Today I am so pleased to welcome Leta Blake to Joyfully Jay. Leta is joining us again to talk more about Training Complex (Training Season Series #2). She has also brought along three copies to give away! I am kind of nuts for this series so I’m so glad to have Leta back to talk about it! Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
*Trigger Warning for discussion of Mental Illness, Depression, Suicidal Ideation, and symptoms of such*
I can’t say it was unexpected when my husband said the words, “I want a divorce,” one summer day back in my late twenties. I was suffering from a severe, crippling, seemingly-endless depression that correlated with my Saturn Return.
I don’t talk much about my three-year long bout with depression anymore, not because I am ashamed, but because I’m a big believer in the power of stories and so Depression is no longer a story I want to tell about myself.
Speaking of stories, SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS ONE I’M TELLING YOU NOW, we did not get divorced.
Anyway, because this isn’t a story that I want to give power, I’ll leave my “justifications” for my struggle with mental illness aside, and simply tell you that I was a mess to live with. I was unable to cope with life at all. Everything was a terror to me. Walking out to the mailbox was an act of civil war against my own fears. Weird mantras had set up in my head like, “Nothing good ever comes in the mail.” It felt like I was getting ready to set off a bomb that would destroy me every time I answered a phone call or went out with friends. I was suicidal.
In an effort to reduce my desire to off myself, I became avoidant of everything that frightened or overwhelmed me. Which meant anything that resembled responsibility. I sometimes didn’t leave the house for two or three weeks at a time, didn’t pay our bills so that our various insurances lapsed, our house mortgage came under question, and I ruined our credit for a long time. (I’m forty now, and our credit is sparkling at this point, but it took awhile.)
Mental illness isn’t pretty. It’s not likable. It’s not always lovable. It can feel selfish and stupid and stubborn. It can seem so clear to everyone around the mentally ill person what they should do (just get the mail out of the mailbox and pay the dang bills!). They can be infuriating. It takes a special, loving, strong person to find love and empathy for the mentally ill sometimes. This is especially true, I think, for invisible mental illnesses like eating disorders, depression, anxiety and phobias.
Some days it was hard for my husband to have empathy for me. In fact, the day that my husband said “I think I want a divorce” he’d just been pulled over for speeding only to find that our car insurance was lapsed due to me not paying bills for months on end, and our state laws require it. That was the straw that broke his back.
For about half a day. Then he sat down with me and said that I was the love of his life and we were going to get through my illness together.
This isn’t a story about how screwed up I was for three years in my late twenties. It’s not even a story, really, about mental illness and the toll it can take on a relationship (though that is certainly the case). This story is a romance. Because here’s the thing:
We did not get divorced. He did not leave. He stuck it out and fifteen years later we have a good life, we’re financially sound, we have a kid and too many dogs, and we didn’t lose our house. In most realistic ways, we live the definition of happily ever after, and yeah, that end started on our wedding day, but we didn’t stop earning it there.
So, when it came to writing the sequel to Training Season, an examination of the characters and their issues led me to understand that it wasn’t going to be a sweet, sunny story. It was going to reflect a reality that I know is true for most long-term couples: eventually you face something that will either break you entirely or make you stronger together.
If you’ve made it twenty years with someone and there hasn’t been that thing, then it’s probably still on its way, or you’re exceedingly, ridiculously, unbelievably lucky. And I hope you stay that way!
Once I’d figured out that the Training Complex was going to focus on overcoming a difficult relationship problem, I had another issue to deal with. What kind of problem would that be? To be honest, it seemed built into their characters: Matty’s mental illness and instability up against Rob’s need to control and manage and protect.
Long-term relationship established relationship romance is almost always trickier to write than the meet-cute on through to the first I-love-you-let’s-be-together-forever. I once read an interview from a soap opera writer who talked about two ways to write conflict between established characters. He said that if you give them internal, relationship conflict (basically incompatibility issues), then it becomes inevitable that you’re going to break them up. If you give them external conflict, some fierce villain to fight together, then you will keep them together.
My own experience with mental illness leads me to believe that it isn’t an internal problem at all. It’s as external to the person suffering from it as a if they had a massive ball & chain tied to their ankle encumbering every move, or a literal devil on their shoulder whispering convincing lies into their ear. (That mailbox is terrifying! Don’t go near it!) It’s a villain and it needs destroyed (or at least cut down to size). Together.
So when I realized that the book needed to explore Matty’s mental illness, which was really glossed over in Training Season itself, I didn’t see it as an internal relationship conflict, but an external “fight the villain” conflict. And the model I used for it was my husband’s fight for our marriage, which, to be honest, was a fierce holding on and riding it out. He didn’t save me, or save us, but he withstood and supported and called on me to save myself. And I loved him enough that I eventually did.
Saying all of that, Training Complex isn’t a story about the “right way” to do things. It’s not a story about sweetness after finding the one. It’s a complex look at the way life gets hard for couples sometimes and that by white knuckling it through, making choices together, choosing the other person before yourself, you can (if you’re lucky and compatible) find a HEA for real.
It’s my understanding that some people don’t think overcoming relationship troubles in established relationship books is romantic. They don’t want to see beloved characters struggle. As someone who has lived in a long-term relationship now for almost thirty years, I think it’s beyond romantic when someone chooses you over leaving, even when you’re a damn mess. I think it’s the most romantic thing my husband ever did. More romantic than his proposal or his adolescent declarations of love or even when he was there for the entirety of my very long labor with the kid. Staying by me even when I was a disaster, being my rock? It was swoon-worthy, I tell you.
As for my bout with depression and how it resolved. I did go to therapy and it was a bust. Not helpful in the least. (I do believe therapy is helpful for many people. I just never find a good counselor, it seems.) Also? Counseling was incredibly expensive and with our finances in the shape they were, it nearly took us under for the months I did go.
In the end, the story of how I recovered is a bizarre one that involves reading a Vanity Fair article about Jude Law (whom I’ve never even seen in a movie) and a quote about how fearless Jude was as an actor, that no matter what was asked of him, he just showed up and dove right in. That he never said no. I can’t tell you now why that changed my life, but it did.
Thinking of my husband and how it would devastate him if I took my own life, I decided to stay. And then I decided that if I was going to stay, then I really had nothing to lose. I needed to show up. If nothing else, even if something was horrifying or painful or likely to kill me, I would have something interesting to write about. And if I somehow ended up dead by, say, getting the mail, then, hey…that death thing hadn’t seemed so unappealing now, had it?
My mantra changed from “Nothing good comes from…*insert thing*” to “If nothing else, it will be interesting.” I started saying yes to almost everything. Life got better. My relationship got better. I got better. Then I got pregnant and I no longer gave myself permission to be anything but brave for my kid. That mailbox? Not scary, kid. We will get that damn mail and everything will be JUST FINE.
As for how Matty deals with his mental illness, well, there is no miracle cure, but I promise by the end he’s doing better, and this is me…it’s HEA-ville all the way. I think I can spoil that for you because the romance is in the getting there.
May everyone discover the romance of someone who doesn’t leave, be that lover, friend, or family.
Buckle up – Matty’s back!
Figure skater Matty Marcus didn’t capture Olympic gold, but he won rancher Rob Lovely’s heart.
After Rob sold his ranch and Matty hung up his skates, they started a new life together in New York City. Now Matty has taken on a fresh challenge as a figure skating coach, and Rob’s second career as a physical therapist should be everything he’s dreamed of. But in the brutal heat of their third summer in the city, Rob yearns for the wide-open country, and the intensity of city life awakens Matty’s demons.
Matty asks for increasingly intense BDSM scenes, and his disordered eating and erratic behavior ramp up the stakes. Rob struggles to stay in control, and after a well-intentioned anniversary gift goes awry, he still thinks he can handle the fallout. But the concrete jungle is closing in and his coping skills are unraveling.
Their love is deep, but Rob will have to admit the truth about what he really wants before they both tumble into chaos.
Buy link: Amazon
For as long as Leta can recall, stories have hijacked her mind, abducting her to other lands, and forcing her to bend to the will of imaginary people. While Leta Blake would love to tell you that writing transports her to worlds of magic and wonder and then safely returns her to a home of sparkling cleanliness and carefully folded laundry, the reality is a bit different, the reality is her absence results in piles of laundry and forgotten appointments. In between abductions, Leta works hard at achieving balance between her day job, her writing, and her family.
Leta has brought three copies of Training Complex to give away to three lucky readers. Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Friday, July 17th at 11:59 pm EST.
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