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Day twenty-four

November 24, 2016

The last time I saw The Nurse, she gave me a brochure to read about coping mechanisms to keep anxiety in check. Not that I suffer from anxiety, but, she said, she thought I’d be able to see how similar mechanisms could be used to tackle depression.

This morning I finally read the brochure. It was interesting, I suppose, but I wasn’t really getting anything out of it that I thought would be useful for coping with depression without mind-altering meds. Then I got to the final paragraph:

Dare to be average

Anxious people often believe that they have to be better than average or they will be judged as inadequate and not liked. If it were true that only above average people were acceptable this would mean more than half the human race is unacceptable. If you dare to let yourself be average (or even below average in one or two areas of your life, you may be pleasantly surprised how relaxing this is and how forgiving and helpful others can be. Your averageness is a gift, allowing other the chance to shine and/or the chance to accept their averageness.

Now that really struck me. Not because I recognised myself in it, but because I recognised Mike.

He was a man crippled by anxiety. Despite decades of his professional life spent standing in front of large groups of students delivering lectures and imparting knowledge, he was also often crippled by shyness in social situations. He was terrified people wouldn’t like him just for what he was (a smart, funny guy).He felt the need to impress which occasionally at dinner parties manifested itself as incredible pomposity. He was never like this when we were alone. (Perhaps my memory is playing tricks with me here. Perhaps he did get pompous with me a few times in the early days. I can guarantee my reaction would have been to tell him to get over himself. If this was the case, obviously he did get over himself. Perhaps simply assured that I did indeed like him for who he was, not what he knew.)

Mike was the oldest of three children who grew up in suburban Montreal. I have no idea what went on in that household. There was no physical abuse, but there was a clear understanding that the only way to impress their rocket scientist father was to excel academically. Mike once told me about his sister coming home from school one day, excited because she’d scored 98% on a math test. When she shared this information with her father over the dinner table his immediate reaction wasn’t to congratulate her, it was to ask which questions she got wrong. Message clear: Not good enough.

I could go on about Mike’s dad. In many ways he was an interesting, cultured man, but he was also a man whose immediate, never-checked reaction to problems or even minor annoyances was to yell his head off. I cannot imagine how awful it must have been growing up cringing at the screaming displeasure of this man. Nor can I imagine growing up with a deeply anxious mother. (By the time I met Mike’s mother she had started her descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s. I assumed her constant worrying was part of the confusion of the disease, only later realising the disease had simply robbed her of whatever coping mechanisms she might previously have possessed.)

I do know that growing up with this combination of parents produced three truly fucked up adults.

Mike’s sister once told me, only half-jokingly, that the family motto was: When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

This was no joke. I know there is such a thing as learned behaviour (this is, after all, how racism is passed down from one generation to the next), but I find it completely baffling that both Mike and his brother turned into men who would shout their heads off at the least provocation – the printer jammed, there was no more coffee in the pot, a favourite tie had been misplaced. It was unbelievable that these grown men could behave like spoilt toddlers. (Mike’s sister, who’d clearly internalised whatever happened in her childhood home, simply oozed anxiety. It was sad to see, but at least she didn’t yell.)

I tried to make him understand that this random bellowing over trivial things was actually a form of mental abuse for me and for his teenaged daughter who came to live with us. I asked him outright if he used to cringe when his father was yelling the house down and he acknowledged that he had. But somehow the logical, rational part of his very high IQ brain couldn’t control the impulse. Then one day, when he’d started screaming about something in his study, I went in, got in his face and screamed, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?” He cringed. “See?” I said. “That’s what it’s like for us when you start yelling about nothing.” And he got it. I’m not saying the yelling stopped completely. It didn’t. It seems you can’t completely unlearn such deeply ingrained learned behaviour, but he did try to control the impulse – and when he failed, he would immediately recognise what he’d done and he would apologise.

Like many people who suffer from anxiety and/or depression, Mike self-medicated with alcohol. I don’t know how long it took before the self-medication turned into an actual addiction. Long before I met him. Looking back, I can’t believe how long it took me to figure out he was an alcoholic. By the time I did we were already living together.

For most of the next decade Mike was a non-practising alcoholic. He had a few spectacular tumbles off the wagon, but overall he kept his sobriety promise to me. Or so I thought.

One of the things it’s difficult to come to grips with when you live with an alcoholic is that they lie. And so, while he never drank when we were together, out of sight was apparently out of mind. When he and I went to Seattle to visit his friends, Mike did not drink. When Mike went down on his own, which he frequently did when he and his friend were co-authoring a book, he did drink. When he was away at conferences, he drank. When I was away for work or to visit my family in the UK, he drank. I suppose when you add it all up over the time we were together, he probably was sober eighty or ninety percent of the time. I don’t want to sound like his dad, but in this instance, 90% really is not good enough.

The most difficult thing for the partners of alcoholics to understand is why they are not enough. ‘You’ve got me,’ you think. ‘Why do you need booze?’  This, of course, misses the point. There is nothing rational about alcohol or drug addictions. They are as much physical conditions as they are mental. You can’t have a rational conversation with a flu bug. It just gets on with what it does.

Given all this, the yelling and the drinking and the lying about drinking, why did I stick around? Trust me, I’ve asked myself the same question. And the answer is always the same: Because I admired the passion with which he campaigned for peace and disarmament and because, when the anxiety was under control, when he was relaxed and at ease, he was a  smart, funny, loving man.

When I spoke at Mike’s memorial service in 2011, I closed with these words.

“Mike had his flaws – as we all do. His tragedy was his inability to properly see what others saw so clearly: that he was a wonderful man in so many ways. Our tragedy is that this wonderful man will no longer be a physical presence in our lives. If ever there was a man who was entitled to rest in peace, it is Mike.”

Afterwards, his sister came up to me and said, “I’m so glad you said that. It really was his tragedy.”

Anxiety’s a bugger. Alcoholism is a bugger. Men should never yell – let alone for no reason – in front of their children. Good people are destroyed.

From → Black dog diary

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