Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station. The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks to author Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series, I can hardly stand it. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between two of my buddies, Alice Anderson and Maggie May Ethridge, and I couldn’t be more excited. I am a hardcore fan of both of these women and I think you will be too, after you read this. Magggie’s book came out today. You can buy it here. I hope you do. Smooches, Jen.
One Wild and Precious Marriage. An interview conducted by Alice Anderson.
I’ve been a fan of Maggie May Etheridge since the late-90’s, when I first became aware of her as a blogger with a knack for elevating the ordinary moments of life to a higher realm. I’m dating myself, but I don’t mind telling you that “Flux Capacitor” held an unwavering spot in my Myspace top ten. And I’m not alone in my admiration: a frequent comment on Etheridge’s blog is, “If you ever publish a book, I will be first in line.” Well, queue up y’all, the day has arrived! Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage, a memoir of true love and life’s unexpected bumps in the road, is released today (by Shebooks, a curated collection of quality e-books written by women, for women.)
Atmospheric Disturbances is essentially a love story, with all the requisite complications and disasters. When Maggie and Mr. Curry (as she calls her husband throughout the memoir) meet, it is one of those universal pivotal moments when we first meet the eyes of someone we might love. Not the clichéd movie moment of love at first sight, but rather the soul-deep recognition of someone who’ll become part of you, who somehow already knows you. It’s that precipice, that moment before the moment electricity that carries Etheridge and Mr. Curry through the years of marriage and blending children and having two more and making a life. And then an unwelcome guest arrives at the table: mental illness. When Mr. Curry is diagnosed with bipolar, Etheridge asks: Am I welcome at the marriage table when my husband is lost to bipolar and my wedding band is being twisted in anxiety underneath the cloth? Less about the diagnoses of bipolar than the way we survive the rough times, Atmospheric Disturbances is about scaling the precipice, and somehow falling not into darkness, but into light.
Alice Anderson: There are two layers of “history” that feel like myth in this story. There is the history of childhood, in which you paint yourself as a solitary, lonely soul. And there is the history of the beginning of your relationship with Mr. Curry. Both have a kind of mythology – the way our histories can come to be a metaphor for our lives – and the “moral of the story” of the history with Mr. Curry seems to be the answer to the mystery to the childhood struggles. The cure, as it were. When he was diagnosed, did his illness feel like a slap in the face to the healing his presence in your life had so clearly provided?
Maggie May Etheridge: Absolutely it did. The slap in the face that I render Mr. Curry in the memoir was a direct reflection of the internal experience I was having a shocking pain, unexpected and heartbreaking. Our marriage before he became sick was so life affirming, so healthy, and so beautiful that I had felt I was over one part of my life – the part where I felt alone in the world, cut off from kindred spirits – and on to the other, and I expected that whatever challenges came our way (which they did! poverty, disease, yes we have done both) we would meet them together, with this relationship as our backbone. When Mr. Curry became ill I was left alone to deal with it, because the person I know retreats when he is sick. Sometimes when he is really ill, I imagine his brain, inflamed and irritable, swollen up around the real person he is, trapping him. Bipolar is an absolutely ugly, brutal disease and the way it can destroy a person’s life breaks my heart over and over. Witnessing other people with this disease who do not have family support is tragic; they become completely lost. Bipolar is like cancer in that there are many treatments but no one can tell you if they will work or if they do, how long they will keep the thing at bay.
Alice Anderson: You mention your gratitude that he allows you to talk about his diagnoses at all. Can you talk about how Mr. Curry came to agree to you writing this material? I love the line about him wanting to allow you to do what you do, which is to tell the truth. But you seem to have left out the specific details of those difficult waves in his bipolar – was this intentional? Did you have to draw a line in the sand in what you would not talk about regarding the waves of his bipolar phases?
Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely drew a line in the sand and left out most of what happens. When I was writing this, I was drawn toward expressing with the words, the sentences, the emotions of feeling estranged from your lover, of feeling abandoned, hurt, confused, guilty – drawing up those emotions around a few sketched details vs. a diary where I write out many specific experiences and then clearly state how I felt, how he felt.
Originally when I began writing about this, it was online on my blog Flux Capacitor. I had asked in 2009 if I could write about it and he said no. I respected that. Over time, he approached me and changed his mind. I think this was because we could not afford a therapist for myself, and he was very ill, and I needed something and he gave it to me. I wrote about this on my blog and the relief was immense. Not only was I able to express myself, I was able to connect with other people who were, for one reason or another, struggling in their marriages. And I found that even people with more solid and healthy marriages would come forward and say they loved the writing, because even the best of marriages have the darkest of nights.
Alice Anderson: One thing I felt most when reading this is that it is a love story. Do you agree? In what way did you (if you did) want the love to overshadow the trouble in the piece?
Maggie May Etheridge: I had no intentions when I wrote this except for to stay true to my inner voice, my experience of the world, and to leave out or later erase things that felt wrong, cruel to my husband or my family. I deeply love my husband. We were best friends for years before we married – both of us had children in other relationships, children that have known each other since they were born. We met as teenagers and he was in love with me a long time before I realized I was in love with him. Falling romantically in love with someone you already have a deep trust and friendship with is thrilling in all ways – not only are you incredibly passionate and excited, like all new love, you also have the deeply satisfying knowledge of their personhood. This is why, when my husband became sick, it was such a shock. I knew him, and then it seemed overnight, I did not.
Alice Anderson: You talk about the way we view love and marriage in our culture as something that is supposed to be painless, over the rainbow lovely. You manage, in your writing, to infuse even the most difficult parts of the story with a visceral love that feels real and true and fierce. I’ve found that sometimes “trouble” can bond me to a lover. Do you feel the trouble (meaning the rough times, the bipolar phases, the struggle) in your marriage has increased the passion? The loyalty?
Maggie May Etheridge: No, I really do not. I think the passion and loyalty that comes though in this memoir was built before he was very ill, and in the times when he has not been. The person that is truly beautiful. He is loyal, intelligent, funny, charming, gentle – so gentle – open minded, the hardest worker you will ever meet and aware of the brevity and beauty of life. The love I have for him is from this man, this person. This is so powerful that it carries me during the long stretches when he is ill – because I do not believe that love is just an emotion. I deeply believe that real love is a commitment to support and cherish a person regardless of your emotions. This does not mean I don’t believe in divorce, but I believe how you divorce – your side, nothing else – is also an extension of that original love and commitment.
What the trouble in our marriage has done, the pain, is to make me deeply question and investigate what it means to be a person. What does it mean to love someone? What is the line between loyalty and self-flagellation or martyrdom? If a person has a brain disease, and all markers of that person disappear and leave behind new markers, is this the same person? How do you take care of yourself while taking care of someone who is attacking you without knowing what they are really doing? What is the meaning of commitment, of honor? What do I want my children to see and learn?
The pain has also caused a great deal of guilt in my part. The guilt at times has been the worst part of the entire disease for me. Guilt that I cannot fix him, no matter how many vitamins or supportive words. Guilt that I feel so furious and hateful toward him when he is sick. Guilt that sometimes I have to choose between taking care of the kids and him, and I always choose the kids. Guilt that I want so much for myself.
Alice Anderson: How did you choose the title, Atmospheric Disturbances, Scenes from a marriage?
Maggie May Etheridge: I am devoted to titles. I love, love a great title and have my own ideas of what a great title is. When this phrasing rung in my head, I just fell in love with the words. It perfectly fits the memoir, which are literally scenes from our marriage.
Alice Anderson: The last line in the piece, “And wait for him” is incredibly sad, the reader feels your isolation and pain. In any way do you feel like you’re losing your sense of self when you’re in that prolonged time of waiting? Have you found a way to weather those phases with less pain over the years? What do you do to hold your sense of self steady?
Maggie May Etheridge: I feel a loss of self, yes, primarily I think because we have four children and they are the focus of my life. When he is ill, and I am parenting, there is very, very little left for self-expression of any kind. This can be absolutely brutal. Holding my sense of self steady comes from two places- connecting through books, writing, poetry, friends and learning, and living up to my own moral obligations. When I am working hard, engaged emotionally with my kids, meeting my responsibilities, moving toward patience, kindness, humility, devotion – then I feel strong and connected to every human being who has come before me who has done something very difficult or painful and remained true to their ideals. What gets me through the worst of life is when I can look back and feel satisfied that I can be proud of myself, that I did my best, that I loved well. In the end, when you lie down in bed at night, this is the comfort. Because we cannot control anything else, and sometimes we cannot even control ourselves. So if most of the time, we are doing the best we can, loving well, then we can be satisfied we are making a good life and that the people we love know and feel loved.
Alice Anderson: Speaking of love, I love the various locations in the book – they’re all sort of quintessentially California. The parks and basement clubs and convenience stores and burrito joints and even Mr. Curry’s truck traversing the edge of the Pacific. I found myself “seeing” the story as I read it, with the sort of a burnished SoCal light cast on average places. You elevate the basement club and the average neighborhood park with your language, the way a sunset elevates an otherwise simple cloudy sky. If you were to have a book party, which of these locations would be closest to your heart, the perfect location to celebrate the messy, lovely, wild love that unfurls across the pages of this book?
Maggie May Etheridge: A Cali. bookstore on the beach, where we’d all drink coffee and then disperse outside for a walk. I love California, I love San Diego. I am originally from Jackson, Miss. and the two places have meshed together in my person. I am deeply aware of my Southern roots and spent a lot of time in Miss. growing up, visiting my grandparents back there, including my 4th grade year – we lived there and I went to school. I absolutely love Southern writers. They speak closest to my experience of the world, slightly surreal, odd, infused with magic, terror, love. When I write scenes of suburban life, I often feel echoes of the impression that John Irving’s The World According To Garp suburbia left on me, that heightened sense of place.
Alice Anderson: In the scene where you break the window, Mr. Curry seems like the stable one in the relationship, coming to the rescue. There is an old Southern saying that any marriage can last forever as long as only one person is crazy at a time. Agree? When Mr. Curry is in a bipolar episode do you feel required to “buck up” and be the strong one? It seems he picks up the slack of this when he’s doing well. You speak of “not keeping score” but do you feel that it all evens out? How is does the burden of mental illness affect the balance of a marriage?
Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely have to buck up when he is ill. We have children that need stability and love and when he is ill, they need it more than ever. When he is well, he absolutely picks up the slack. In some ways, he’s more even-keeled that I am when he is well! His nature is gentle, kind, patient. But no, the balance does not even out. This disease has ravaged more years of our marriage than it has left untouched. Not everyone experiences it this way – some people are more responsive to medication than Mr. Curry has been. We have tried many different medications, therapies – at one point I researched and found ‘the’ premiere bipolar expert here in San Diego, a professor and writer and lecturer who only sees a small amount of clients for $500 a pop, and we scraped the money out of our sad account and he saw this man. Nothing has ‘worked’. The longest reprieve has been a year and half. Right now, he is doing gluten free, and that has made him healthier, maybe more clear headed, but not ‘well’.
Alice Anderson: I noticed you quoted Mary Oliver’s “one wild and precious life” in one scene – your voice is very poetic throughout. The language is taught and plain, yet elevated and opaque, much the way Oliver’s language is in her poems. You seem to be taking Oliver’s poetic advice, which is to “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why was it important to you to tell this story?
Maggie May Etheridge: I think Oliver’s poetic advice is the intention behind my writing. As I mentioned before, I originally started writing about our marriage with the intention of just letting some of the pressure out, which is what writing does for me (usually. sometimes my novel makes me insane with pressurized words that won’t inflate correctly.)
Alice Anderson: You talk in this book about the way Bipolar is an invisible illness, how people can’t see it, don’t rally to help the way they would something more visible and concrete. I think this is a universal feeling for those who have an invisible illness and it’s worse for one for which there is no cure, because people grow weary and feel that after a given time, the person should “be better” or “cured,” even if there is no cure. Did you feel compelled to bring this into the light? Do you have a sense of advocacy on behalf of families who suffer with the way bipolar can wreak havoc?
Maggie May Etheridge: I see myself as an advocate for mental illness awareness in general. I have anxiety and have suffered with various forms of this my whole life, and mental illness of all kinds runs rampant in my family history. With bipolar specifically, I think of an acquaintance who once told me that I should not separate Mr. Curry from bipolar the illness, that essentially I was fooling myself, and yes it is a disease, but it’s who he is, also. I sat on that for some time, rolling it around in the muck of my experience and reading. It’s not true. And really, it’s the essential devastation and greatest point of pain for people who have this disease: the true person they are is not recognized, they are seen as their illness. Can you imagine people saying, “Hi, I’m Amy and I am cancer.” the way they would say, “Hi this is Amy and she is bipolar’”? No. Bipolar is an actual disease of the brain that can be seen on MRI’s. I have lived with my husband for over a year where he was not ill, and he was a whole and complete person with no signs of the behaviors that arise when he is ill. He may get lost in the disease, but I will never see him as an illness, and I consider it my cherished duty to always retain awareness of him as the person he is when not ill, to honor that person who I have promised to love. I think of this when he is ill: if he was trapped in isolation in prison, faultily accused and deemed guilty, would I leave him alone? Or would I slip notes in the door, say prayers, smooth his hair when he slipped by me in the hallway? Love is not powerful unless you infuse it with a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is simply to hold on to the truth, no matter who else forgets.
Alice Anderson: Thank you for talking with me about Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage. If you had to sell this book with only one word, what would that one word be?
Maggie May Etheridge: Marriage.
Alice Anderson: If I had to sell it with just one word, I’d choose: beauty.
Maggie May Ethridge is a writer, poet, and novelist close to completing her second novel, Agitate My Heart. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Diagram, Role/Reboot, the Nervous Breakdown, and the Huffington Post. Originally from Mississippi, she resides in San Diego with her husband and four children. She blogs regularly at Flux Capacitor and can be found on Twitter @FluxCapacitor74 and Facebook. Her essay “What Do Wives Do?” was included in the Equals anthology 2013.
Alice Anderson is a poet and writer whose poetry collection, Human Nature, won both the Bobst Prize from NYU and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s Best First Book Prize. She is featured in the anthologies On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists in America, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. An adjunct professor and single mama of three, she is at work on a memoir, The Season of Ordinary Time. In 2009, Anderson suffered a traumatic brain injury and has learned how to walk, write, speak, and read again. You can find her on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and Instagram @AlicePoet.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you (Dallas, London, Seattle, Sioux Falls, Atlanta etc.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.