My husband couldn’t get out of bed and spent most of his waking hours in silence or crying. He experienced panic attacks. Soon my empathy for him began morphing into a dark affirmation – I didn’t deserve this. Then I realised I needed therapy too.
There is a picture of the two of us, taken eleven years ago. It was the week after our wedding and we’d taken a day trip to Ponmudi, a little hill station in Kerala. His face is tucked into the back of my head and his arms are wrapped tightly around me. He sports a grin that is one part wicked and two parts crazed with happiness. I am laughing so hard my plump cheeks, tinted by a fresh bridal glow, are exploding and reducing my eyes to slits.
Try as I may, I am unable to recall what elicited this perfect moment. I long to reach out to those two people we once were and steal their blissful oblivion of all that is to come. Surely they deserve to know how much it will take to survive a marriage that has weathered down in a decade.
The past year has been the hardest; ten years of togetherness that swelled into a dark period where we became the weakest versions of ourselves. I moved back to India from the Gulf and we were dealing with the transitory period of a long-distance marriage. Spontaneous as the life-changing decision had been, we did chalk out a contingency plan. He negotiated a flexible work schedule so he could shuttle back and forth. I took up freelance writing work to be able to follow my passion and give our daughter more attention.
Surely and slowly, the plan began crumbling. His heart was breaking every time he had to say goodbye to his little girl. I got too caught up with navigating life in Bangalore, a city I loved but had never lived in before. Both of us were submerged in the turmoil that comes with making brave choices, but somehow we couldn’t intersect and share our pain.
We had to build a solid support system – people who could help him cope when I wasn’t around.
The distance began taking its toll. Our conversations became mere updates, growing shorter each day. He’d always been the stronger one in the relationship and I assumed that everything was alright, ignoring the growing detachment in his voice.
I didn’t see the signs. I should have.
It began simply enough; he couldn’t get out of bed and spent most of his waking hours in silence or crying. He experienced sudden panic attacks. I held his hand whenever I could, listened to the words, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” countless times, wiped his tears, and told him that it would all get better, even though my insides quivered with doubt.
After meeting a few therapists, he found one who made him feel comfortable enough and began going for fortnightly sessions. Courageous enough to face his mental-health issues head on, he spoke to friends and family about what he was going through, trying to collect fragments of assurance. We had to build a solid support system – people who could help him cope when I wasn’t around.
As he was tending to his mind, I had to balance an important part of the equation – our daughter. As a perceptive four-year old, she was witnessing our growing fragility. While I was always the neurotic mother stressing about her development and behaviour, he brought a calmness that gave her the freedom to just be. But now, his wrecked nerves caused him to snap at her involuntarily. Her face wilted every time I cajoled her to leave him alone.
Love wasn’t sufficient to sustain us and all I could manage to feel for him was concern.
The little routines we’d worked so hard to establish as parents began unraveling. I usually looked forward to him taking over the tasks of getting her ready for school, taking her out in the evenings and putting her to bed. But now I couldn’t depend on him.
I became the reluctant ant carrying an unreasonable weight on my tiny dwindled legs – the pressure to protect our daughter’s formative experiences, to be careful that my actions didn’t impede his progress, to set aside my own vulnerabilities because falling apart at this time was not an option. Love wasn’t sufficient to sustain us and all I could manage to feel for him was concern. My empathy for his well-being began morphing into a dark affirmation – I didn’t deserve this.
I found new ways to resent him. Sifting through sunken memories, I unearthed every single instance where he’d let me down; the countless times he’d put his friends before me, how insensitive he was when I was drowning in postpartum misery, the nights he’d walked out after we fought leaving me to worry about whether he’d come back. Clutching on to his imperfections became a coping mechanism.
My rage snowballed. I hated that he could sleep whenever he wanted to because his body needed the rest, that I could not get mad at him and risk inciting a panic attack, that I had to be the intermediary between him and his parents because they weren’t ready to accept that their son had a mental health problem. So while I was good enough to keep the words within, I punished him with cold silences and subtle reminders of how difficult he was being.
His struggle to do better each day wasn’t enough for me. It was too slow, uncertain, and exasperating.
At the peak of my despicability, I concluded that he was using his depression to punish me by shoving me into a corner to pick up the pieces of something he’d broken. Basically, I’d set out to gather as much evidence that could substantiate what a failure our marriage was turning out to be.
His struggle to do better each day wasn’t enough for me. It was too slow, uncertain, and exasperating. We became a despondent pair, bound merely by shared parenting responsibilities, family, finances and a rusted romance. And while I realised that my passive-aggressive cruelty was destroying us as a couple, I couldn’t fathom what it was doing to me.
It hit me one night when I was sitting alone with my laptop, my eyes hurting from staring at the bright screen for too long, listening to “Arrival of the Birds” by The Cinematic Orchestra. As the melancholic symphony of a piano, harp, and violin engulfed me, I broke. The festering anger and sorrow boiled into tears, relieving the pressure of holding back for too long. I wept for the tragedy I’d become, a miserable woman in her 30s who wanted so much out of life but could never quite figure where to get started. I wept for all the flotsam and jetsam of regrets that constantly buoyed about in my head. But mostly I wept for the realisation that I was as messed up as he was.
To untangle ourselves from the clusterfuck we’d created as two unhinged individuals, we began going for couple therapy. It felt ridiculous to expect a stranger to fix us. Where was she going to begin when even we couldn’t map our gradual descent from marital bliss to boredom to strife?
Our first session reminded me of the time I checked into a holistic centre and was made to stand bare naked in front a high-pressure hose spraying cold water. There we were, the two of us sitting on separate couches with our therapist nudging us along kindly with the tough but necessary questions. I’d prepared myself to say enough to build a line of defence but she was good enough to sift through the lies I’d been telling myself. At the end of our first hour, it was clear that I needed individual therapy sessions as well.
It’s a lot of work, especially when you’ve been plastering cracks the whole time and now have to hurl a wrecking ball so you can build something that will last. We’ve been in therapy for eight months and I’d like to say we have come a long way but that would not be entirely right. I had to start letting go of hurt and self-pity; he had to begin believing in himself. At the root of all our problems was the simple fact that we’d forgotten how to love ourselves.
But there was one amazing thing we somehow accomplished despite all the nonsense we’d put each other through over the years – we didn’t forego “us”. Not because we needed each other or had a child together or were scared of never finding love again but because we weren’t done. Not yet.
The biggest lesson has been that falling apart saved us. Tottering at the edge of sanity was more torturous than stumbling. But moving on isn’t the same as moving forward.
Without effort and forgiveness, it is difficult to want to stay.
I no longer believe in the idea of happy or unhappy marriages or the notion that love is what separates them. Without effort and forgiveness, it is difficult to want to stay. We’re making the conscious effort to communicate and build intimacy so we don’t get lost in the tasks of raising our daughter. At times when I find myself plummeting into the “Is this all worth it dilemma”, I resurrect the little memories that do make us perfect – the excitement of moving into our first home and arguing over which couch to pick, the dozens of animals we rescued animals and shared grief when we couldn’t save them, lazy weekends spent binge-watching Scrubs.
Maybe we’ll make it another 10 years, maybe we won’t. The ongoing catharsis that is intended to rewire the way we process emotions is grueling. For now we’ll do what we can to bring back the happiness once shared in a photo taken on a cool afternoon amidst the grass.
About the writer: Sangeetha Bhaskaran is an accountant turned writer who hoards handmade soaps and notebooks. Author of ‘No time to moisturize’, a parenting page & ‘Half Boiled Indian’, a collection of stories from the returning NRI perspective. Dogs complete me.