My dad is a poker player. He has been a poker player for as long as I can remember. When I was a child he played in various neighborhood games. Then gambling was legalized west of Denver and he added Texas Hold’em to his repertoire. While I am not a poker player, lacking the poker-face and calculating-odds-on-the-fly genes, I have always enjoyed watching my dad play the game. When I was in my teens I would go up to the mountains with him and watch him play against the other players at the table. I’d watch reckless players flamboyantly going against the odds, and methodical players never deviating from what math would tell them to do. The good players, like my dad, would know the odds, but play the game to maximize the hand they had and the players at the table.
One thing you learn from poker, especially Hold’Em, is that you have to play the cards in your hands. In draw poker you can trade in the cards you have for other cards that might make your hand better, but once you get those cards, you don’t get other ones. In the end, you always have to make the best hand you can out of the cards you have.
I think life is like Texas Hold’Em. You and your family sit around a table and each are dealt cards and you have to play those cards. Maybe the rules are different because you get more opportunities to trade in your cards, and the stakes are higher, but one thing is the same: once you are dealt a card you have to play it. You can’t untake a card.
Let’s look at my life. When I was 23 I traded in my “single gal card” for a “live with a guy card”. I still had my “loves bad boys who ride motorcycles” card, just in case living together didn’t work out. Seven years later, the bad boys got traded in for a marriage card and my mate hand was set.
What I didn’t know, and my husband didn’t even know, was that he had a depression card in his hand. His first episode hit right after we were married. It took months to diagnose what was going on. His symptoms manifest themselves physically and he went through a barrage of medical test to determine what was wrong. In the end there was only one possibility left: that his sickness was in his mind. Therapy, time and medication eased his symptoms and eventually cured him a year later. We were told that there was a good chance this would be a one time episode, but if he had another it was probably going to plague him throughout his life.
So he had the depression card. He couldn’t trade it in. Maybe he was lucky and just had the “one episode” kind, but maybe not. I had joined my life to a guy who may or may not have another breakdown. Sure, it wasn’t my card, so I could have left him. I could have decided that staying with someone who had a chance of another breakdown wasn’t worth it, but I didn’t, because I loved him and I wanted a life with him.
We had a baby together, and when she was four, it happened again. Now I had a new card, a mom card. That’s one powerful card, and I spent almost a year keeping her alive as my first priority, and keeping my husband alive as my second. Again, he has the depression card, not me, but with us drawing the parent card together I was permanently tied to him. I could help him get well again, or abandon him and risk being alone, divorced from my husband, fighting some future custody battle. I wouldn’t be married to him, but I would know that he could get sick again and if we weren’t together I couldn’t help him or my daughter. Worst case I’d have a child whose father killed himself. I loved our family too much to not try, so I spent another year fighting and we all came through together, but this time I know that it will happen again.
I was frank with my colleagues, family, and friends with the second episode because I needed all the help I could get. Some asked “How do you do it?” “Why do you do it?” The reality of the situation was that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be married to a man with depression. I didn’t want to worry day and night about my daughter and him. But I had to play the hand I was dealt. The words that meant the most to me while I was struggling was, “This just sucks.” It didn’t do any good to think about “What ifs” “What if he hadn’t gotten depressed?” “What if we hadn’t had a kid?” He was and we did and we had to do the best we could. The words that meant the second most were, “How can I help?” “Can we have you over for dinner?” “Can I take him out to give you a break?” What didn’t help were suggestions from people unwilling to jump in and get dirty with us. “You should” and “Why don’t you” drove me crazy. Those are words of judgement made from the outside and weren’t worth my notice. No one who didn’t have my hand could really understand what our family was going through, and if you don’t understand you have no right to shout advice from the sidelines. Trust me, in the World Series of Poker the audience doesn’t get to shout “You should fold” to the players. The players make the most they can out of the cards they have and the people at the table.
I hate that our family has these cards. I hate that the cards we have make us fearful of other cards: my daughter becoming depressed; me dying and my husband falling apart; another episode of depression. We do what we can to arm ourselves against those possibilities. My husband visits a psychiatrist every 6 months so he has an active relationship with her in case he gets depressed again. We’ve learned to teach our daughter to stay away from hard drugs as she gets older, because that’s a huge risk to damaging her brain chemistry and causing her problems in the future. We have a will set up to protect her in case something happens to me and my husband can’t make decisions anymore. All of that sucks, but it’s part of making the most of the hand we’ve been dealt.
The one thing that makes me grateful for what we’ve been through is the empathy I have for others. Friends of ours just had their child diagnosed with a terminal illness. She probably won’t see her third birthday. I could hide from their sadness. I could ignore their plight, or I could tell them what they should do. I don’t do any of that. I do whatever I can do let them know that this just sucks. Sucks in a way I can’t imagine, because I don’t have that card, and I can’t imagine having that card. I can’t understand a situation I’m not living, but I can interpret from the pain of my past the pain of others. I can acknowledge their anguish, and do what I can to help. I can’t make it better. I can’t take their card away. I can’t make the card never happen. But I can use what I have in my hand to make their hand the best it can be. You live the live you are dealt, and sometimes that sucks so bad it’s unfathomable. You sit at the table with all your friends and family and you do what you can to give everyone the best hand they can get, because unlike poker, there isn’t one winner and everyone else loses. The players make the most they can out of the cards they have and the people at the table, but in life the winner doesn’t take all. We are all in this game together.