By Patricia Karamesines
PATRICIA KARAMESINES is the author of The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004). Her poetry appears in both Harvest (Signature Books 1989) and Fire in the Pasture (Peculiar Pages 2011) and has also been published in Dialogue and Irreantum. She is an adjunct instructor at Utah State University–Eastern Blanding.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 2011, our dog Sky died of old age. Upon her death, my son, Saul, and I swaddled her in a sheet. He moved her onto a plywood board outdoors until we could bury her Thanksgiving Day.
Truth is, Sky had never been an ideal pet—she posed a threat to any animal smaller than herself—yet we felt her absence instantly. Her death added to losses that had accrued over the year, deepening a debt of living our family had no idea we’d taken on until the cosmic loan sharks began showing up, gin-grinned, baseball bats in hand.
The latest trouble began in 2010 when my husband, Mark, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. An MRI revealed dozens of malformed blood vessels, prone to seep and rupture, riddling his brain. One of the largest had burst, resulting in numerous deficits: some loss of speech and fine motor skills plus many other disabilities, including partial blindness.
But in 2011 the biggest deficit erupted in his personality like a psychological solar flare. Six months prior to Sky’s death, Mark had developed a rapid-cycling, bipolar-like disposition. One day in July, as we drove home from town, he broke into a rant so forceful I pulled the car off the road for our safety then sat paralyzed as he shouted out the window, cursing God and man. His speech so closely resembled the ravings of Shakespeare’s King Lear that I began orienting myself by that paradigm:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
Moments before I stopped the car, Mark had been listing the ways I had thwarted his plans over the years. I’d sat quietly, not knowing what to say, but my silence provoked him.
“Are you listening to me?” he bellowed.
“Yes,” I said softly. “You think I’ve betrayed you.”
“You all have!” he thundered, meaning the kids and perhaps scores of shadowy folk inhabiting the high court of his irrationality.
Following this paroxysm, he became withdrawn but agitated.
The next day, he approached as I sat writing at my computer. Seeing the fierce look in his eyes, I braced for another outburst.
“Do you think I’m . . . unintelligent?” he asked.
“I think you’re brilliant,” I said, keeping it simple. It was the truth.
His eyes flashed with disdain.
“Did you ever even like me?” he asked.
“I love you. I always have.”
He didn’t respond but turned and headed toward the basement to his man cave.
I sat staring at the computer screen in shock. Before these episodes, he’d experienced a few medication-caused personality breaks, short-lived because I called attention to them. Trusting me, he experimented to discover which medication was the culprit. Once he isolated the offender, he quit it and returned to equilibrium.
But this time I was the focus of his paranoia. My ability to help him had crumbled. Having no experience with mental illness, I didn’t know what to make of his behavior. The person who’d asked those sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth questions was someone as far opposite of the Mark I knew as Mr. Hyde was of Dr. Jekyll.
But he was my husband. Both of him.
I weighed what to do and decided to go after him. To prepare, I took a deep drink of water, used the bathroom, and changed my special-needs daughter’s diaper. I told Saul, “Something’s wrong with Dad. I’m going down to talk to him. Stay alert. If I tell you to call 911, do it immediately. Don’t pay attention to what he says. Listen to me.”
At the top of the stairs, I hesitated.
“I’ve never faced a dragon like this,” I said to Saul. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Then I went down, loosening my imaginings about what could happen, limbering up my mental state.
I spent the next five hours trying to find Mark in whatever place he’d gone to. “Are you having a bad reaction to some medication?” I asked.
He scoffed. “What difference does it make what I say?” I understood him to mean that it didn’t matter what I said. On a hunch, I returned to the questions he’d asked earlier.
“You asked me two questions upstairs: Did I think you were unintelligent and did I ever even like you. I said that I thought you were brilliant and that I loved you. Did you believe my answers?”
“After twenty years of being snubbed by you, I don’t believe them,” he said.
I had to move fast to mentally outrun the pain such words could inflict. It was of highest importance that I not snatch his wildly shot arrows out of the air and stick them in my chest. He said I began cutting him out of my life years ago, listing what to him were irrefutable examples of mistreatment. I listened, scrambling to quiet my impulses toward fear, humiliation, panic. Our household is a language-rich environment. The highly metaphoric, playful, and intimate language we’d developed had been one of the most potent wellsprings we’d tapped to overcome tremendous problems, including the birth of our special needs daughter, Teah, nineteen years earlier. But as I sat listening to the torrent of accusations, I wondered if there was any language anywhere strong enough to retrieve him.
Upstairs on my bookshelf sat personal journals I’d kept for thirty years. They contained a story of our marriage from its beginning, and, I hoped, language that might reach Mark. “I’ll be right back,” I said and hurried upstairs. I brought four books down from the early years of our marriage, not remembering exactly what was in them but knowing they contained proof of my love for Mark and the kids. The following is a sampling of entries I read that day.
July 20, 1989. I haven’t kept a journal since August 1988. I was living in Provo, seeing a lot of a young man named Mark. On November 19, 1988, in a room warm with candlelight, sweet with the smell of hot wax, he knelt down on both knees and asked me to marry him. We were married in March 1989 in the Provo Mormon Temple. What a garden we’d discovered together, and how we both changed!
At the end of May we tried to conceive a child that we might fulfill the commandment given to us in the temple, “Multiply and be fruitful.” In June I became disappointed, thinking there was no child. I’d barely given up expectations when I noticed a change. My breasts enlarged and became tender beyond any swelling they’d ever had before. A test confirmed we’d conceived. On learning I was pregnant I felt a wave of emotion but saved the tears ‘til later when I told my husband he was a father. He burst out with a joyous, “I am?” and we held each other.
Nearly two months have passed. Frightened and shocked by the changes in my body, I became increasingly emotional until I hardly recognized my own soul. I developed aversions to food and colors that previously pleased me. The upheaval was a torment. My poor husband. Resentful as I was of this change, I only made my sorrows infinitely worse. He didn’t know what to think. Still, he held me at night and I often woke in the morning encircled by his arms. Such patient tenderness smothered my fears, among them the belief that I was undesirable company [. . . .]
July 27, 1989. Since accepting my state I’ve been happier. Both Mark and I are cheerful and easy with love for each other. How many times during the day does he rest his forehead against my cheek, or embrace me, or bare my spine and tickle me with a barrage of kisses along that very sensitive chord of my life. His face is a sun of happiness, radiant and clear. We exchange dozens of little love jokes during the day. Our home is a peaceable kingdom [. . . .]
November 26, 1989. It has been a pleasure having Mark working beside me in the kitchen, sleeping beside me in our bed. Things haven’t changed in our marriage—we still feel deeply grateful to each other; tenderness and playfulness rule the house. Life has become so simple, we have so much fun, and we agree on so many things. To say we’re happy doesn’t really capture the whole of it. We feel blessed beyond our greatest hopes. Neither of us imagined life could be this good. Our thankfulness is part of the house’s atmosphere.
January 8, 1990. [. . .] He holds me close at night and doesn’t neglect me; he tells me how precious I am; he strokes my belly, inside which the [baby] squirms and kicks; he does everything within his power to see to my well being. When he cleans the oven in the upstairs apartment, which he has forbidden me to touch, he spends hours and comes back with oven-cleaner burns, and he’s tired and dazed, but he still cuddles me to him and tells me I’m the one thing he never feels disappointed in.
January 29, 1990. Last night, Mark sat in the rocker and I on the floor against his knees while he stroked and played with my hair and brushed my neck and face with his hands and lavished many kinds of soothing and consoling attentions on me [. . . .]
October 3, 1990. Saul was born on March eighth. Mark stayed fixed to the side of the bed during the birth, intently and calmly offering me any physical support I needed. After the birth, Mark followed Saul’s every move and held his hand while he was in an oxygen tent. At one point, when the nursery cleared for a moment, Mark gave his son a blessing [. . . .]
Once home with our newborn son, I monitored every meal, every breath, every movement. I loved him with a manner of love I never knew existed. My feelings for Mark intensified. I thought his devotion and protective instinct heroic. Several times a day he exclaimed how beautiful Saul was and thanked me [. . . .]
January 18, 1991. I am proud of [Mark’s] courage in our marriage and grateful for his tenderheartedness, which has a depth to it that I have never seen in any other man. He is handsomely intelligent, or perhaps it’s that he’s intelligently handsome [. . . .]
I continued reading entries, year following year, for two hours. Suddenly, Mark interrupted.
“Stop!” he commanded. I stopped. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Where is this going? I know what happens after this—a spiraling descent into misery.”
“You asked if I thought you were unintelligent and if I ever really liked you. I said that I thought you were brilliant and that I’ve always loved you. I’m reading this to provide evidence for my answers. Do you believe them now?”
He paused. “Those are your words written in your voice, so it’s the truth,” he said, his tone perceptibly softer. “You can’t fake that.”
Finally, a breakthrough. But I didn’t dare assume how much of one it was. During the rest of the time, I conceded to his demands about what I needed to do to secure the family’s future. Insight I had gleaned from raising a special-needs daughter who suffered anxiety attacks during infancy had taught me that trying to correct Mark’s “wrong thinking” would do no good. In his contracted state, he needed his prospects opened—not me insisting on how wrong he was.
Here’s the thing about mental illness. Even though, as Mark said later, he “had never been so wrong”, in his shattering words I saw gleams toward which my mind turned attention. No language, no matter how badly mistaken, is devoid of meaning, relevance, and effect. Wrong words attended to closely can prompt an inner eye to focus to a greater depth of field and see matters from revelatory angles. Even in broken language, one can find bright slivers of truth. In this case, I agreed to find work at a local college in order to support the family, because he felt that providing for our survival “was over” for him. I didn’t feel the certainty he did that his provider days had ended, but until we figured out what was going on, I needed to secure our future.
We both felt exhausted at the ordeal’s end. The tension was far from dissolved, but we emerged from the cave together, Mark with enthusiasm restored for the future; me, hopeful that we had relieved some of his anguish. I took care of Teah—her feeding was overdue and her diaper had swelled beyond containment—and assured Saul that I was okay. Mark went straight to bed and fell into a deep sleep, exactly as I’d hoped he would.
The next morning while Mark still slept, I made phone calls. I told the manager of a local clinic that I’d only seen Mark behave like this when he’d begun a new medication.
“Has he started a new medication?” she asked.
“No,” I said. But her question dropped a few facts into place. A cardiologist had recently doubled a prescribed dose of a drug that Mark seemed to tolerate. That could be the cause of his latest personality crash, but to find out, I needed to talk him into seeing his doctor. How to manage that?
As I walked by the bedroom, Mark appeared in the doorway looking like himself rather than a paranoid king. There was pain and confusion in his eyes, but I saw with relief that he looked at me, not at a heartless Jezebel. His first words, in a familiar voice much changed from the night before, were, “I’m sorry, honey. You don’t deserve this.”
“We both know this isn’t about what we deserve,” I said. We’d talked about this. Nothing we’d done separately or together could account for the hardships we’d faced since shortly after marrying. If we went by the popular “you get what’s coming to you” transactional model of justice employed in many modern cultures, only a pair of heinous criminals could have behaved badly enough to come to such punishing conjuncture. Something potent was certainly at work in our lives, but “just desserts”? Huh-uh.
The earth strains beneath language preserving the divide between the haves and have-nots, the blessed and the cursed. In Christian scripture, Jesus devoted himself to upending the retributive brand of justice born hundreds of years earlier as the Law of Moses. In Jesus’ time, the Law was invoked to shore up legal and religious justification for shunning or killing the “not us” (not of the tribe) and, within the tribe, women, animals, or—when reasons seemed compelling—men, including Jesus himself. It was a law prescribing vengeance for all perceived wrongs, from those done to you by others to those you committed yourself and for which animals died in your stead. It bolstered the belief that if something unpleasant happened—especially to someone perceived as unclean or not upholding social codes—then she must have done something to deserve it: God must have had his way with her.
Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus exerted the great rhetorical force of his Sermon on the Mount to break the stranglehold the Law of Moses had held for generations on his people. He flipped the laws over to expose their softer side every chance he got, opening up the narrative.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Then there’s the wry, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even to them”—a twist to the Law of Moses meant to disarm its embedded hit-back code. You can’t, he said, judge the uprightness of another person’s life by whether good or evil befalls her, “for [God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
The eye-for-an-eye philosophy built into the Law of Moses wasn’t unique to the Jews.
“Tsekung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word shu, reciprocity. Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” (Analects).
“Comparing oneself to others in such terms as ‘just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,’ he should neither kill nor cause others to kill” (Sutta Nipata).
“One going to take a stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts” (Yoruba proverb).
To Mark’s sorrow, he remembered everything he’d said and done the two days prior. But more importantly, he agreed to see his doctor. I hurried to get him there before the window of clarity closed. As I drove him to the ER half an hour away he talked non-stop, expressing fears that he was coming unhinged. I could tell he was already beginning to cycle upward. I said, “I think it’s the meds.” His psychological symptoms weren’t the only indicators. He’d become severely congested, suffering a constant flow of mucus and saliva that made him cough and gag whenever he lay down. Involuntary tears ran from his eyes.
At the hospital, our PCP did research and learned that at higher doses the medication the cardiologist had doubled starts to target organs beyond those intended, including the heart and brain. One side effect is the possibility of personality change. The heightened production of body fluids was the result of the new burden placed on Mark’s adrenal system.
The PCP said he’d never before seen someone successfully “talk down” a person from the heights of paranoid delusions and convince him to come in for help. We stopped the medication, and the symptoms receded, but Mark had passed a turning point. Over the next several months, symptoms of rapid cycling bipolar 1 behavior intensified. None of these episodes reached the heights of July’s King Lear episodes but each demanded my attention, often deep into the early morning hours. People who suffer bipolar 1 manias don’t need sleep. Rendered superhuman by errant brain chemistry, they shadow you around the clock for days, ensconcing you in the seat of honor in their banquet hall of personal demons.
On Thanksgiving Day, Saul and I lowered the old dog into the grave we’d dug. I laid alongside her the remains of fond hopes that life would one day turn serene. Recent developments had burst the seams of that too-tight desiderata. If I kept trying to force a fit, they’d eventually choke me into unconsciousness. By whatever power, we’d been pressed into deep layers of life that held no guarantees of safety or peace—only incessant calls for prodigious effort.
Hang peace and safety anyway. I’ve tasted their lotus blossoms. My mind savors them a moment then spits them out. Clearly, these events were opening steps in a greater journey. Getting anywhere from here requires loose-fitting clothing and language roomy enough to suit big changes in worldview. Technological progress gives the impression that change occurs as the result of free enterprise, wildcard genius, or heaven-sent inspiration. But more persuasive are those trenchant events that compel us to abandon mental settlements that no longer hold up. Old narratives for new—Mark and I were trading up to a world we hadn’t known existed and whose vicissitudes we’d perhaps survive if we climbed out of the wreckage of ideals we thought were ours to have and to hold. And making a go of that requires better wording—flexible, adaptive language that offers us, and the world touching us, Godspeed.