A few years back, we decided we wanted to jettison our kind of boring stoneware and replace it with Fiestaware. Color is incredibly important to me, and Catharine loves it as well, so we didn’t want just one color — we wanted many colors. As it turns out, we never did buy any Fiestaware, because it became an easy thing for people to give us, and we soon had 10 place settings in 8 colors: light blue, dark blue, brick, red, orange, sunflower, light green, purple.
There’s a game I play with myself: will there be a pleasing combination? I don’t get to arrange things directly, either in the cupboard or the dishwasher, but when they randomly end up in rainbow order, it makes me happy.
There’s a version that happens during any given meal, when I grab the top two plates or bowls from the cupboard. Of these two colors, which one do I prefer? The only absolutes are the green (it trumps everything) and the light blue (everything trumps it). Given that I make 98% of our meals, having the color I prefer is a little way of making myself happy in the midst of chores.
The other day this became the center of a … I don’t want to call it a fight, because it didn’t rise to that level, but a tense and hard moment, because Catharine doesn’t like the light blue plate either, and she said, in a moment of emotional wobbliness, that she felt like I was giving her the blue plate to punish her, because when she’s making the decision she always takes the blue plate because she knows I don’t like it.
My immediate response was, oh, you don’t want to start the list of the choices I make to take care of you and make you happy, because you will LOSE. (Just to take one small example, earlier that day I’d bought her flowers because it was our legal anniversary and flowers make her happy, even though I don’t really care about flowers and in our current state, it’s one more goddamn thing to manage. And that’s on top of every other damn thing I do around here.)
We ended up talking about it, because that’s what we do, and I was able to articulate that it was a small way I centered myself and my own needs/pleasure, which is what we’ve been saying we want to do on a bigger scale, but even here in this tiny little way, she experienced that centering as punishing her.
This is one of those moments when she looks like an asshole. And in a different context, such a response could be indicative of someone being abusive or an asshole or whatever. There was a time when we might have thought so as well.
But here’s the difference: When I called it out, when I told her why I was doing it and how she was responding and how that echoes the larger patterns we’re trying to fix, she was able to see it. She could hear my frustration and anger. She could acknowledge the underlying pattern. We could talk about why the pattern existed. She could apologize.
This isn’t how it would have gone five years ago.
Catharine’s ex-therapist mentioned off-handedly once that untreated mental illness can arrest key developmental skills at the point when it starts to take hold. Given that she first remembers being suicidal at 6, there are some early, foundational developmental skills that got held up. That’s on top of what happens when you spend 25 years coping with profound mental illness — those coping skills don’t always serve you when the mental illness gets treated, and undoing 25 years of them takes a while.
The one we can identify most easily at this point (although I always want to do more research, because I like doing research) is differentiation: the understanding that other people are other and that they have entirely separate lives, needs, and inner worlds. And, frankly, the characteristic traits of ADD get all tangled up in here. Sometimes she has a really hard time, in the moment, especially if there’s any big emotion involved, accessing any reason why someone would be acting they way they are other than how it feels to her. So if I give her the blue plate, even if she doesn’t like the blue plate, then I’m punishing her. My experience of that reality is entirely obscured.
We’ve gotten to the point where, when I call that out, she can see it, and she can see it quickly, without a lot of explanation and arguing. This really is progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, even if we have to have the conversation.
Also, we’re getting rid of the blue plate.