When the Bubble Burst
It was somewhere between my thirty-fourth and thirty-ninth year when I began to go crazy. It’s hard to remember the exact date. Things moved from great to awful in small increments. My sense of being real to becoming unreal came in wisps and snatches. My love for my children consumed me until one day I lost it. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. I always thought I was sane until I wasn’t, and then I was crazy. Or at least I thought I was.
In the beginning, though, we were happy. My husband, John, our three children, and I had just moved into our new home in a small suburban Philadelphia town, and everyone was excited to be closer to our extended family. The house was three stories high with a yellow-brick facade and an oversized, fenced-in backyard. I loved the curly, twisty branches of the Japanese red maple tree that framed the turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture. It was graceful and called to be climbed. A crook in the trunk branched into several mid-sized limbs where my children used to sit or hide or magically transform the tree into an old Western fort. We were the perfect family, and I was the perfect wife and mother who had found my calling in taking care of my brood.
John was writing his PhD dissertation in sociology, so we designated the attic room at the top of a narrow flight of stairs in the yellow-brick house as his office. He was the breadwinner who engaged his academic career in the traditional classroom and while drinking beer in bars where he said students were more relaxed and open to deeper discussions. Teaching with an informal flair, his trademark was casual attire and old, loose-fitting khakis.
Life was good. Things changed. Over the next ten years, our family would disintegrate. Each of us would leave the yellow-brick house, one by one, broken, just a shadow of who we thought we were. And it was all my fault.
My eight-year-old daughter, Lizzy, barreled through the kitchen, grabbing a granola bar in one hand and balancing her bundle of baseball cards in the other, a whirl of energy advancing through the house on her way to the backyard to meet her friends. We were settled into our new home and getting down to the business of being family in a new environment. No doubt about it, Lizzy was a tomboy. Her silver-tongued negotiations would eventually yield her the best stack of players among her male peers. Steve Carleton? Pete Rose? It mattered little to them that the Phillies were having their worst season ever. Sprawled across the grass early on a sunny summer morning, she huddled with three neighborhood boys, examining, critiquing, and comparing their cards to figure out their next trades.
“Don’t get mud on your new jeans,” I yelled to my oldest daughter through the backdoor screen. All morning, the fast friends would hop up and disappear into someone else’s house only to reappear in our yard in the next thirty minutes or so, repeating the ritual over and over again.
In the meantime, two-year-old Chuckie finished his Cheerios, slid down from the table, and toddled outside to the sandbox. From a distance, I saw the sand slip through his fingers, then saw the inevitable hurricane of teeny-tiny stone particles flying around the yard, here, there, and everywhere. Bored after a few minutes, he waddled over to his sister, and fell kerplop on her back.
“Hey, get off me, you little oaf!” Lizzy laughed as she grabbed Chuckie in a bear hug. After a wrestle on the grass, Lizzy went back to her cards and Chuckie went off to throw the ball to Trixie, the mangy mid-sized pup who had adopted us not long after we moved into our pet-friendly home.
I watched them out the kitchen window and took pleasure in seeing how much fun they were having. In the back of my mind, I knew someone was missing. Where’s Kimmy? I had seen my five-year-old daughter reading in bed, so I knew she was awake, but she hadn’t made it down to the land of the living. I walked to the second floor and peered around the corner and up the steep steps to the third floor. My husband’s office door was ajar. An early reader, sometimes Kimmy liked to sneak up and hide among the books and maps and atlases and other grown-up learning tools John had accumulated over the years. Sure enough, when I walked the next flight of stairs, there she was, sprawled across the small twin bed squeezed in between the large office desk and floor-to-ceiling shelves. Surrounded by books, each representing her burgeoning list of passions, she sat there intently examining the globe.
“Mommy, Mommy, look what I found,” she blurted out, thrusting the colorful orb in front of me so I would discover, too, some country or continent she hadn’t known existed. I smiled and sat down next to her, sharing her exuberance, and taking note of the fact that she hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.
“That’s terrific, Kimmy,” I said, giving her a hug. “Maybe we can do some research on the country later today. But for now, let’s get downstairs and have breakfast!”
The morning rolled on with everyone doing what you might expect of a family of three active children. Our lives were built around playing games, building castles in the sand, reading books, acting out stories, making gingerbread houses, going hiking, accumulating pets, dancing to the music, and creating the scariest haunted houses on Halloween. The children were living their own unique lives, but I was in the center, the connector, the lover, the wiper-of-noses, the hugger, the organizer, the mother. This was our family portrait, frozen in time, the best of the best, real and not posed, or so it seemed to me.
Over the next five years, our family transformed slowly from Norman Rockwell’s quintessential portrait in the Saturday Evening Post to Edvard Munch’s existential angst in his painting The Scream. Although each of us remained a unique piece in the puzzle that was our family, the pieces were no longer aligned. I couldn’t find a way to make their edges fit, no matter how hard I tried. Here I was, the master puzzle maker, who could no longer make sense of the picture I had created. I lost my sense of self. If I was no longer the lover of all things that had to do with my children, then who was I?
“Lizzy, do your homework before you go out with friends,” I said like a hiker attempting a steep climb I had faced before. I knew my rebellious thirteen-year-old daughter would ignore me and leave her essay behind. If only John were home to help with the discipline, I thought. I was overwhelmed that Lizzy was testing me and John was AWOL in co-parenting. I didn’t, at the time, understand that being overwhelmed was a cover for being angry, an emotion I barely knew existed and would never allow myself to feel. The door slammed as Lizzy stomped outside. I pivoted to Kimmy, who was sitting at our round oak table and needed help with her fourth-grade math homework. Her wavy blond hair looked pretty, but her bangs needed trimming.
“Let’s see. This is how you set up your long division problem, Kim,” I said, eyeing tears of frustration trickling down her cheeks through stray curls.
The afternoon had been packed with soccer practice for all of the kids. Lizzy excelled in soccer and left her classmates in the dust. Kimmy acquiesced to the sport even though she would have preferred to stay home and read a book. Chuckie couldn’t wait to get out on the field and fly as fast as his feet would let him. After practice, I brought them home, told them to wash up, and made dinner for my motley crew, who seemed to think that grabbing the ketchup and mustard from each other was another form of soccer they could play at the kitchen table.
Lizzy snatched her food and refused to sit with the rest of us. Still more at ease with her local guy friends, who now appreciated her long brown hair, curvy body, and wide, infectious smile, she had turned moody with the family. John’s seat at the table was perpetually empty because he was still at school, teaching or talking or reading or otherwise doing what academics do. By now, this was our modus operandi, and I was accustomed to not having him around. I had taken an early childhood elementary–teaching position two years earlier, and my lesson plans sat untouched in the tote bag I had thrown in the corner of the dining room.
“I don’t wanna do homework,” yelled Chuckie, who was cycling through second grade. His sandy red hair was tousled as he gulped down his dinner and ran upstairs to hide in his closet with his superhero dolls. My favorite childhood picture of him showed his lower lip in a noticeable pout, his streak of stubbornness on full display. I turned back and looked at Kimmy, who was always content to keep her nose in a book. With her lively blue eyes, she seemed perpetually good natured, always agreeable, always engaged with school and books in her quiet, introverted way. Just three years younger than Lizzy, their dispositions couldn’t be more different.
The trials I experienced in parenting began much like they do for all families, but there was something more I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something confusing. Something that didn’t make sense and was just out of my reach. I’m exhausted, I thought. I can barely move. No, I’m doing great. Just get it all organized at home the way you do at school, and the problems will disappear. Are you kidding? Problems don’t disappear. Just pull it together the way you manage school. You’re great there. No, I have to go to sleep. Where’s John? I have to keep it together for John. Nobody seems happy anymore. Well, I can tell you right now, I’m not happy. Yes, I am. What’s going on? Every part of my body hurts. I’m always happy. Ha! You’re delusional. Let’s go to sleep. I’m scared.
One Saturday morning, I dragged myself out of our marital bed, which had seen less and less of John and I together in the past year or so, and confronted my husband at the bathroom door. Early bird that he was, he had already had two cups of coffee at a local diner and came home just as the rest of us were waking up. I had sleepers in my eyes. “Have you ever had an affair?”
Where did this question come from? I wondered as the words popped out of my mouth. In less than an instant, a myriad of thoughts flew through my mind. Of course John’s faithful. Why would you ask that question? He’s a good man and he loves us. He’s our whole life and we’re a family. He would never cheat on me. You are so naïve. He’s never around. You don’t see half the things that go on, and your life is falling apart. Why not ask? How do you expect he’ll answer? How do you want him to answer? Do I care? I hid a yawn and waited impatiently for him to respond.
“Yes,” he said, barely audible, gazing down at the worn rug, the smell of fresh coffee still clinging to his stretched-out, holey sweater.
Some part of me heard him without an ounce of feeling. As animated and loving as I had been in the past, this lack of feeling was becoming more and more familiar to me. Instead, I was curious, cold, analytical, with just a hint of panic. “When?”
“Two years.” His hazel-green eyes reconnected with mine. They seemed to be trying to tell me something. Maybe he was sorry? Maybe he felt guilty? Maybe he wanted me to forgive and forget? His body relaxed like the taut frame of the wild goose flying, felled with one shot.
I, on the other hand, was the bullet ready to take flight. I didn’t wait to find out what he was trying to communicate. In an act of agency and symbolism, I grabbed my antidepressant medication and threw it down the toilet. Yes, I’m depressed. Yes, I’ve thought it’s a sign of my own weakness. But, yes, there is a reason. He’s been having an affair for two years. I’m getting out of here.
With a final glance, I told John I was going to my parents’ apartment an hour away and walked quickly out the door. Driving blindly, I passed cars along the turnpike, zigzagged across Lancaster Avenue, and watched side street after side street disappear through my rearview mirror. With little memory of how I got wherever I was going or what I thought along the way, my whole body, mind, and spirit were activated into survival mode, and the luxury of thinking through implications seemed unavailable to me. Instead, the back of my brain was filled with silver, shimmering icicles, the kind that enthralled me when I was a little girl, icicles swaying on my Christmas tree, preventing any trace of coherent thought. I would later learn this was my body’s response to trauma, a sign of dissociation, the psychological term used to describe the state of experiencing oneself and one’s surroundings as unreal, and often the compartmentalizing of pain, fear, and functioning. Out of my fight, flight, or freeze options, I had chosen flight.
Eventually, I found myself in the blue-collar neighborhood of my upbringing and slid my car next to the curb in front of my parents’ second-floor apartment. Cattycorner to the building, the lights of the ice and coal company flashed. Down the street, the taproom was getting ready for lunch. Directly across the street, the busy beer distributor of my childhood was boarded up and silent like a morgue. I walked past trash cans to the front door and dragged myself up the familiar stairwell, rubbing my hands along the sturdy pine railing as I went, step by step. Once at the top of the landing, I found my way to my childhood bedroom and crawled into my bed where the faded blue bedspread with worn-out tufts was draped across its frame. I wrapped it around me, pulled my knees to my chin, and closed my eyes. The adrenaline was wearing thin, and my real circumstances began to take shape. Now I was the felled goose, limp and loose and totally unsure of who I was or what I was supposed to do. The world had turned on a dime.
My mother and father stood over me curled up in my cocoon as I croaked out the story. My mother tried to console me. My father just looked at me and said, “He never should have told you.”
Then he walked away.
My father never was the warm and fuzzy sort.
An electrician by trade, the “old fart,” as he called himself, grumbled and grunted through his spectacles, rarely smiled, and laughed even less. His almost bald head gleamed like a crown atop his khaki shirt and pants, the uniform he wore to his job as a bank maintenance superintendent and carried over at home and even in retirement. Save some extra wrinkles, his sculpted face and nose changed little over my lifetime and commanded the same obedience from his beginning to his end.
“People who believe in God are either stupid or weak,” he had pronounced as an article of faith around the dinner table set precisely for his six o’clock meal, or on the back porch overlooking our dingy alley as he lit up a cigarette, or with my sister and the friends she brought home from college. He made sure we all knew his disdain for religion that, in his mind, was a crutch that upheld the masses, a holdover idea, perhaps, from his days in post-war New York City with communist and socialist friends.
“If you can’t see, hear, taste, touch, or feel it, it doesn’t exist” was another commandment he threw around as he flicked his ashes into a dirty ashtray. It made sense to me. I couldn’t imagine an imaginary man in the sky who, like Santa Claus, knew what everyone needed all around the world all at once. It sounded preposterous. I didn’t like the mean words my father used to describe religious people, but I had to agree that he made sense. After all, for small children, their parents are God, of a sort, and my father had become a God-like figure for me, endowed with supreme authority as well as the capacity for ultimate retribution. Just as many people dare not cross the God of their imagining, I dared not cross my father.
Still, I always longed for God. From as far back as I can remember, I sensed a presence. While I couldn’t imagine an old man in the sky, I felt a deep sense of something more. I knew enough not to call this presence God, but it was real.
We were a socially isolated family amid a sea of people. Beneath us, next to us, down the block, and across the street were folks we rubbed shoulders with, but we were different. They had family rituals; we didn’t. They went on vacations; we didn’t. They went to church; we didn’t. They had friends; we didn’t. So, in order to make us moderately normal and minimally acceptable, my mother sent my sister and me to the red-brick Methodist church a block away from our house so we would know what other people knew even though we didn’t believe what other people believed. My sister lasted for one service, but I took to it handily and became a regular at Sunday school from first to fifth grade. I sang in the children’s choir. I memorized twelve Bible verses a week for twelve weeks to earn a free week at a summer church camp. I was confirmed. I didn’t know how to believe in God, but I was happy to drink the Kool-Aid.
By chance, when I entered junior high school, I stumbled upon Being and Nothingness by the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. I devoured the work of this great mind who seemed to have an understanding of the world far beyond my grasp. I was taken by his notion that people must claim their own destiny rather than rely on a God to give meaning to their lives. The idea of individual responsibility for oneself and others was similar to what I learned at church, but it lived outside the need for a pretend deity whose existence was unprovable. Sartre’s philosophy fit neatly within my father’s worldview, and I loved the notion that I could make meaning for my own life. Still, existentialism didn’t address the small stirrings in my heart. Did these stirrings come from my Sunday school classes? Did they exist in me independently? If I tried, maybe I could ignore them. So, at the age of thirteen, I stuffed my spirituality, walked out the door of the red-brick Methodist church, and didn’t look back. I would be an atheist, just like my father. Like Sartre, I would make meaning for myself.
John was an ex-Catholic, ex-altar boy who was also an atheist. I met him at Temple University in Philadelphia where he was a graduate student in sociology and I was an underclassman. Five minutes late on my way to class, I was rushing up the stairs of Gladfelter Hall as, at the exact same moment, he descended with his head in a book. Two karmic bodies collided, and the contents of our arms scattered everywhere. As we both leaned over to collect our collateral, our eyes met.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said as I picked up two books.
“No, it was my fault,” he replied as he gathered three of his own and a bunch of papers. We slowly stood upright, and I got a good look at him. He was cute and his eyes twinkled. Even better, he didn’t make me nervous. “Would you like to have lunch at the Grill after class?” he asked like a pup waiting for a treat. Usually, I had extreme anxiety around men my age, which had severely limited my social life. Trembling lips and brain freeze had never made me queen of the ball. The dancing icicles in my brain would form an impermeable wall between me and any would-be suitor. But John didn’t do that to me. For some reason, I could talk to him without getting panicky. We caught lunch and were both besmitten. One thing led to another, and we eloped six months later.
John and I shared the same values. We were both atheists, which was its own kind of religion. That did us well for a good part of our marriage, but toward its end, I became uncomfortable with his approach to teaching students how religion interfaced with culture. College is intended to stretch and challenge the worldviews of students, and John approached this task with a fervor that went beyond basic academic responsibility. He seemed to take pleasure in undermining the convictions of students who came to his class with a deep faith.
One cold winter afternoon, John was driving carefully through the snow patches while I sat in the passenger seat, working on a list of things to buy at the supermarket. The conversation was idle until he replayed his day. “My sociology of religion class is going well,” he said. “Today, one of my students raised some issues after my lecture. I dismantled his beliefs pretty quickly.” He chuckled heartily, giving details of the classroom conversation as he steered the car through a slide. “I nearly brought him to the point of tears. Religion is so illogical. He’s a bright boy. I can’t believe he would believe such things,” he said with a sense of satisfaction that he had accomplished what he had set out to do.
I watched the bright-white landscape pass dreamily by and realized John’s story made me uncomfortable. It seemed to me that stretching a student’s mind to grow was one thing, but bringing a student to the point of tears and enjoying it was quite another. I was an atheist too, but the gleam in his eye and the laughter in his voice was unsettling. We moved on to other topics as we went shopping, then returned home and unpacked our bags. Perhaps for the first time in our marriage, I carried my discomfort with me.
When I married John, I thought I was choosing the polar opposite of my father. He seemed like an upbeat, expressive sort of guy, so different from the grouchy, untouchable person whose genes I carried. I’ve heard it said that we unconsciously choose a new version of our parent for our spouse, but I remember thinking, Not me. I didn’t fall into that trap.
My emergency response to John’s admission of infidelity slowly dissipated, but it left my body numb, exhausted, yet still in high alert. Like a soldier in jungle combat, I knew the immediate danger had passed, but the hostile environment hid unknown perils that might flare up at any moment. After a dreamless sleep and breakfast at my parents’ kitchen table, I got into my car and drove slowly home. My children needed me even though I was becoming less effective in parenting by the day. My school was waiting for me, oblivious to what was unfolding behind our closed doors. My husband was anxious for my return in hopes I would forget about his transgression. I would face the unknown dangers ahead. I was afraid, but I would walk through the jungle anyway. What choice did I have?