Missed past installments? You can find them here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five
In this installment, I will cover several of Cathy’s claims about diagnoses she’d received from “a doctor”. Having an invisible illness myself, I hate when people try to prove that patients are faking their symptoms. This, however, is Cathy. You’ll have to forgive me and everyone who knew her for doubting. Mea culpa.
There are also mentions of suicide in this post.
I’m not sure what, exactly, was the acknowledged reason for the breakup of Cathy and Sam’s marriage, because it all dissolved so quickly. One of the factors was certainly the loss of their roommates, who asked Cathy and Sam to vacate the house for the evening so they could have a small dinner party then moved out without notice, leaving behind a note detailing their grievances. Among them was the filth; with two roommates, Sam was able to cut back to one job, but he still didn’t pitch in and Cathy had moved on to an additional reason she couldn’t do any housework: debilitating arthritis.
Despite the fact that the only doctor visits Cathy ever made were to Planned Parenthood for basic gynecological services, she insisted she had developed and been diagnosed with arthritis that was so advanced, so devastating that her knees would “literally hemorrhage” if she stood up too much. This prohibited her from walking any distance (that she didn’t want to walk), working any job besides her occasional tutoring of other college students, or sitting the backseat of any vehicle.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cathy had a whole host of illnesses and allergies when the situation called for them. One day, while barbecuing, my husband asked her how she liked her steak. “It has to be well-done,” she insisted, with far more vehemence than called for. “I am allergic to anything but well-done meat. I will literally die.” While allergies to red meat are possible (and some people with the allergy can eat red meat if it’s well done), Cathy’s constant claims of bogus medical conditions left us skeptical. “Wow, what will happen if you eat under cooked meat?” I asked, having been to countless restaurants and meals with her before this ever came up. She said she didn’t know, but a doctor had told her about the allergy. My husband stood over the grill and grumbled, “You can just say you don’t like it pink. It doesn’t have to be fatal.” That, in addition to her claim that a doctor told her to never quit smoking or she would “literally die”, and that she should limit all activity because of her dangerously high IQ, her “my knees will hemorrhage” claim seemed somewhat dubious based on the fact that she couldn’t provide details on what type of arthritis she had and she had no idea what a rheumatologist was. Shortly before moving out of the house, one of the roommates, a nursing student, asked her what medications she was on to manage the condition. “I don’t believe in pills. I won’t even take Motrin for it. I don’t like any substance that changes your body chemistry,” she said, taking another drag off her ever-present cigarette. “I’ve learned to live with the pain. I guess I’m just a stronger person than most people.”
On another occasion, Cathy learned about Fibromyalgia. She began telling everyone that she also suffered from the disease, until her nursing student roommate snapped, “It’s not even real. Ask any doctor, they’re going to tell you it’s not real.” Later, the roommate confided in me, “I know it’s real. I just didn’t want her adding to her stupid collection. Just do the fucking dishes, Cathy.” After that, Cathy denied ever self-diagnosing the illness, but continued insisting that “a doctor” told her she had arthritis, didn’t need any medication to manage the symptoms because she was strong, and frequently went to art hops that involved walking miles around the city visit different galleries.
She always wore staggeringly high heels to do this.
It struck me as bizarre that, now that Cathy didn’t have cash rolling in from student loans, she would get rid of her only source of income. Since a job would give her ALS, joint bleeding, and probably Feline Leukemia, she decided she would become a full-time poet. She constantly talked about her book, a collection of poems she was writing. “Oh, like a chapbook?” I asked. No, a full-length collection of poetry. Knowing the amount of spare time she had, I believed this was something she definitely could do, so I encouraged her. A week later, she called me to announce that she’d finished her first book. Thirty pages of poems, many of which she’d written for her disastrous English class. Each was about her body and sexuality, including one particularly self-aggrandizing piece about how motherhood had saved her from the anorexia that had been killing her before her pregnancy. In it, she spoke of how alarmingly thin she had been, weighing under one hundred pounds, no longer menstruating, being able to count individual bones through her skin. It was actually kind of sad; it came off as someone who thought she had recovered using the tale of her recovery to praise herself for being skinny. She compared herself to a concentration camp victim (I suggested editing those lines out, which she thankfully did) and called her son a miracle and her savior.
She still only saw him every other weekend, despite being offered increased visitation time. “I’m really too busy writing,” was her excuse for not spending more time with her savior and “the most important part of her life”. Motherhood, she continued to insist, “defined” her and brought her “as close to being a goddess as any woman could be.” She wanted the title but not the job.
Despite her refusal to work and her expectation that Sam would continue to bring all the money into their struggling household (they were unable to secure new roommates), it was Cathy who initiated the divorce. The only reason she would give at first was that she no longer loved Sam, but as the weeks went on, the reasons began to mount. She didn’t love him when they married but she felt she had to go through with it. She was still wounded over his affair from years ago. She wanted a divorce.
Sam was crushed. He truly loved her and her declaration that their relationship was over was completely unexpected to him. Even those of us who’d placed imaginary bets on the length of the marriage were surprised; one minute, Cathy was head over heels in love, bragging about her perfect husband and how happy she was. How her role as a “housewife” suited her. The next, she was desperately unhappy and felt stifled by Sam’s own unhappiness at achieving his goals.
“It’s just like in The Last Five Years,” she explained to me over coffee. “Here I am, a successful writer, and there he is, struggling to make anything of himself. I was listening to that song Jamie sings at the end, that goes, ‘I could never rescue you.’ All I could do was love him, and it wasn’t enough. I can’t fix him.”
It took a lot to not scream in her face that the reason Sam couldn’t “make anything of himself” was that he was trying to get through college a class at a time while working his ass off to keep them from being homeless. That her “successful” writing career consisted of one unpublished chapbook that she hadn’t bothered to submit anywhere or self-publish. That Sam was in need of rescuing: from her, not by her.
Because she didn’t have the money to move into a new place–and because Sam still loved her and hoped they would patch things up–Cathy continued to live in the house Sam paid rent on. She “got” their bedroom and bed; he slept on the couch, as he couldn’t afford to buy another mattress. A week after the split, she made plans to spend the Fourth Of July with us, only to immediately cancel when another friend, Cecily, offered a better option. Cecily would be going to Lake Michigan with her Dungeons and Dragons group, and one of the guys in that group, Lucas, was Cathy’s sexual target. Though he’d rebuffed her advances a handful of times before, Cathy was certain that spending the day with the group would seal the deal.
Later, Cecily told me the story of what had happened. When she arrived at Cathy’s house to pick her up, Cathy, in full view of Sam, actually did a dance and celebrated with a sing-song, “I’m gonna get laid, I’m gonna get laid!” When Sam got up and left the room in tears, Cathy flew into a rage about how manipulative he was. Once they arrived at the beach, Cathy planted herself on her towel, legs spread to display her “crown”.
“Jen,” Cecily told me, her eyes wide, “Lucas said it looked like she had a red squirrel trapped in her bathing suit.” There was no doubt that he was not interested.
Cathy spent the day making suggestive comments, trying to lure Lucas off alone, and always sat with her legs spread to expose herself to him. He was intensely uncomfortable and eventually left, despite Cathy pouting and trying to use her feminine wiles to get him to stay. After he left, she sat alone, sullen. She spent the night at Cecily’s house. When they left the next day, their route took them past Lucas’s house.
“Stop the car!” Cathy screamed. “Turn around! I have something I want to say to him!” When Cecily refused, Cathy shouted, “No! You are going to take me back there. Nobody turns this down!”
Cecily did not comply, and Cathy spent the rest of the ride fuming about Lucas’s rejection.
A few days later, Cathy called me to tell me her version of the story. Lucas, she informed me, was a really sweet kid, but he came on too strong. “He wouldn’t stop touching me or looking at me. It made me really uncomfortable, but Cecily wouldn’t leave, so I had to just put up with it. Honestly, I felt harassed.” She’d made it clear that she wasn’t interested in sex with him, she claimed, and now she was worried about ever being alone with him.
She went on to describe Sam’s “emotional manipulation” and how trapped she felt by him. She admitted to the premature celebration of her potential lay but insisted that Sam was trying to control her by reacting to it.
“Okay, but…imagine how he felt,” I said, knowing I risked the wrath of Cathy by even bringing it up. “His wife just left him a few days ago, and then she’s dancing in front of him bragging about getting laid. You can’t see how that was maybe a little bit hurtful?”
To my surprise, she admitted that perhaps that had been insensitive. We finished our conversation and hung up.
About ten minutes later, I checked my email and found one from Cathy. There was no subject line, but it had been sent after our call. It was an all caps ramble about how every other one of her friends agreed that I was unsupportive and toxic for taking Sam’s side. That I was jealous of her successful writing career. That I was jealous of her body and unhappy that guys weren’t attracted to me because of my weight. “SAM IS AN ASSHOLE AND HE IS RIGHT ABOUT NOTHING!!!!!!!!” she wrote, and ended by telling me that if I was going to continue to be so harmful to her mental health, she would kill herself.
In a sick twist, as I was reading this email aloud to a disbelieving friend, my phone rang. One of my cousins, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had died by suicide, leaving behind two little boys. I hung up, shaking and numb, and the phone rang again.
It was Cathy.
“Hi…” she said, drawing the word out in syrupy mock apology. “Have you checked your email yet?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice stony.
All she said was, “Oh.” Then, dead silence. I waited. She started talking again. “I’m sorry about what I said. But you need to be aware of how your words–”
“Shut up!” I screamed at her, my knuckles white around the receiver. “I just found out that a family member actually killed herself and I don’t have time for you!”
The next day, one of her friends called me, furious. “Where the fuck do you get off telling Cathy to kill herself?” I didn’t, I stammered. She continued to rage at me that Cathy had attempted suicide after I hung up on her the day before and that I’d told her, “Shut up! Go actually kill yourself, because I don’t have time for you.” I explained what had really happened and told her another person had been present at the time of the call and could corroborate the story. I offered to send them the email Cathy had sent me. They backed down somewhat and admitted that Cathy’s “suicide attempt” had been comprised of holding a pillow over her own face. “That should tell you how much she wanted to die,” I snapped. What Cathy had told this friend about the demise of her relationship was far different than what had really happened. Sam had been physically abusive, often slapping her or pushing her into walls, and that’s why she desperately needed to escape. She had been looking for a roommate and felt hopeless like there was no way out.
When I spoke about this with one of Cathy and Sam’s old roommates, she actually laughed. “Uh, no. Cathy was constantly beating up on Sam. We told him to call the cops and he never would.” She recounted an anecdote about Sam sitting silently, reading a book, and Cathy becoming angry because he wasn’t paying attention to her. Without a word, she’d gotten up and punched him in the head over and over while he cowered from her until the roommate’s boyfriend had restrained her. Another time, Sam had been on the toilet when Cathy became furious with him for no apparent reason and burst in, slapping and kicking him. When I asked Sam why he never told any of us, he said he was embarrassed and that he didn’t want us to think badly of Cathy. He knew she had problems and he wanted to help her. He didn’t think she could survive on her own and worried that she would attempt suicide again.
Against the advice of everyone who knew him, Sam asked Cathy to go to counseling before proceeding with the divorce. She agreed. Meanwhile, the rest of us were looking for an escape. That was when my friend Cristin warned me, “Jen, do not piss her off. I’m serious.” She informed me that once, she’d told Cathy something she’d been sensitive and embarrassed about. “Don’t worry. I would never tell anyone,” Cathy promised, then added, “Unless I get really mad at you. Then I’ll tell everyone. When I get mad, I’m vicious.” For all the years of our friendship, Cathy had been saving information we’d given her in confidence as an insurance policy; if she knew anything at all that could publically embarrass us or harm us in any way, she would use it. I thought back to the night of that ritual, where we’d written down the personal failings or past hurts that had been harming us, and the way Cathy had read each one before burning them. Then, I remembered the spell she’d worked on Sam’s ex-girlfriend and her unborn baby. Cathy wasn’t above using the secrets we’d confided in her to harm us, and she wasn’t above attacking us through spiritual means.
We had no way out.
Next time: “Drop The Rope”