Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hanging Up

I think my friend is losing her mind. Has lost her mind. There doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it, but what's worse? I don't know that I even want to.

Having grown up in different parts of the same state, we met as juniors in college when we applied for the same campus job. Our dorm complex advertised for 12 people to work at the 24- hour reception desk in the main lobby. We were both hired.

She always seemed more resourceful than me. She had more interesting and profitable summer jobs, dated guys with whom she didn't get too hung up on when the relationship ended and exhibited an upbeat and happy exterior. She never stressed about anything.  As a Marketing major she was practically guaranteed to make more money than someone like me who was naively but stubbornly majoring in Secondary Education.  When we weren't at school or work we would meet up with others for pitchers of beer at a well-known bar on the north side of campus and occasionally, she and I went for a run. She was not my best friend, but there seemed to be at the time a sort of dormant potential for something deeper.

We kept in touch after graduation. Long-distance phone calls and weekend visits where I did the traveling. She introduced me to Gary Larsen's "Far Side" cartoons and demonstrated how she could prompt herself to wake up at a designated time without the use of an alarm clock. I was perpetually poor and envied the occasional modeling gigs which augmented her regular paycheck and the generic good looks which photographers seemed to go for. The last time we saw each other as single women we shopped, took a long run through a wooded park, and spent the afternoon at her apartment pool. I returned to my tiny studio apartment tanned, rested and clutching a recording of "Songs From the Big Chair".

I married and had a family. Several years later, she did the same and then moved to California. I met her husband only one time when they were in town for a golf tournament and he seemed like a nice enough guy. By then we touched bases only at Christmas, except for the time when her father died and I had just called out of the blue. Come to think of it, I was always the one who called. She was staying at her parent's home and I remember cradling the phone with one hand and stooping to straighten the Batman comforters on the boy's bunk beds as we talked. After that...she sort of disappeared.

In those early days of the internet, picking up the trail of a woman with a new last name (Damn tradition and the loss of identity!) was not that easy. Seven or eight years had passed and after quite a bit of digging, the reasons for which I don't entirely understand now, I discovered that she and her family had returned to our home state and she was living 45 minutes away. As always, I made the first move to visit.

She was different. Still the same, but then not. Enthusiastic one minute and then brittle and dismissive the next. Why had I never noticed her dislike for progressive politics? How ruthlessly concrete her ideas were about who was ruining the country! How easily she served up Jesus as the answer to everything with one hand while using the other to pour sour judgement over any thought which did not line up with hers? There seemed to be no middle ground. We ate lunch at a trendy cafe/grocery and she told me about her new start up furniture business, but it was during a long walk that I first noticed how infrequently she asked me about my own life and how anything I did say seemed to spark random torrents of unrelated words from her. I might start a sentence or  a story and she would interrupt with a steady flow of  stridently declarative expositions--one after the other-- with only the briefest of pauses for a breath in between to change topics. Complaints about her husband. A veritable fatwa against all social media. That day a shy word tapped lightly at the back of my brain, but it wasn't until later that--much like one of those old Polaroids that took some time to completely develop--showed itself: manic? The afternoon was exhausting and by the time I left, I felt somewhat certain that I would not seek her out her again.

Except...of course...I did. This past summer I dug in again. The internet offered up so little that I found myself wondering if she had divorced her husband and the cell number I had was no longer valid. Surprisingly, I found a bare bones Facebook account for her. It didn't even have a photograph. I sent a message and eventually she replied with a new cell number and a few months later I used it to call. I regret that now.

She was angry when she answered the phone. Almost shouting. Not at me, but I had apparently caught her in the middle of an emotional tirade as she was driving. She verbally skirted past the preliminary niceties typically used in phone conversations. Did I know that she had nearly died last year after surgery? I did not. Didn't I think husbands should be more supportive of their wives? With no real background information as to why she would ask,  I agreed that this was so. Why would a husband call his wife stupid in front of their children and give her a series of orders ending with the phrase, "Do it because I said so". To this I replied that her husband was not her boss and that marriage did not give a man the right to tell his wife how to live her life.

She exploded. "I have chosen to live a servant's life in obedience to my husband!" she yelled. "This is how God wants wives to behave!" I told her that I did not hold with that view of marriage, but even in cases where a relationship is forged within these guidelines, there were rules for both people and not just the wife. She did not seem to hear me because she was on to the next topic. It was as though she was swinging through the jungle from vine to vine-- grabbing onto the next thought and the one after it. Her kids did not respect her. She felt abused. Physically? She said not. "They" were ganging up on her. She asked if I knew a lawyer she could contact. Before I could answer she was talking about her mother and her sisters. They? Were siding with her husband.

She had been "homeless" for a week, but living in a hotel. Then, in an apartment. She'd spent Thanksgiving alone because no one wanted to be around her. She was sure there was a conspiracy against her. Her husband was telling her that she spent too much money. She lamented not having done anything to support her family, a remark which seemed a far cry from all the ventures I knew she had pursued. She had gone to her pastor for advice and during the meeting, grabbed the woman to demonstrate what she thought her husband was saying or doing. The pastor? Called the police. On her. Not out of concern that my friend was truly the victim of abuse (which I am now fairly certain she is not), but because the pastor (a female) thought she was in the presence of a dangerously unstable woman. My friend would ask me a random question and before I could answer she was shouting again.

"People are telling me I need medication!" my friend said  "I just think I need a husband who will fix the broken doorknob on the bathroom." (?) "I think a good husband should love his wife on all days and not just when she's having a good day, don't you?" Yes, but--  "I think I'm going to call my daughter and see if she will go shopping with me." She was calmer now and using a totally different voice. "Maybe we can go buy snow suits together. Maybe she will want to come to my apartment and play in the snow with some kids there. I know I want to play with some kids...." She faded off. It is important to note that at the moment she was saying this, icy roads were predicted for our area...but no snow. And the daughter of whom she spoke is a senior in high school. Do you know any 18 year old girl who wants to dress up in a snowsuit and then drive to her mother's apartment to play in the snow with "kids" she does not know?

I stood there in the middle of my kitchen watching through the windows as the cold darkness of evening closed in. I listened to my old college friend ramble about her sister staying for a weekend at a lake house (Theirs? Hers?) and then not inviting her. This was followed by more talk about their house and how it was a bad investment. That her husband did not seem to want her anymore, but she was also unwilling--despite her bid for obedience--to bend to his will since it was clearly wrong. I tried to follow the dizzying see-saw of her thoughts about her son and how she had not seen him recently. I asked her if he wasn't away at college and after a long pause she answered "yes" in a soft voice. Then she told me she was calling up everyone she had not seen in years and decided that they would be her new friends and support system. How she was driving home now from a trip to Costco. To her house or her apartment? She said yes but did not distinguish which was her destination. "Don't you think it's important to fix a crack in the pool?" she asked suddenly. "My mother told my husband that I'm not making any sense. How am I supposed to live when no one respects what I am saying? I can't believe my husband would expect me to fix dinner for him after I've been in the hospital. " You mean--right after you got out? "I mean that I never get any support and that my own children have turned against me."

 I continued holding the phone to my ear and while she delivered a jumbled collection of unrelated questions and statements about food and the status of a house she wasn't living in. About people plotting behind her back and then her plans for shopping.  Finally, when there was a pause in the flow of words, I told her I needed to go and that we would keep in touch.  And then I hung up.


  1. That's so sad. I wonder if it's something organic, or if years of trying to force herself to believe that she must be submissive to her husband is what drove her mad.

  2. I am not a medical doctor but I claim to be getting my degree from Google Scholar (which by the way is a great way to get serious medical information), but I fear for this woman's safety from herself and everyone else. She sounds very sick. I had a friend whose wife was manic and it was very complicated getting her help, which in the end did not work. You were right when you implied that conservative Christians believe in husbands and wives respecting each other with mutual deference and love. My heart breaks for this woman and I am grateful for no (yet!) known mental illness in my DNA. What a mystery. I don't think it's a coincidence you contacted her. Thank you for sharing. Your description of swinging from vine to vine, paints a vivid picture.

  3. Ishbaa...It's actually true that the decision to lead lives of mutual sacrifice and love knows no political or religious ideology. I know a lot of people from both sides of the aisle and different religious backgrounds who do this daily. Conservatives don't corner the market on this practice. However those who believe that the man is the ultimate authority (regardless of what he claims to offer the wife in "mutual exchange" of respect) tend to be conservative Christians. That said, I know you speak from a genuine place of concern and I respect it. Patience: I do think it's organic. I know of a couple of cases where a traumatic illness or surgery can trigger mental illness. I'm no doctor either, but listening to her talk is really disturbing.

  4. Wow. This is really heartbreaking to read --for both of you. Your acquaintance sounds like she needs some serious mental health counseling. How scary. I wonder if her odd relationship with you (and perhaps with others?) was always a result of mental illness?

  5. Mental illness is a slippery slope with many twist and turns. She sounds like an ex sister in law that was discovered to be mentally ill. She gave my brother a real run as she went through the roller coaster ride. Their son still suffers the effects. She needs help, now, can she get it.

  6. This must be terrifying for her. I hope she is exaggerating the isolation from her family and that they are trying hard to help her.

  7. I'm so sorry. You always read and hear that we should be taking better care of our mentally ill, but many people don't realize that they can be very hard to take care of!

  8. I wonder if trying to follow the religious expectations of her role set off an underlying mental illness. Many people carry the gene for ____________ but never manifest the systems. There is hard science that traumatic and stressful events can kick the defective gene into gear (I know my terminology is rough). It's funny how often it is never mentioned that it also states in the bible that a husband is supposed to treat his wife like Christ. Has anyone considered having her evaluated at an emergency room for a 72 hour hold so she can get stabilized?

  9. Very sad. Unfortunately it is very difficult to help adults with mental illness. My brother-in-law is clearly mentally disturbed, can't hold a job and disappears for long stretches of time. He is very difficult to talk with--he goes off on rants, and then suddenly starts talking about how he is a genius guitar player who has been shut out of his much-deserved stardom because people like Bruce Springsteen are jealous of his guitar ability. He goes through money like water, he trashed my in-laws condo--taking every cupboard and closet door off the hinges, giving away family heirlooms to tool strangers, piling screws and washers in paper plates around the entire place. He rejects help from anyone and everyone, suspicious of their behavior. He is always asking for money, but at this point we will only buy him food or clothing because cash just gets spent on his weird fixations. But he is an adult and refuses to show up for doctor appointments and any kind of meeting that my husband has tried to arrange to get help for him. How does anyone deal with this?

    Hang in there.

  10. Whether just extremely self absorbed or mentally ill, you can walk away with your head held high. That level of crazy is toxic for your life.

  11. Poor, poor sick woman. How heartbreaking for you to see your friend go from successful and vibrant to pathetic and broken like that. I hope she's getting help--or that someone with legal power gets her help. Mental illness like that is a hard thing to watch and I'm sure the fallout she's experiencing is making it even tougher to live through.
    Hugs to you, too, for having someone you care about be so sick.

  12. I hope she gets help. She sounds in a terrible state. I am not saying that religious people are all mentally ill, but the intense focus it sounds like she has on religion can be a sign of mental illness.


Be nice. It's not as hard as it sounds.