At night he calls out in his sleep to unknown assailants who populate his dreams. ‘Stop it’. He calls these words out repeatedly and when I reach over to urge him into wakefulness and away from these demons he falls silent as if I have chased them away for long enough for him to get some relief and slip into a noiseless sleep but they will be back later the next night and the next whenever he finds himself tortured by too much pain in the world.
My husband grew up in the generation that taught young boys to be tough and strong to withhold their tears and to take responsibility. Fathers were breadwinners and mothers were homemakers and although today he lives in a world where his wife shares the financial burden, he cannot escape this belief that he is only as good as the money he earns and if he stops earning then they might as well put him out to pasture like an old race horse, no longer able to compete on the track of life.
‘You made a bad bargain’ he says to me in moments of despair, as if our relationship was one long contractual economic arrangement with monetary value its only currency.
This morning he did not want to get out of bed even after an early night. He woke at four and from his perspective has not slept since but when I heard the alarm ring he did not stir, though my husband is adept at closing his eyes even while sitting on the couch, even in the company of others and he gives the appearance of a man asleep but he’s not, he tells me later, when I urge him to go to bed if he’s tired. He’s thinking behind closed eyes he tells me.
Sometimes his thoughts are taken up with plans to build something: a gate, a table, a new attachment to the salami-making machine so that he can improve the output of his sausages. But other times he ruminates. I know this when he scrunches up his face, eyes closed as if some monstrous thought has crossed through his mind that is almost unbearable.
Therapist that I am, I put it down to the difficult relationship he had with his mother, an unhappy woman herself overwhelmed by the burden of six children very little money and a husband who drank too much and flew into rages especially with his sons. His father did not help much but it was his mother who visited upon him all manner of cruelty.
My husband was the second born son and he arrived in the world healthy, unlike his older brother who suffered mild cerebral palsy at birth and could never attain his full potential. My husband on the other hand was a bright boy, a quick-witted boy, a boy who refused to do exactly as he was told when he was told and in his mother’s eyes he was naughty.
‘You ungrateful wretch’ she said to him whenever he challenged her authority.
My husband believed his mother preferred girls to boys, a view which clashed with my own experience of a mother who to my mind preferred her boys.
We came into this marriage with different mind states therefore, made worse by the fact we had four beautiful daughters, four daughters who became my husband’s pride a joy, the reason in his mind that he continued to work hard, the reason he went back to study law, the reason he left the Commonwealth Public Service and sought to develop his capacity so that he could earn enough money to pay for their schooling to renovate our house and to cover all the costs associated with a large and growing family. In his mind he did it all for them.
I have argued with him that this is not entirely true.
This is the myth of the old generation: man as bread winner; man who justifies his existence by going out into the world each day and bringing back the bacon, the bread, the money, the means by which the family unit can continue.
But my husband was not the only one to earn money. I helped, but somehow my work and earnings count less in his mind than his own.
Beyond his work, he took on hobbies, multiple hobbles and tried to perfect them. Here lies the rub. He tries to perfect things to the point where nothing is ever good enough. Nothing reaches his standards of acceptability and so he chides himself for his lack of standards.
He expects too much of himself. I fear he expects too much of me, too, but at times I morph into being as his mother, who also expected great things from him. He is in the grip of his mother’s criticism these days and no sooner do I ask him to do something than he hears me issuing commands.
Many years ago my husband taught me the importance of honesty in my requests. Don’t ask ‘Would you like to do such and such.’ Don’t ask ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’ as a precursor to asking more. Don’t ask a person indirectly in that not so subtle manipulative way that women of my mother’s generation used in order to get their way. Be direct.
I agree with him, the direct request is one to which a person can respond with a clear yes or no. An indirect request, a manipulation is harder to tackle.
I have learned to ask directly but even now my direct requests come as commands to my husband’s ears so I become wary of asking even as I all but ordered him out of bed this morning.
‘You’ll feel better,’ I say, once you’re out and about. If you lie in bed you just torture yourself.’
In my mind’s eyes I see his father, a man who spent the last several years of his life in bed, sly drinking and listening to the races until the Korsakoff’s (brain damage from too much alcohol) hit and he lost his memory and wound up in a protected facility with minimal control of his gambling card and a life of inertia.
My husband seeks oblivion he tells me, an escape from the endless tyranny of his mind.
I do not remember a time when he was happy for any extended period of time. He had his moments of fleeting joy but nothing sustained. Contentment is not a word that comes to mind, just this endless cruel striving and a man who continues to say things like: I still haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up.
For a talented man, a man who can do almost anything he turns his mind to, in the preparing of food, of cooking, of word turning, jewellery making, photography, house building, interpreting history and the law in its many manifestations, writing, reading, and when he was young running long distances, all these gifts and more and yet he cannot find happiness at his finger tips, only this endless restless search that is more often than not punctuated by cruel persecutors who tell him he is no good.