Panic Over a Long Distance: My First Year of Marriage

I’m about to celebrate my one-year anniversary with my husband, Jordan Merrick, so, naturally, I’ve been thinking back on 2015.

My husband is British, and I’m an American living in Brooklyn, New York. The bulk of our first year of marriage took place via FaceTime, text messages, Facebook’s Messenger app and the occasional old-fashioned physical card.

Despite knowing the reality of the immigration timelines, all too well, in a bout of love-blind optimism that even our kind-hearted immigration lawyer couldn’t temper, we thought maybe he could be here within six months after our wedding in San Francisco.

We’re likely incredibly boring in the eyes of your typical American bureaucrat. We hold down full-time jobs at startups and our pasts have left behind only squeaky clean records. Our photos and the mounds of carefully compiled paperwork that we had to submit to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services would, surely, reveal that we’re nothing but worthy of expeditiously living together in the U.S. (Note: This is not how it works, it turns out.)

In the end, my husband did get his U.S. Visa, but not until recently. In between our wedding day and today, there have been tens of thousands of miles of travelling to see each other, millions of immigration forms and their attendant fees, hours spent on glitchy video chats and, also, me being ill.

A pause for a definition, for just one second. “Ill” is a term I use to refer to the many gross and horrifying things that a human body tends to do when it’s sick. Imagine that you’ve just had food poisoning. This is what I mean by “ill.” To be graphic, very briefly, “ill” means, basically, vomiting and diarrhea for hours. But I’m sticking with “ill” to maintain a little dignity.

I was ill, often for an entire night, in a cycle that had no rhyme or reason. It came on no matter what I ate, no matter what lifestyle I adopted and no matter which environment I was in. I know this last one because, between a trip abroad for my husband’s cousin’s wedding and my travel for work, I had managed to be ill in about six cities across three countries.

The day after I got sick, the second-worst part of the illness began: a days-long panic attack, because I didn’t know what was happening to my body. What was I doing wrong to cause my illness? Were my symptoms a sign that I was dying? Because, in the moment, it sure felt like I was dying.

Jordan was there, as much as he could be, over the long distance. He told me to wake him up with a phone call whenever I needed help, even if it was 4 a.m. in his time zone. I was reluctant to do it, but eventually I did. I’d call him after I’d gotten ill, scared, crying and blubbering about everything under the sun that could potentially be going wrong, not just with my body, but in my whole life, including in our marriage. When I became sick, in particular, the worrying cropped up. It was relentless. I was a hulking bundle of raw nerves, and I knew that it wasn’t pleasant for Jordan. That knowledge made me feel even worse. I wasn’t the person he had married in February, not even close. I wasn’t particularly beautiful, and this whole ordeal was certainly not part of my plan for our first year of wedded life.

Jordan, being a decent and good human being, tried his best to come up with theories for what was making me ill. He was anxious, like I was, to come up with some sort of solution. Maybe he was even more so, in fact, because he had to deal with the incredibly panicky person I had turned into.

Months into my illness, we were talking over the phone on my lunch break, and I broke down, fed up with having been given another proposal for a change in my lifestyle to help. “You’re not a doctor.,” I said, frustrated. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Stop trying to fix me. Just let me feel sick, please.”

I was also going to an actual doctor. A specialist, who was, actually, amazing. She was so dogged in her determination to get to the bottom of my problem. I was scoped, scanned and poked. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. I was put on prescription anti-nausea meds, and I took them diligently. I still kept getting sick.

Friends probably remember me telling them that I was getting chronically sick with stomach problems. I would attempt to hang out over dinner, and wind up sitting across from them eating nothing, insisting that it was no problem for them to carry on with their burger or taco. Sometimes, I had to cancel last-minute. I doubt, though, that I was lucid in communicating the intensity of what was happening to me.

Not communicating one’s feelings runs in the family, you might say. I was born in Indiana, in a conservative, Protestant family. Bad things happen to us Midwestern folk, but, we don’t really talk about it. We deal with whatever life throws our way, and we keep on going. The Midwestern work ethic is a lot like that old British propaganda, “keep calm and carry on.” Maybe that’s why I found myself drawn to my British colleague. Who knows.

Six months or so into the mystery illness, I read about an intense form of pre-menstrual syndrome called PMDD. It sounded like a fit, to me, and my specialist thought that it couldn’t hurt to try to address it. I saw a completely uninterested gynecologist who prescribed birth control to me. A short time after, the frequency of me getting ill increased. On a work trip, it happened every single night. When I got home, I felt like I couldn’t take any more. I went to Brooklyn Hospital and found out that I had elevated liver levels. I stopped taking the birth control, along with everything else. I was losing weight, I was losing my ability to cope, and I still wasn’t any closer to a diagnosis or cure. It wasn’t PMDD. It didn’t seem to be anything, at all.

Around this time, food had become my scapegoat. I had developed a distrust of almost anything that I might potentially consume, and this, plus constantly being ill, made me lose my appetite completely.

One sunny afternoon, after another blood test, I sat on a bench outside a bagel shop in Park Slope. Around me were kids and parents lining up for their bagels and cookies, excitedly jumping, walking, talking loudly, doing normal life-type things. In contrast, there was thin me, in now-baggy clothes, slowly lifting a plain toasted bagel with butter to my mouth, struggling to become remotely interested in eating. I took a small bite, then I sat for a long time, mustering up the courage to take another small bite and deal with the unpleasant sensation that eating had become.

I had no energy. I hadn’t been able to sleep properly in ages. In a move that was surprising to many people in my life, I had also recently started a new job in an office environment, after almost a decade of working from home. Jordan and I struggled to keep in touch daily. Not to mention, the everyday stresses of living in New York on one’s own continued, as usual.

The last time I talked to my doctor, she had an invasive test in mind for me, but my body had had enough prodding, so I said no thank you. Months from that day outside the bagel shop, I can tentatively say that I’m OK. I’m no longer seeing my specialist, but I am treating myself a little kinder, practicing mindful meditation, and going to talk therapy.

I still have no idea what caused me to be ill, repeatedly, for most of last year. I have a suspicion that it was mostly stress from the major new things that I had introduced into my world all at once. Marriage, the immigration process, and a job in a physical office are each a huge deal, on their own. Oh, and let’s not even talk about when I had jury duty.

With the benefit of hindsight, I know that it was probably a lack of sleep combined with feeling so unwell that made me depressed and prone to questioning every aspect of my relationship. At the time, though, all my worries felt founded.

Our marriage is OK, too. Like they tell you, long-distance romance does have one big upside, which is that I’m now incredibly thankful for my husband’s mere presence. We both say “I love you,” a lot. That super cheesy thing that people talk about, where they wake up just happy to see their partner’s face on the pillow next to them? That happens, too, a lot.

2015: I got married, traveled to cities around the world, and puked my guts out. But, also, I got better. I started to figure out who I am, what I value, and what I want out of my life.

Happy anniversary, Jordan.

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