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  • HerTake: Should an Ambivalent Wife Leave Her Marriage?

    When should a midlife woman leave her marriage?

    HerTake Nina Badzin

    During the HerStories Project relaunch, we announced that Gen X women at midlife is the new focus for essays and classes at our site. The relaunch included a call for questions for our resident advice columnist, Nina Badzin, that goes beyond friendship dilemmas. Although Nina will take questions related to friendship as they pertain to midlife women, we couldn’t think of a more representative dilemma for our site’s relaunch than the one presented in the question below.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here.  

    Dear Nina,

    I’ve been married to my college boyfriend for almost 20 years, and we have two kids — a teen and a tween. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve been experiencing a mid-life crisis in good and bad ways. One of the good ways is that I have a sense of this being a turning point where I can let go of past failures and insecurity and move forward with a better sense of myself.

    An uncomfortable symptom of this sense is that I’ve become more and more aware of disappointment in my marriage. My husband is a nice guy and an excellent provider and (I’m pretty sure) has always been faithful. But I think I knew early on in our relationship that we had very different interests. In recent years, he has gotten more intensely interested in three (count ’em, THREE) different hobbies. When I ask him to go on a date or do something with the family, it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.

    We have been in and out of marriage counseling and recently ended therapy because I was feeling like what I really wanted was for my husband to be a different person with different priorities. Even when he tries hard to be a good husband and dad (which he sometimes does), I feel like he’s doing it out of obligation, not enjoyment or interest. In our last session, he admitted that he was probably never going to value his relationships as much as his hobbies.

    Although I’ve worked part-time for most of our kids’ lives, I’m currently not working. I enjoy being able to devote time to family and volunteer work, and the thought of going back to work full time makes me nervous about work/life balance…especially because my fields of interest and experience are not very lucrative.

    I’m struggling with whether to stay in the marriage or not. On the one hand, I so often feel disappointed by the lack of interest and intimacy in our marriage. And I worry that our lukewarm relationship is not a great role model for our kids. There’s rarely real conflict between us, but sometimes I’m sure they sense disconnection and resentment.

    On the other hand, we have a good symbiotic relationship: He makes a comfortable living for us and has time left over for his hobbies. I enjoy taking care of the household and family relationships and not worrying about money.

    Should I leave my husband and change the entire dynamic of my family, with no guarantee that things won’t be worse for all of us? (The thought of living, even part-time, away from our kids and pets, is horrifying to me…and I would almost certainly end up with a lot more economic insecurity.) Or do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?

    Thank you,

    Ambivalent Wife

     

    Dear Ambivalent Wife,

    I let this question sit in my inbox for weeks. It’s one thing to opine on the safe terrain of friendships. Yes, friendship problems lend themselves to permanently hurt feelings, resentment, and disappointment. (See the many variations of friendship dilemmas I answered right here.) But hard as it is to hear this truth when we’re upset about a faltering friendship—we can replace the hole left by a friendship disappointment with another friend. And we all get to have more than one close friend at a time.

    Spouses are (obvious statement alert) not so simple to replace, especially spouses with whom we’re currently raising children. Which is not to say you should stay. And marriages 20 years in the running with long-held resentments are not so simple to change. Which is not to say you should leave.

    Let me be clear: Other than situations of abuse in any form whatsoever, I would never outright tell someone to leave a marriage. But I’m also not going to tell someone who seems to see her husband as a roommate, at best, that staying is the only choice.

    You were brave to share your situation and give voice to a reality felt by plenty of couples who’ve been together for two decades or more. (Or less!)

    While I cannot give a direct answer—really, how could I?—I’d like to at least further the conversation you started and encourage other HerStories readers to add their thoughts.

    I suspect many people reading your letter will come down in one of three camps.

    #1. Life is short and you should leave him.

    #2. You should stay, at least for now.

    #3. You need more information from yourself, from your husband, and for sure a new marriage counselor.

    Let’s start with the temptation to leave.

    I think the fantasy of starting over with a new partner with all the self-knowledge we’ve earned in two decades of adulthood is relatable.

    I personally have a recurring dream of going back to high school or college with the 41-year-old version of comfort in my skin I enjoy now. Would I have made vastly different choices as this version of myself? Would I have put up with less from other people and experienced less self-doubt at every turn? I suspect the answer to all of the above is yes, but I’m also glad I went through those growing pains. Weren’t those awkward and sometimes painful experiences all necessary to make me the person I am now? But those are just dreams. Let’s get back to reality.

    You asked at the end, “Do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?” I wonder if defining and analyzing your “deepest desires” is a good place to start. Have you adequately reflected on how realistic those desires are? Are they reasonable enough to find? Is there already someone out there you have in mind? Whatever those desires are—sexually or otherwise—are they sustainable for, say, two decades with someone new? The answer may be—yes. I cannot say.

    The rest of my answer will combine options two and three, not because I think staying is the only option, but I do think it’s one to consider.

    Judging your husband based only on your letter, I’d say, yeah, he has tons of work to do. But I want to defend him on one of your biggest complaints. You said, “ . . . it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.”

    I bet my husband could say the same about me, and yet, I know I’m a very dedicated mother and wife. I am physically where I need to be for them. Most of the time, I’m emotionally there, too.

    But at 10:00 at night when all the kids are finally in bed, I can’t say I’m terribly enthused when my husband wants to talk to me just as I’ve sat down to read, write, or watch a show. (In other words, I wouldn’t mind if he had three hobbies to call on in that exact moment.) I can’t say when I jot down the many dates of my kids’ games, activities, and school events, that I don’t sometimes sigh and panic about all the time parenting requires. I can’t say I don’t sometimes wonder, aloud, in front of my husband, when my life will feel like mine again. I know he wishes I had a cheerier attitude about all the transporting and face-showing that comes with parenting. I know, for a fact, that he doesn’t love it when I text him self-pitying notes letting him know I am once again cancelling an appointment or interrupting my work time to pick up a kid at school who convinced the school nurse she has a stomachache.

    I could go on and on.

    You said your husband is generally a good husband and dad, but it bothers you that he seems to show up out of obligation. I guess I feel like by that standard I am not a good mom and wife, and I know that is simply not true.

    And now for some meatier advice, I’m sharing my mom’s email to me about your letter because my mom is smart, has been married to my dad for 52 years, and has successfully added her two cents to some of the friendship letters on this site. 

    Here’s Kathy, my mom, writing to me about you.

    I think Ambivalent Wife’s feelings are very understandable and common for someone married around 20 years. Some people call it the second seven-year itch. Many women feel “disappointment” in their spouse at this time of life. It doesn’t seem like this is what we signed up for when we first got married. I had those exact feelings at her age, though divorce did not occur to me. I felt Dad was unavailable in a lot of ways—busy at work, traveling, playing tennis twice a week. The way I got through it was to find something for me that did not include him or the children. I was about Ambivalent Wife’s age when I took a course and started a consulting business. The business was time-consuming and removed me from my daily life into a different universe. Finding something that was just mine and completely absorbing was a good way for me to get through the rough times.

    There are things we do not know about this marriage. We do not know whether there are big communication issues, whether there is still a sex life for this couple, and if they even still like each other. Assuming that he is not abusing her, does not have another woman, and does not have a severe emotional problem, there might be some good reasons to stay in this marriage, or at least consider options and issues that might occur if she were to leave.

    First, if she goes, she will have to work, and it doesn’t sound like she has or had a career. Second, her children’s lives will be completely disrupted, and does she really think the grass is greener anywhere else? Third, a continuation of item two, another man her age will also be busy with work and hobbies and may have his own children.

    She might consider finding wonderful new hobbies for herself, especially now that her kids are older. She should also maintain close relationships with her friends. There is no substitute for long-time women friends.

    The divorced women I know left for the following reasons:

    1. Another woman
    2. Severe emotional problems such as untreated mood disorders.
    3. Terrible communication problems. For example, one woman told me if she and her husband disagreed about something, he would not speak to her for a week or more. I asked her, “Not even pass the salt or pass the pepper?” She said not even that. She found that intolerable.
    4. Another friend said her husband worked long hours. When he came home, all he did was criticize everything she did from the smallest housekeeping issue to other things. No detail was too small for him to criticize, and she felt demoralized all the time.

    I don’t think any one person can advise another to get a divorce. I hope that Ambivalent Wife explores some other options for herself before deciding to leave her husband. Lots of couples have different hobbies. That can make a marriage more interesting. In my opinion she needs to find an activity that consumes her before deciding her next step.

    Love, Mom

    Okay, I’m back. And I will only add that as someone married for over 17 years who is surrounded by friends married for around that same length of time, I promise you are not alone, which does not make your next step any easier.

    But I do feel comfortable saying that the status quo is not an option.

    Maybe, once you find a new marriage counselor, you can bring your letter to me with you and read it aloud. That might be a good place to begin (again) to work towards a happier marriage, if that is possible with him.

    Wishing you peace whatever you decide to next,

    Nina

    Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a writing workshop instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis as well as ModernWell’s book club host. She has been the advice columnist for the HerStories Project for three years. Learn more about Nina at her website.

  • I Am So Glad My Friends Don’t Understand Me

    By Magnolia Ripkin

    You know when you really connect with somebody? The moment that happens with a friend or a romantic interest when you simply click? That is when you identify them as one of your tribe. They join your crew of people who get you, who understand what drives your thoughts and reactions. Isn’t that the greatest thing?

    Over time, that instant connection grows into something more. A deeper knowledge with shared stories and life events. Shit happens, and for the most part your people and you know each other better for having gone through it.

    I had that with some pretty special people for a long time. The people who knew me from the “before” and very much understood how I moved through the world, how I would react to situations, what made me mad, happy, sad, all of it. I still have those people, mostly, but now they don’t really get me anymore, now that I am in the “after.” I am so glad they don’t.

    When you are living with cancer, the inside of your emotional structure goes through a deep and violent transformation.

    Much like other types of trauma. You look and sound like you, but you aren’t you anymore.

    I am currently in that new place, and I know I have changed on a fundamental level. It probably doesn’t show so much on the outside because I still look like I care about most of the happier and superficial minutia I always have. But in the deep down, I care much less about some things, and so much more about others. Some of the pressing issues I care about now never even crossed my field of thinking before my diagnosis, I took them for granted.

    For instance, I used to care about having nice shoes Now I wonder how this could possibly have been a priority and it boggles my mind. I also cared what people thought of me. I worried that I might be too much. That concern has also been punted out of the metaphorical trapdoor.

    Now I care about a new list of items. Not dying is the number one priority. It is followed closely by dreams for my children, including being at their life events live and in person, and not as a photo in their wallets. I care about every minute with my husband, deeply. I care about helping and loving the people in my life more than I ever have.

    All of this keen focus on trying to live life comes with an evil and relentless accomplice. Cancer people worry on a subterranean level all….the…time. It is like a deep thudding that you feel in your heart, but hear in your head. It makes us almost seem to be elsewhere. I can tell you that it is because we actually are someplace else. We are having a deep tongue kiss with our terror, and it is possible we have forgotten that you are in the room.

    I know my friends notice that I am no longer who I was.

    And because they are decent people, they don’t mention it. There are times when I can see they don’t get me, but having cancer privilege they ignore it. I enjoy a bubble of tolerance around me. Nobody cares if I am too tired to show up, and I cancel at the last minute. They know that the fatigue hits like a dump truck. I love them for that.

    But the times when I am suddenly cantankerous for seemingly no reason, they don’t see it coming, or understand. When I am ill-tempered, they can’t see a cause, but usually stay on and talk me through it. They can’t possibly comprehend what mechanisms are misfiring in my brain, but still they soldier on.

    Sometimes I look at my nearest and dearest and am so glad they carry on being happy with new shoes like it matters. I love that they are still my people, and that they have no idea what it feels like to be me. The now-me, not the me that was me before.

    I don’t wish my inner monologue on anyone. It can be a pretty dark place sometimes, and I want them to stay in the sun.

     

    Magnolia Ripkin is sort of like your mouthy Aunt who drinks too much and tells you how to run your life, except funny… well mostly funny… like a cold glass of water in the face. She writes a flagrantly offensive blog at Magnolia Ripkin Advice Blog answering pressing questions about business, personal development, parenting, heck even the bedroom isn’t safe. She is the Editor in Chief at BluntMoms. Other places to find her: Huffington Post,  The Mighty and Modern Loss, The Mid, and Scary Mommy. You can also check her out in two amazing compendiums of bloggers who are published in “I Just Want To Be Alone.”  And most recently, Martinis and Motherhood, Tales of Wonder, Woe and WTF Join her shenanigans on Facebook: Magnolia Advice Blog

  • Gen X: Divorce and Dating

    By: Kai McGee

     

    The last time I was on the dating scene, Lauryn Hill was still with The Fugees, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a fresh faced, endearing teenager and we all believed that Carrie and Samantha would be best friends forever. A few decades have passed and the Fugees are nothing more than music nostalgia, The Fresh Prince has salt-n-pepper hair and Samantha’s tweets have destroyed any ideals we had about the Sex and the City ladies being BFF’s.

    It’s also been over twenty years since cupid’s temperamental arrow was in my vicinity. My ex-husband and I started dating when we were fresh out of college, responsibilities were few and fun was the priority. We married at twenty-eight in a whimsical ceremony in front of family and friends. Ours, after all, was a forever kind of love. Fourteen years, one beautiful child and lots of good times. We experienced the ups, downs, twists and dips that all marriages endure but ultimately, we grew in very different directions. Dissolving the marriage was the most painful decision I’ve ever made but I knew if I didn’t have the courage to break both of our hearts we would remain in an obligatory, passionless union that was quietly suffocating both of us.

    I never imagined that I would be a member of the middle-aged dating club. But here I am and it’s not for the faint of heart.

    It’s been almost three years since my divorce; it feels like it happened yesterday, but it also feels like a lifetime ago. My days are filled with a busy career, car pools, checking homework and finding misplaced shin guards. I haven’t made the time to date or to find a “maintenance” man. My romantic nights consist of curling up on the sofa with wine, Netflix and my fluffy robe. Don’t judge until you’ve binge watched Narcos with a vintage bottle of Pinot Noir.

    As another spring makes its way back around I am reminded that I’m still solo. The thing is, I like being single. It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s kind of fantastic. It’s allowed me the space to rediscover my passions and to explore parts of my personality that were buried and or attached to a different identity. I like hanging out with myself and I’m proud of the evolution and growth I’ve experienced as a mature, single woman.

    Since I’m in the tween mom club, I’ll have to force myself to make dating a priority and allow myself the space to have “me” time. There are moments when I’m in between laundry and soccer games that I let tears flow. I experience mommy meltdowns and feel completely unprepared to enter the world of dating. Eventually, I’ll have to start scheduling mommy play dates with real life adults who are tall, dark and chiseled. Keep your snickering to yourself; I’ve waited this long, chiseled is an attribute worth pondering. Like most of us moms, putting myself first does not come naturally. Quite frankly, it has become a foreign concept. However, I realize that if I don’t, I’ll never leave my couch and no matter how good the bottle, wine is much better when it’s shared.

    I haven’t entered the realm of dating apps, it frightens me. I’m going rogue and will attempt to meet my future love interest through “real life” introductions. Baby steps. I can’t just jump from my couch to the mean streets of cyber swiping. Many of my fellow Gen X friends are divorced and the feedback on the dating scene is not the greatest. Several are swiping their way into carpel tunnel with no matches in site. There are a few that have remarried and are happier than they’ve ever been.

    Ultimately, it comes down to taking this leap into my new reality with courage and grace.

    Companionship (in the romantic form) can be fulfilling, comforting and magical. I’m finally ready to explore opening my heart to love again. I’ve exchanged guilt, resentment and judgment of myself for unconditional love. I’ve learned to love myself unapologetically and it’s invigorating. I’ve forgiven myself for unintentional self-neglect and I’m finally comfortable enough in my own skin to live my life with free abandon.

    It’s ironic that even though I’m divorced and still solo, my life is in full bloom. It is filled with a richness of spirit and a depth of appreciation for finally understanding what it means to live in the moment. It’s empowering to know that whenever I enter a new relationship I’ll be bringing my best self. I’m certain that love will find me again, in many ways it already has. This journey into my forties has been kind of fanciful, despite the inevitable unplanned detours, bumps, and setbacks. When I think of the next fifty years, I can’t help but smile from the inside out. I’m going into this new phase of life with optimism, excitement and openness; if a new love is on the horizon that’s just a bonus. Now that my broken pieces are healed, I’m ready to embrace being vulnerable enough to see where romance will lead whenever the day comes.

     

    Kai McGee, J.D. is a writer whose work has appeared on Hello Giggles, Motherwell, & My Brown Baby, among others. She has started wearing lipstick to Whole Foods just in case she locks eyes with Mr. Right by the organic berries. Connect with her on Instagram @onanaturalkai

     

  • I Gave Birth To Writing

    There has never been as many American women who do not have children as the present moment. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 40% of women, aged 15 to 50, were not mothers, the highest percentage since the Bureau started keeping track of this data. At the start of this decade, about one in five women got to the conclusion of their childbearing years with no children. In the 1970s, only one in ten did. Additionally, more Gen Xers are single or never married, in comparison to previous generations.

    What do all of these statistics mean in the lives of individual women? Today, Elana Rabinowitz shares her story of what happened after she realized she would never have children and harnessed that energy into becoming a successful writer.

     

    writing

     

    by Elana Rabinowitz

    My writing started when my motherhood ended. It was born out of my inability to have children, and served as a surrogate – bringing something into the world.

     In my forties, after years of waiting for him to choose me, to realize I was the woman that made him happy, he chose someone else.  As did the man before him and the man before.  They all chose the diminutive version of myself and I was left to figure out how to put one foot forward and move on.

    I was the one who was always good with kids. The one who the shy ones clung to like honey and the scared ones held my hands tightly at night to make them feel safe.  I always thought I would be a mother, but I never was in a relationship long enough to make it a reality.

    So when he chose her, I chose motherhood.

    Even though I was terrified. My desire to be a mother outweighed my fear of doing it all alone.

    It took a few months to sink in.  To get passed the shame of failed relationships and focus on making it happen. I put everything I had into it: endless fertility treatments, needles, testing.  My early mornings spent in waiting rooms, vapid constraints of endless couples and me by myself, swallowing the pain, wrapped in morsels of hope. Each time getting close but never able to conceive. Failure after failure I still returned.

    Then one day, I heard the words, like magic whispering in my ear, “you’re pregnant,” the nurse told me excited. I didn’t know I could feel such joy.  A few days later, he was gone. Like the love I often felt, it too didn’t last. After that loss, I needed to stop hurting myself, stop losing.  I became determined to find something.

    Some people know what they want to be from an early age: an artist, a doctor, a marine biologist, but for others, like myself, the path was not well paved.

    I knew I liked to write from an early age filling my journals but never able to share with the outside world.  It came so naturally for me, the transference of ideas to words and I found ways to incorporate my prose in various jobs: service announcements in public relations, editing a book for the Arts Council, teaching teenagers how to write a claim – but it wasn’t truly what I wanted.  I wanted to share my stories, the ones only I could tell, but I did not know how to get there.

    Writers went to Ivy League schools and recited obscure books.  I was not of this echelon.  I could not compete. I sat idly while I watched friends and acquaintances write books and articles and I sat frozen with my stories – locked up tightly only to be revealed to a few close confidants.  Hand written poems scribbled on old spiral notebooks and the embryo of essays waiting to be born. Yet, I was not confident anyone would care what I had to say.  And so my journals were tucked away, piled on top of each other like a house of cards waiting fall.

    I was now forty-four.  My path was an artery of overlapping failures.  I had lost at love over and over which stung deeply and often and the pain would resurface when I’d least expect it.

    But nothing was a visceral as intense as the anguish of not being able to give birth, give life.

    No matter how many needles and pills I injected, no matter how many acronyms I tried: IUI, IVF, I was SOL. I had wasted too much time holding on – waiting for love to be requited and now I was left alone with hospital bills and a forlorn soul that needed to breathe again. I did not think I could survive this pain.  The type of cries that turned into howls. Holes so gaping, I could barely breathe.  Seeing glimpses of my unborn son, in young children with olive skin and brown eyes.  Seeing the man I loved holding a younger woman’s hand and looking at her in a way he never saw me.  I needed to find something.  I had always been afraid to be a writer.  I didn’t think my sensitive soul could handle rejection, but I was not the same person I once was.  I was stronger now, I could handle most anything.

    I went to the library where a free writing class was offered. I sat in the back in a wooden chair and listened while all the participants politely complimented each others prose. I wanted more. I could take the criticism now.  I desperately wanted someone to hear me. To notice me, that’s when I found the perfect class.

    I reluctantly signed up.  It was expensive, but nothing compared to the thousands I had just lost on treatments. The timing felt right, it was spring break, when things are born again. With the pink cherry blossoms blooming, I nervously entered my teacher’s living room where the class was taught. In an instant I felt a kinship with the group.  People who felt compelled to share their words no matter the consequence.  It was as if I could finally let out my biggest secrets in a safe space.  In this room I could say all my thoughts and fears and they would be welcomed with open arms.  I didn’t realize what journey I was about to embark on. It was just some woman’s living room after all – what could really happen here on this black leather sofa?

    Our first assignment was a humiliation essay: your most embarrassing moment in 900 words or less.  I certainly had 9000 words on the topic. We brainstormed story ideas but I was not ready to share just yet. I thought of writing about something less personal than what brought me to this class to begin with.  These strangers didn’t need to know that I was childless.  I had other anecdotes I could bring in.  The teacher ended the class by offering the first ten students that emailed her had the option of reading their story to the class for immediate feedback.  Who would be brave enough to share their most personal moments to a group of twenty strangers?

    I was a private writer, using felt tip pens to write in miniature letters throughout a string of old journals and on the corners of speckled black and white marble notebooks. I was a secret poet and purveyor of prose.  How would I come to let me words out into the world?

    If I took this course in my twenties or even my thirties I would have refrained — shared humorous stories of love gone wrong, but the stakes were higher now, I needed the truth to be heard, I was hungry now. I began to write my story, equal parts humor and grief.  Just writing it out I already felt better, stronger.

    In a moment of transformation, I emailed my teacher and read my story to my class.  My voice was shaky and at times I needed to stop, fraught with emotion of what I was sharing.  But all the while, these fellow writers laughed and empathized as shared snippets of my search for love.  These were my most personal moments and they were now released into the world and the weight and shame of all my secrets were liberated with them.

    Next, my teacher and classmates gave feedback and I rewrote the piece.  I had done this before.  Written a 900 word essay – gotten praise and then stuck it on a folder somewhere to gather dust.  I only thought real writers got published.  Not people like me.  But now I learned what to do.  There were computers and email and it was so much easier to send my stories out into the world, even the ones bound up so tightly.

     I read every single comment twice so as not to miss anything. I learned how write a short cover letter, email editors and pressed send.  I felt such a release pressing that button, admitting my truths even if it was only to one person.  I would wait now, as I did only months ago at the hospital.  Would I finally bring something into the world that had not been there before? I patiently waited.

    My first reply from the New York Times, It actually caught someone’s eye but was ultimately rejected.  A week later it was published on another popular site.  My stories, the words that I made on my own, sans chemicals, were birthed into the world.  I was never so afraid of anything as this, the world knowing my secrets, my shame.  My own parents didn’t know what I had done.  And then it happened.  I set them free, sprinkled them into the universe and the world embraced me.  They still do, over 50 essays later.

    The feeling of sharing my work is still bitter sweet.  As a writer you are so vulnerable, so raw that you open yourself up to great criticism and judgment.  Yet, overall, I am amazed at how well my words are received, how many people write me to tell me I inspired them.  These words I hold onto when I feel like giving up. I also know that if I became a mother, I would not be a writer – not now anyway – that one took the place of the other.

    I am still a teacher.  I am still single.  But I am no longer without endowment.

    I am a writer.

    Let’s say that again.  I am a writer – a legacy I continue to breathe into the world.  And for now it will have to be enough.

     

    Elana RabinowitzElana Rabinowitz is a teacher and a freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and Woman’s Day. Samples of her work are available at elanarabinowitz.weebly.com Follow her on twitter at:@ElanaRabinowitz

  • Learning To Swim: An Anxiety Disorder Journey

    Women are more than twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders as men. Anxiety disorders are also more likely to show up earlier in a woman’s life. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and prevent sufferers from performing the simplest tasks, such as driving, flying, or running basic errands. 

    Marcia Kester Doyle suffered for many years from an anxiety disorder that evolved into depression, phobias, and an eating disorder. Recently, she acknowledged her need for help and found treatment.

    This essay is Marcia’s story of her journey with an anxiety disorder.

    learning to swim

    Clutching the door handle in the bathroom stall, I lean against the porcelain tile, the pink stone cool against my damp forehead. Above me, a fluorescent light bulb flickers and buzzes like a swarm of bees. I swallow hard against the tide of nausea that threatens to empty my stomach. Dropping my head between my knees, I suck in air, convinced by the staccato beat of my heart that I am dying.

    An image of my father surfaces: I’m five years old, and in my father’s opinion, too old not to know how to swim. He secures a Styrofoam bubble to my back before carrying me out to the ocean. Wading deep into the water, he bobs up and down against the waves that hit his shoulders. He raises me above his head, counts to three, then tosses me into the water.

    Terrified of drowning, I flail around helplessly in the murky water. “Keep kicking,” he shouts, but a wave flips me over, quickly pulling me under.

    Everything is dark. Struggling against a strand of seaweed hooked around one foot, I fight to stay above the surface, but the current is too strong.

    A hand reaches into the water and yanks me up into the sunlight. “You can’t stop kicking,” my father scolds. “Use your arms to stay afloat.”

    I try again. And again. My stomach burns from the amount of salt water I’ve swallowed.

    At the end of the day, I’m no better at swimming than I was when I arrived at the beach. Pulling a damp towel across my shoulders, I huddle against the car door as my father drives home in silence.

    A stall door slams shut nearby, and the image disappears. Twenty people are waiting in the courthouse lobby near the women’s restroom where I’m hiding and trying to avoid having a panic attack. Twenty prospective jurors anxious to see who will be chosen to serve on a DUI trial.

    Fighting to remain calm, I pacify myself with a number of excuses for leaving the courthouse in case the attorneys are foolish enough to think I’m capable of serving on a jury.

    I envision myself walking through the lobby, down the corridor, and out into the sun where it’s safe. You’ve got this…just step out of the bathroom, hold your head up, and act normal so no one will know you’ve lost your mind.

    Taking a deep breath, I push myself forward on shaky legs and exit the bathroom, my oversized purse swung protectively across my chest. The jurors have moved from their seats and formed a semi-circle around a man who informs the group that the case has been settled out of court. We are free to go home.

    Relief washes over me when I spot my husband’s car outside by the curb. Watching him navigate skillfully through midday traffic, I try to remember the last time I drove on the interstate. Twenty years, at least, long before my anxiety manifested into a disability that robbed me of doing the simplest activities.

    The anxiety was always there, swimming beneath a layer of feigned confidence in my childhood.

    Bullied in school for being overweight and for wearing a patch over one eye for a condition known as Mixed Dominance (where my left eye was overly dominant and a patch was required to strengthen the right), I woke each morning with a tightness in my stomach; the same sense of dread I felt every Sunday when my father drove me to the beach. My inability to master the simple body mechanics of staying afloat in the water created a deep sense of failure, and with it, the weight of shame that pulled me under the surface. I developed a learning disability in school that prevented me from grasping mathematical concepts or retaining information from textbooks. I felt inferior to my peers — slower academically and insignificant in their eyes, but I was too afraid to confide in my parents, who believed I was just an overly sensitive child. They couldn’t possibly understand what I was feeling because I didn’t understand it myself.

    When I started failing at school, my parents finally recognized that there was a problem. I was drowning in self-condemnation, experiencing the same sense of despair I felt when I was left kicking helplessly in the ocean during swim lessons. My parents sent me to a therapist for answers, but the weekly sessions only confirmed what I already knew: I was broken and unfixable.

    I learned to adapt by avoiding situations that triggered my anxiety, like feigning an illness or lying about my schedule so that I wouldn’t be expected to engage in social situations that made me uncomfortable.

    I prayed that my behavior would go quietly unnoticed and that my anxiety would disappear. But instead it spread, evolving into depression, multiple phobias, cutting, and an eating disorder that overshadowed my life. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the pressure to be as attractive and independent as my friends, I would stifle the anxiety by binge eating. This was followed by periods of guilt, self-loathing, and suicidal thoughts. I was damaged and useless; if I couldn’t love myself, how could I expect anyone else to love me?

    The year after I finished college, I went on my first blind date with a man who immediately set me at ease with his quirky sense of humor. Mac’s soft brown eyes, easy smile, and contagious enthusiasm won me over quickly. One night as we sat by the ocean, I told him that I was afraid of the dark water.

    On impulse, I opened up to him, exposing my vulnerabilities, something I’d never done before. He listened closely without judgment while holding me close. It was his gentle love that slowly coaxed me from the depths, one step at a time, until I discovered how to be buoyant. His patience and positivity gave me hope that one day I’d learn to swim without the fear of drowning.

    And it worked, at least for a while. After we were married, I managed to maintain a part-time job at home and raise four children. Everything was fine, as long as I stuck to a specific routine.

    I fooled myself into thinking that I’d been “cured,” but the truth was that my husband had given me a sense of security by making sure my anxiety was never tested. He became my enabler, doing the grocery shopping, running errands on the weekends, taking the kids to dance, karate, and choir practice, and routinely taking time off of work to drive me to appointments. Despite all of his efforts, eventually it wasn’t long before the anxiety crept quietly back into my life like the stealthy wolf that it was.

    The disorder had merely been hibernating under my guise as a functioning mother, when underneath it all, I was still living in fear of imminent disaster.

    The onset of menopause compounded the disease, unleashing additional symptoms related to my panic disorder.

    At one point, I couldn’t leave the house without checking the stove five times to make sure it was off. The front door had to be locked, unlocked, and locked again before leaving. And every time I sat behind the wheel of a car, my stomach clenched, my heart beating like a broken metronome.

    The anxiety had become a tangible thing, a paralyzing entity that prevented me from doing the simplest tasks that others took for granted: putting gas in the car, picking up the dry cleaning, taking the kids to the pediatrician, visiting friends, or getting on an airplane. I could do none of those things, and my attempts at hiding my anxiety from my children and friends was exhausting. I was too ashamed to admit that I had a disability, fearing that if my family knew the truth, I’d be labeled as weak and unstable.  

    It wasn’t until the day I attended my granddaughter’s first swim lesson that I started to make the connection to my anxiety. Sitting by the edge of the pool, I watched as she blew several bubbles before slowly submerging her face in the water. Soon after, she was venturing off the steps and kicking confidently from the railing. With the help of her parents, she learned how to roll onto her back and float, trusting that they’d never let her sink. In a matter of weeks, my granddaughter was gliding effortlessly through the water like the mermaid she pretended to be.

    Watching her progress in the pool, I realized that learning to swim takes time and trust, and with it comes confidence to navigate the water alone. If I trusted others to support me as easily as my granddaughter did during her lessons, I knew I could stay afloat without drowning.

    Acknowledging that this disability is a part of me, yet not allowing it to define me, is an ongoing process that requires patience and courage — the same qualities my fearless granddaughter exhibited in the water.

    Learning to let go of the safety rail to float on my own is the first step.

    As I wade deeper into the ocean, my feet sink softly into the sand underneath. Trusting the water to keep me buoyant, I float with the current, my head above the surface, and take one breath at a time.

    Marcia Kester DoyleMarcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humor book, “Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane” and the voice behind the popular midlife blog, “Menopausal Mother.” Her work has been featured on numerous sites, including The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Huffington Post, Woman’s Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, and Scary Mommy, among others.
  • That’s My High School: A Reunion

    by Melissa Uchiyama

    high school graduation

    That high school on TV and all over the news? Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? I graduated from that school. I do not know the current students, of course; I live far away. I only know their words, their speeches to Congress, their interviews and tweets.

    What were my friends and I doing at fifteen and eighteen? We were not dying from bullet wounds. We were not eulogizing our dear friends and peers when they died on Valentine’s Day from AR-15 wounds sustained at school, in classrooms. We did not understand how flimsy and inviting our state’s gun laws were, nor did we know the duplicitous power of the NRA.

    At seventeen, we were meeting over late-night doughnuts and coffee, sneaking cigarettes, and mostly, just being kids. What I remember of senior year is writing notes, reading poetry, singing Jesus and Mary Chain, hanging out. I tried mushrooms a few times. I did ballet. I fell in love with Morrissey and Langston Hughes and, thanks to our English teacher, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.

    These kids, now, are the ones wading in the deep end, even after having just swum with sharks.

    I am back there, in a way, when I see snapshots of the students just an hour prior to the shooting. I am back in our airy corridors with palm trees and 8 a.m. humidity, back with friends as we cry and muddle through our now-adult feelings. We are students, still, that onion of a person with nine-year-old feelings and fifteen-year-old smiles, with hearts that would love a carnation or rose from a certain crush. I am a child, still, a young adult; now, like an ever-widening tree, I have become a teacher and a parent.

    I am there and I am so far away. I moved to Japan ten years ago, and I never maintained friendships in college. I did not know how to bridge the gaps with friends, the ones in different social and academic circles when we were at Douglas. It was mostly like The Breakfast Club in my mind. What did any of us have in common? My teenage brain just didn’t know.

    Now that we alumni have returned, in a sense, through a shared Facebook page and private messages, I want to keep getting closer.

    I want to bridge the gaps that never needed to exist. For our generation, this is a kind of reunion. We know the value of community now. In a blink, over many seasons, we are suddenly middle-aged moms and dads, but we are also our fourteen and fifteen-year-old selves, trying to make sense of the world and not wanting to let the bad guys in.

    As part of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High alumni project, I wrote a letter to a student who will be returning to school. Actually, it may go to a returning teacher, cafeteria worker, custodian—we don’t know—but we need three thousand for when they come back to the place where their captor invaded their home and ruled with virtually ceaseless gunshots.

    I feel like a big sister, a protector, and counselor. If I were nearby and not over an ocean, I would volunteer. I’d bring meals to victims’ families. I’d ask to sit on the floor with the survivors and lead a writing workshop about their trauma.

    I have this spirit now that is itchy, doesn’t know what to do with itself. I want reform. I want a class ring, want my yearbook back that I threw out sometime when it wasn’t cool. I want wings for our kids and kevlar. I want them to know that we understand what it is to have a voice.

    My generation will not only hold them up, but we’ll hand out tissues and vitamins and give them bigger and better microphones should they need it.

    We’ll be mama bears and lawyers and writers and moms. We are the generation of parents, aunts, and friends who get it.

    We know how to step into steel-toe punk boots and be more badass than our anxiety. We need both safety and revolution.

    Turn up the fight song. Let’s roar over our communities with a heart to love and protect. Families and kids need our championing. They need good laws and banners on lawns. Every family deserves our loving eyes paying attention — eyes trained on the vulnerable places and the gaps where destruction comes in. I call for unity.

    Let’s wear our school colors with pride, a pride we did not perhaps know when we were young and snarky. I’ll be the one standing on the Tokyo platform in burgundy and silver, the one who asks about your day. I’ll greet you and your kids. I’ll meet you for coffee and art. We’ll talk from the heart and share what we’ve been doing all of these hours and days and years. We can discuss gun reform and how to protect our communities and homes from more loss. We can discuss why putting pressure on a wound is absolutely right, even though it seems like it’d hurt. I know we have so much to talk about. You know? It feels like a reunion.

    Melissa Uchiyama lives in Tokyo with her wonderfully loving, precocious clan. Her writing appears in such places as The Washington Post, Brain Child, Literary Mama, and within the HerStories Project anthology Mothering Through the Darkness.