I’ve been chronically sleep deprived and stressed for 16 years.
Eventually, I developed a debilitating amount of anxiety, too.
My health – mental and physical – was shot.
I realized I couldn’t go on this way. Either things had to change in a major way, or I’d have to remove myself from the environment that was depriving me of sleep and stressing me out.
My husband and I would have to find a new way to handle the relationship in the future, one where we found common ground we could stand on, where both he and I could have some happiness and satisfaction in a life together.
My husband’s toxic habits, both for sleep and for clutter, were the most serious areas in my mind, and I targeted those two first. Sleep impacted both mental and physical health, and the clutter was keeping me constantly tense and anxious.
I’d talked to him about both of these areas before, multiple times over the years, but because I hadn’t been obviously distraught while speaking with him, he dismissed the discussions as ‘not that important.’
Now, he’d been informed that our relationship was on the line if things didn’t change.
He wasn’t happy, but he agreed to change.
I knew I didn’t have it in me to live through change on his schedule.
So we agreed to a plan: our upcoming relocation would be the start of a trial year, in which we lived differently – in which we focused on making sleep arrangements that would allow me to get sleep, restful sleep, and we’d keep the clutter under control.
At the end of that year, we’d reassess and see if we thought it was possible for us to find a way to live together where both of us could experience some happiness and comfort.
I didn’t want to swap positions. I didn’t want my happiness at the cost of his. One of us being deeply unhappy with how we lived and existed in the world together was a no-go, as far as I was concerned.
He seemed on board with the plan, originally. Now that he seemed to be actually listening to me for a change, I brought up our sex life again, and that improved right away. I was cautiously optimistic.
In the meantime, I was still dealing with sleep deprivation and clutter. Our relocation was months away. I knew my mental health was fragile, so I settled in to focus on my convalescence, to hold myself together until our trial year began.
The change in our external lives he seemed to be handling, the change in me – the fact that I was now insisting the marriage was about us, and that us included me – brought my husband’s insecurities to the surface.
The first sign that things were not going as well as I’d wanted to believe happened when we were still waiting to find out where we’d end up relocating. It appeared likely that the one place I did not want to be was where we’d end up, because it would be career advancement for my husband.
I really struggled with that. It wasn’t his fault, but it seemed like thanks to random chance, my husband’s wants and needs would have to be prioritized, and I’d be the one paying the cost. Again. It was the pattern of our entire relationship.
I was plunged into a bleak, angry mood, which my husband picked up on. I briefly said what was upsetting me, and then asked him to just let me have my bad mood. I knew I’d struggle through it and come out the other side, resigned to go on in the face of this new setback.
He didn’t respect that request to be left alone. He thought he sensed some additional factor in my bad mood, something additional that I was upset with him over. I was trying to fall asleep, and I requested conversation be put on hold. I knew with a night’s rest I’d be better able to handle my mood and conversation.
He didn’t want to wait. He never wants to wait for what he wants.
I told him what else I was upset about, something that had rankled but paled in comparison to the other problem – something that didn’t need attention yet.
I felt violated. I’d had no privacy, no space to call my own, for the 15 years since our oldest was born. The space inside my head was all I had to my name anymore, and now he’d insisted on being granted access to that space against my will.
Our interactions grew increasingly fraught. Eventually we devolved to screaming at each other, something we’d never done in our 18 years together.
We saw each other’s therapists. They listened and were gently encouraging and affirming that sleep and clutter were things that needed to be dealt with. That the fact that I needed to use coping mechanisms was certainly not a sign of health, but my coping mechanisms weren’t some kind of threat, either.
Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep working on your plan. Schedule regular time to talk.
My husband deflated, and we moved on, though I was left with a new wariness.
Plans fell through to relocate to the place I would hate to live. He ended up getting approved for a transfer to Indiana instead.
The end of May approached. Not only was I approaching my 38th birthday as a wreck of a person, it marked the 20 year anniversary of the time I spent a month in Ireland with my sister J – the 20 year anniversary of the last time I’d done something that fulfilled a personal dream.
The week surrounding that anniversary wrecked me. I let my husband know, briefly, what was stressing me out this time, but I didn’t feel like talking about it. That trip happened before I even knew him, and I wanted it to remain mine.
Even though I was worried that week might trigger another relapse into depression, something unexpected happened: it signaled the beginning of a period in which my brain began to reboot. My brain selected the two happiest times in my life – ages 4-8 and ages 18-22 – and used them as restore points.
The result was a little overwhelming. Good memories or bad memories, having them float to the surface unexpectedly, carrying emotions I’d forgotten how to feel, left me reeling and discomfited.
Some of these memories were being seen from a new, more self-aware perspective. I found myself having to process my past from a new angle, with a new intensity. I didn’t want to have to lay my soul bare to my husband just to assuage his insecurities. That would add significant stress to the process of recovery.
I asked him to come with me for a walk, and I explained that I needed some emotional distance while I processed everything that was happening to me. I likened it to having tabs open in a browser, and how I didn’t have the resources to be switching back and forth between tabs all the time.
I didn’t say this had to change our regular, day-to-day interactions. I didn’t say it meant sex was off the table. I didn’t say we should consider ourselves separated now. I just wanted him to let me have my feelings and not be constantly checking in on me.
What I said was not what his brain processed. His insecurity-fueled shadow self promptly began clawing its way back to the surface. He wanted assurance for the future. He wanted to know what to plan for. What to expect. He wanted to feel in control, again.
I can’t give him that assurance. We had our plan. A trial year. Sleep, and a clutter-free environment, to see if I could rest and recover, after which we could assess and determine if we’d be able to continue our relationship without needing additional significant changes, or if we’d be able to continue it at all.
Apparently he expected everything would stay more or less the same from the time we proposed the plan to the time the trial year ended. That I would continue to prioritize his comfort, even though he’d failed to look out for my needs for so long that I no longer had energy to give to his comfort.
Yesterday he initiated yet another conversation. He’d noticed the weird look I’d given him when he’d clasped my hand and told me he didn’t say it often enough, but that he loved me.
I’m no good at lying when put on the spot, or at slipping on a mask.
I told him I’d given him that look because since I told him I needed some distance and space, emotionally speaking, he’d been intensifying his efforts to bond with me, which was the opposite of what I’d asked for.
Once again, the conversation became about what he believes the relationship should look like. It didn’t matter how much I spoke of how my most basic needs needing to be met before I could put energy into our relationship. How I said there couldn’t be a relationship at all without me. How I was trying to survive.
Eventually, feeling sorrow rising, I said in frustration that he kept talking about how the relationship should look, but why didn’t he ever see how I should look? That what I’ve been reduced to is not how I should look.
He wouldn’t engage me on that. Instead he moved to talk about how we were in a relationship and individual needs could never be exclusively prioritized, there would have to be some focus on the relationship as well. We had kids together.
As far as I could tell, he believed I owed a certain kind of behavior, a certain level of intimacy, because we were in a relationship, and that it didn’t matter what other things I was going through, I should be setting aside energy to focus on and maintain our relationship to what was, in his mind, a minimum standard.
I was trembling and on the verge of simply running away to curl up and cry, but I had a trip to Chicago with a friend, her children and my children planned for the day, and I couldn’t break down, I had to make sure I was prepared before we left.
I told him the conversation was over for now, that I was unwilling to speak further. He was obviously enraged, but he helped make sure everything was ready to go for the kids and I to leave and drove us to the station.
The trip itself didn’t go as planned, and we arrived home much later at night than intended, and he was still in a towering but controlled rage.
This morning he left for work without saying goodbye to me.
He’s never done that before.
While packing, we found the pictures from the casual potluck reception we held for friends and family the day we got legally married.
In those photos I’m wearing an inexpensive dress, black lace over a nude lining, and a black tailored jacket because I was chilled. I have waist length natural blonde hair, worn loose, and bad skin that needed help. Even with the bad skin, I look beautiful – like a lighthearted, ethereal fairy, full of an incandescent zest for life.
I haven’t been that girl for a long time. Now, if I don’t smile in a photo, I look like I’ve been given the news of my impending demise. Lighthearted, ethereal, incandescent – none of those descriptors would apply now.
I don’t know what my husband saw when he looked through the photos. I know he looked, because the kids told me he showed them the photos.
I don’t think he’s ever really seen me.