Voices: When the Clouds Are Lifted

What do you want? Another hour in therapy? Or a visit to the dispensary?

Though Charlie and I had traveled in the same friend group for years, we never got to know each other until we moved back to New York at the same time five years ago. Immediately, we began talking every day, and hanging out every day. Finding our footing in the metropolitan rush was exciting but stressful. This was before I’d published even my first article, and before Charlie’s first film. We were nobodies, but we had such hopes for ourselves, and each other. This cemented our bond: within six months, without even dating, we eloped to California. Within two weeks of taking our vows, we were renting our first apartment. Standing in our empty studio in Brooklyn, signing our future in blood, I felt sure that, wild as it seemed, I was doing the right thing. Charlie was my soulmate and my best friend. Our love could withstand any trial.

Charlie always said he was allergic to weed. He’d had a few bad experiences in high school—had gotten too high and felt paranoid and out of control, and had written it off completely. Before we married, I was, if not a daily smoker, then a frequent one. But after we married, I cut way back—because Charlie didn’t smoke and we often couldn’t afford it.

The first months of our marriage were blissful. We had sex every day, or several times a day. We picked out furniture, painted walls, and hung photos. We went on dates around the neighborhood, finding “our” neighborhood bars and brunch spots, and “our” pizza place, taking walks through Prospect Park, and to out-of-the-way, secretly quiet places. Living together, making our home together, felt beautiful and perfect and right. A dream.

Image via Femme Run/Flickr

Then fall came. The leaves turned and fell, and winter settled in. Quirks of our little apartment began to appear—the steam heater was dusty and moldy, and aggravated Charlie’s asthma. I came down with bronchitis, which turned into pneumonia. The door to our bathroom swelled with the cold and would no longer close. Having both moved from warm places, we hadn’t yet adjusted to the New York weather. I didn’t have good boots or a warm coat, Charlie didn’t have enough sweaters. Suddenly, we were miserable. For months, we walked around cold, wet, and grumpy.

It wasn’t long before we had to start talking about money. Aside from the fact that we never seemed to have it, we hadn’t yet learned how to talk about it without being avoidant or accusatory, so had never made a budget despite living in the second most expensive city in the country. For the first few years we were married, I worked at an independent bookstore making thirteen dollars an hour. With the exception of one nine-month period during which Charlie made a salary of less than three thousand dollars a month, he has always been a freelancer, so his income could be very unpredictable at times.

Image via José Manuel Ríos Valiente/Flickr

When I decided to go down to part-time at the bookstore in order to make more time for freelance writing, and then when I quit the bookstore completely to go freelance, Charlie was supportive, but our money troubles multiplied. During one particularly dry spell wherein I was making some money but Charlie wasn’t making any, I told him that I didn’t trust him anymore. I said that if he didn’t find work soon, I would leave him, and I was serious. In retrospect, the problem wasn’t Charlie’s momentary lack of income; it was the seeming impossibility of talking without arguing, and the distrust that produced. And mind you, we’re passionate people—our arguments were explosive: screaming, throwing chairs, slamming doors, breaking cabinets.

There was much that we still had to learn about each other. Like many artists, I have a history of depression and anxiety—I’ve been seeing therapists on and off since I was a teenager. Charlie, though he’d never seen a therapist, also suffers from depression and anxiety. These illnesses manifest differently in each of us—when I’m anxious, I get very quiet and withdrawn. Charlie, on the other hand, voices all of his fears, and becomes aggressive—like many men, his depression looks like anger. Needless to say, as artists, we’re sensitive people. We’ve trained ourselves to read between the lines—to respond to nuances, and take everything personally, which is less than helpful when we’re having a disagreement. One of the most commonly asked questions in our house was, “What do you mean by that?” Resolving conflicts seemed impossible, an endless cycle of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Image via Baptiste Pons/Flickr

Earlier this year, I went away for six weeks to do research for a book. Charlie stayed behind in New York, and though we talked every day on the phone, the longer I was away, the more distant we felt. By the end of the six weeks, we’d decided to separate. We weren’t getting along, and there was so much resentment between us, I’d reached the heartbreaking conclusion that we just weren’t compatible. A few days before I returned home, I started looking for new apartments, but Charlie told me to wait—just wait until I got back, so we could talk.

When Charlie picked me up from the airport, he told me he had a present for me. I’d started smoking more frequently while I was away, and after giving it some thought, he’d decided to try it again. Back at the apartment, he rolled a joint and we talked. I said everything I needed to say while Charlie listened; and I listened while Charlie said all he needed to say. By the end of our conversation, we were both laughing. It felt like a cloud had lifted. Though much of what we said was hard to hear, it was easier to listen, to be patient with each other. Now we’re more or less daily smokers, and are happier together. The laughter we enjoyed so early in our relationship has returned, with the sense of shared adventure, and joy.