“She wasn’t dangerous to anyone, not in the sense that the legal test implied. The actual danger lay in what living with an insane woman was doing to our daughters and me …”
BROAD STREET presents Walter Cummins’s essay from our summer 2018 issue, “Small Things, Partial Cures,” in its entirety — a memoir of psychosis that eats away at a marriage and the toughest choice a loving husband and father would ever make.
This feature is available in slightly different format on Medium.
On consigning a wife to others’ care: a love story.
By Walter Cummins
Outside, in the parking lot of my lawyer’s office, the vision in my left eye suddenly grayed. The world around me vanished into haze.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. My immediate interpretation: advance retribution for what I was about to do.
I was standing beside my car with one hand braced against the door, my other clutching a bulky manila envelope. It contained the official documents that would allow me to have Judy — then my wife — committed to a mental institution. Days before, two psychiatrists had attested that she was a danger to herself and others. And now that my lawyer had the medical certification, I finally possessed the legal forms.
In truth, she wasn’t dangerous to anyone, not in the sense that the legal test implied — that she was capable of imminent personal harm through self-mutilation or to any person through violence. The actual danger lay in what living with an insane woman was doing to our daughters and me.
* * *
Obtaining those documents hadn’t been easy. In one sense, it had taken years of sleepless agonizing; in another, after I finally initiated the formal process, just many anxious months. If blindness in one eye turned out to be the price, so be it. A small sacrifice for an escape from madness.
What would I find that afternoon when I drove home from that parking lot, eyes fogged, the road a blur, navigating from memory? Inevitably, a gaunt woman with fixed dark eyes and a tangle of wiry dark hair sitting rigid in a chair, engulfed by smoke, a cigarette squeezed between yellowed fingers. Her jaw would be clenched, but not tightly enough to stop the grinding or silence the endless mutterings of voices, the torment that had taken over her awareness of the actual. She wouldn’t react to my entry, the shutting of the front door, because she didn’t see, didn’t hear, didn’t care.
* * *
Judy was certifiably psychotic, a paranoid schizophrenic, enveloped in the world of characters crammed into her head with names, attitudes, and tones of expression — Doctor Wizard, Thirty-eight, Mary Lou, Jonathan Wizard, and many more. Their spoken drama was a constant murmur, with sudden very loud outbursts, the worst of the voices growling commands, others whining and wheedling, only a few defenders, the majority aggressive enemies. And I was one of them, at least an avatar, harshly assertive, who identified himself as Doctor Cummins.
The war in her brain possessed her: Judy, the center of a chaotic universe. But, unlike an empress of a vast domain, a she-who-must be-obeyed, Judy suffered as a she-who-must-obey, malevolent forces conspiring to destroy her.
And yet, as far as I could tell, her pain was seductive, as enthralling as it was horrifying, a world in which she connected only tangentially with the rest of humanity, especially our daughters and me.
A physician told me of a friend who, when his psychosis was controlled by medication, missed the alluring world of his madness; in fact, the patient had taken pleasure in these delusions, considering ordinary life tedious. I believe Judy shared a similar fascination, choosing the reality conjured by her faulty synapses over the one in which the rest of us lived. And yet she experienced periods of alarm and agony culminating in outbursts of tears.
* * *
Why had I waited so long to get those documents? Judy’s descent into psychosis had been worsening for a decade. At first an intense paranoia when she was thirty, it soon plunged into a pit of irrationality. For most of those years I considered myself indentured by obligation. After all, I wouldn’t have abandoned a wife helpless to a physical illness, if she had been, say, a quadriplegic.
But a quadriplegic would have been a coherent person, suffering but sensible. Even if physically incapacitated, she would have shared intellectually and emotionally the burden of parenting and running a household. We could have discussed and planned, she a real partner.
I don’t recall the content of our marriage ceremony in a judge’s office. Did I actually say, “For better or worse” or “Till death do us part”? or “In sickness and in health”? The Judy I had known then, at nineteen, was a vibrant, extroverted woman, liked by many, attractive to men, a very appealing person.
No matter the words spoken or unspoken, I had pledged myself for the rest of my life. And considered myself lucky. Touching her in that office, seeing her smile, I would have sworn unending devotion. But what do you do when your wife goes crazy? When the mother of your children — conceived during the healthy, happy years — is dangerously insane?
We four occupied the same house, a large Victorian of many rooms. Judy was usually shrunken in a chair or paused in a doorway, looking off into an unseen distance with ravaged eyes. She smoked one cigarette after another, lighting them with a reflex action, often too absorbed in the voices to even puff, the ash growing until it dropped into her lap, onto her blouse, unnoticed. She drank weak coffee through the day, ate rarely, became scrawny and haggard, black hair uncombed, teeth grinding, black eyes unblinking. She slept little, as far as I could tell, once I had relocated from our bedroom to a couch in my office. Most of the night she wandered, always with a cigarette — I learned about this later, long after the fact — entering our daughters’ rooms, standing over their beds, muttering, smoking, and then leaving abruptly.
How awful for my children: their mother looming in the moonlight, her shadow on a wall.
What would I have done then if I had known, if I had not been asleep in my office, exhausted, the door closed? Could I have stationed myself outside their bedrooms through the night, not sleeping myself? Locking their doors might have been a possibility, though the house was old and dry, endangered by a madwoman with a perpetual cigarette.
And yet, years later, I learned that one daughter did go into her sister’s room and turn the key for protection. Back then, should I have locked Judy in? What would she have done when she couldn’t get out of her room? Choices were few.
* * *
My daughters and I didn’t speak of their mother’s madness, even though the grim weight of it burdened all our lives. For years I assumed the reason was that I didn’t know what to say, how to explain what was happening to their mother; I was unable to speak about an illness that was unspeakable. But recently one reminded me that I had tried when they were very young, at the ages when they were losing baby teeth. What I said had upset them greatly. The words I groped with on that day are long forgotten by me. Still, their reaction must have been the real reason why I said no more until they were well into their teens — until the situation was beyond silence.
People, when learning of our lives then, have wondered about help from family. I then had two sisters living less than an hour away. But I rarely asked then to get involved; I saw no good in spreading the pain. Judy’s parents made visits that exacerbated the tension, Judy’s body going rigid at the sight of her mother, her voices ranting abuse.
None of us wanted to be in the house any more than we had to, maneuvering around a woman speaking in voices in a stinking cloud of smoke, unaware we were in the same room, her presence haunting the three of us. The girls alternated between keeping their eyes fixated on the fictions of a TV screen and spending their hours in other homes, with other people. Seeking escape.
A therapist I know of believes no fate is worse for a child than a schizophrenic mother. It’s much easier to be the husband, awful as that is.
Back then, guilt enveloped me the way cigarette haze did Judy. I chain-smoked guilt. There were the daily guilts for something I did or, more likely, didn’t do. And there was the overriding guilt for my failure to fix things, to find a way out, to make life better for Judy, for two young girls, and for myself.
* * *
Early on, at the beginning of Judy’s illness, I struggled to help her overcome what I told myself was a temporary aberration. After all, I had married her when she was a vital nineteen, been with her for more than ten years, and had two daughters with her. When our daughters were babies and toddlers, she made up songs for them, cuddling them when held them in her arms, tickling and tucking them into bed. I was confident this strange behavior of dark suspicions would go away like a severe bout of flu.
Then the illness turned her into a stranger.
Or had I really known her? Had I been oblivious to an underside I didn’t want to admit? Friends from before the time of her overt madness revealed, after the fact, that they had sensed something a bit off about her, perhaps trying too hard, a forced vivacity. Once, after Judy had become obviously ill, a woman who had never even known her saw strangeness in a Polaroid photo of Judy with our second daughter shortly after her birth, the baby precarious on her lap, Judy’s dark eyes not looking at the child but fixed on something far away. I had seen that photo many times and missed that disconnect to motherhood. Yet it resonates only in hindsight, a harbinger I’d missed. For several years after that photo was taken she showed no signs of disturbance, no reason to think she wasn’t a caring parent.
But then the illness finally manifested. The immediate cause was understandable. A neighbor’s five-year-old son was a real threat to other children, our daughters and others. Mean and violent, he gave pain, poked at eyes with sticks. Other parents warned us. We wouldn’t let our girls out alone. Judy, at the time tutoring impaired children, spoke to the boy’s mother, suggesting intervention. The mother turned furious. Judy had never known such hostility. No one had ever hated her before, and Judy was traumatized by it. She brooded, sat in bleak silence, her enthusiasm deadened in a way I had never known.
Then within weeks she began to claim the neighbors were eavesdropping on our conversations, tapping in through a lightning rod. They wished us harm. They were enemies, dangers to our lives. Initially, I tried logic. How could our house be bugged? Why would the neighbors care about overhearing anything we had to say to each other?
My explanations were futile. Soon Judy began insisting the neighbors were merely local manifestations of a universal network, all the members conspiring against her life and her family. When I took her to a movie, Judy would watch, stiff in her seat. Outside, she wept, deadly certain the entire film had been a threat meant for her alone. Why would producers spend millions on a movie just to send a message to her? I argued. She shook her head with ferocity: I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.
I borrowed money to pay for a psychiatrist who assured me that assuming debt for his treatment meant I really cared, was truly invested in her cure. He was useless. I sold the house and borrowed money to buy another one in a different town, away from our old neighbors. A foolish gesture that, even at the time, I understood was an act of desperation.
Of course, there’s no relocating from paranoia. Enemies lurk in every house, in every car, in every store. They’re networked in messages, all-knowing, all-seeing, creating test after test, hour by hour. If she chose one can of food over another, her brother would be hurt, someone would die. Failure to perform a ritual action, an elaborate sequence of touching, would put the girls in great danger. So many people at risk because of her, so many burdens of protection besieging her. Always on guard, terrified of the errors she might make.
All I could do was attempt to explain and convince, with every ludicrous attempt more and more aware that you can’t reason with a crazy person. This foolish behavior was my own form of madness. Yet I couldn’t stop.
* * *
Now, I don’t remember if Judy’s initial confinement, voluntary in a private insurance-covered clinic, took place before or after the evening she ran off to Pennsylvania with our daughters, leaving a note that she had to get away, that she was doing it to save them.
The police wouldn’t listen to me when I called in panic. Wives leave husbands, they responded, reciting the words as if bored. She hadn’t been gone long enough to be a missing person. It took a call from her brother, who explained her condition, to make the police acknowledge my concern. While I sat in fear, the phone on my lap, Judy pulled the car into the driveway. Our daughters ran into the house, little kids happy to be home. Judy followed with a face of doom. She could never escape.
I had been hopeful about the residential clinic on a green-lawn campus back from a highway, a bright and shining place, the staff smiling and polite, the other patients well behaved. The environment exuded hope; the doctors emitted confidence. Judy made friends with her roommate, a likeable woman. The staff conducted talk sessions, individually and in a group. They also strapped her down for shock therapy that scrambled her memory. Then the thirty insured days ended, and she was released to the world, calm for a short time, but soon manifestly crazy again.
Even though we lived in a normal house, had a normal dog, drove normal cars, we were hardly a normal family. Again, Judy was there only in body. My daughters and I were traumatized and depressed. It surely was worse for them. Helpless as I was, I understood what was happening to us all, though the girls, I assumed, were too young to grasp the meaning. I was the parent, the adult, the one who should have given them normal lives.
There wasn’t a day that I didn’t have fantasies of escaping with them, taking them away from their mother. Money was the paralyzing practicality. I was living on a financial edge, barely covering the mortgage, the car loans, food, and clothing. No way could I afford another house or even a rental apartment. And what would happen to Judy if I abandoned her? I imagined her setting a cigarette fire, starving to death, wasting away in a dark room.
I fantasized some miracle of exorcism but often ranted my frustration at her, red-faced, shouting, unable to control my need to strike back at the madness. But worst of all, worse than the burden of her voices and her doomed presence, were her rare moments of lucidity: when tearful, voice soft, she would tell me, “I know I’m different.”
The admission revealed that a real person, a human being, was miserable at her helplessness. How could I treat her as an Other, a creature of a distorted and diseased nature? Yet that creature was the one we lived with 99 percent of the time.
I sought advice from friends, asking what they would do, but received only sympathy rather than helpful suggestions. Finally, a pragmatic psychologist, a faculty colleague known for his directness, gave me a clear, almost mathematical choice: I could sacrifice three lives in the futile hope of saving one, or save those three lives at the expense of one.
Judy would have to go, or she would bring us all down. I couldn’t maintain two houses. She couldn’t survive on her own. The only alternative was getting her out of our house and into an institution.
* * *
Finally, a plan, but one with many obstacles. The system protects the mentally ill by setting up barriers and disincentives for confronting them. Take the police. Judy had on several occasions set off on a walk from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., because the CIA demanded that she follow some crucial order. She somehow managed to make it on foot up to ten miles from our town before officers in a patrol car observed an obviously deranged woman shuffling along the side of the road. She had thought to bring a purse and a wallet with identification. So the police called me.
When I went to retrieve her, I begged them to hospitalize her: “Can’t you see how sick she is?” They saw but shrugged, explaining that they lacked the authority. I suspect they didn’t want to get involved because there would be forms to complete, time diverted to testifying, complications.
Yet, as one friend has told me, “I don’t think there was one person who had spent more than a couple of hours with Judy who could imagine why she wasn’t in the hospital.”
Because the system — the law itself — was an obstacle frustrating my resolve, I finally turned to a lawyer. The first step was finding one. People I consulted led me to a divorce attorney, though divorce wasn’t my goal, a consideration far from the immediate problem. Instead, the legal strategy was to determine mental illness as evidence for ending the marriage. With such a determination, Judy could be committed against her will.
Speaking in voices and setting off disoriented on foot to distant places to fulfill imagined commands weren’t sufficient causes. The danger of her own malnutrition or that of psychic damage to family members wasn’t enough. All the system cared about was the physical threat to self and others. And, as I noted, two psychiatrists had to attest to the diagnosis.
Through my attorney, I found a psychiatrist willing — for a fee — to come to the house and observe Judy. He saw quickly that she was out of her mind and signed a form without pondering the issue of danger. For a second psychiatrist, I called the man she had been seeing weekly for several years and who had been prescribing the medications that did little more than cause tardive dyskinesia, her fingers trembling as she touched one cigarette after another to her mouth. But he was reluctant to make a house visit.
“What if she gets violent?” he asked me.
“You’re the doctor!” I sputtered. “You’ve been seeing her in your office for an hour every week.”
He consented after a very long pause, arrived a day or two later, took a quick look at Judy’s blank stare, scribbled his name, handed me the paper, and bolted.
Now that the required psychiatrists had satisfied the legal standard, I was able to deliver their forms to my lawyer and get the documents that blurred my eye.
When the vehicle pulled up to the curb outside our house, ominously silent, lights flashing in red circles, I was able to guide Judy out to the porch. Then she saw the uniformed men and went rigid with terror, shouting angrily, “I’m Senator Edward M. Kennedy [one of her occasional voices]. I demand that you let this woman go!”
She twisted, desperate to bolt, but the attendants were large and strong, wrapping muscled arms around her and forcing her into a straitjacket.
They knew what they were doing. This was obviously another day on the job for them.
By that time, seeing the lights and hearing Judy’s protests, the neighbors had emerged from their houses, gawking from their own porches, from the sidewalks. I was conscious of their watching, aware that they must have known for quite a while that she was crazy, the woman who talked to herself as she walked up and down the street. Had they been disturbed by this mad presence, relieved to see her taken away? I never asked. It didn’t matter whether I knew or not.
That day my daughters were at a friend’s home at the end of the street, an arrangement made in advance to be sure they were elsewhere, eating — ironically — a Thanksgiving dinner, everyone at the table sitting in grim silence, all aware of but not speaking about what was happening down the block.
As the ambulance drove away, I felt emptiness, as if I’d been hollowed out. Judy’s insanity had been part of my life for so long. I stood on the porch steps and wondered what would come next. But the real “next” wouldn’t come for quite a while.
* * *
A dozen years later, my daughters young women on their own, I learned of Judy’s death from the younger. Lung cancer from all those cigarettes.
Even though I was living a new life with a new wife, I wept. Tears for the sorrow of remembering Judy’s face when it had glowed with exuberance. Tears for a vivacious woman who had lost her life years before her body died. And tears for remembering our final years together, she lost in a dissonance of voices, me lost in a psychic fog.
Walter Cummins has published more than a hundred stories in such magazines as New Letters, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and Confrontation.Many of those stories have been collected in six books: Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, The Lost Ones, and Habitat: Stories of Bent Realism. His nonfiction books include The Literary Explorer, co-written with Broad Street contributor Thomas E. Kennedy; Programming Our Lives: Television and American Identity, co-written with George Gordon; and Florham: The Lives of an American Estate, co-written with Carol Bere and Samuel Convissor. With Thomas E. Kennedy, he is co-publisher of Serving House Books and curator of the Writers on the Job feature at WebdelSol.com, which has yielded two anthologies.