By Esther Mann, LCSW
Many years ago, I read a book about a woman who was at the beach with her family. At some point, she got up, began walking away, and never turned back. She had just had it with her family and couldn’t take her married life anymore. I don’t even remember the name of the book or the author, but the concept has stayed with me all these years.
When I read the book, my life wasn’t nearly as complicated as it is today. But it was beginning to feel unmanageable, and somehow I had a premonition that I could become that woman someday. I think I have officially become that woman, and it is beginning to scare me.
I am disappointed in and resentful of my husband. He has never been kind to me. Never really cared about me, about my needs, or about what I want. It’s always been about him. I feel as though I serve him on every possible level. I grew up in a European home and fell into this role quite naturally, since I had always seen my mother doting on my father. Bringing him his slippers after a hard day at work. Preparing a three-course dinner for him. Keeping me and my siblings under control and quiet when he was home, so that he could relax.
But there are some major differences between my parents’ marriage and mine. My father adored my mother. He complimented her, thanked her for everything, bought her beautiful gifts all the time, and, though he was the prince, he made her feel like a princess in many ways. I get none of the positive stuff.
Also, my father was a wonderful provider. He owned a business and was successful. My mother never had to work outside the home. But my husband never made a great living; and then, if things could get any worse, lost his job several years ago. He’s never really rebounded. He’s gotten a few temporary jobs here and there, but it’s clear to me (and I think him) that his days of steady, full-time employment are over.
We have four children. Three of them are in therapy for their “issues,” with two of them on medication. They are a handful. They are challenging from the moment they open their eyes until they go to bed at night. It’s never easy. I am so busy with all of their special needs, that I don’t have a spare minute for myself. Oh, and of course, I work four days a week. Someone has to. And I hate my dead-end, boring job. I count the minutes until the day is over, so that I can go home to my demanding husband and screaming children.
Then there is my ailing, widowed mother who also requires attention. Thank goodness I can share that responsibility with my siblings, but it’s just so hard to see her failing and doing so poorly. It breaks my heart.
This is a snapshot of my life. It doesn’t even take into account a serious illness I dealt with several years ago, a car accident my husband was in ten years ago, and the abusive way that one of my sisters behaves toward me.
So there you have it. I go to bed every night picturing myself just up and leaving, just walking away. Taking a train to who knows where and getting a waitress job in some little town where no one knows me and no one could ever find me, and just spending my free time reading, walking, and thinking whole thoughts, without interruption. This fantasy brings a smile to my face—probably the only smile that I can muster during the entire day.
The problem is that more and more I think I may actually act on this fantasy. Last week I came really close. Shavuos was particularly hard on me. I wanted to have a nice yom tov and prepare some special dishes, but on my budget it was nearly impossible. I tried my hardest to stretch every dollar and stayed up late Monday night, trying out some new recipes and hoping that maybe this last-ditch effort would bring some joy to our otherwise joyless family. I was exhausted by the time yom tov started, but I took the time to put on a nice robe and some makeup, and I set the table with extra care, placing some beautiful flowers from my neighbor’s garden in the center of the table. I was hoping for the best.
But then my husband came home from shul all grumpy, which is his usual mood these days. He complained about everything. Made fun of the flowers, saying something like, “Who do you think you are anyway, some fancy-schmancy lady with flowers on the table? Get rid of them, they take up too much room.” He criticized the food and even spit some out. I lost it and started to cry and for the first time ever, just ran out of the room and ran to bed.
On Friday, I actually took a train to Penn Station and started looking at all the various travel options out of New York. I just felt that I’d had enough. I wanted to just keep moving and never turn back. But of course I did, and I returned home to face another stressful Shabbos.
I can’t imagine continuing like this. Maybe I’m just weak, and there are plenty of women with similar, difficult lives who just keep on going. But I don’t have much more to give and I’m afraid that one day soon, I’ll take that train back into Manhattan and from there, who knows where.
Would anyone blame me?
I too read the book you refer to, and I remember being struck by the desperation of the main character. I think the reason that story struck me and so many other women in such a profound way is its success in chronicling the anguish of the protagonist and identifying the occasional “crazy” thoughts that can mess with a person’s mind. What would it be like to just walk away? Leave everything behind? Forget about the responsibility? The disappointments? The heartaches? This book profiles a woman who acts on her impulse and the reader is left to follow her journey—for better or for worse.
Though this particular story is fiction, some of you may have heard the occasional horrendous story wherein real people with real lives and real husbands, children, extended families, and friends, just walked away. But it is so rare and so extreme that it almost never happens. Not because life may not feel lighter and easier, but because it leaves behind way too much collateral damage. Innocent bystanders suffer the consequences.
Which is why I don’t want to believe that you will actually take that journey to who knows where, never to be heard from again. I suspect your letter is more a plea for help than an actual threat. At least that’s what I’m hoping.
As a solution-focused therapist, I’m always trying to find the hook. The answer to problems. Sometimes they exist and just require a great deal of work to locate and use. Sometimes, there is no real hook, but maybe a bunch of little fasteners that can let in some sunshine in an otherwise totally bleak situation.
My gut tells me that you’ve tried the obvious. Marriage therapy, individual therapy, tapping into community services, trying to secure a few bits of time for friends, hobbies, and yourself. The bottom line is that you have a great deal on your plate. You have children that require a lot of attention, as does your job, your home, your mother, and the responsibility of just keeping your family afloat.
It must seem to you as though many people have it much easier. And that is true. But there are people out there struggling in their own ways, and there are those who have it even worse. No matter the situation, all of us want a better life. That’s human nature. Hopefully, we can figure out how to attain a better life without running away.
I’m going to try something new this week in my column. I invite my wonderful readers to write in to me with their stories of struggle and subsequent coping strategies. I’m looking for narratives that speak of success. I would like to publish some of these so that we all can be inspired by their stories and attempt to employ some of their strategies.
Therefore, I encourage those of you who see yourselves in “Enough’s” story and fantasy to write in to me. What do you do with those thoughts of escape? How do you find some kind of balance in a life filled with doing for others? How do you get past feeling unappreciated, unloved, and never rewarded for your constant work? Where do you find the energy to keep going, day after day, with no specific end in sight?
“Enough” and I look forward to hearing from you and sharing your wisdom and tips for survival.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.