might do?” I open.
“I don’t know her options” Nan replies curtly. She quickly deteriorates into, “She never talks to ME. No one ever talks to me. Father made all the decisions about our moves and I was never consulted.”
“Father” is not some distant gentleman. He sits to her left. I regret ever attempting a conversation and wonder if it is possible to share space with my in-laws, be respectful, and still breathe. I stand hoping there is a dish I can put away, or some breakfast I can fix for the children. Thankfully I remember that the last few times I have opened Nan's refrigerator I have convulsed into dry heaves from the stench of food gone bad. Her drinking has increased so much recently that her own senses appear dulled. I avoid the kitchen, sit, and listen some more, “Three weeks before Andrea was born we had to up and leave Charlottesville because Father chose to chase Frank Simmons to Baltimore.”
Are Poppa’s hearing aids are working? He chimes in with, “My success is probably a difficult thing for all three of my children.”
My husband appears, rolling his eyes at the familiar discussion. Our children busily build a Lego battleship and finish a puzzle on the floor. Jim and I have not been able to see eye to eye for months and barely able to speak without him erupting into rage. Yet, as he enters the room, my heart jumps. He is beautiful and strong physically reminding me that the comfort of his embrace is my unmet desire. Now his posture slumps as he resigns himself to the ongoing exchange and Poppa’s droning, “…it is unlikely that my children will be able to serve as the President of The American Academy of Pediatrics and that might be hard to live up to.” My eyes catch Jim’s as we both think, “How does this relate to Andrea?” I am thankful for this moment of connection with my otherwise estranged husband. And I appreciate the chance to more fully understand the thirty-eight year old double monologue which has engulfed him. I respect Jim even more.
The intended discussion of Andrea’s job possibilities, Mark’s writing career, and their son’s school needs or proximity to cousins is not going to happen. My hopes of understanding and weighing their benefits and risks of returning to the States, having additional children, or managing a corporate path are replaced with the reality that Nan is capable of only one conversation: Poppa is bad. And Poppa is capable of only one other: Poppa is great. I should have learned my lesson.
At a later date, I absent-mindedly share my observation with Andrea. I think I am being supportive by listening and feeling her frustration that her parents under a membrane of generosity have fossilized into egotism. Yet, I wish I had done so without noting that Andrea had been the recently attempted subject. My thoughtlessness was cruel and I realized it when she said, “See, they could never care for me.” I wept. Yet, I still didn’t learn my lesson.
Jim and I suffer major financial stress. Jim has been out of a job for three years and has never achieved self satisfaction in his work regardless of being brilliant, well education, networked worldwide, and extremely presentable. After termination from his last position, Jim moved to self employment and managed to dribble in an income of roughly one tenth of our set expenses. In March, seeing that our savings had dwindled and bills mounted, Jim committed to getting a side job, perhaps bar-tending. In September Jim committed to following whatever advice his beloved Dr. Rogers, our therapist, suggested. Tension, low self esteem, and rage would naturally impact a new entrepreneur. By the next March he had no side job and ignored Dr. Rogers’ as well as a psychiatrist’s recommendation to stabilize his moods with Lamactil. Nearly all weekly marriage counseling sessions evolve into a discussion about finances and end up in a quicksand conversation. Dr. Rogers describes a quicksand conversation as one in which Jim is “gone,” and “unable to hear.” Jim filibusters the hour away with stipulations for his financial security. One of Jim’s favorite procrastination techniques is insisting “tell me the financial plan” (i.e. end game) before he will follow the recommended steps (i.e. efforts in the right direction). Like a predictable Swiss watch, Jim then sabotages the financial plan with tornadoes of chaos so his excuses can thrive. Seeing the spiral head out of control, Dr. Rogers tried unsuccessfully to answer Jim’s stress over money and incessant complaining about having too much time alone with a subtle suggestion, “Would part time employment help whittle away both concerns?” He undertook other efforts in the one-step forward approach like pointing out to Jim that structure and an office environment might be helpful and reminding him that the current strategy was failing so continuing it was in many ways “more risky” than risking an alternative.
Anticipation began to seep into my heart. Maybe Jim would take the medication and stop monopolizing my time and energy in his self-fulfilling cyclonic worry which was eroding my own career. Maybe Jim would get a job which would at least put a dent in the financial needs and offer me peace for certain hours during the week. Maybe Jim would consider working in an office environment rather than turning off and on his computer in the front seat of his car repeatedly each day feeling out of control and floundering. I found ways to hold on to small hopes yet let go of the responsibility for the results. I leaned on Lamaze to breathe out expectations of progress. Then sat back and mused as Dr. Rogers managed to strip away emotion down to three individual choices and help Jim evaluate not in the major wind tunnel of an unfeasible plan. Rather, to consider each on its own merits. Was it better to take prescribed medication than not? Is it more productive to work from an office or a car? Would a part time job cost or contribute money? It felt like progress. The ceaseless petition “I need to see the full plan” was finally dwindling after eight months. Maybe Jim was realizing that our financial situation was far better than many of our friends, and he was counting his blessings. Maybe he noted that our financial plan hinged upon survival long enough for the real estate market and economy to turn. Maybe he recognized that no congressman, global economist, or even local bankruptcy trustee in control of the value of our assets could answer Jim’s demands for a full plan. So continuing to bombard his wife for the same was illogical. Could Jim’s rage be settling long enough to see we were not in a position to hit the grand slam which his moods required. Rather catching the fly ball (taking small steps in the right direction) promised to get us one more at-bat and stretching into extra innings was the name of the “avoid bankruptcy and foreclosure” game. The ever moving target Jim had started and destroyed repeatedly (much like Lucy setting and then moving the ball just before Charlie attempts the kick) was a game we were decreasing in play. I gave thanks.
Poppa steps in. He acknowledged his own enabling behaviors of not holding Jim accountable and continually bailing Jim out financially. In an effort to hold Jim one layer closer to owning his decision to reject doctors’ orders, Poppa chose to follow Dr. Rogers’ suggestion and prepay six months of psychiatric supervision and medication. Thus, Jim’s excuse “we can’t afford medication” would be eliminated. In my deep breathing I smell Dr. Rogers’ image peeling back the onion layers of excuses to find simple accomplishable steps. I mistakenly suppose the “conversation” can be about humility and help. My breathing stops when I receive the following email from Poppa:
“I made considerable progress in convincing Jim that he must take the medicine but the issue requires more work and something on your part. I'll call to amplify on what he is asking of you. Love, Poppa
Would you believe that the “something” is me producing the impossible-to achieve-Jim- approved financial plan? Lucy is back with her ball. I join Charlie flat on my back. Has Poppa tried to hinge my marriage on the impossibility of me outperforming thousands of economists? For Poppa it is not about the facts, only about the credit he could accept. Indeed his conversation was the same, “Poppa is great.” ("I've made considerable progress...") Why didn’t I learn the lesson? Poppa was lightning-quick to claim credit for progress when in reality he contributed a headwind to an already struggling rowboat now travelling backwards. I weep in the shower so my children can’t hear my pain. What portion of the water at my toes is made up of my tears? I muse at the extensive power of generations of denial yet I know God’s healing power of love. My ears ring with the hope offered in Je’ Free’s My River Nile, “Come cleanse my wounds, oh River Nile.”
Note: It is worth restating that having a mental illness can be NO problem, denying it can be devastating.
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