I recently had an experience (which I realized I had had many times before) where my husband acted a certain way and I reacted in an extreme manner. For purposes of illustration, I will give you the script.
I was going about the process of buying a new stove which I was paying for out of royalties:
Husband: Have you checked out all the options on the Internet?
Husband: Have you read the reviews?
Husband: Have you gone to look at them in the stores?
Husband: Did you ask the salesperson whether there would be a sale after the first of the year?
Husband: Well you can’t make a decision like this without consulting your [29 year-old] daughter. She knows all about stoves and making major purchases.
Wife’s thoughts: Like I don’t? Like I was never the assistant treasurer at Harvard? Like I was never a bond analyst at Fidelity? Like I never went to Stanford? Like my IQ is not below zero? Like I never taught college? Like I never won awards for my writing? Does he think I am a four-year-old? Anger builds and builds and builds.
Two days later after repeated incidents similar to the above:
Email from wife to husband: I’m going to Florence [Italy] alone for three weeks.
Husband: Complete bewilderment.
Now most of you probably wonder how I could have lived for 38 years with a man who clearly thinks I am an idiot, and you also think that my reaction to this conversation about the purchase of a stove was extreme and a little crazy.
The back-story is very important here, because it is the backstory that created the cognitive habits in our brains which conflicted in this exchange and many like it.
My husband lived through 25 years of our 38 year marriage as a caretaker who not only prevented me from committing suicide, but also protected me from any kind of stress which would lead to such an eventuality. Even with my extensive background in decision-making, I regressed to the point where I had no faith in my abilities. I was very happy to leave all the decision-making to him. I had zero self confidence. So David, who had initially had every confidence in my ability to do anything, (such as buying two houses without him even seeing them) suddenly was in the position of protecting a severely handicapped “child.” This carved a “rut” in his brain, quite literally. His neuropathways formed a habit of thinking as real as the habits employed in driving a car or typing on a keyboard. They were reflexive. He had also come to recognize in our extremely capable daughter the qualities which I used to have.
However, considering the fact that I have been well for five years, his cognitive patterns with regards to me are way outdated. He is forcing himself, biting his tongue, going to therapy—doing all these things so he can change his “habit” and support me in spreading my wings again to become who I once was and go on from there. His decision not to argue against MY decision to go to Florence shows a tremendous leap of faith. He is supporting me in every way, and I know it is scaring him to death.
However, you say, why should an argument about buying a stove trigger such a bewildering reaction in me?
This is where the PTSD comes in. For the first eighteen years of my life I lived with an extremely abusive controlling mother. I just had to take it. I was exactly like a prisoner. She even listened on the other line to my phone calls. I tried to run away on several occasions, but no one would take me in. (Writing became my escape, my dissociation from the abuse and fear of abuse). When I finally truly escaped and went to college, I was FREE.
So, without my realizing it, a cognitive link was formed in my mind between any kind of controlling behavior and complete imprisonment with a madwoman. Therefore, the pathway in my brain that has formed since I first left home is to RUN when faced with controlling behavior. Because I CAN! I am no longer a prisoner and I have to prove that to myself.
But this is the first time I have contemplated running to a foreign country for an extended period of time. This is accounted for by my writing brain which began as my only escape. I am currently writing a semi-autobiographical book about a woman with no self-confidence who has fled to Florence to “find herself” and shed the negative mold she has unwittingly poured herself into in suburban Ohio. Florence makes her feel creative again, like “all your dreams can come true.” It should be easy to see the connection between this character and me. I am trying to burst the bands of my illness and find my wings. In my mind there is this link now between Florence, which is truly my creative touchstone, and the reestablishment of my self-confidence. I need to do something hard, something rewarding, something that will add to my art.
My husband loves the writer in me. He relates to these feelings I have. He knows I have to go alone. I know I have to take this step, so my heroine, MacKenzie, can take it. And it is radical enough that it will form new cognitive patterns in both my husband’s brain and mine.
I’ll keep you posted.