Building a Future Together

Fox and I had a productive marriage counseling session today. We talked about how the stuff we’re doing now is working toward the future we want to create together.

It started with me expressing concern that he comes home from work so exhausted – and has such low energy on his days off – that I’m worried he will never “have the energy” to find an internship. (He needs the internship to complete his degree and enter the career that is his calling.) But he explained that right now working full time is important to him because it provides us with some income and financial stability. When the time is right he will cut back on his work hours to make finding and fulfilling an internship more feasible.

This was very helpful to me because I was seeing the situation as either-or: either he’s pouring all his energy into a dead-end job that’s currently paying less than the local, recently-increased minimum wage… or he’s doing nothing until he manages to find an internship, which might take a while. He helped me see that the situation is more complex: right now he’s pouring all his energy into the job, but over time he can put less energy into the job and more into pursuing his long-term career goals. There can be a more gradual transition; it doesn’t have to be an abrupt ending.

Similarly for me: I don’t have to go from living in Skyrim to taking classes and being in various extracurricular groups and applying for internships and trying to find a job. Right now, taking classes again is enough of a leap. I’ve decided to try joining two LGBTQ+ discussion groups that each meet on campus for an hour once a week. They are the definition of low stress: no homework, show up when you can, have a conversation, and leave. One is for LGBTQ+ students and their allies to socialize. The other is specifically for bisexual, pansexual, non-binary trans*, and other gender-queer people to talk about sexuality and identity. Of the groups offered, it’s the one that sounds like it was designed for me.

In our session I said that I’m taking my classes and I’m going to see how they go, then possibly build on that as seems appropriate. Maybe I’ll love and feel so empowered by my experiences, I’ll decide I’m ready to apply for internships. Same possibility with jobs. Maybe something will come to me once I’m out in the world doing things and interacting with people again. Or maybe I’ll just need to focus on my classes, and setting boundaries around them will help me feel like I’m asserting myself and taking control of my own life. I am in the driver’s seat. It’s up to me where, via what route, and how fast I go.

Individually, we are figuring out what works in terms of current occupational focus and future occupational goals. Together, we are supporting each other and making decisions that move us in the direction of our joint goals. For example, my hormones have been throwing increasingly disruptive temper tantrums demanding that I procreate as soon as possible.  Most recently, they convinced me to decide what I’m naming my first child – so now ze has a name; ze is an entity I’m denying entrance into the world.

I don’t know whether Fox’s hormones are also clamoring for babies, but he remains the voice of reason: “not yet.” It empowers my own, internal voice of reason: “we can’t take care of ourselves, yet. Let’s get really good at doing that before bringing a new life into this world.” Having a baby now would be a complete disaster financially, emotionally, for both our careers… it wouldn’t be healthy for anyone involved.

So together we make the decision to wait. Together we do what we can to meet each other’s needs. Together we build the foundation for our future family.

It felt good to have an idea of what the future might look like, for once. Too often it looks dark and empty, nebulous. I’ve been having trouble being creative and my experiences have taught me that nothing is guaranteed; my wanting something to happen has no influence on whether it will happen. So how can I decide what my future will look like? I can’t. It’s just… formless. A waiting void.

But I can put things in that void. They might not happen how I expect – if at all – but I can put them there and work toward them and feel good about knowing we’re building something together. Kind of like improvising: I know what sound I think should come next, but it isn’t always what my fingers end up playing. When I make a “mistake” I incorporate it into the improvisation, so what was unintentional becomes intentional – possibly a central motif! I might build an entire song out of something I never even meant to play. So with life… it’s not about knowing what exactly will be there, just that something will – and it will be something we work together not only to create, but to continuously shape.

After our session, I noticed that I was becoming very irritable. I kind of snapped at Fox for slamming the car door, and again for being indecisive when it was time to order lunch. He caught public transportation to work and I came home; by the time I got here I felt like I was being subjected to nails on a chalkboard. Cardio exercise helped me clear my mind while I was doing it, but didn’t have any lasting effect on my mood. I was very agitated and all the sounds were making it worse.

I suspected I may have been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from Lamictal, which from what I read can be quite the nightmare. (I had abruptly stopped taking my 75 mg dose, per the APN’s orders, on Monday.) Part of my mind was clamoring for me to take a 25 mg pill to take the edge off. Part of me was thinking that if this is what withdrawal from such a low dose is like, maybe it’s better for me not to be on it at all.

The thing is, I have my classes, and I have all the stuff I just wrote about. Plus, Fox and I have been talking about adopting a new pair or trio of rats; we want to raise them from as young as possible this time. Last night we learned that a nearby rescue has several newborn babies that will need homes within the next six weeks (once they’re weaned); that gives us time to prepare but also a nice kick in the pants to do so. Our past pet rats brought a lot of joy to our lives, so we’re hopeful about adopting again. (I also hope that having pets to care for might get my hormones to quiet down a bit!)

So I can’t be going through withdrawal symptoms right now. I just can’t. I need to be able to focus and direct my energy at what’s important to me and enjoy my time with Fox. Things snowball and become horrible when I’m irritable toward him (which is different from when I’m justifiably angry – then we can talk and come to a new understanding).

I felt guilty about “bothering” the APN’s office again, but I also felt like I was going crazy and needed to do something about it immediately! The only way I was going to get the help I needed was by asserting myself. So I called and said I needed to talk to the APN about my medication.

I actually got to talk to her right away! and it was very helpful. Ironically, I still don’t know which risk factors prompted her to take me off the lamotrigine – just that she had weighed the risks and benefits and thought I’d be better off not taking it. She asked if I had a rash – so maybe that’s it?

Anyways, I told her that I thought it had been helping me at least somewhat, particularly by decreasing my suicidal thoughts. She said, “Oh, I hadn’t realized it was so helpful to you. I’m glad to hear that.” She instructed me to start taking 25 mg again. I considered arguing for 50 mg, but I didn’t want to push it. Maybe I am better off at the lower dose?

I still have enough of the medication to take 25 mg every day until after our next appointment, so I was able to start taking it again right away. I feel much better – in part, I think, from expressing all this stuff, being listened to, and getting my desired result. I’m calmer, less irritable. I can think more clearly. Life is good.

Marriage Counseling

If I was “better” (“normal” and/or hypomanic) when I wrote some of my most recent posts, I have since crashed back into a depressive state. One major trigger was working on my entry for a composition contest for a few days straight (getting minimal sleep), then having the results be completely out of my hands. I’m not even sure they received it because they didn’t send me any confirmation. I’m thrilled with how the piece came out and I’m very proud of it and I can’t wait to share it with the world! The trigger is the lack of response – any response, even just an acknowledgement that I submitted an entry. I hate not having any control over the outcome, especially after working so hard on something! I don’t even know how long I’ll have to wait.

Another major trigger was coming home (from visiting with Banji) to a cluttered house, trouble sleeping, chronic pain (that contributes to trouble sleeping), and the same codependency issues I’ve been having with Mom and Fox. This environment really isn’t good for me.

Fox and I have been working on our communication; I’ve been practicing being more assertive and he’s been trying to encourage that while also making efforts to interact and create a healthier environment for us to live in. There have been days when he’s been out of the house helping people he knows with odd jobs to make some money. I haven’t made the best use of that “alone time,” but I have appreciated it; time alone in the privacy of my own home is vital to my emotional well-being. We’ve been able to enjoy our time together and support each other and even share moments of wonderful intimacy. We’ve also been making an effort to spend time with our friends, which helps a great deal. There are times – such as today – when I think that our relationship is actually just fine; if only we had jobs and didn’t live with my mother and could get a good night’s sleep, I’d be very happy with him.

But frustration, lack of motivation, and lack of energy often get the best of both of us. Sure, I could clean the house or apply for jobs or practice the skills I need for my career, but it seems pointless. The house will get messy again and chances are I won’t get the job. Why would anyone want to hire me, when there are scores of other qualified job-seekers out there who are cheerful and have more relevant experience? I haven’t done anything worth putting on my resume (except perhaps for this blog, but I need to keep it anonymous) for the past three years!

My mother isn’t helping. Instead of encouraging me when I told her about the composition contest, she said it was a “big dream” as though I was wrong to think I had any chance of winning it, or even for wanting to enter it. More recently, when she called and I told her I was working on my resume, instead of supporting or encouraging me or hanging up so I could focus on it, she started gossiping. Apparently I’m not allowed to have times when I don’t want to be disturbed – which would be a serious problem anyway and gets extra awkward because I’m married… It’s very frustrating. She tends to want to talk when Fox and/or I are in the middle of something; if I ask her to leave us alone she feels hurt; if I take the time to talk to her, Fox tries to help me end the conversation in a timely manner – which gets very awkward and leaves all three of us feeling unhappy. I feel like I’m constantly being undermined. (So does Fox!)

I suppose part of the problem is that I want approval from Mom – particularly when I make the effort to find a job so I can stop being financially dependent on her, a situation she has expressed dissatisfaction with and concern about! But I’ve lived with my mother my whole life; I should have learned by now that nothing I do will ever be good enough for her. I could do the Biggest Bestest Thing Evar and she would criticize me on my looks or complain that I left my socks on the floor or complain about something Fox did or insist that I listen with rapt undivided attention while she described in intimate detail everything she had for lunch that day. It’s like there’s a fog around her head – at least when it comes to me. Every so often the fog lifts and she can be happy for me or support me or even listen to me, but the majority of the time I’d be better off if I didn’t exist. I guess, what I’m trying to say is: if I didn’t want approval from her, then these behaviors would still be annoying, but they wouldn’t wreak such havoc on my self-esteem.

Which brings us to today. Fox and I had our first marriage counseling session. I wasn’t particularly thrilled. It was at the same practice where my psychiatrist at the time interrupted me in the middle of saying I was suicidal to take a phone call from billing – but they’re the only place in the area that takes our insurance where we were able to make an appointment. They made Fox fill out paperwork before the licensed marriage therapist could see us; Fox wasn’t feeling well so he was becoming confused by some of the questions and frustrated with others. When I asked if they needed anything from me they said “no;” I felt as though they thought I was being overbearing. Eventually I realized they perceived Fox to be the client and I just so happened to be there with him. The therapist seemed surprised that we both wanted to participate in the session, even though Fox had explicitly requested marriage counseling.

To be fair – especially since I’m viewing the world through “depression goggles”* – the therapist was professional and made an effort to hear and reflect both our perspectives as equally as possible. We both liked his focus on depression as “lack of energy” rather than as a medical condition that requires diagnosis and medication. He asked good questions that helped me clarify my thoughts on an issue that’s important not only to our relationship but also my own safety. He expressed willingness to help us work through whatever we needed, without judgment.

* (“depression goggles” = the tendency to overemphasize the negative and interpret neutral stimuli as negative that is characteristic of depression)

The therapist also gave us something new to work with, even though it was a very short session: he asked us what our vision is for our relationship and the life we want to create together. I focused on the here-and-now: here and now (or, at least, in the very near future), I want our relationship to be a mutual source of support and comfort. Fox focused on the distant future: many decades from now, he wants us to be old together surrounded by our children, grandchildren, and possibly even great-grandchildren. I think we each also want what the other expressed wanting, but to be honest the focus on being old kind of scares me: I want to focus on living my life, not where I’ll be near the end of it.

After the session, I asked Fox if he was willing to compromise by focusing our vision on the near-ish future, say 5 to 10 years from now. We both agreed that we want to be employed, have our own house, and have children; we may not agree on all the details but those will be largely dependent on the realities we face as we work toward these goals (e.g. what houses are available within a reasonable commute of our workplaces and/or the community where we choose to live). I’m hopeful that having a shared vision of what we want to achieve together – that we are both comfortable with – will help us in our everyday interactions and therapeutic work.

So what bugged me? Well, there was the paperwork and not being perceived as a client; I was very concerned that the therapist would take Fox’s side in any areas where we might disagree. Near the end of the session the therapist had to do more “paperwork” – asking Fox a series of questions and marking his answers in a form on the computer. At one point he paused to encourage Fox to purchase a nutritional supplement from a website that would generate revenue for a nutritionist he knows. That seemed kind of sketchy.

The therapist had to rush the “paperwork” because there was another client waiting – which wasn’t too big of an issue given Fox’s current mental health, but could have been very problematic if Fox had been feeling suicidal or engaging in self-harm. Those aren’t exactly the kinds of issues one can effectively address in the last minute or so of a session, and I imagine (based on my own experience) that a lot of people who feel suicidal or engage in self-harm would be uncomfortable answering those questions honestly, given the situation. These are complex issues that need to be understood from the perspective of the person experiencing them, not binary conditions that can simply be marked present or absent. I don’t mean to come down too hard on the therapist because he was probably just doing what’s required of him, but I do have a bit of a bone to pick with whoever designs and requires these questionnaires.

Finally, the therapist’s body language concerns me. Fox suggested that he might have just been tired and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he broke all the rules I learned at the undergraduate level about how to use body language to help clients feel comfortable and listened to. He slouched, he looked bored, he crossed his legs. At one point his body language clearly indicated that he was very uncomfortable with the topic we were discussing – which concerns me because we need someone who can support us in navigating its impact on our relationship. He hunched his shoulders, looked at the floor, and oscillated in his chair – avoiding eye contact – when he said he was willing to help us address the topic. I didn’t feel safe – kind of like how a mountain climber wouldn’t feel safe putting their weight on a support that shifted under pressure. I’d prefer if he had said he wasn’t comfortable addressing the topic but could refer us to someone who could, or he needed time to do some research, or if there was otherwise some connection between his verbal and nonverbal communication in that moment.

Unfortunately, we’re very limited in our ability to seek help elsewhere. Most of the licensed marriage counselors we found in the area in our network are part of this same practice! The ones that aren’t part of this practice never got back to us; we have no reason to believe they would if we were to try again. And even if they did, it could be weeks or even months before we could have our first appointment! If we want professional help working on our relationship, we need to make the most of what we’ve got.