Last night, Will sneezed. This is not an earth shattering event…he sneezes a lot. I said, “Bless you.” Again, nothing unusual. But then he said, “Excuse me.” Which I think is weird because most people just say “thank you”, but the point is that he responded to me. I was in the other room (six feet away…we are in our travel trailer, remember) and I was brushing my hair. I kind of stopped….in a sort of “hmmm..that’s new” kind of moment…then my brain started spinning. I immediately realized that in thirty-seven years of marriage, I don’t think I have ever failed to bless him when he sneezed. In those same instances I can guarantee he never once thanked me and I cannot recall a time he even responded. I can, however, recall hearing him say “bless you” to others and acknowledging their blessings. As I pondered this, I also thought about a couple of times in the last couple of weeks where I have said to him, “Are you listening?” Or “Did you hear me?” I started to feel a sickening pit in my belly. I started to feel the way I had felt consistently in our marriage before d-day. I remembered being invisible.
In the past, I would have confronted Will and accused him or ignoring me or being rude. I would have badgered him about common courtesy and responding when someone speaks to you. Blah…blah…blah…. But, I didn’t. I composed my thoughts and came out of the bathroom and sat down quietly across from him. I asked if I could ask him a couple of questions. I asked him first why he said excuse me instead of thank you when responding to someone blessing him after sneezing. He had no idea why…didn’t even realize he said that. He agreed it was weird. I asked him why he had just responded to me for the first time in 37 years. He was shocked. And upset. And he had to take a few minutes to think about it. We discussed why, in general, he chose not to respond to me sometimes. Why I had to beg for a response or even an acknowledgement that I had spoken to him. He began to cry. He realized how much his anorexia had infiltrated his brain when it came to relating to me on even an everyday, humdrum basis. He had a knack of completely ignoring the fact that I was even present. He is still unsure why. He said that he did not think that some things needed a response. I then asked him if I had ever failed to respond to him when he spoke to me. He said yes and cited times when he thought I was in the next room but had gone outside. Or when he spoke to me then realized I had headphones on. He admitted that on those occasions he felt silly…like he was speaking to no one. Or felt like I was ignoring him because I was angry or something. On those occasions, he looked for the source of my non-responsiveness. I asked him what he would feel like if he had discovered that I just felt like I didn’t need to respond. He thought about it. He said in a trembling voice, hurt…and unimportant. I said, yes…exactly.
I kept thinking about the “Parenthood” episode where Zeke tells Camille, “I see you, I hear you.” Of course, this is after marriage counseling and Zeke really has no idea what he is saying, but I want Will to get that. I don’t want to be some superfluous thing who happens to share space with him. I don’t want to be an afterthought, a sidebar, an extra, or worse, a nuisance in his life. I want to BE his life…THE thing in his life that he cherishes and thinks about and loves.
We talked quite awhile then about neglect and contempt. A Time magazine article recently suggested that one of the worst things you can introduce into a marriage is contempt (from a communications standpoint), and that contempt can take on many forms including: interrupting, ignoring, withdrawing (from conversation), condescension, and sarcasm. We had a good hard look at the way we communicate. I am a master of sarcasm. I have honed my skills in large part due to being ignored. A caustic remark generally elicits a response. Well, you can see this ugly pattern. This is the cycle we have perfected over the decades and one which we are striving to break. It is not easy. My brain has been wired to be cynical and sarcastic and skeptical. Smartass remarks are quick to pop into my head….I have been slow in stopping them from jumping out of my mouth. Will has not responded to me largely in the past because he was focused on something (or someone) else. His brain was wired to tune me out and think about sex, or booze or anything else that would provide an escape from the pain of his guilty existence. I was the constant source of pain for him because I was the one he was hurting..therefore I was the one he needed to escape from. What an insane vicious circle!
I discovered that the sick feeling of defeat I got last night was not because I felt Will was acting out, or fantasizing, or even deliberately disconnecting from me. It was because I recalled feeling unimportant, disregarded and virtually invisible to someone who claimed to love me. I realized that neglect is its own cruel form of torture which leaves scars so deep that they don’t really heal…one can only hope to not break them open again. I was careful in my explanation to him of these feelings. He understood. He apologized through his tears. He saw me. He heard me. I am not willing to be invisible anymore. It is progress.