Writing can be an explanation from the soul to the labile brain. Words are a choice that make it so, and that decision heals. I wish to explain where I’ve been for the past two years. Or more: I can’t recall how long I was waiting for the other shoe to drop on my spouse’s health, but when it did, “life-changing” barely covers it. Everything up-ended in late November of 2014.

Couple-love that is worked at for a long time, with or without marriage, ties you to a person in ways the soul struggles to reveal. It seems easier to talk more about what’s wrong in a relationship, about hurt and loss. I separated from my husband in 2013 because I was finished with scooting around the confines of a dead-end street, where too many lines drawn and daily verbal conflagrations dragged us into a chasm of doubt about each other.

Publishing my book the year before was a statement about the excitement over my life’s work, alternative mental health. I’d written, spoken publicly, and created a course…but there was an undertow: the reaction of my spouse. I can’t truthfully call it “lack of support,” for his generous abetting of the time I needed to pursue my cause was admirable. The hidden problem was complicated and in some ways, worse:  he was a living and breathing rebellion against health itself, with his workaholism, poor diet, diabetes, anxiety/OCD, and raging high blood pressure.

I took it personally. Step One of Where I Went Wrong: despite a lifelong interest in narcissism, it is nearly impossible to catch oneself in the act. Step Two was Opportunity Missed: to merely sit and support someone you had pledged to love, even in their darkness, their disagreement, their misguided rebellion.

Just before the cerebrovascular event known as the stroke that nearly killed him, we were sort of trying, half-heartedly, to be together again. I still lived apart, hedging my bets. Then the ambulance ride, the Emergency Room where nurses urged me to keep talking to him as he slipped away, to the final verdict of a massive brain bleed and the rush to Neuro-ICU where he did not come to for ten days. In a way it was no surprise. But my reaction was.

I’d carried a probable scenario for when the other shoe fell, but it went like this: most likely the death of my spouse or such disabling that required nursing home care. I would be free of our troubles then. It would be a trial and a grief marathon, but I’d survive, and begin a new phase of life. He had his chance; our reconciliation was slipping back into the same old sameness anyway. My determination to wait it out was grim but unrelenting: possibly because of that shoe dangling out there, a guilty hope of salvation.

Before the ambulance made it to the hospital I knew all that was bunk. I knew it clearly as searing daylight upon fresh white snow. I was wrong about all that because he was “the one.”

All of our stupid fights—over what? Usually nothing of importance. Underneath the trivialities of the usual spousal bickering, stonewalling and gaslighting, he held out against the specter of “being pushed around,” and I railed against his flight from a real partnership. Then a massive stroke ushered in the inevitable health consequences for someone who prioritized work and money over self-care and relationship… suddenly he was unconscious and dying. I thought I’d be sadly but firmly planted on my “I told you so” pedestal. I was wrong.

So I tried bargaining with Spirit through the grueling several days until he decided to come back from between the worlds. It took a while for him to know me. He recognized his daughters right away. Whew! Well, he’d had other wives but no other children. No matter, I fed heartily on pure gratitude and joy. Why? I knew we had a lot of hospitalization and doctors ahead; and I didn’t know if he’d ever stop fleeing real partnership or I’d quit reacting on a hair trigger…but none of it mattered. Yeah, a brush with death is like that, for everyone involved. It clarifies.

Once out of the woods and in rehab, the love of my life wanted to talk about our relationship. “What had we done? Why did we waste so much time arguing? Why are you still here when I was such an ass? I’m so sorry!” I thought I’d never in a zillion years hear that.

It wasn’t a one-way apology. For the first time I could see in terrifying detail all my selfish and cold moves in the relationship, my sick need to control everyone, my fury when things didn’t live up to the ideal. I had a lot of “I’m sorry,” to say too.

Two smaller strokes followed (tiny clots), one where he lost most of his vision, the other a classic side paralysis that resolved by the time he reached the ER. My spouse had to give up his beloved profession. Our house and land went into foreclosure; one daughter pretty much hated us for it and couldn’t emotionally handle a disabled dad. I had to quit my job, because someone with a four-stroke history who is suddenly legally blind needs care. The costs were high for a complete, dual, deep change of heart. But we are making it, and around the edges of money problems we seek to enjoy what our lucky chance at a new day brings.

All of this over the past two years led to an overhaul of many attitudes. Where I went wrong in my views about mental health was not the interest in integrative/alternative approaches. I did however develop a keen appreciation for emergency medical care, as it saved my husband’s life. But afterward and to this day, the neurologists, cardiologists, med-pushers-as-usual offer nothing but a few drugs for blood pressure and an aspirin a day. FOUR strokes? They see him as a dead man walking.

It’s been the acupuncture and diet changes and supplements that have blazed his trail to recovered vision, memory, lucidity. Without all that, he may have succumbed to another massive stroke and be long gone by now.

But what I’ve learned is that even with all that natural treatment, had we continued with a poisonous stalemate when it came to one another, it might not have worked. So where I went wrong about “mental health” before this event was in missing a more ephemeral heart of the matter.

Not to wallow in a public mea culpa, I write with the hope that others can relate to two simple ideas that are hardly original. Very simple, but so vital.

One hearkens back to that old narcissistic refrain. Ever since the Seventies, commentators have been bemoaning our narcissistic culture. No let up in sight, as the craving to be a celebrity grips ever more of us, 7.4 billion and rising. I submit that this is a collective mental illness. We know being self-absorbed is “bad,” but we want-want-want, and the self is all we know. The mental health industry doesn’t help, with their exhortations to rugged individualism, to focus primarily on sour family dynamics, or treat the faulty body-mind machine with numbing drugs. The lack of emphasis on interconnectedness and spiritual growth is conspicuous.

Notice a few paragraphs above, I speak of my spouse’s flight from intimacy, holding me at bay instead of holding me. I saw it as a “male thing.” But what was my thing? I demanded attention and adoration, time and support. Yes, they seem like normal human requests. But I wasn’t freely giving them either–until I was going to get them! Why should I relent into giving first?! My narcissism was in full swing as I mulled daily on my sore prize: the hurt and the injustice.

It’s not that anyone should shower an abuser with warm fuzzies. But as I look back, I don’t know in our verbal flash fire who was abusing who. I don’t retain scars, so I suspect it was mutual madness OR it was the bald truth of deep apologies freely given–post-stroke–that were so instrumental they have transmuted the past with forgiveness.

That is the conclusion I came to about where I went wrong. Narcissists can’t forgive, but forgiveness is powerful. I’ve been working with the concept for a few years and have only scratched the surface. Here was my first introduction. Later I came across Carolyn Myss’ work, Entering the Castle, based on the life of the mystic Teresa of Avila. It contains pointed exercises about how to face and transform humiliation. I came to see that most of us, young and old, seem to be living lives that contain great efforts to dodge and/or pass on small and major humiliations.

All attempts to have “self-esteem” will be frustrated if we don’t grapple with this scary but ultimately freeing issue of humiliation, and the bedrock practice of self-forgiveness, leading to forgiveness of others.

Often, collective humiliations and private humiliations intersect. For example, infertility never made me shy of the option of adoption, and I dived in, loving the two who came from that process as fiercely as flesh of my flesh. But there is still afoot a kind of setting apart of adoptive mothers, and one imbibes the aspect of humiliation that one’s womb could not produce that basic miracle of birth. Oddly, it’s pretty apparent in midwives, doulas, and breast-feeding advocates, who look at you as an odd duck. I have never been able to see how a diverse way of becoming a parent is a threat to them.

Poverty and every type of discrimination are all about humiliation of those on the receiving end, and I wish in Part II of this post to look at Where I Went Wrong as it relates to a wider sphere. But back to the intersection with private life: I’m sure I carried collective-induced humiliation about being infertile (“barren”) into the only relationship where I ever wanted to have a child. It could have affected everything. Surely my spouse had his own feelings about it, though as the product of a stepparent adoption he denied any emotional glitches.

But I had to forgive my body/myself for something that needed, logically, no forgiveness, due to the societal vibe just below the radar. And to be fair, when one’s body simply doesn’t work at something so basic, the fear and disappointment are bound to generate some shame as a matter of course. What didn’t change my humiliation was to defiantly tell myself to just get over it.

So it goes in relationship: the buildup of let downs. You know it and I know it: there is no growth without pain. Still, how about teaching forgiveness as a foundation of mental health work? There are many structured ideas, such as the Radical Forgiveness program. You may have heard that forgiveness is what you do for yourself, not for the other, the one who wronged you. And you definitely don’t do it to be holy or virtuous because that is fake, fake, fake.

A novice at this, but I can testify: when I’m able to make my way to genuine forgiveness of self or other, there is a kind of high. It’s euphoric, and that’s how I know it’s for real, along with a sense that this business is once and for all finished. Who doesn’t cherish a natural high? It isn’t always forthcoming. I have tried and tried until I’m blue in the face to forgive my father for crimes in raising me and my brothers, but it just won’t take. Efforts have lightened the vitriol to a kind of neutrality, but I hope that someday the euphoria that results from dropping that load will burst upon me.

Family and culture are breeding grounds for the type of humiliating competition that encourages an escape to narcissism—where only the glorified (potential celebrity) self is a safe haven. Even that escape we must forgive ourselves for, because it makes a kind of sense. A retreat to preoccupation with the self may be the only place to go when everywhere you look, no one or no thing truly sees you.

But back to the now, right here for us. Two years and things go like this: a challenge to attend to the minutiae of caregiving, the uncertainty of disability. Life after the four strokes leads the two of us here: the daily round of getting supplements according to timed intervals, cooking low-carb meals, helping spouse with his shower and finding most things around the house because his low vision overlooks much. We are well over one year since the last stroke, a milestone. There is physical therapy, occupational therapy, walking, and riding the stationary bike. He hates all that, and would rather be working at his profession, but isn’t ripping himself apart over it and applies himself to routine.

Thankfully, he is also avidly plugged into the current political situation via the news and much as I get tired of it, the television challenges his brain and thereby helps with recovery. He has been able so far to attend the football games he loves, with the help of Daddy’s-girl daughter who has made peace with our family’s enormous changes. He’s still not ready for hobbies or reading, and will accompany but doesn’t seek to go places. All in due time, for while his health situation is fragile and complex, attitude sets the roll of action, and our attitude is one of recovery.

For the first time yesterday my beloved said: “In the emergency room, I remember I was hovering above my body.” To be privy to his first recollection about time spent between the worlds was for me a precious gift. This journey through four strokes produced the silver linings that a near-death encounter brings to a person and anyone close to it. It helps maintain gratitude for each day with him that I get.

When I was making it my work to talk about how diet and nutritional changes are one overlooked key for real mental health, it’s not that I went wrong there. I thought it important to include spirituality as a major nutrient when I shared these viewpoints with people, but I didn’t go far enough.

Too bad that ego health and creating “boundaries” are seen as the extent of the usual mental health work. It’s true that in a world increasingly aggressive we must navigate these issues; there are people in my life right now to whom I have to regularly express limits. However I wish that the industry could also speak as highly about love, humility, forgiveness and “self as world.”.

Personal events of the past two years, plus recent tragedies around this troubled globe, prod me to approach the conversation. Great doctor-minds have said it, but could each of us dare to dream of the benefits of bringing real-truth dialogue past “not wanting to offend” or “seeming sappy,” in order to dig deep into the meaning of love and forgiveness for the millions seeking health in this century? What if therapists joined in, placing love to be the medicine supreme?

It wouldn’t look like the following. There is a popular therapy that freely appropriates, and its founder confesses her background in, Buddhism. But wait, only certain techniques make it to the treatment room. The ethics of the bodhisattva (compassion, service) are firmly left out, while soul and psyche hear the same old song about fortressing the boundaries against other folks.

As usual, the grassroots is ahead of the professionals, with more talk lately about who you love (LGBTQ) being an inalienable right, gun violence met with fervent calls to uphold love, and that love trumps hate.

What I learned is that horrible events, such as stroke and all the loss it entailed for my family, can usefully shatter a stuck, small place inside us that may be marked by resentment and separation.

But I was lucky: my husband lived. Now to move on, without forgetting how to fearlessly follow Time’s sashay and sparkle into the next lesson, the next kiss, the day that recovery blossoms into a conclusion so foregone we rejoice not because the bad old days are over, but because we’ll never take another breath for granted again. Grateful remembering and non-attachment to the future: a tall order, a grand prize for the winner.