When I introduced this week’s theme of finding your way through the hard parts to some measure of freedom, I mentioned that the APW staff was a pretty resilient bunch, having gone through a lot of really hard things in the past few years. APW Editor Maddie told me afterwards, “I’m a narcissist, so I totally thought you were talking about Me Me Me.” And so today, she’s here to tell you about how she survived a (totally literal) sh*t storm in the first year of her marriage and emerged on the other side. Happier, healthier, and with an enormous dog with a now-functional digestive tract.
Despite getting married very young, I never want anyone to think that I’m someone who acts rashly. On the contrary, sometimes I’m so painstakingly careful about making big decisions that I can be frustrating to be around. I think about my options, talk through the decision with friends, make risk/reward tables in my mind, and then when all that’s done, I brood about things for all of eternity. Finally, once I find myself spending literally every second of every day thinking about the thing I’m about to do, I act.
In the technical sense, I guess you could say I’m risk averse. But only for big things with real consequences. I wear sunscreen and don’t usually do more than five or ten miles over the speed limit, but I’m also not afraid of rejection, embarrassment, or karaoke.
Luckily, I married someone who operates this way too. I guess it’s a result of having fallen in love during an extremely tumultuous time in our respective lives. When Michael and I met, I was still dealing with the way my sister’s death was affecting my family, which at the time included my parents’ divorce. Meanwhile, Michael was in college watching from afar while his father struggled with mental health issues and while his own parents were also divorcing.
All this is to say, Michael and I take our time and make well-informed decisions. And we do it to keep our walls from ever falling down around us. We’ve seen what can happen when they do and know the dark place that relationships can go when faced with the unexpected. But don’t be confused. We’re not naive. We know we can’t prepare for everything. We just want to feel like we’ve done what we can to steel ourselves against life’s variables. The big stuff. You know, The Hard Stuff (TM).
Which is how, six months after getting married, Michael and I found ourselves driving the five hours north to Syracuse to adopt a dog. Once again, we felt we’d prepared ourselves appropriately. We had planned and researched for nearly three years before finally settling on the right breed for our lifestyle, making sure we had enough free time in our lives to devote to walks and playtime, and even waiting to get her until after the wedding so that we could give her the most stable home possible.
Which brings me here. To tell you how it all fell apart.
What we hadn’t planned for was that our dog might have crippling health issues. Now this can be devastating on its own, but our dog is also person sized. And this person-sized dog had health issues of the digestive order, which meant that for nine months (which was how long it took to find the magical cocktail of antibiotics to cure her) she couldn’t hold her bowels for more than two hours. Which, in case you’re wondering, sucks.
At first we were hopeful. We figured it was a bug or stress or something else short term and so we shifted a few things around in our schedule to make sure we could accommodate her needs. I’d get up in the middle of the night if Michael stayed up late and took her out before bed. Since I worked an hour and a half away from home, Michael would come home in the middle of the day to let her out on his lunch break. It wasn’t perfect and we were definitely feeling taxed, but it was a band-aid we’d put on a wound that would heal itself in time.
Until it didn’t.
Somewhere around month five, we broke. Our band-aid fell off and the wound was raw underneath. We were now pouring all of the energy that existed outside of work and bills and sleep into the dog and had become shadows of ourselves. We didn’t sleep more than four hours at a time, we ate takeout every night, and fought constantly. We had no energy for sex, which I took as the sign that our marriage was doomed, and so I engaged in pointless fighting about the fact that we weren’t having sex, which just repeated the stupid cycle.
Needless to say. We. Were. Not. Prepared. And what made matters worse (to my risk-averse self) was that all I could see was how this situation could play out in the future. Sleep deprivation has a way of making worst-case scenarios seem inevitable, so I became convinced that the situation would be hopeless if we ever came up against something like this again. I mean, what if one of our parents became seriously ill? If we couldn’t even pull ourselves together to take care of a dog, how could we ever sustain a marriage with a seriously ill family member? Because of what my parents went through when my sister passed away, I had no hope that we’d ever survive a sick child. Wasn’t our dog trouble just a foreshadowing of our future failure to withstand hardship?
Well, yes. But only if we let it.
Because the truth is, despite what we were enduring with the dog, there were still outside forces consuming tons of our energy that we refused to let go of to save ourselves. I was commuting ungodly hours to a job that left me feeling empty inside. We were living in a fancy(ish) apartment complex that was completely unsympathetic to our situation. And Michael was stuck alone at home most of the time, just wading through the sh*t. Literally. On top of that, we were just so consumed by how much things sucked for ourselves, that we didn’t really stop and think about how much it sucked for the other person.
And that’s when things began to turn. As the pressure in our relationship built and built and built, slowly we began to realize that the other things we were working so hard to maintain (bad jobs, horrible apartment, etc.) were not nearly as important as the relationship we’d been neglecting. (Lightbulb, right? But it’s harder to get here than you think.) After every horrible night of four a.m. wake-up calls, I was surprised to learn that the thing I really regretted was having to go to work the next morning and put the last ounce of energy I had left into something I simply didn’t care about.
Before I knew it, I was telling Michael that I’d rather spend every day at home with him in our poop-covered apartment than endure another day on the train to the city for the sake of…what? I didn’t even know. What I did know was that he mattered more and we mattered more than whatever else was eating up my time and energy.
So we started to fix it. I found a job closer to home while Michael found us a better apartment. We put each other first and let the rest fall into place. As we shed unnecessary burdens, we pieced our lives together in such a way that the dog situation became manageable. Even if she wasn’t cured, our environment and our lifestyle were now conducive to our relationship in a way that allowed us to focus on ourselves again. Sure, it wasn’t what we’d planned for, but I didn’t commit to a plan in my vows. I committed to my partner and to making it work.
Despite how things seemed to fall apart, I’m amazed at how quickly our lives made a turn for the better when we began focusing our energy inward towards each other rather than outward towards life’s unknowns. It’s been almost a year and a half since our dog got better, and things are so drastically different now from the day we got her that I’d have laughed at you if you told me this is where I’d be right now. In just that short period of time I’ve started and grown my own my photography business, prompting Michael to begin his own job search, which eventually landed us in the beautiful state of California and made way for me joining the APW staff. None of which would have happened if we hadn’t been forced, if somewhat abruptly, to change our priorities.
Which I think is the very point of enduring The Hard Stuff. It can pull us apart, of course. But it also forces us to strip away our distractions and focus on the relationship, so that the next time the sh*t hits the fan (ha!), as I know it will, we can face it with reinforced strength. Meaning that just because we had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year doesn’t signify that we won’t be able to handle something worse if it comes our way. On the contrary, it means that we did handle it, we can handle it, and we will handle it. Together.
Photos of the day we brought Juno home, and us now, from Maddie’s personal collection