When my beau and I started our relationship, he kept it a secret from his family. At the time, I didn’t understand why, but it seemed like none of my business and anyway, who knows where this is even going.
Then as we got serious, he told them I existed, but kept my daughter a secret. Again, not fully understanding why this was necessary but also not entirely sure it had anything to do with me.
Then we got very serious. And I got to hear about his family – who they are, their struggles, their respective traumas, and how my beau fits into the family unit as the only boy and resident problem. He is relied upon for being oversensitive, irresponsible, underachieving, and incapable of ever seeing/taking responsibility for all the things he does wrong. Also, he’s just generally a failure because he chose the arts over a medical career.
Yes. Now I understood. When everything he has ever done has been wrong, it just makes good sense to keep certain things secret.
He does eventually come clean about the kid because he thought they should probably know he was officially moving in with me – a good year into the relationship – but nonetheless, it’s on the table. And also, we are moving to Chicago.
Enter the family.
Each sister and his mom weighed in on why it’s a mistake at his age to be in a committed relationship and to move to a new city. Each sister and his mom weighed in on why this is the time in his life to sow wild oats and be as selfish as possible because after the 20s, it’s all downhill from there. They informed him that he has no idea what he’s getting into, that we are at very different places in our lives, and who knows what I might be looking for when he is so young and inexperienced. They reminded him that he needs to get his shit together and he can’t do that if he’s tied down to some girl and her kid. Father was supportive at this point. Had met me, liked me, liked the way I loved his son – I’m in. He’s an outcast anyway, having been one of the greatest train wrecks known to man.
I began to notice things about my beau. Encouraged him to seek counseling, get diagnosed, get medicated. I saw the textbook signs of bipolar disorder, suspected he’s been depressed most of his life and no one’s really bothered to do anything about it. He was always functional, just difficult – but so are a lot of people. He wanted none of it, and I temporarily dropped the issue.
We moved to Chicago. Against their wishes, but no one was furious, just concerned. He started a job he hated, was struggling to make ends meet, was fighting with me all the time because I brought up the issue of his mental health again now that we were settled. And then things came to a head: he confessed that he wanted to kill himself. I told him we needed to go to the emergency room and that I would be with him every step of the way, but that it was non-negotiable that we go. He agreed.
While we were waiting to be seen, I suggested that he call his mom – not to have meaningful real talk, but just to give her a heads up. If she found out from the insurance company rather than him directly that he was hospitalized, she would totally lose her mind. He did. She yelled at him for not coming to her. She yelled at him for being suicidal. He broke down in tears and ended the call. In some respects, this was a blessing as he was such a hot mess by the time the social worker came in that there was no chance of them sending him home rather than admitting. I left him when he was moved to the inpatient psychiatric unit, promised to come back for visiting hours with clothes and food, and went home to my daughter who was losing her shit because I left her with a random babysitter while I handled my beau.
There were text messages waiting for me from his mom, and a Facebook message from his younger sister, asking me to check in. I assured them that I would after visiting hours.
I talked to his mom on the phone that evening, and she, of course, thanked me profusely for taking care of her son. However, she then suggested that what he really needed was for her to come to Chicago and be with him, and then take him home to Philadelphia. In her imagination, she created a reality where her son’s difficulty was directly caused by the move to Chicago and the stress of being in a new city alone without any direction in his life. I gently reminded her that we were not alone – that we had friends and a life that we loved, which is largely why he agreed to get help in the first place. There was no direct cause for his struggle, it was brain chemistry. In my heart, I also believed that after two decades of trauma, it wasn’t any great surprise that this was all happening now, but also appreciated that this wasn’t the time to talk about that.
His sister was kind on the phone, and also appreciative of my help. They all seemed rather surprised that I was taking care of things, I guess because it never occurred to them that I loved him and was building a life with him, which meant taking care of him in times of need.
A few days into his hospitalization, I asked him how he felt about his family coming to visit. He said, in no uncertain terms, that he did NOT want them to come yet – that it was way too soon and he couldn’t possibly handle the stress of them visiting. I told him I would handle it. During my nightly phone call with his mom, she brought up the visiting again, and I again, told her it wasn’t necessary just yet. She grew insistent and generally told me that I didn’t know what he needed and that she was his mother and she knew she needed to be there; if he was in car accident, she wouldn’t even hesitate to get on a plane. I dug my heels in.
This was my first error in the story they tell themselves about me.
I told her that he explicitly asked me not to let anyone visit him right now because he wasn’t ready, and that if she truly wanted to help him, she could trust his decision and wait until he felt more comfortable with the idea. She thanked me for my opinion and hung up. I called the inpatient unit immediately to warn the beau that she was going to call him and ask him about visiting because she thought I was lying about his wishes. She had beaten me to it. And he had caved. She was booking a flight. I burst into tears. I’m not proud of this. I was exhausted – I was running back and forth between the hospital and home, I was getting sitters for my daughter in the evening, and I was on no sleep and no food. All the while fielding calls and texts from his family. It was too much. And the fact that she called him to get her way in spite of what I said broke my spirit. I explained to him the conversation I had with her and explained that now I did, in fact, look like a liar who was deliberately trying to keep her away, which was fine, but very unfortunate as I now had no credibility when discussing his health in the future. He talked to a social worker, called his mom back, and told her not to come.
A win for him, a strike against me.
When he was discharged, they all wanted to visit so they could rescue him. Somehow it escaped their revisionist history that they had had ample time to rescue him when he was struggling with mental illness as a kid, but whatever. He asked them for space, asked them for time, told them he appreciated their concern, but he needed to work on some things without them obsessing. His family said, sure, no problem, you got it. And yet. One of his sisters called on Wednesday, said she was coming on Thursday at 1am, could she stay with us, and he said yup. I was furious. Not with him – he was so entangled in his own illness that he couldn’t possibly be expected to navigate this situation, but I was furious with her for planning a last minute visitation, springing it on us when he had only just been discharged from the hospital. She arrived at almost 2am. He was asleep, I had to let her in, this person I had never met before. Showed her the master bedroom, where she was sleeping, offered her something to drink and eat, made small talk, then excused myself so I could prep for easily the biggest audition I had yet had in Chicago. I spent very little time with her while she stayed with us, primarily because she was here to see her brother, but also because I had a life and things to do and a daughter to take care of, and I was mad that she was here, in my house.
While she was with her brother, she grilled him about why he didn’t come to the family when he was struggling, why he was suicidal when he has so much going for him, what medications he was on, and if he was sure he was comfortable being medicated when he could probably handle his illness with diet and exercise. He took her to the airport, had a full-blown panic attack, and we had to go back to the emergency room. When he was stable, the next day, I said I told you so. And that they were not welcome in our house until he was actually ready. He agreed. And sent another family email requesting space, for real this time. They agreed. Mostly. And respected his request. Mostly.
His father seemed to think he meant everyone but him. Now, here’s thing about his father, and I say this with an awareness that I am not a mental health professiononal, but he is a narcissist and severely bipolar. He doesn’t believe in mental illness, therapists, psychiatric drugs – he thinks all of it is a big lie being sold to us because every problem the human body has can be cured through proper diet and exercise (including cancer. Seriously.). I emailed him and thanked him so much for checking in on his son, but asked him to give him some space. He then unleashed a fury. I don’t know his son, I’m just a come-lately who is playing house, I am doing irreparable damage by allowing his son to take psychiatric drugs, that he was in support of my unconventional relationship with his son but that I was obviously unworthy of said support. Then he started sending me article after article written by crackpots and lunatics about how psychiatric medication is the greatest evil in the world. I wrote back, simply saying, I’m done, no more, it’s obvious we don’t agree, I have no interest in discussing it further with you. This was perhaps my second mistake in the grand scheme of things. I should have left it alone in retrospect, but there it is.
The beau is officially diagnosed with bipolar 2 and severe anxiety. He is in therapy once a week, sees his psychiatrist once a month, is compliant with his treatment plan, and is taking improv classes and temping. Things are more good than bad and there is hope. But during a particularly dark day we had a fight, and he talked about the fact that he was convinced of how unworthy of love he is, how ugly and shameful he is, and how he deserves to be alone. My heart was breaking for him, and I proposed – over and over until he said yes. The next day I explained that it wasn’t about getting married, that I don’t actually need the piece of paper, that it was about him knowing how much I loved him and how committed I was to building a life with him, and nothing more. I took marriage out of the equation because I didn’t want him to get married under duress or out of obligation. But he said no – you can’t take it back, I want to marry you, and you promised, so there. So. We were engaged.
We told people on Facebook and there was an outpouring of love, happiness, support, and all that good stuff, because people who love each other are good times.
Enter his family. Again.
There was a renewed effort to convince him of what a horrible mistake he was making. They reminded him that he had been hospitalized not that long ago, that he was in no position to make major life choices, that it was way too early to settle down, and also how dare he make this kind of decision before talking to each of them first to get their opinion and approval. My mind was blown and the beau (now fiancé) was hurt, but we trucked along.
Bear in mind, at this point, I hadn’t even met them all. And none of them, save dear old dad, had met my daughter. So, as they are judging our relationship and my possible ulterior motives, they hadn’t even laid eyes on me.
All of that was about to change. A wedding was going to force us all together. His mom was getting remarried. Or guess I should say married, because her first marriage, the one that produced five children, was annulled, and my understanding is that means it never happened. Anyway, she’s getting married. On the 14th. Which means the rehearsal dinner is on the 13th. Which is my daughter’s birthday. So. Either we don’t spend her birthday with her dad-like person, or we drag ourselves to Philadelphia and try to make the best of an unfortunate situation. We decided go to Philly, though no one is especially happy about it. I was hoping we could stay in a hotel and maybe even rent a car, giving us at least a little space to breathe, but the family won’t hear of it, so we’re staying in the new husband’s apartment and using a family car, which means there will be a lot of mandatory family time.
The beau asked me to keep an open mind, to withhold judgment, to give them a fair chance. I was angry about this, because it was unclear to me how I was supposed to unknow all the things they’ve said about me and our relationship, not to mention the terrible things they’ve said and done to this person I love, but I’m a very evolved human and I thought, at least I can try.
It was a nightmare. From the moment we arrived, they made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t welcome. They were decent to my daughter, I’ll give them that. To her face they were sweet and kind, and then as soon as my kid looked away they made faces at each other. I’m not sure why they thought I wouldn’t notice. But I also reminded myself that I was supposed to be keeping an open mind and maybe I was making things up in my head. That said, there were family members who wouldn’t even look at us, let alone engage in conversation. I was introduced not once, but twice, as “his girlfriend…fiancé…I don’t know, whatever”. Not one person said congratulations on our engagement. No one asked as how we met, or about our lives in Chicago. We were shunned. And sitting at the head table. It was grotesque. But I’m keeping an open mind. I approached his oldest sister. People had been drinking, it seemed as good a time as any to try and have some lubricated real talk. I said, you know, I really love him. I care about him and his happiness and I’m not trying to steal him or take him away from you – I just love him. She laughed and said, yeah, totally, and then walked away. Awesome. His other sister, the one who swooped in and visited us in Chicago, cornered me at the after party while the beau was being cornered by a different sister, and asked to hear more about our engagement because she was totally surprised that it happened at all. As if by magic, my daughter came over and grabbed me for something, so I didn’t have to answer. But I have to say, we had been living together for over 2 years, we moved to a new city together, we’re taking care of my daughter together, and we got a dog – I’m not sure I see the surprise factor in our engagement, but open mind.
In the car on the way to the airport, oldest sister begins lecturing again on how important it is to use one’s 20s to really figure life out and how she’s so different now than when she was that age and she’s learned so much and she’s so glad she doesn’t have a dog let alone a kid. Then she hugged me and said how nice it was to meet me.
It’s almost three weeks later, and things have escalated. Apparently I was being stalked on Facebook, and it was discovered that I posted not one, but two snarky things about my experience at the wedding extravaganza. So the beau was contacted, warning him of what a terrible person I am, how shameful it is that I would have so little respect for his mother or sisters, how it demonstrates that I am not even fit to be a parent, and how he needs to get out of this relationship as soon as possible – especially before a pregnancy takes place. Seriously, these were words that were said.
He called his mom, to check in, and she informed him that I am a rude, malicious person who didn’t even make an effort to get to know them, that I am trying to steal him from his family – the only people who really love him – and that he should be careful because eventually I will turn on him too. Oh. Also. I’m using him to have a baby.
So. There is no way to pretend I don’t know all of this, and there is no way to pretend that it doesn’t affect me. And I now feel like I can never say another word or have another thought about his family for fear that I will be accused of doing the very things they warned him about.
It’s a mess. And I am a wreck. And my daughter is a wreck. She is now convinced that he is going to leave us because he’ll eventually take their side.
The thought had crossed my mind.