For three weeks, my husband and I have begun to create a pattern of normalcy since his stroke. We were taking walks almost daily, began visiting local restaurants and evaluating them for wheelchair accessibility. We were settling into a schedule of showering, of going to church, of managing the lessening of visits from friends and family, and spending more time with my children at the nursing home. At home, my children and I have been settling into summer and the comfort of a relaxed pattern living free from extraneous expectations. Those three weeks were needed respite from the constant unpredictability of the preceding two months. Except for the continued financial strain, and the seemingly endless tangled morass of the Medicaid system (which is still proving unattainable for my husband), I was learning to cope. Life seemed to be growing manageable.
And then I noticed symptoms that nurses confirmed were a blood clot in Mr. PNU's leg. And then the State of Jell-O fined me and my husband $6,000 for overpayments in medical and food stamps prior to the stroke.
Before this his parents had planned to come from Arizona to visit for a week. They weren't planning to stay with us, but during the first month after Mr. PNU's stroke they were present in the hospital and nursing home almost constantly. It was a huge relief for both me and my husband when they finally went home. As last week progressed they informed us their stay would be more like a week and a half—"ish." Then they told Mr. PNU they didn't have a departure date, but that they wouldn't be here come August.
I saw my grasp on normality slip away again, and with it my ability to mentally sustain the work and stress I have been learning to manage. Mr. PNU and I discussed the situation and the hardship it was causing me. We agreed that for the time being a visit from his parents was not in my best interest, nor in the best interest of our marriage. He called them and asked them not to come. His father replied that they wouldn't be told to stay away. My husband repeated the request that they give us space three more times. Each time, this request was ignored. I wrote my father-in-law and begged that for the time being they give us space.
"I'm pleading with you. Do not come. You cannot possibly help by being here right now. You will add to stress that I have only just begun to get under control. We are keeping you updated. Please. Stay in Arizona for the time being. Our marriage needs the space from family hovering so we can figure this out together. Please, don't be selfish."
He replied, "We will only visit as anyone else would, just with a lot more love. If we can help while we are there or here, you have but to ask."
"No one visits for longer than an hour, and rarely more than once every two weeks," I told him.
"Listen to yourself. [Mr. PNU] is our son."
"He is my husband. Whose needs are more important right now? Yours or our marriage?"
He didn't respond after that, but my husband told me to brace myself for their arrival.
It took me years to understand the damage done by trauma.
After growing up in a home where my emotional needs were neglected in exchange for unreasonable ideals—my safety sacrificed to the outward appearance of all's well—I've come to reject the imposition of expectation. That reflex, in fact, is so strong that I can't call that rejection a choice. Intuitive to my survival, I am indelibly equipped with a mechanism that the psychological community dubbed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Each of us is owner of metered awareness of our personal safety. We may not consciously think to ourselves, "I am safe" one moment, and "I am not safe" the next. But we experience physiological change when that meter is tripped. Cortisol and adrenaline flood the body. The pulse quickens and heart pounds, muscles contract, blood pressure rises, and senses sharpen. This set of changes boosts our strength, the speed of our reactions, and drive an acute focus preparing us for what is commonly referred to as fight or flight.
I grew up in a deceptively unpredictable environment. While schedule and order seemed to dictate the household, any childhood error from that regimen exposed my parents' verbally and physically abusive underbelly. Instead of feeling security at home, I experienced almost constant dread. When would the next wild accusation of my inherent evil fly? When would I feel the next blow? It was not a safe place to be a child or to behave as a child does. By the time I turned eleven years old I knew fight or flight like the texture of skin on the back of my hand, and though I may not have been able to vocalize the knowledge, I was aware that fight further jeopardized my safety; flight did not.
(For the sake of clear definition in the following paragraphs, when I say "needs," I mean those conditions necessary for continued ability to function as a productive adult without incurring further trauma and harm. Needs are not desires to have all things go one's way. "Boundaries" are limitations set to maintain the need for physical and psychological safety, not selfish bullying to have one's expectations met.)
For a long, long time, because of the trauma of my childhood, I didn't understand that it is both acceptable and right for human beings to express their needs and to create boundaries of safety for themselves. When I am threatened I psychologically shut down. I am almost completely incapable of direct interaction in conflict. Not unwilling, unable. I shell over, statue-like and mute. When these threats persist, I break down, unable to take care of myself or my children. I know my limitations. I know the need for creating boundaries to continue being a healthy, functional adult. I am finally at a place in my life when I can openly express both.
I have two longstanding, reliable tools in my emotional toolbox that I acquired as necessary instruments for surviving my childhood, and for negotiating the dangers of a PTSD world now that I am an adult: writing and isolation. Rather than face-to-face confrontation, I write to maintain a safe distance between me and potential threats while I am expressing my needs. When threats to my emotional and physical safety persist after I extend my needs in written form, and after I do what is necessary to create boundaries, I create walls that are hard, fast, and strong.
I didn't want to leave my husband, but staying and enduring the disrespect and disregard of my expressed needs and boundaries would have meant guaranteed collapse. Mr. PNU and I discussed options and he encouraged me to leave in order to cope. I scrounged together cash I've been saving for our upcoming Christmas and rented a cheap cabin on the Oregon coast for me and my children for the coming week. After considerable prayer, my husband addressed his parents about our concerns this morning. From his report they are beginning to understand their misstep. My fingers are crossed that on my return they will genuinely apologize and we can open a meaningful dialogue that will give room for the needs of me and my husband, and the health and establishment of autonomy of our marriage in the context of the extended family.
Until then, this is what flight look like.
Until then, this is what flight look like.