I had just spent a few thousand dollars, putting my grandmother’s diamond into a new setting. I wrote “I love you. Will you marry me?” on a tiny slip of paper, tucked inside a fortune cookie. I had to reseal the plastic with a hairdryer and choreograph the whole thing with our server. He situated us in a quiet corner of the balcony at sunset. Everything was perfect.
I got down on one knee, just like the movie that had been playing in my mind again and again.
As I looked up at my beautiful, soon-to-be fiancé, she said…
Well, that’s not how I pictured the night going. Like, at all. Thankfully, the shock wore off, and she kissed me through the sweetest tears, whispering, “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you! Oh my gosh!”
We had just celebrated the perfect Christmas at a tiny little bungalow in New Orleans. That city is like heaven to me: music echoes from houses and bars on every corner, the food is divine, and every square foot of real estate is a work of art. We ate, drank, and danced the night away, like the carefree twentysomethings we were.
Lindsey had been suffering from a cold for a week, but she had taken five days of antibiotics before we left, so we opted to go on to New Orleans anyway. The remaining five days of medicine was sure to have her entirely well.
You know, someone at the doctor’s office really should have done a better job of explaining precisely what can happen when a woman on birth control takes antibiotics. Somewhere around Valentine’s Day, she was standing at the kitchen sink and said, “Oh, by the way – I’ve missed my cycle for two months. I might need to get that checked out.”
This wasn’t quite how we planned it. In fact, we had been planning against it. Lindsey had been on the pill for four years, and things were going just fine. I can’t remember if it’s one line or two; either way, the answer was clear: you’re pregnant.
Only a couple of weeks had passed since Ben’s birth. It wasn’t the joyful time everyone dreams of with a new baby. I had never even heard the word “psychosis” before, and I had no idea that sleep deprivation could quite literally drag a perfectly normal wife and brand-new mother to the brink of insanity.
I sat next to her hospital bed, amid the constant barrage of questions from doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists. I was desperately searching for the girl I’d fallen in love with just a few years before, but her eyes were glossed over, and her mind seemed wholly disconnected from reality.
“Tell them to stop staring at me!”
The doctors and nurses were all gone now. The knot in my stomach felt as if it might wring me in two, like a dishrag. When I finally realized Lindsey was talking about the baby formula and the bottle that was sitting on the bedside table, I feared I may never get my sweet wife back. My hands shook, and tears poured down my cheeks as I turned the formula and baby bottle around, facing away from her. “There you go, babe. They’re not staring at you anymore.”
It was one day shy of Ben’s first birthday. We often called him Beignet, since he was conceived in that snowy little New Orleans’ bungalow. Lindsey had recovered from the postpartum depression and psychosis and was planning Ben’s birthday when she got the call from an unknown number. Three minutes later they left a voicemail with news that would alter our lives forever. “Mrs. Austin, this is Tammy. I’m an ICU nurse at Huntsville Hospital. I need you to return my call as soon as possible.”
Lindsey’s stomach dropped as she pieced together the insufficient information the hospital could give, plus grim text messages from my client. That must have been the longest car ride, wondering if I would still be alive by the time she arrived.
Sitting in the counselor’s office about a year later, we worked hard to salvage what remained of a marriage nearly torn apart by secrets, mental illness, and the shame of it all. The marriage counselor gave us both quite the AHA moment, as she connected the dots between years of shame and secrecy, and the sexual abuse I’d endured as a toddler. Lindsey reached out her hand to hold mine, there on the couch.
We’ve been together nearly twelve years now, married for ten. The first seven years or so were full of more downs than ups, more bad than good, more sickness than health. Seven out of ten years were anything but easy. During those dark and fearful days, we struggled for a myriad of reasons. If we’re honest, we both considered quitting more times than we’d like to admit.
These days, we often find ourselves reflecting on the grace and kindness of God. We sit on the back patio together, grateful for the extraordinary ordinariness of our lives. We have a whole marriage because we have done the hard work of each becoming a whole person. We’ve become best friends. We support each other, every step of the journey.
Please don’t read this like there was some cosmic snapping of the fingers and suddenly our marriage was a Nicholas Sparks’ novel. No way. Not a chance. But we are stronger than ever, more compassionate to each other, and we’re intentionally creating the marriage and family that we once only dreamed of having.
No magic potion will promise you a pain-free marriage or a perfect life. The truth is, there’s no secret formula for either one. Both require at least two things: hard work and loads of compassion. I’m grateful that the girl who said “huh” still chooses to love me, every single day. If I’ve learned anything from my not-so-perfect engagement, it’s this: marriage, like life, is full of surprises.
If you’re in the middle of a not-so-perfect relationship right now, welcome! As a wellness life coach, part of my focus is on relationships. I’d love to talk with you and see how I might best serve you and your relationship. Email me today at firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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