I try to be the best man that I can.
I don’t have much practice.
I was hoping you might help me out with that.
I can’t do this on my own.
All I’ve known is what I’ve been shown
& I can’t live up to my dad. - Canterbury Effect.
Most people would have left me by now. Let me rephrase: most people have left me by now. Before diagnosis, I stammered & stumbled & tumbled through relationships--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Through the trust & the “lean on me” moments, the adventures & the advice, you can only hide crazy so long, as I’ve learned time & again. I finally got to the point where I just started talking about it--the confusion, the weaknesses, the fears, the faults, the failures--with potential partners--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Yes, it started on my first date with Diana, telling her about the abuse of my ex-girlfriend, the voices, the pending diagnosis, & more. The fact that she finished that pizza with me, that she never even looked at the door through the now-years of ups-and-downs, that she’s always insisted on “together,” even though who could have blamed her if she had, it has literally been life-changing, life-altering, life-saving.
If pressed up against a brick wall with a finger under my rib, I’d declare that my favorite poem is “Provenance” by Mary Ruefle, primarily because of that ending that I so often quote / unleash: “I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive[.]” So corny & so simple, but coming at the end of this poem, where among other things, she admits the frustration & difficulty of giving a paper-mache pony to a sick classmate as a child, it is earned & powerful & all encompassing. I find comfort in its direct confession. I, too, love being alive despite the confusion & heartache, despite the hopelessness & ugliness of life.
But, like for most people at certain points, it gets hard to keep going. In my earlier undiagnosed days, in the wake of the situation with my ex-girlfriend, in the cycle of some of my worst spells these past few years, I’ve flashed my fair share of panic & mania, not knowing how to respond, not knowing how to control or prevent these dreadful moments.. I’ve chosen flight & I’ve chosen fight; at times, I’ve sunk into both. I’ve spiraled into deep depressions. I’ve fallen into deep sleeps. I’ve brushed against suicide a time or three. I’ve been engulfed by my disorder, my alters, the resulting anxiety, what I call the cycle of spell-anxiety-spell-guilt-repeat. I’m reminded of John Ashbery: “He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you’re a monster[.]”
This past week, I’ve been in the pits of that cycle for longer than ever before since my diagnosis a couple years ago, going on six days now. With D gone on a trip to England, as well as my primary self starting a new job & my alters continuing to learn to coexist, I tried to be strong & focused. Four days in, I failed, I collapsed, & I fell, once again into the cycle. All of the normal components--tons of switching followed by heavy exhaustion, lots of yelling followed by crying, lots of forgotten moments & delusional filler. But, in addition to the length, one element set this cycle apart from the others: I gave into the (for lack of a better term) “monster” feeling. I cleared my calendar & bowed out of most relationships / responsibilities in order to truly, finally, allow myself to grieve the things I’ve lost & might never have, to spend days conversing with my selves, & to think about the life I can lead, not the one I want or don’t lead. While this time was tinted a little differently, the staffing was the same, with D, even while thousands of miles away, listening & helping & continuing alongside me.
With the help of thoughtful friends, loving family members, & beloved members of the therapeutic community, I’ve found many great answers to that question of what to do if you’re the monster. After a panic attack the other day in conjunction with a new year’s reminder that I can’t function professionally, socially, or even domestically as I once had hoped, I sat with my tear-soaked skull in D’s lap & she listened to my cycle with my hand hovering over the eject button & my mouth spinning. That moment was a reminder of how D has completely transformed my journey with DID, holding me accountable for the past, holding my head in the present, & holding my hand tightly as we step into the future.
Other partners & best friends have done their best, especially in the dark of an undiagnosed psychological disorder, my young-man foolishness & frustration, & each one’s own growing pains & gains. By sheer good fortune on my end & noble hardwork on hers, D has approached every moment of our relationship with bravery, commitment, & joy, often in the face of mighty confusion & many cracks. February is her birthday month, so for this post I wanna look at my particular example of having DID & our attempt at maintaining a loving, balanced partnership. I owe a lot of this thinking to my time spent with my therapist SW, where, beyond my diagnosis, we’ve spent many hours uncovering what kind of partner I can be & also need, thinking through our successes & failures together, & building a vision for the future, first in individual sessions & now with D in couples therapy.
As I’ve adjusted my life to my newest understanding of self, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that many of the qualities I find most appealing, necessary, & admirable in being a partner are not supported by my actual capabilities, namely my disorder & the value system I’ve been creating. Regardless of progress, there are gonna be issues. Being honest with partners & collaborators, not to mention myself, about my emotional & mental inconsistency has been a key. I don’t have the day-in-day-out stamina that I once did, or had convinced myself I did; likewise, I’ve learned, possibly too late, that it is irresponsible & possibly harmful to be in positions of power around groups of people, especially vulnerable & less-understanding populations like in education & traditional publishing. My particular combination of dissociative symptoms, multiple-personality-ness, & opinionated hickness also requires certain, perhaps radical or progressive, approaches to committed relationships, living environments, & routines. But through this collaboration with D & SW, I’ve begun to see how those things can be worked in unique ways, especially with the right partner & having all the information.
Last summer when I had the terrifying realization that the professional avenues I had spent a decade cultivating--teaching & publishing--were no longer available to me, I had to reassess what I am capable of, as a partner, as a citizen, as someone in multiple significant relationships. In the TV show Parenthood, when Max’s parents finally talk to him about his Asperger’s they do so by laying out both the difficulties & the strengths. While acknowledging my shortcomings was freeing & necessary, D & SW, along with many other loved ones, were quick to remind me of the positives, like my creative energy, my penchant for planning / organizing, & my love of working hard, that both my disorder, my personalities, & my core offer me.
Lucky for me, the answer to “what kind of partner / collaborator do I need?” was sitting right next to me on the couch. Any relationship, partnership, what-have-you that I get into needs to lead with the understanding of the “reality” of the situation; as Rupert Spira says, “All illusions have a reality to them, and if we are experiencing an illusion, we are, by definition, experiencing its reality.” Because of the way my mind works--the polyvocality, the misremembering, the gaps, & the fears--my reality needs some radical nudges to maintain a sustainable life for all. In recent years, I am crawling with fears, often bubbling just under the surface: Is this childish? Am I / did I hurt someone & forget it? Will I ever get better? Am I a sociopath / psychopath / schizophrenic? When will D leave?
When people find out that D is a Christian in seminary & I’m an atheist, they often ask, “How does that work?” The real “how does it work?” question, to me, seems more appropriate for our varied psychological states, her of the very “normal” & consistent & predictable variety & mine, well, I think you get the idea. But that distinction of states is also the answer to the question. Her stability & her particular Christian values have equipped her with the steadfastness, grace, & hope to do the hard work of living with & holding me accountable.
The other day my panic attack started the moment I woke, having had a dream that I murdered D, sending me into the normal spiral of “what’s wrong with me,” “you’re not safe,” “I should go.” But admitting that dream to her & seeing her clear, rational eyes & hearing her comforting words reminded me of what has made this partnership thrive these past four years; it’s the openness that keeps us both safe, happy, & collaborating. From me explaining the LR incident on our first date to conversations about spells, from that dream to things I can admit (about my dissociative symptoms, about my needs, about my sexuality, etc.), I am so thankful to be able to be so open & supported, without fear of betrayal, manipulation, or shame.
As we’ve built & adjusted our vision for our future, it’s shown me how important it is to have a partner that listens, compromises, & works hard, alongside the various I. As we’ve come to understand my disorder & my realistic capabilities, we’ve had to take specific measures. We’ve adjusted budgets to match my work capabilities. We’ve set up clear plans & signals for triggers & spells. We’ve been more deliberate about our social situations.
I’m feeling pretty good about where we are right now in our relationship. We’ve got some big steps together coming up. We’re planning for a move, hopefully back to the Midwest. I’m also contemplating going back to graduate school to get my MA in Mental Health Counseling, focusing on anger & personality disorders in rural males. These new adventures will only be successful if we continue to trust & collaborate with one another. I must, for my self & for Diana, separate my disorder from my choices. I must make sure Diana has the support & outlets she needs as she goes through her own transitions & continues to support me well. Most importantly, we must both lead with transparency--honest about our own realities, feelings, & needs.
The lessons I’ve learned from my four years with D have been useful, too, when applied to any of my major relationships--romantic, friendship, artistic, or familial. I must be pickier than I once was about who I trust & lean on; yet, somehow also I must be transparent, when I do decide to connect, about my limitations, my capabilities, my history. On a recent episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, the guest Sarah Silverman says you can’t change if you’re in defense mode; D has taught me that if I hope to continue to be the best man I can be, solid relationships are my best offensive tools. In that same conversation, host Dax Shepherd says it’s not right to define yourself by who you hate. I can no longer hate any parts of my self, people who have abandoned / hurt me, or the partnerships I create; instead, I must more deliberately & more effectively stroll into the future holding hands with hope & joy, which I’m lucky enough to know appeared to me in human form.