He did not set out to rescue me. He is not a martyr without goals of his own, and he is also not someone who thinks he can just swoop in and save the day. His thoughts and feelings about the situation are not all neatly defined, systematically organized, or carefully roped off in the heroic-thinking part of his brain. He is not a hero. Even if he had that mentality, there are no clear-cut solutions; and there are certainly no magic wands.
My husband is a real person with real complexity and real emotions that are messy. But he loves me, and, in many ways, I am still here because of him. He is part of my own unwitting-police-force-of-potential-survivors. And so far, he has chosen to stay with me—despite all the “near misses.”
Those are my husband’s words—“near misses.” From his perspective, every time I become severely depressed and I don’t succeed in ending my life it’s a “near miss.” I had never thought about it that way, but then again I don’t really know what it is like to be on the other side of it. He is the one who has to live with the helplessness, fear, anger, and sadness that he feels anticipating, hoping for, and then recovering from a “miss.”
Both of us are wrestling with my depression. We are both considering and calculating the risks. I worry about the potential survivors, while he worries about the possible loss. Although I would guess that the proximity to actually losing me is only part of the struggle for him. The constancy of living under these circumstances—the reality that the threat has always been there and will never go away entirely—must feel unbearable at times. When I think about this undue and inexorable burden on my husband, I find myself shuddering with insurmountable regret. It is my illness that does this to him, so the culpability seems like it has to be mine.
Recently, just after my husband had talked to me about the experience of living with “near misses,” I heard a story on the radio that stopped me in my tracks. In it a woman, who was living on the lam with her escaped-convict lover, said that she “knew what it was like to suffer for heroic love.” Those last two words grabbed me and racked me with guilt. It was not the first time I had ever heard that phrase, but on this day my thinking sort of went into slow-motion as I fixated on what those two words together really meant.
Was suffering for love a heroic act? Was my husband suffering because he had the misfortune of falling in love with someone like me? I know that on a bad day, I would feel absolutely sure that he was suffering and it was all my fault. But it was a good day when I heard the reference to “heroic love,” so I was trying to assess things in a more balanced way.
Honestly, I tend to bristle slightly whenever people use the word hero. Heroes by today’s standards are portrayed as so brilliant, magnanimous, and/or courageous that they somehow always manage—all on their own—to overcome adversity in pursuit of their unflinchingly and myopically focused goal to better the world. Collaboration, support, distraction, ambivalence, bias, ulterior motives, and selfishness never figure into modern day stories about heroes.
Unlike those imaginary, impossibly perfect characters, my husband is fallible. And yet, everyday he must choose whether or not to stay with me. He has to look at me as I am with all my problems, annoying habits, and imperfections, and decide. I suppose that is what we all do when we truly love someone.
Four weeks ago, in a post about why I started this blog, I mentioned a conversation that I’d had with my husband. I wrote about a pivotal moment when I became painfully aware that my failure to be more open about my health was hurting him tremendously. What I did not address in that post was why we had been having this discussion about living with depression.
We had quarreled about something that I can’t even remember now, and it had ended badly. My husband had blurted out something in anger that really hurt me. As a result, I was convinced the words that had come out of his mouth in that moment expressed everything he truly believed.
Once the two of us had calmed down some, we finally sat down to figure out why we both had gotten so upset. In trying to explain what had happened during our argument, my husband said something I will never forget. He said, “thoughts are not pristine.”
He is so right. Thoughts are not tidy little packages that can always be unwrapped, opened, and interpreted without any ambiguity, confusion, or conflict. And feelings, experiences, and memories are no different. They are also rarely uncomplicated, or “pristine.” This may seem absurdly obvious to most people, but I am someone who has a difficult time holding onto these realities. For whatever reason, it is easier for me to imagine things in fairly childish, black and white terms. I have to struggle to see the gray.
However, the truth is, sometimes it’s not all my fault. Sometimes there is no one to blame. And sometimes feelings of love, concern, and happiness get mixed up with feelings of anger, frustration, and fear. That’s just the way it is.
I think what bothered me so much about the woman on the radio—who felt she had “suffered for heroic love”—was in part the self-aggrandizing tone of her statement and in part her apparent misconception of love and heroism. The way she was using the word hero didn’t seem to account for doubt, frustration, fear, or anger, and the love that she was describing seemed entirely one-sided.
Maybe my husband will always have to suffer more than some people because he had the bad luck of loving someone with my particular issues (someone who has needed and may still need an inadvertent security force, or someone who may someday just skim by another near death). But he is not staying with me because he is a hero. That notion diminishes what he has done for me and what he might do for me again in the future.
Whatever happens between us it won’t be tidy, straightforward, or pristine, but it will be the best that each of us can do with what we have. And if I ever believe that either of us is choosing to stay in this relationship because of some abstract, lofty ideal of “suffering for the good of others,” then I will know it is no longer love that is keeping us together.