Maybe it starts with a cold, allergies, hay fever—at any rate, you’re stuffy and congested, and maybe all night you sniffle and snort and toss and turn and bounce off the bed to pace, hoping that gravity will clear your sinuses. Let’s say that you’re twenty years old, newly married, though probably it’s just a coincidence that your inability to breathe kicked in right after the wedding.
Maybe your new husband, the son of a pharmacist, compares your nighttime breathing patterns to the rumble of a Mack truck (affectionately, of course). And maybe he offers you a topical nasal decongestant and says, “Try this.” Maybe you’re dubious, but he assures you that he has it on his dad’s good authority that you should ignore the warnings on the container, the ones that caution you not to use it for more than three days.
So now, you’re twenty years old and you’re hooked. Say that not too long ago you were a girl who went to church every Sunday and never swore, a girl whose biggest rebellion was memorizing the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack after your youth minister warned you away from it. And now the beginning of your marriage has handed you disillusionment after disillusionment. It was little things, like the Jesus shower room at Rosalea’s Hotel, the tulip red building in Harper, Kansas, where you spent your honeymoon. You stood there among paintings of bearded, wounded Jesuses mounted all over the walls, warping from the steam and seemingly mocking your entire foundation. Back at home, you fixed your husband a glass of grape Koolaid, and he poured it down the drain and got himself a beer.
Not long after, you find yourself with him at a strip club, a dark and smoky place that has no name, just a flashing sign that says, “Adult Entertainment.” Miserably, you sit, not quite sure where to look, while bored women sway to music and peel off sparkly costumes. Every garment is like a piece of your innocence, stripped away, hitting the dirty mirror that backs the stage and slumping to the floor.
And now you’re an addict. You don’t even drink and you’ve never smoked. You’ve always been an advocate of natural highs, the kind you get from stroking a purring cat or watching snow fall or listening to music or reading a great poem, but now here you are, dependent on a little plastic bottle, unable to breathe without it. You always thought that addiction required a high, but now you know that sometimes all it takes is the blessed absence of pain or struggle. And it’s such a relief to sleep deeply through the night. It’s such a relief not to toss and turn or start awake, face to face with your regrets.
With proper rest, you feel less despair about this whole mess you’ve gotten yourself into, this short-term cure, this escape that might be a bigger trap after all—the marriage, not the nasal spray. Maybe you entered this marriage with deliberate recklessness, sad and lost and scared of your bleak, blank future when the boy you’d grown up with and loved for six years broke up with you abruptly and disappeared, moving away. Maybe you’d foolishly believed that marriage would provide a refuge from your anxiety, that somehow it would allow you to breathe again. But no. Here you are, and every time you inhale a squirt of medicine and feel a rush of fresh air through your open passages, you know that you’re just delaying the inevitable, that time is closing in on you. At first, you just need it once a day, but soon it’s twice, three times. You push down panic but still it’s like you’re inhaling and exhaling to the same refrain: what will you do? What will you do? What are you going to do?
What follows are some guidelines for breaking that addiction gradually but effectively.
1.) Identify your Danger Zones
So you’re twenty years old and newly married, and you can’t drive your husband’s stick shift or work his complicated stereo, a formidable contraption with a turntable and speakers, tangles of wires and cords and rows of silver knobs. Your new apartment has a gas range and a freezer packed with frost. You can barely squeeze in one ice cube tray. The burners require the touch of a match to explode into circles of flame. Your automatic, all-electric, self-defrosting childhood failed to prepare you for any of this.
Then one night, you’re carded at the door of a club and turned away. “But she’s married,” your husband’s friends protest.
“Sorry,” the doorman says.
Which is how you end up at Adult Entertainment, whose doorman has abandoned his post just long enough for the group of you to slip in. The mirrors at the back of the narrow stage are clouded by smoke and dirt. Lights flirt across the stage’s foot and spotlights glare onto dancing women. And that panic, that now familiar panic, rises up again so that your thoughts are all clogged and congested and you can’t breathe and you think, what am I doing here? How did I end up here? How is this my life?
A week later, you’re arguing with your husband about him smoking hash in the basement. You argue about him going straight from work to hang out with his friends at Kirby’s bar till midnight. You argue because the evenings he does come home, he disappears again with his camera, reappearing only to grab some equipment, a tripod to shoot a guy playing Hackey Sack on a median strip at rush hour, a lens to photograph a hooker at a downtown hotel. After you fight, he usually apologizes, promises to call, to come home earlier. He doesn’t. After the really big fights, he brings you flowers.
And you keep turning to nasal spray as if it will free you from your constrictions. If only you can breathe, you think, everything will be all right.
2. ) Employ Alternative Coping Skills
Try calming breathing exercises to release your tension, unless, of course, those exercises call attention to your congestion. Get fresh air. Exercise. Seek solace in music. Sing the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack at the top of your lungs, even if your former youth director complained that in it Jesus is erratic and egotistical and inappropriately involved with Mary Magdalene, even if the apostles are only concerned with their own fame, even if Jesus says that for all they care, the wine and bread might as well be his blood and body, calling into question that whole transubstantiation thing.
Listen to records, your husband’s Pink Floyd and Janis Ian and David Bowie and Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, since your husband convinced you to sell most of your own childhood favorites in his mother’s garage sale. He and his best friend argued persuasively if somewhat drunkenly that your Barry Manilow’s and Abbas so violated the limits of good taste, their very presence threatened to stigmatize you both. Was keeping them really fair to your husband and his reputation?
You also agreed to jettison the Carpenters, which you have clung to fiercely ever since your youth director burned his. He’d realized that they were distractions from his faith and built a big bonfire to destroy all temptation. You puzzle over how these songs could corrupt anyone: because they suggest that angels have nothing better to do than create a dreamboat guy for all the girls to swoon over? Because it sounds like Karen Carpenter is attempting to usurp the place of God when she sings about being on top of the world, looking down on creation, giddy at being in love? You’ve hung onto your Simon and Garfunkel, and you listen to those records over and over, crinoline of smoky burgundy, a bow tie that’s really a camera, you are a rock, you are an island. Sometimes the speakers fall over and voices go on singing, muffled, music trapped there in the carpet.
You find a children’s record in your husband’s collection and play “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch” repeatedly until he hides it. You play his Janis Ian album, morose songs accompanied by dramatic violins, learning the truth at seventeen that love was meant for beauty queens. “Depressed again?” your husband says whenever he sees the Janis Ian album cover out. You like it that he gets you in this one way, that he can so accurately gauge your moods through the music you’re listening to.
Your husband’s favorite albums tend toward the loud and throbbing. They pound like someone hacking a hole through the wall. But still. Maybe he’s gotten you addicted to nasal spray, but he will also get you hooked, over the years, on Joni Mitchell, the Eurythmics, Suzanne Vega, Fleetwood Mac, 10,000 Maniacs, Nanci Griffith.
3. ) Face Your Feelings Instead of Avoiding Them
When, at night, you sit up waiting for the phone to ring or your husband’s truck to roar into the driveway, acknowledge your sadness. When, at the club, you stare at strippers’ feet, the high heels that remain even as glittering short skirts gradually peel away, acknowledge your sense of inadequacy. You never wear heels; they would make you taller than your husband. You prefer to go barefoot, like a child. You wear practical T-shirts, never spaghetti straps that slip down your arms, straining against them. Peer through your husband’s beer bottle until light narrows and dims and strippers turn green and shrink. All worries can be put into perspective that way.
Remember that you’ve always felt a sadness, especially at dusk, that has nothing to do with the absence of your husband or the inadequacy of your feet or these wide-hipped, slender-throated beer bottles or your marriage or your struggle to breathe. You’ve weathered this sadness a million times. Recall, in that gaping chasm between late afternoon and darkness, as you head into another evening alone, how your mom used to watch Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights. You used to hear it in the background with a restless sense that somewhere beyond these songs, beyond the dusk closing in, there was music with serrated edges that could slice right through you.
Your mom preferred this sweet, sanitized stuff, and you’ll be surprised many years later, after both of your parents’ deaths, to find hundreds of sexy cards they exchanged on birthdays and Valentine’s Day. You will feel weirdly betrayed by these cards, with double entendres and racy jokes, so opposite the pure, chaste pecks on the lips, they gave each other, their only visible displays of affection. You will feel misled as if it’s finally occurring to you that you shouldn’t have married someone for whom you feel so little attraction. Maybe if you’d known about the cards, you would be with someone who wildly attracted you, less taken in by your mom’s careful appearance of sexlessness, by this Lawrence Welk vision of courtship and marriage. Women’s skirts swirled before life-size plastic trees as they whirled and sang, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” Another woman perched on a couch arm while a man gazed benevolently down on her and they harmonized on “It’s Nice to Have a Man around the House.” That same couple, or maybe another equally fresh-faced one, joined together in a duet of “You say Eether, I say Ither.” Because this selection was in honor of National Library Week, they turned the pages of large books on stands while they sang.
Remember that dusk has made you anxious since childhood, has always been the time that you’ve fretted about what will become of you. Long ago, stranded in the abyss between twilight and daylight, between childhood and adulthood, you were relieved when darkness finally fell and instrumental renditions of songs like “Hey Jude” flushed out couples in tuxes and ball gowns. They slow danced while the lights above them spelled out “Geritol.” Soon the whole cast assembled for a chorus of “Good Night, Sleep Tight” and the day was safely over.
4. ) Don’t Be Discouraged by Setbacks
Maybe, after the first month, you wean yourself from nasal spray. Then, two months later, you give in to your longing to breathe. You promise yourself that you’ll break the habit as soon as things settle down, and it seems that they might. After all, when he forgets your birthday altogether, your remorseful husband promises to turn over a new leaf and stay home more. He brings you carnations. He hauls in brown bags of food. He unloads groceries and clatters pots and pans. e pops into the living room to turn the Allman Brothers on loud. You sort laundry, waiting for pauses in the music, listening for the cheerful noises of the house that have been humming all along beneath the pounding bass. A spoon scraping against a bowl, the sound of the furnace kicking on. You breathe in the smells of cheese and basil and tomatoes.
By dinnertime, your husband has spread out a white linen tablecloth and wedding-present placemats. He arranges bowls of green salad, glasses of red wine. He spoons up stuffed manicotti and browned sauce. He serves French bread in a basket, sliced and buttered and toasted with fresh garlic.
You tell him that it’s the best dinner anyone has ever made for you, and it’s true. But there’s a bitter, medicinal undercurrent to every bite. Resolve again to stop using nasal spray. Try not to dread your husband’s garlic kisses.
5. ) Solicit support from family and friends, but lower your expectations, accepting gratefully whatever they are able to give.
Newly twenty-one, you could be susceptible to believing that the seemingly vast cultural rift between you and your husband’s family is a sign of your inferiority. Your mother-in-law asks you to pick up some Pall Mall cigarettes on the way to her house for dinner, and, misunderstanding, you bring her Palmolive dish soap. You have no clue that when your husband’s dad died a couple of years ago, she found cocaine in among his socks. What you see is the perfect surface of her life, with her high thread count sheets and salon shampoos. What you see are her pursed lips as she fixes the table where you have tossed silverware beside each plate and gathered paper towels to serve as napkins. Sighing, she separates the knives and spoons from the forks and places them equidistant from the edges of the plates and placemats. Counting out cloth napkins, she rolls her eyes at your husband.
But so what if neither she nor your husband tolerates wood veneer, cakes made from mixes, mashed potatoes from flakes, synthetic bags, or polyester blends. So what if she would never use garlic powder instead of fresh cloves or make pizza crust from canned biscuits. Never mind that she decorates her bathroom with arrangements of molded soap, intricate flowers. and seashells, that your husband warns you not to use. Somehow the cracks and crevices of their elaborate patterns remain sharp, neither worn down by use nor outlined by dust. Big deal if there’s never a ring in your mother-in-law’s bathtub, never a layer of dust on top of her oak china hutch, never a smudge on the front hallway’s mirrored tiles that deliver back to you endless repetitions of yourself.
Maybe you’re reluctant to confess your misery to your own mother and you consider leaning on your co-workers. But at the campus yearbook, where you’re the office manager and a staff writer, you’re no longer the boss’s girlfriend, someone to impress and woo. Now you’re the nagging harpy trying to stand in the way of your husband’s fun. “Buddy, you’re losing weight,” you hear his best friend and coeditor, say. “Isn’t she feeding you enough?”
“He’s gained ten pounds,” you growl, and all the guys scatter like crows in response to a hurled rock. But he has gained weight. You know this because he accused you of shrinking his jeans, and his mother said to you reprovingly, “You should never dry jeans,” and then, weeks later, he sheepishly confessed that he’d gone to buy replacements and no longer fit into the same size.
A layout guy stops in at the office with his three-year-old daughter. “This is Marc’s wife,” he introduces you.
“And a person in her own right,” you chirp.
Later, your husband’s best friend reprimands you for your hostile knee-jerk reaction. Do you have a problem with being Marc’s wife? he asks.
Turn to your friends for support. They mean well, even if they are, like you, young and mystified by the idea of marriage. “Wedded bliss!” they shriek when you see them on campus. “Look at her glow!” they crow. “You’re gaining weight,” they say, nudging each other, eyebrows raised knowingly about the cause of your supposed fat, happy state. You’ve actually lost ten pounds and developed constant stomachaches, but you smile weakly. You don’t let on that you’re finding marriage to be a pretty odd concept, that it feels like you’re impersonating someone who has passed over into an exalted secret society full of romance and mystery. You feel inadequate, embarrassed, sure that you’re the only bride on earth whose marriage is a sham, the only one who has no idea whatsoever how to be a wife.
So maybe you don’t quite know how to talk about this. Resist the temptation to instead lean on a drug to help you sleep at night, to forget about all of this for a few unconscious hours.
6. ) Recognize the patterns that keep defeating you and quit making excuses.
Every few months, as if he’s scheduled it, your husband grows silent and restless. “We shouldn’t have gotten married,” he says. “I just thought it would be like having a roommate you have sex with. I don’t want to be married anymore.” You make promises, resolving not to limit his freedom. And when he accepts a job as a newspaper photographer in Pratt, Kansas, an hour away, you support him. You stay in Wichita for a semester to finish school, then defer graduate school to join him.
Three months later, he gets restless, says it again: “I don’t want to be married.” You leave for two days, staying with a friend. When you finally call your husband, he pleads with you to come back. You’re so congested from crying that you turn to nasal spray again. It takes you a month to get off of it. Notice how your marriage, your addiction, cycle together: you’re congested, he feels all hemmed in, he explodes, you go back on nasal spray. He apologizes and makes promises, you go cold turkey and finally freed of the medicine, you breathe without help. Your husband is kind and solicitous, and you think that your marriage might make it, and then the whole cycle repeats itself again.
You never ask exactly what it would mean for your marriage to make it or whether you really want to stay together forever. All you know is that the idea of navigating life on your own is terrifying.
7.) Forget about yourself and do things for others
If, say, you don’t feel especially attracted to your husband, instead of retreating and refusing to communicate, try cultivating intimacy.Develop a repertoire of back massages, for instance. Pioneer the Singing Back Rub, performed to selections from Mary Poppins and excerpts from “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Devise a “Reciting Back Rub” in which you recall stray lines from poems memorized in school: “Annabel Lee,” “The Night Before Christmas,” and the “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” speech from Hamlet. Create the Olympic commentator Back Rub, in which you replay and analyze your own daring moves: “Well, Peggy, that first run down the spine was pretty adventurous for a newcomer. Yes, Dick, and did you see how seamlessly she moved into a three-fingered jab followed by a full knuckle punch?”
Be pleased by the way your husband smiles drowsily, dozing off.
8. )Take joy in your talents and abilities. Develop new hobbies and interests. Take a class. Gain confidence in your own worth and rights.
First, take inventory of what you do well. Say, playing “Baby Elephant Walk” fast on the piano. Pointing your toes, which you can do like a ballerina because your feet are double-jointed.
Learn new things. Like, say, Foot Reflexology, which claims that the human foot has points that connect to all of the body’s organs, glands, and tissues. Figure out where the reflex points for your lungs and eyes, your pancreas, and small intestine, are located. Wonder if your frequent congestion, and lately, headaches, are due to too-tight shoes.
Learn to trust your own vision and interpretations. Say your husband claims that every tall building was modeled after the male anatomy, that women’s earrings are a manifestation of penis envy, imitating the only thing in nature that dangles, that every song in existence is directly related to male body parts. Maybe, while listening to Jackson Brown, for instance, he says, “You know who Rosie is, don’t you?”
She wears his ring—his wife? you venture.
“Rosie is his dick,” your husband says authoritatively. “Get it? ‘I’ve got to hand it to me’?” He snickers. Many years later, a boyfriend will argue that Rosie is his hand. “Ick,” you will say both times, wondering why anyone would listen to this song more than once after the joke wears off.
Maybe you don’t feel worthwhile, or like you have rights since you don’t bring in much money from your accountant’s assistant job. Because of this, you may hesitate over new purchases—a loaf of bread, a Sunday newspaper. Maybe you resent the easy way your husband drops money on records, but you’re grateful, too. You play Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun over and over. You wish to be one of those carefree girls with their straightforward yearnings. You’re drawn to the slow wistfulness and tenderness and lusty longing of “All Through the Night.” In “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen, hoarse and raw and close to the bone, desperate with desire, wakes up your nerve endings.
And then your husband says that Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” is about group oral sex. “What did you think she meant by those references to trains and eating?” he asks.
You feel hopelessly naïve. You thought it was about Amtrak and dining cars.
“You know what Blue Boy magazines are, don’t you?” he says when “She Bop” plays. “You know why she jokes that she might go blind?”
You’ve been picturing the Gainsborough painting “Blue Boy,” which hung in your parents’ living room above the couch. You long for the innocence of that world.
And then your husband goes too far, claiming that “All Through the Night” is about prostitution. “Once we start, the meter clicks?” he says, wiggling his eyebrows.
This time, you argue. You insist that prostitutes do not charge for their services like cab drivers. You argue that it’s a romantic song about a night that feels outside of time and ordinary concerns. You remember feeling this way about your first boyfriend, wanting evenings with him to last forever. You don’t mention this. Instead, you maintain that the meter is a metaphor for the way that the reality of passing time and the knowledge of the inevitable end of pleasure and happiness that haunts every moment. You tell your husband that he is dead wrong.
And in moments like this, you understand that you need to go to graduate school and spend your life explicating things. In moments like this, you secretly acknowledge your yearning for love that fulfills you.In moments like this, you realize that you don’t need crutches like your marriage or nasal spray.
9. ) Seek professional help.
A year and a half into your marriage, when your husband announces again that he doesn’t want to be married, tell him that you’re going to graduate school. Tell him he can come along or not. Expel a breath when he says he’s coming along, a breath you didn’t realize you were holding.
Move to Arkansas, enroll in school, and develop a busy social life. When, during a cold, you resume nasal spray usage again and remain dependent for weeks, you may be tempted to laugh along when your friends joke, “Get a real addiction.” Instead, consult the campus health doctor. He will scold you; it may be true, he says, that many of your classmates are alcoholics or have struggled with dependency on cocaine or heroin. It may be true that nasal spray is, by comparison, cheap and readily available, doesn’t threaten your reputation or your credit rating, alter your judgment, impair your logic, or lead you into dangerous parts of town.
You are nevertheless in the grip of a real addiction, the doctor will tell you. He orders you to go cold turkey. He advises salt water spray, a humidifier. He prescribes steroids. He says words that will forever after strike you as profound: “Both nostrils will never naturally close at the same time. Remember that one nostril is always open. Breathe through that one.”
You are reminded of that old saying, about how when God closes one door, he opens another. When it comes to your nose, you infinitely prefer for all the doors to be open. But you resolve to give up the nasal spray once and for all.
10. ) Take control of your own life. Go cold turkey forever.
Be prepared when your husband tells you that Suzanne Vega’s “Gypsy,” a song about a fleeting love with a free spirit, is about a penis. “A long and slender body and a bump upon the head?” he will say.
Roll your eyes. Say, “It is not about a penis.”
“Then how do you explain that line?” your husband will ask.
“I don’t know,” you answer. “Unless the guy has a long and slender body and has actually bumped his head.”
Listen to this song over and over, and the Eurythmics’s “The Miracle of Love,” and know that you need something more than what you have. The final time that your husband tells you he doesn’t want to be married anymore, you’ll be tempted to panic and cling. You’ll want to make the usual promises and resolutions. Instead, you’ll hear yourself say, “I’m not sure I do, either.”
And you’ll be surprised when he replies, “Don’t leave me.” You’ll be surprised that his first reaction is to panic and cling.
But you know that you hate feeling dependent on him, and he will hate it the reverse just as much. And you know you can’t go on like this, always worrying about how to keep your marriage together and where you’ll get your next hit of nasal spray. At this point, the nasal spray dependency gap has narrowed to every fifteen minutes, and as long as this continues, nothing will give you pleasure anymore, not the taste of chocolate or the patterns of sunlight on the carpet or your best friend’s wisecracks.
So you’ll talk. The saddest, most mature conversation, you’ve ever had, free of fear and blame. You can admit that you love each other but don’t want really want to be married to each other. That you’ve both had to grow up, that you’ve both made mistakes. That it’s OK to refuse to dismiss the marriage itself as a mistake, because it’s made you both who are you.
When you move away to teach in Missouri, you’ll listen to the CDs your ex-husband regularly sends you, and you’ll miss him. But instead of relapsing, you’ll go and buy those shoes you always wanted, roomy, wide, white sneakers with thick soles that cushion your feet and make you tall. They will look new when you wash them and let them dry in the sun, surprisingly new each time, like when you used to wipe the mirror clean of all your husband’s toothpaste spots and uncovered your own face.
Letting go of your addiction will take a little longer. The last time you give in will be the fall you enroll in a PhD program in Nebraska. Stuffy, unable to sleep, you’ll take a hit and discover that now you need the nasal spray every three minutes. You’ll walk and walk and turn on the shower and the teakettle and steam up your apartment and try to work but all you can think about is that you can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.
You’ll call your ex-husband in a panic but find that you can’t finish a sentence, that you keep breaking off to dig the spray out from under the couch cushion or find it where you left it in the kitchen. You’ll go to Love Library to do research but find yourself standing in the midst of books and humming machinery and whispered voices, and you’ll feel like an imposter, with no idea where to begin, with no possibility of sustaining concentration while your nostrils close tighter and tighter with each ticking second.
With shaking hands, you’ll pull a list of sources out of your backpack, but one look at them and the room will start to blur, to spin. Everyone around you will seem so calm. They’ll read in chairs, shuffling through pages; they’ll quietly tap on computers. And you’ll just stand there, trying to fend off dread and anxiety, your forehead and palms turning clammy as you wonder what made you think you could do this, any of this, on your own. Swinging your backpack up over your shoulder without even bothering to zip it, you’ll rush outside.
You’ll drive straight home. Without even taking off your coat, you’ll gather all of the little plastic containers in your apartment. You’ll carry them to the dumpster behind your building and pitch them hard and fast between bulging plastic bags and rotten fruit swarming with flies. You’ll hear them rattle down into places where you’ll never be tempted to follow them.
And then you’ll lie on the couch and breathe. You’ll let your doubts shrink and float away with your breaths. You’ll breathe.
You’ll focus on your open nostril rather than your closed one.
You’ll feel very Zen.
You’ll breathe with what you have.
Nancy McCabe is the author of three memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, an essay collection, and a novel, Following Disasters, fall 2016. Her work has won a Pushcart and made notable lists six times in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series.