Living with Crazy: Denial, Disbelief and Falling Apart

My husband tells me that I actually gave him an ultimatum: that I would leave him if he did not retain a lawyer to go with him to meet with police.

I don’t remember giving him that ultimatum. See, I told you that memory is a tricky thing, and I don’t entirely trust mine–certainly not about events 10 years ago.
I would never have left my husband. Not over that, I assured him recently. I was pissed off and scared at the time. I was trying to assert control over events that were far beyond my control.
“I didn’t know that,” he said about my non-ultimatum. At that point, it would make sense in his guilt-ridden, tormented mind that I would leave him. So, terrified, he went out and hired a lawyer, a guy he didn’t really like.
Something I forgot to mention in earlier blog posts:
We were due to leave Humboldt County at the end of March. My husband had accepted a job in Sacramento and we were going to be moving there. Yes, we were going to leave our beautiful house in the redwoods and move into a cute yellow 1920s bungalow in a tree-lined neighborhood of Sacramento. I was sad about leaving Arcata. All the special memories of my child’s early years are set in Arcata. On the other hand, I was glad to be moving closer to the Bay Area.
Arcata is a beautiful town, full of smart, interesting people, but Humboldt County, once you go north on Interstate 101 above the “Redwood Curtain” also feels like it’s at the top of the world. Remote.
It’s a day’s worth of driving from the Bay Area, and 101, as it winds through incredibly beautiful mountains, sometimes closes for days or weeks, due to winter mud slides. That fact of Humboldt County living added to me feeling more isolated.
On the two day days following my husband’s March 20 dismissal, I was, for some strange reason, still forging ahead in small ways as if we were still moving to Sacramento–getting some things packed and put into boxes.
I moved through life in a blur, as if my my husband’s pronouncement that “something bad has happened”were just a minor blip on our course through life.
Yes, I was shock and in major denial. About how dangerously distraught my husband was. And about how the police investigation, already in full gear (as I will reveal in my next post), would lead to consequences that would continue through the next 10 years and through the rest of our lives.
As an example of my denial, while my husband went to see a lawyer referred to him by a county Bar Association referral service, I took my child on a playdate to a beautiful beach north of Arcata. Going on a playdate, to keep a little kid occupied during this crisis, does not in of itself constitute denial. It is what I did–or didn’t do–after our return.
At this beach, below a cliff, a shallow creek flows into the Pacific Ocean. Wednesday, March 21, 2001 was an unusually warm, sunny day for this coastal area–meaning that the temperature was in the low 70s, enough for the kids to strip down to underwear or nothing at all and jump and splash in this creek.
I was meeting with a friend–I’ll call her Debbie–from my Mom’s group. My Mom’s group friends had wanted to take me out to dinner before I moved to Sacramento. I suggested to Debbie that she cancel the dinner and then alluded to the fact that my husband and I might be dealing with a situation. She listened kindly, while our two kids tore around in the water and on the very wide, white sand beach.
As we had his conversation, the Pacific Ocean provided its usual soundtrack: a ceaseless, ongoing crash and roar of waves.
When my son and I returned from what turned out to be a lovely playdate, I found my husband in the kitchen. Sunlight streamed from all the windows spaced around our downstairs. My husband was standing in the kitchen, wearing a white button-down shirt and a khaki jacket–casual but appropriate wear for a meeting with an an attorney.
He told me, yes, he had gone to see the attorney, and we had written him a $1,000 check as a retainer.
My husband also told me that he was really thinking of hurting himself. Cutting himself with a knife.
Once again, at this point, I should have rushed to get him to a doctor or to the hospital.
I told him he couldn’t kill himself because it would hurt me and our son so much. I urged him to hang on; we would get through this together.
I don’t remember much else about that day, or that night. I’m sure I got my son in the bathtub to wash off all the sand from his beach excursion, and then down for a nap. While my son napped, my husband and I probably talked some more.
I think my husband’s memories of those hours are much more vivid than mine.
I probably made dinner, and maybe the two of us played together with our son–just as we had always done in the evenings since moving into this house in Arcata. Maybe we played this game we called “Round Train,” inspired both by my son’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine and the layout of the second floor of our our Arcata home.
Our upstairs–with its two bedroom, shared bath and landing–was set up in a way that you could run this perfect circuit from landing to master bedroom to our toddler’s bedroom and back again. Our family took advantage of this circuit for our nightly “Round Train” game.
We played that we were all characters from the Thomas the Tank Engine world. “Round Train” was our pre-bedtime ritual.
John and I moved with that “chug-a-chug” motion, pumping our arms, and both following and chasing after our 2-year-old. He loved mom and dad chasing him around the circuit. We would grab him in his room because one of us was the “breakdown train” and our 2-year-old–representing a certain train engine–was in need of repair. We would throw him on his bed and give him a tickle, and then let him get up and roar once again around the circuit.
The “Round Train” game would go on and on until it was time for stories.
I don’t know if we played the Round Train on my husband’s last night in our Arcata house.
And with my denial, I would not have been able to believe that this would be my husband’s last night with us in that house, our last game of “Round Train,” our last time together as a family for a very long time.
On the evening of Wednesday, March 21, I probably put my son to bed, and I probably went to bed myself soon afterward.
I later learned that my husband didn’t go to bed. I woke up early, at about 5 or 6 a.m., and found him in our downstairs office/guest bedroom. He had been there much of the night. He was crying.
He called his older sister and talked to her, telling her everything that was going on. What he told her was all horrible, shocking news to her.
But she had listened calmly. She had trained as a nurse. She had him put me on the phone: “Martha, you need to get him to the hospital right away.”
And there I was. Denial and disbelief again. Or a wife and mother caught between this crisis of a suicidal husband and a toddler who was waking up in his room, calling out “Mommy!,” needing to be fed, dressed and taken to pre-school. The surreal and the real, the life-threatening and the life-in-the-ordinary, all clashing in this unbelievable crying rhythm. John’s needs; my son’s needs. Yeah, it really is interesting to respond to a crisis when you have small children around.
My brilliant, desperate solution? We’d all get dressed, and my husband and I would drive our son to preschool, and then I would drive my husband to the hospital.
At some point, thinking as a mom needing to make her little boy lunch for school, I handed my husband a very big bread-cutting knife and asked if he could cut the bread and make our son his favorite cheese sandwich.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking I was doing a dangerous thing, handing a bread knife to a man who had thoughts us cutting himself to death. I was thinking, I was asking my ordinarily reliable, devoted husband to take care of this one chore–to speed things along so we could get us all on the road to preschool and the emergency room sooner.
I was being practical. Or something
Fortunately–but oddly–my son, as all this was going on downstairs, stayed quiet upstairs in our master bedroom, where I had turned the TV on to the morning PBS kids shows. That wasn’t like our son. He was always running around, coming downstairs, talking to us, wanting us to play.
But on this morning, this kid, barely 3 years old, knew to keep away from the grownups.
He knew something I didn’t know then. Certainly something I don’t know now.
Something’s wrong with these grownups. They are acting weird, scary. My world is turning upside down, so I need to stay up here. Quiet. Don’t bother anyone.

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