Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Linda K. Schmitmeyer
“Pass the ketchup,” says Luke, already reaching across the dinner table to grab the Valu Time bottle from his big brother, John. I buy generic ketchup now, economy size, although there was a time when only Heinz graced our table.
It is a Friday evening in the spring of 1997, and our family is eating hamburgers and French fries. I didn’t bother with a salad—too much effort at the end of a workweek. I’m at one end of our small kitchen table, purchased at a farm auction in Ohio shortly after Steve and I were married. We brought it with us when we moved to Pennsylvania a decade ago, along with other hand-me-down furniture and a barn full of antique farm equipment. Steve had accepted a job with SAE International, an engineering society headquartered about thirty minutes north of Pittsburgh. The move wasn’t easy—it meant transporting several of Steve’s full-size farm tractors, a goat, a pet rooster, a pair of geese, a barn cat and her kittens, and our dog, Otto—but Steve and I were excited about what lay ahead.
Seated opposite me is my husband of twenty-two years, whose gray, impassive eyes track the ketchup bottle as it moves back and forth across the table. Thirteen-year-old Luke sits to my right; John, seventeen, and my daughter Elly, seven, are on my left. Keeping Luke and Elly apart makes for more harmonious family meals, a tradition I cling to despite our challenges and even if we’re only eating hamburgers and fries. I know Steve wants the ketchup but won’t ask someone to pass it. Instead, he’ll wait for the kids to finish and then reach across the table for it. Steve has changed in many ways since the onset of his mental illness several years ago. He’s emotionally erratic and more combative when the mania flares, typical of someone with bipolar disorder. But he’s also less confident in his interactions with others, hesitating to insert himself into any conversation. Never would I have imagined that this once-gregarious man would feel such uncertainty that he’d find it difficult to ask someone to pass the ketchup.
If I were feeling kinder, I’d enforce the traditional parenting roles in which I was raised. “Pass your father the ketchup,” I’d say, suggesting that a parent should be served first. But not tonight. I feel vulnerable, worn out, and unsure of how much more I can take of living with a man who depends on me for everything, from following his medication regime to knowing what day it is.
I’ve been seeing a counselor off and on for several years now. Mostly we talk about coping with the multitude of changes brought about by Steve’s illness: its effects on the children, the challenges of living with less money, my feelings of loss. At a recent visit, she asked me what I wanted from my relationship with Steve, and although I’d once told her that my life would be easier without him, I’d stopped short of saying I wanted out of the marriage. This time I answered, “I could never leave someone who’s sick.”
But that’s not what she asked, I thought to myself. “You wouldn’t leave somebody because they have cancer,” I added, trying again. Staying with Steve is tremendously difficult. For years now, I’ve been walking on eggshells around him, holding the family together while hoping the doctors will find medications to quiet his mind. I’m also always trying to accommodate him, giving in because I’m afraid he’ll have another “episode” and disappear for a day or two without telling anyone where he’s going. Leaving Steve feels impossible because he’s trying to get better, but I wonder how much longer I can endure such an emotionally lopsided relationship.
As I rub my fingers along the kitchen table’s chipped Formica top, I am reminded of my mother, who when faced with the many challenges of caring for her family frequently paraphrased a line from her favorite Robert Burns poem: “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.” Steve and I had planned to replace this table and some of the furniture we brought with us once he was established in his job. But that never happened.
I often think of my mother as I struggle to care for Steve and the children, especially now that there is less money than there used to be. She and my father, a baker, were ingenious when it came to providing for their large brood on his small salary. I’m the older of two girls in a family with ten boys. To make ends meet, Mother would sew our clothes and preserve hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables each summer, while my dad would mend our shoes and make laundry soap from lye and the bacon grease he brought home from the restaurant where he worked. Our lives were simple. I grew up in the 1950s in the small manufacturing town of Sidney, Ohio, and except for Sunday afternoon visits to relatives, our family traveled little. I was eleven years old the first time I left Ohio, and that was to see an aunt and uncle who’d moved to Indianapolis.
After high school, though, I wanted something more. I’d started talking about going away to college, which my father thought unnecessary. Early in my senior year when I was upstairs doing homework in my bedroom, a small pink-and-white room I shared with my sister, he appeared in the doorway. He’d just gotten home from the restaurant, and I knew something was up. He rarely initiated discussions with his children, preferring instead to leave the stickier issues of childrearing to Mother. “Why do you want to go to college?” he asked. To my father, who had grown up during the Depression and quit school after the eighth grade, a high school diploma was sufficient for a girl who was likely to marry her high school sweetheart. I didn’t have a clear-cut plan for what I wanted to do after high school, but I knew I wanted a life grander than the one I was living. Going away to school seemed like a way to make that happen.
I met Steve at the University of Dayton, a small Catholic college forty miles south of my hometown. He’d grown up on a dairy farm not far from Sidney and was studying mechanical engineering. We started dating in our senior year and married several years later. After graduation, he worked as an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, and I taught English at a nearby high school. A dozen years and two children later, Steve accepted the job at SAE. We were both excited about the move, the beginning of what I thought would be an exciting new chapter in our life together.
Less than three years after our big move to Pennsylvania, I learned while sitting at this table that Steve had quit his job at SAE. He hadn’t talked to me about leaving and didn’t have another job lined up. By then we had three children, and although I taught writing two evenings a week at a local community college, I was mostly a stay-at-home mom.
I’d heard Steve’s car pull into the driveway earlier than normal, which wasn’t unusual when he had to travel the next day. He oversaw committees of engineers who developed standards for the aerospace industry, and he traveled frequently in the spring and fall of the year. Sometimes I went with him. The year before Elly was born, we traveled to Moscow for a meeting—far grander than my trip to Indianapolis so many years ago. When he was going to be away for several days, he often tried to get home to be with the boys when they got off the school bus.
I was sitting with all three kids at the table, talking to the boys as they ate their after-school snacks. John was in fourth grade, Luke in kindergarten; Elly would turn one later that month. As I looked out the window, I saw Steve crossing the cement slab at the end of our driveway, which he and his father had poured shortly after we moved.
At forty, Steve was still handsome, slender, and fit, with only hints of gray in his sandy blond hair. From afar, he looked like a successful businessman in a dark suit, his tie with red stripes loose around his neck. I liked to tease him by saying that up close he still looked like a farm boy, with his big hands and easy smile. That day, though, I could see that his face was drawn. He looked tired and nervous, a rarity for this confident, highly energetic man. And when he walked into the kitchen, without preamble and while the kids munched on pretzels and carrot sticks, he told me he’d quit his job.
Later, out of earshot of the children, he explained what had happened.
He’d been talking to his boss, Glenn, who’d recently joined SAE. Steve didn’t particularly like working with him. They were discussing the new aerospace conference Steve was organizing at Wright-Patterson AFB, which he’d been asked to oversee because of his connections there. Planning a conference was less technical and more bureaucratic than Steve liked, and he often referred to the assignment as “glorified party planning.”
According to Steve, they were discussing an issue about the conference—nothing out of the ordinary, just another thing they didn’t agree on—when Glenn paused in the middle of the conversation. Then, as if wondering aloud, he asked Steve whether he thought SAE was a good fit for him. His tone was friendly, Steve said, “as if he knew I preferred engineering standards over organizing a conference. He didn’t sound like someone who wanted to fire me.”
The conversation continued, but Steve could see that something was on Glenn’s mind. Never one to dance around a conversation, he confronted his boss point blank: “Glenn, do you think I should leave SAE?”
Glenn’s lower lip quivered, Steve said, but he said nothing.
“I told him, ‘Fine,’ and slapped his desk. ‘I’m out of here.’ And I went right to Judy,” who worked in Human Resources, “and told her I was quitting.”
Steve soon found an engineering sales job in a small machine shop, only to be laid off six months later; this was followed by another sales job that lasted only four months. Then a college friend set him up as a technical sales rep for the plastics industry, and he started working from an office in our home. But sales were slow and our money stretched thin. I’d found full-time work at a weekly newspaper shortly after Steve left SAE, but my salary fell far short of what he’d made as an engineer. To get by, we sold the tractors and farm equipment he’d hauled from Ohio.
Around this time, Steve’s mood began to change. The high spirits and animation that marked his early years were replaced by lows I’d not seen in our twenty years together. I would come home from work and frequently find him lying on our bedroom floor instead of working in his office. Steve had acquired the habit of relaxing on a floor from his father, who between farm chores would lie on the living room carpet because his work clothes were too dirty for the couch. When I’d urge him to work harder in his sales job, telling him that we needed his income to pay the bills, he’d complain that he didn’t have the energy for work anymore.
“I just don’t have the interest,” he’d say, his words angering and confusing me. Sometimes I would call him lazy, and a fight would ensue. Other times I tried reasoning with him.
“Do you think I want to work all the time?” I’d say, and without waiting for answer, add, “I do it because I have to. I do it because my family needs me.”
I often thought of his listlessness as a “mid-life crisis,” figuring he was tired of our life together and wanted out of the marriage. He protested, saying he still loved me, yet fell deeper into lethargy. When I urged him to see a psychiatrist, he agreed, and she diagnosed him with “situational depression” and prescribed Prozac.
Although the antidepressant temporarily lifted his spirits, Steve continued to have trouble focusing on his engineering sales job. He began talking more about his concern with SAE’s vice president, who was in charge of the society’s day-to-day operations. Under his leadership, Steve said, the nonprofit neglected engineers working in their fields and focused too much on fundraising for SAE’s Foundation, which had been established recently to support math and science education in high schools. He felt that the society needed a change in leadership and spearheaded an effort to make that happen. Although he hadn’t worked there in several years, he was still a member of the Pittsburgh-area chapter and attended monthly meetings, where he talked to anyone who’d listen about his campaign against the VP. He also began spending more time at SAE headquarters’ library, gathering information on the society’s mission and obtaining the addresses of the board of directors, the members of which he planned to write with his concerns.
This was the early 1990s, and not even his psychiatrist thought of Steve’s obsession with his former employer as mania. For many years, Steve had been a champion for SAE and its mission. He became a member of the student chapter in college, and when he worked at Wright-Patterson, membership in the Dayton chapter soared, due mostly to Steve’s promotion of it. His efforts were recognized nationally when he was named one of the society’s three Outstanding Young Engineers the year before he was hired as an SAE staff engineer. To me, though, his campaign against the vice president was just a diversion from his floundering sales job, and we argued bitterly.
“Why are you so worried about SAE now?” I wanted to know. “You left three years ago. Give it up!”
When he’d ignore my plea, I’d continue, “You spend so much time trying to fix an organization that doesn’t care about you anymore. What about helping a family that needs you? I can’t do this alone.”
If I persisted in my efforts, he’d often say, “Somebody’s got to stand up for what’s right,” a phrase I heard regularly as he became more and more engulfed by the mania.
Eventually, Steve’s fixation caused us to separate, at least temporarily. Two months after moving out, he attended an SAE convention in Detroit with the hope of being able to address the board of directors about his concerns with the vice president’s leadership. Although he didn’t get to address the board, he did meet with its president, who told him to give up the cause and go home. With the convention drawing to a close and the window of opportunity to “fix” his beloved society narrowing, Steve went on a rampage through the convention center until the police arrived and hauled him away in handcuffs. He was hospitalized for a month, and his diagnosis of situational depression was changed to manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s called today.
Three years later, after a mood stabilizer failed to quiet his obsessive thoughts about the engineering society, Steve’s diagnosis was changed to schizoaffective disorder, which has some of the symptoms of schizophrenia but also the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder.
“Is there no end to this?” I asked my therapist after I told her of the change. We were talking about how doctors, lacking reliable biological markers that would signal a mental illness, rely mostly on a patient’s behaviors when diagnosing a mental condition. I remembered Steve’s abrupt departure from SAE, seven years earlier. It was the first symptom of his mental instability, although no one thought of it that way at the time.
Coming to grips with a severe mental illness takes a long time. Oddly, the breakdown in Detroit helped. Putting a label on Steve’s campaign against the vice president was the first step in helping me to understand that he’d changed as a result of a medical condition, not because he didn’t love me anymore.
But it’s still hard for me to accept that people can’t simply control their thoughts and actions; the idea runs contrary to the deeply seated notions of my youth, when my parents showed through their lives how one could overcome most challenges by merely setting one’s mind to the task. What I didn’t know then, though, was that you can’t always rely on your mind to meet those challenges. Once energetic and determined, Steve can no longer trust his own mind to see things as others do. And even though I don’t fully understand the changes of the past several years, I try not to let the children sense my uncertainty.
Our son John tries to be stoic and helpful; that’s his nature. He takes on a fatherly role, reading books to Elly at bedtime—something Steve can’t always do. Elly, in contrast, is emotional. She cries when upset, and she’s especially affected when Steve’s paranoia flares and he leaves home unexpectedly. He’ll drive the countryside for hundreds of miles, stopping only to buy gas or eat at a fast-food restaurant. He’ll park his car facing the road, afraid that someone is following, intent on stopping him from pursuing his cause against SAE. When Steve leaves like this, Elly comes to my bed in tears.
“When is Daddy coming home?” she’ll ask. I’ll reassure her that it will be soon, and pulling her close, I’ll rub her back and stroke her fine blonde hair.
“Take a deep breath and hold it,” I’ll say, helping her relax. When her breathing evens out and she is asleep again, I’ll worry about how Steve’s illness will play out in the lives of our children. On many of these nights, I think of Luke, who’s had the most trouble accepting Steve’s illness. A child with his own challenges—he was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school and has a learning disability—he did better growing up in an environment with clear-cut rules, where black and white didn’t overlap and where sickness and health were separate. Once, when he was in middle school and I was trying to explain his father’s behaviors as symptoms of an illness, he shot back: “He could control himself if he wanted to. If you put a gun to his head, he could control himself!”
But I also feel sorry for Steve. The drugs make him lethargic, too uncertain of himself to ask someone for the ketchup. Yet he perseveres in the hope of getting back some of his life. Since Detroit, he regularly visits a psychiatrist and a therapist, and they help him to understand the changes in daily life for people with mental illnesses. Before the appointments, Steve and I prepare a list of questions and concerns about what’s happened since his last visit. And because Steve’s short-term memory is impaired from both the medications he takes and his altered mental state, we also write down any shifts in moods and thinking the doctor or therapist should know about. He also attends support group meetings, and has participated in vocational retraining through a government program that helps people with disabilities find work. He won’t work as an engineer anymore, though; the stress would be too great.
I know that Steve’s mind still festers with thoughts about SAE, despite his awareness that he can’t act on them. After Detroit, when Steve was discharged from the hospital and came back home to live, we had an unspoken agreement that he would no longer pursue his vendetta against his former employer. “You’ll know he’s getting better when SAE is no longer important to him,” a nurse had told me when he was in the hospital. I often remind him of this.
Yet, in one of the notes he prepared for his therapist, he wrote about his fear of my leaving him if he persisted in his cause: “If I do write the letters [to the board of directors], I think I could work better or look for a job better. Also SAE wouldn’t invade my mind when I’m raking leaves, driving the car, or trying to sleep. I went through my SAE box and put my complaints on sheets of paper, [but] I don’t think I’ll send these because Linda won’t put up with it.” For years Steve had carefully guarded the information he collected about SAE, which he kept in a cardboard box in his bedroom closet.
Steve watches Elly as she puts ketchup on her burger and fries, placing the bottle back on the table when she’s finished.
I soften; he’s a good man who’s lost so much.
“Pass your dad the ketchup.”
Looking up from her plate, Elly grabs the bottle with both hands and hefts it toward her father, who takes it without comment.
Living with a mental illness has changed my life tremendously, but I’m okay, I remind myself, and my family is still intact. “The best-laid plans . . .”
Over the past several years, I’ve unwittingly crafted my own mantra. I say it often, at times like this, when I feel saddened and overwhelmed: “To get to the end without being bitter.” It might not be as poetic as my mother’s, but it helps me to persevere.
Linda K. Schmitmeyer is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.