By Karin Flodstrom. Psy.D.
A Child’s Dream
In third grade I walk home from school feeling lonely. The kids I like prefer other friends. Many of my classmates are loud, silly or immature. There is no one I like who likes me. That night I have a dream. A boy is in my dream. This boy is my best friend and likes me just as much as I like him. He has blond hair, kind eyes and a warm smile. My dream comforts me. I know I will not be alone forever. The memory of this boy lingers for days.
Not long after my dream, my classmate Dawn Drendel asks if I want to be friends. Now that I have a real-life best friend, I forget about the boy in my dream. Looking back, I believe my dream boy helped me see myself as worthy. He gave me the confidence I needed to attract my first real friend.
Fast forward 10 years later, I am a junior at the University of Illinois studying Home Economics. My favorite courses are clothing design, interior design, and art. A young man walks up to me in the stairway of my apartment building. Telling me he’s in town to visit his girlfriend, he asks for directions to Busey Apartments. As I lean over the balcony to point the way, he looks at me, not in the direction I am pointing. I notice his scrutiny and that he’s ignoring my directions, but the significance of his staring doesn’t quite sink in.
When he asks to come inside and use my bathroom, I suggest the nearby Pizza Hut. He insists he can’t make it that far. Foolishly, I let him into my empty apartment. He is quiet in the bathroom. The toilet doesn’t flush. I hear no running water. My stomach sinks into a feeling of dread when I realize something is seriously wrong. At that moment, I should have left the apartment to get help, but I don’t act fast enough.
The man comes out of the bathroom and asks to see my underwear. My heart is beating fast. I refuse. He argues with me and walks in front of the outside door. I muster my courage. With a confident voice, I say, “It is time for you to go.” I reach around him, turn the knob and pull the door open. Miraculously, he leaves. After he walks out, I slam the door and lock it behind him.
My roommates, Karen and Susan, get home several hours later. Still shaking, I tell them what happened. Karen tells me she’s seen this guy hanging around our apartment for weeks. She calls the police and reports the incident. Then Karen and Susan ask our next-door neighbors, Dan and Al, to look out for us. They set up a code – if we knock on the shared wall between our apartments, they agree to come running.
To test the new system, we bang on the wall. Dan and Al sprint over. My heart stops when I see blond, handsome Dan with his great smile. He runs around the apartment swinging a baseball bat. Suddenly I am laughing and no longer afraid.
A few days after the incident, Dan knocks on the door to ask me out. We are instantly inseparable. I feel so comfortable with him. Not only does Dan become my best friend, but I am also very attracted to him. Dan is happy to have found me too. By the end of my senior year, we agree to marry.
Dan is an engineer. After graduation, we plan to settle in Chicago near our families. When Dan accepts a job in Springfield without consulting me, something feels wrong. I am about to leave for a 5-week study abroad program in Stockholm and decide to think about my relationship with Dan during my trip.
Finding my True Path
My first night in the country of my ancestors, I sit on a rooftop restaurant and sip strong Swedish coffee with my new classmates. They are getting to know each other, but I sit silently, thinking. A country girl, Stockholm is the first city I have ever lived in and explored. As the lights twinkle below me, my heart knows that I don’t want to marry Dan.
Even so, after I return home and break up with Dan, I miss him terribly. I doubt I will ever find another man as loving or quietly intelligent. Over the next year I miss Dan so much that I call him twice. Each time he comes to see me. I hope I will feel attracted again. When my attraction to Dan doesn’t return, I see the pain in his eyes and feel sick. Why did my feelings change so suddenly and completely? What is wrong with me that I would hurt such a kind, gentle man? How can I possibly not love this wonderful man?
After our second visit, Dan stands at the front door of my apartment. With his strong jaw set and a steely gaze, he says, “Never, ever call me again!” As I close the door behind him, I wonder if my best chance at love just walked out of my life forever.
I become a Chicago kitchen designer. Homeowners on the Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile hire me to design their kitchens. Each morning before work, I plunge into the cold Chicago Health Club pool. Slicing my way through the water, I swim as fast as I can until my body warms up. After my mile swim, I style my hair and apply makeup. I happily walk the city streets wearing designer suits and Italian heels. It’s exciting to call on top Chicago architects and interior designers. I love seeing the beautiful urban and North Shore homes of the wealthy, so different from the village of Big Rock, Illinois where I grew up.
Even though my job is great fun, something feels wrong. After a couple of years, I become so depressed that I have suicidal thoughts. A wonderful therapist, Dawn Houck, comes into my life. She helps me reconnect with myself and my past. I remember that in high school I dreamed of becoming a psychologist. When I feel better, I decide to help other people the way Dawn has helped me. I attend graduate school and earn a doctorate in clinical psychology.
I love my work as a psychologist. If I had married Dan, I doubt I would have become a kitchen designer or psychologist. I know deep in my heart that I made the right decision.
Success and Stress
At 32 years old, I have been lonely for many years when I meet someone new. He asks me to marry him. I am scared but also thrilled. This time I feel ready to take the plunge.
After we marry, I transition from my hospital job to open a private practice in Naperville, Illinois. My thriving practice operates in the black the first month I open.
Pouring myself heart and soul into my work, I am skilled at connecting with the seriously ill. I know how to help them feel safe and understood. My practice fills quickly. Even after I close my practice to new clients, my phone rings with referrals begging me to take one more.
On call 24 hours a day, I sometimes jolt out of sleep to talk to a suicidal client. Some need hospitalization. It’s up to me to decide whether to hospitalize – sometimes against my client’s will. Violent clients require my sharpest skills and best judgment. These life and death decisions weigh heavily. A wrong decision could be disastrous. My desire to help is strong and my clients’ needs are great. I often push myself to the point of exhaustion.
Before our beautiful daughter is born, I am already worn out. As I juggle work, marriage and motherhood, I gradually burn out completely. By the time Clare is four years old, I am an emotional and physical wreck.
I crawl into bed exhausted each night. Even when I sleep all night, I awaken the next morning heavily fatigued. My feet hurt so much that I hobble. Pain shoots through my tender neck. Every movement is agony. Some days I am so fatigued that I can barely stand and struggle to lift my hand to brush my teeth. Sometimes, when I look at people’s faces, their features separate and float apart. The ground feels unstable under my feet. My life has an unreal quality and my heart often beats like a jack hammer. Multiple anxiety attacks wrack my weakened body daily and I fear I will die.
I have no idea what is wrong with me. After a battery of tests my doctor says everything is normal. She suggests I exercise more. I try to follow her advice. After only a short walk to the park, I am so exhausted that I feel a strong urge to crawl on my hands and knees. Instead of crawling,I lock my knees and walk like a robot. When I finally get home and close the door behind me, I fall to the floor crying and so frightened. What on earth is wrong with me?
I gain 70 pounds. Craving rest, I lay in bed every chance I get. Forced to close my practice, I save my energy to care for Clare. Most days I am too weak to shower. Skipping makeup, I wear leggings with baggy sweatshirts. After washing my hair, I slick my wet hair back into a ponytail. When acquaintances see me, they stammer their hellos, visibly shocked by my weight gain and changed appearance.
One morning I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. My face looks like a stranger. Psychologists call this nightmarish sensation depersonalization. From then on, I avoid mirrors. I get by only by the strength of my faith. Many moments, often dozens of times a day, I ask God to show me His Way for me and Give me the strength to follow His Will. Whenever I ask God for help, I somehow make it through each day. As I experience God’s Grace in the midst of my despair, my faith deepens.
My mysterious condition puts a terrible strain on my marriage. My husband and I separate. When we do, a new symptom emerges. My face becomes mask-like, losing all expression. The clinical term for this is “loss of affect.” Clare is 8 years old. She asks my sister Janet, “Is my Mommy going to die?”
My already thin daughter loses weight at an alarming rate and has trouble falling asleep. At night she fears robbers will attack us. I do my best to comfort and care for her while I fight my way through each day. Somehow, we get through. When the divorce is final, I buy a pretty little house two blocks from Clare’s grade school. I have enough money from the divorce settlement to stay home and recover.
After four years of illness, I find a specialist who diagnoses me with a serious case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I finally know what is wrong with me! We establish a healing regime and I start to feel better.
Yet I wonder, “Where did I go wrong? How did I lose so much – my marriage, my practice, the childhood home Clare loved so much, and most importantly, my health? I had so much going for me. How did I squander all these gifts?”
Figuring Things Out
I have been journaling since the 5th grade, but now I feel a compulsive need to write about everything that has happened in my life. I write early in the morning to late at night. When I can’t sleep, I get up and write some more. I write by hand because I do not have a computer. I write so much that my fingertips bleed. Each morning I wrap band-aids around my fingers and keep on writing.
Starting with my childhood, I write down all my memories. When I write about my past, first I feel the pain from those times. I walk around feeling heavy and full of grief. By the next day, the sadness and pain are gone. All that remains is joy and love. The more I write, the better I feel.
While writing about my childhood, I suddenly remember the boy in my third-grade dream. I think about all the men I have known and wonder, did that boy ever show up? Suddenly I know. Dan Hoge from college is the boy in my dream! We had a very special, close love. My dream really did come true!
It is wonderful being a stay-at-home Mom. Clare quickly gains back the weight she lost and joins a dance team. I love to see her dancing her heart out, confident enough to take center stage. At night we eat our supper on trays as we watch our favorite shows. Our sweet home is filled with her giggling friends. As my health improves, I find that happiness is my best medicine. The extra weight falls off. I buy new clothes and get my hair cut in soft layers to frame my face. When I feel strong, Clare and I paint walls, plant flowers, sew curtains and decorate. Clare names our new home Klarineo after me, Clare and our newly adopted tortoise shell cat, Cleo.
CFS is a chronic illness with no known cure. For many people the symptoms never go away completely. My body rarely feels completely rested or strong. If I push too hard - the anxiety attacks, pain, and heavy fatigue return. I learn to spend my limited energy very carefully. By pacing my activities, there are days when I feel normal until noon. This encourages me. Even with my illness, these years with Clare are among the very happiest times of my life.
NOT SO Great Recession
I reopen my practice in 2008 but can handle only a few clients. To save on overhead, I meet with my clients in my home. The recession hurts my business. My money supply dwindles. When the housing market tanks, the value of our home plummets. My fall back plan to sell the house and live on the profit disappears. CFS is exacerbated by stress. As my fears and problems increase, so do my symptoms.
The child support payments stop when Clare graduates from high school. My mortgage goes unpaid. There are times I don’t have enough money to pay the heating bill or buy groceries. I try unsuccessfully to sell the house. Our home goes into foreclosure. At night I cry into my pillow so Clare cannot hear me. My family sends us as much money as they can, and we just barely squeak by.
Frantically I search for a way out. I can’t afford the cheapest apartment. Clare and I are heartbroken to lose our beloved home. My daughter leaves for college feeling homeless. I am ashamed that I’ve failed to give her the safety and security she needs.
A New Life Begins
Still, a resilient part of me believes good things can happen. My strong faith is still with me. I repeat this prayer, “God, please help me live here or someplace even better. I don’t know what is ahead, but I trust that You Know.” My prayer gives me hope.
Before Clare leaves for Colorado State, she signs me up for Facebook. One evening I type “Dan Hoge” in the search column. His picture pops up instantly along with the location, “Milwaukee.” He is still so handsome! My heart squeezes. Here I sit - sick, broke, and desperate. Do I have the courage to find out what happened to the wonderful man I let go?
I draft a message, “I know you told me to never call you again, but it’s been 30 years and you were important to me. I wonder how you are and how your life turned out.” I write that I divorced in 1999 and have a debilitating illness that keeps me from working and living normally. Taking a deep breath, I hit “send.” Then I turn off the computer and go to bed.
The next morning, I find this message: “If I told you to never call me, I am indeed an idiot! I divorced in 1999 too. I am a recovering alcoholic, sober for 5 years. Maybe I can help you with your CFS and you can help me with my alcoholism?”
Three days later, Dan knocks on my front door with a dazed look in his eyes. He is so glad to see me. When I see him, I feel numb because I am afraid. Will Dan reject me when he learns how sick and broke I am? I tell Dan all my problems at our first meeting. Dan’s reply, “I think this is the reason I am here. You are supposed to come and live with me.”
It takes a while for me to believe that Dan really wants me. When I finally do, I fall deeply in love. I tell Dan, “You fell in love first so that you could catch me when I fell.”
A New Home
One sunny afternoon I drive north from Illinois to visit Dan at his home in Thiensville, twenty minutes north of Milwaukee. I am going to stay with Dan for a week to see what it is like to live together. My two cats, Cleo and Libby, are in carriers. Libby whimpers the entire 2 ½ hour drive to Dan’s house. I talk to her in soothing tones. As I drive through Milwaukee, I see the many church spires and beer signs. I wonder, “Will Dan become my husband? Am I driving to my new home? Is this real or am I in a fairytale?” I feel like I am driving on air.
Dan meets me at the door of his bungalow. His home feels like my home. His mother greets me, excited. She and I haven’t seen other in 30 years. Dan has set up a computer so I can work during my stay. There are fresh flowers in a vase on my desk. Our first night together we see a David Gray concert at the stunning Pabst Theater. Feeling like college kids again, we stand locked together, my head on his shoulder. We are both giddy. Dan calls our happiness “the pink cloud.”
Clare meets Dan and likes him very much. She is happy and relieved that her mother has a place to live. When I move to Wisconsin my sister Joanna asks, “Does Dan have a barn in his backyard?” Puzzled, I tell her no and she replies, “Then where does he keep his white horse?”
Our home, an Arts and Crafts bungalow built in 1924, was the farmhouse for Laurel Farms, a dairy owned by the Seifert family. We are a part of Wisconsin’s cheese history. I love the front porch and curved dormer windows. Beautiful Frank Lloyd style windows let in lots of light and provide an airy feeling. The exquisite built in dining room cabinetry and wood floors are charming and lovely. This home is even better than the one I left behind. I think of the bible saying, “I go to prepare a place for you” and wonder, “Did God prepare this sweet place just for me?”
Dan likes to say we live “the simple life.” We both have small businesses based at home. Dan is a developer and owns a software business. I see therapy clients in our pretty front rooms. In the summer we eat lunch on the front porch. At night we enjoy early suppers and quiet evenings. My favorite part of our relationship is the way we understand and help each other. No matter what, we talk until we feel close.
At first, I am often exhausted and rest for whole days to heal my frazzled nerves. The only way I can get good rest is to watch TV all day. Without the distraction of light television, my mind races and I feel anxious. I’m embarrassed that I watch so much daytime TV. Dan understands but I am afraid he feels mostly pity. I wonder, “Does he really want me?”
Dan reassures me over and over, saying, “Don’t you know that you are full of love and make me so happy?” I am not convinced. One day I ask Dan if he would be better off without me. Dan starts crying, “I never want to be without you again, Karin!” Finally, I believe him. From then on, my health improves.
Creating Beauty Together
Together we decorate our home. Dan has already refinished the woodwork and doors until they gleam. We tear up the old carpet and many layers of grime to reveal beautiful hard maple floors. Dan expertly refinishes the floors himself. I help as much as my health will allow. He remodels the bathroom. I sew, clean, strip old wallpaper and paint walls. Creating new gardens, I plant flowers, trees and shrubs. I name our home “The BungaHoge,” a combination of Dan’s last name and bungalow (Hoge is pronounced with a long “O” and a hard “G.”)
When my practice gets busier, my CFS symptoms of heavy fatigue return. If a person has CFS for over 10 years, experts predict they will never fully recover. I have been ill for 17 years. Determined to beat the odds, I find a new treatment called Mickel therapy. Using this method, I improve dramatically. Though not fully recovered, with careful attention to my activities, I live a more normal life.
When I feel well, Dan and I explore Milwaukee. He takes me to “The King and I Thai” for my favorite cashew chicken dish. We marvel at the details of the Pabst Museum and eat lobster at “The Public Market.” Dan and I rock at Summerfest. At “Colectivo Coffee” Dan enjoys his favorite drink, a muddy mocha freeze.
When Dan asks me to marry him, I say “YES!” We decide to wait until we can afford a nice family party and honeymoon. There is no hurry. We have the rest of our lives to be together. When Dan turns 60 it feels like we are just getting started. Both of us struggle to make enough money, but our businesses are growing, and we feel we’ll be OK.
At the end of the day Dan often declares, “We’ve got it made!”. He likes to say, “Now we are kickin’ ass and takin’ names!” For our five-year anniversary we celebrate at “The Pasta Tree,” voted the most romantic restaurant in Milwaukee.
The summer of 2014 I walk the sandy beach of Lake Michigan, the long skirt of my blue floral sundress swinging. I wear a large straw hat with a red silk flower. A middle-aged woman with an expanding waistline and sagging jaw line, I feel beautiful because Dan loves me. Collecting gorgeous rocks swirled with granite and quartz; I haul them home in cotton bags, my arms building muscle. Arranging the rocks in my garden among my flowers, each a memento of sunshine and gentle lapping waves, I feel strong, blissful and almost completely well.
Everything Shifts - Again
On the evening of November 21st, 2014 Dan can’t sleep. The next day he takes a nap and feels better. That night I pick up Dan’s favorite dish, a lobster and shrimp enchilada from “The Highland House” in Mequon. Sitting comfortably in his lazy boy with his supper on a tray Dan says, “I am going to eat slowly and enjoy every bite.” He savors his meal with a look of contentment. Dan goes to bed early.
At 11:30 PM he wakes me, “I can’t breathe!” I hold my hand on his heart and stroke his cheek, trying to calm him. “Call 911!” he gasps.
The paramedics arrive and put Dan in the ambulance. Dan asks me to meet him at the hospital. I drive, forcing myself to stay calm. Honestly, I believe Dan is having a panic attack and this is likely a false alarm. The receptionist tells me to wait while they get Dan settled. I stare at the lit vending machines in the waiting room, slowly realizing this is much more than anxiety.
As time stretches out, I go numb. I refuse to worry until I know more. I ask the receptionist again if I can see Dan. She repeats that they will come for me. It seems I wait for hours.
When a nurse finally calls and takes me to a private room, I know something is seriously wrong. My deadly calm deepens even further.
The doctor arrives. She shuts the door and asks how I know Dan.
“I am his fiancée.” I wait frozen, willing her to speak.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” she tells me. “We did everything we could, but Dan died. We think he had a heart attack.”
The news is too big. I feel as if I am floating somewhere outside of my body and yet somehow still looking through my eyes. All I want is to be with Dan.
“Can you take me to him?” I ask.
“Of course, right away.” The doctor looks relieved.
I see Dan’s dear body lying in a hospital bed. With his perfect ears that I love to nuzzle, his strong chin and handsome profile, he looks peaceful and like he is sleeping. I notice his sweet lips and think about his wonderful Dan smell.
I call Dan’s son, Brandon. He comes to the hospital. Devastated, we cry and hold each other. Then I pick up Dan’s mother. Telling Gloria her son has died is probably the hardest thing I have ever done. We sit with Dan and try to absorb the reality of his death. At 5:00 am we file out of the hospital room, still in shock. I leave last and turn back to look at my sweetheart. I blow him a kiss and say, “I love you! See you later.”
I walk into the BungaHoge alone.
For a while I sit, stony faced, staring at the wall, unthinking. I wait for I don’t know what.
Then I call my sister, Janet. She is horrified. My family and best friend, Gail, all live in Illinois. It will take time for them to get to me, but I have no memory of what I did before they arrived.
Gail shows up first. My 4 sisters, Janet, Kelly, Katy and Joanna soon join us. They bustle around cooking, cleaning, washing sheets, making beds, and getting groceries at the Pig. They sit with me while I cry and talk about my love story with Dan.
Dan’s family and friends arrive. We eat pumpkin soup, chicken stew and homemade biscuits. Sitting together in Dan’s beautiful house, we feel his spirit. We cry and talk about his rare kindness and integrity. Then everyone leaves except Gail and my sisters. I talk and cry some more, then take a sleeping pill and sleep a few hours. My sisters and Gail spend the night with me. It is a comfort to feel them in the house.
When I awaken my face is swollen from crying. There is a large bulge under my left eye. My face looks strange when I look in the mirror, but I know who I am.
The next evening Clare flies in from Miami where she is studying to be a physician’s assistant. She lets herself in while I am asleep. When I get up, she is in her childhood bed, strong legs stretched out. I gaze at her precious sleeping face and feel so much comfort.
At Dan’s memorial, I am surprised by my strength as I tell everyone about my hero. When I can’t sleep, I walk Thiensville’s cold winter streets alone. I feel Dan whispering in my ear that he loves me. Dan’s spirit feels joyful. While in our home, Dan’s love hugs me. At times I feel Dan pouring so much love into my heart that I think I might burst. I cannot find it in me to wish Dan alive because I can feel the sublime happiness of Dan’s Spirit. Strangely, I am happy for him. I know he exists in Joy. This knowledge comforts me.
Yet Another New Life?
I hibernate for the winter. Kind neighbors shovel the walks. Friends and family send me money and give me time to grieve. Dan’s former girlfriends call and send me flowers. Dan touched so many lives. I do my best to let everyone know how much Dan cared for them and that he died happy.
Some nights I lie in bed and wail. It took me most of a lifetime to settle down with the love of my life. How can he be gone so soon? Not only have I lost my darling, but I am also losing another beloved home. Dan’s house belongs to his children. They are very good to me, but I cannot afford the mortgage. Where will I go? Will the stress cause a relapse and take away my ability to work? How will I survive? I cry until I can cry no more. For weeks I sleep only a few hours at a time. I eat sparingly. For months I walk around in shock. When the shock wears off, my sleep and eating normalize. I grieve even more.
In early spring I go back to Lake Michigan feeling broken. I search for the fierce autumn beach woman I was before the winter snow, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of that “me” again. Fifty-nine years old, I look at the turquoise water and pick up a few colorful rocks. My weakened muscles can carry only a few. I ache for all I’ve lost.
At first, I expect to move back to Illinois. Clare says, “Mom, I don’t think you should move. This house and town are so you. I think you need to stay here.”
Surprised, I realize she is right. Still, can I make it without Dan? Back when I was really sick and could barely function, it was hard to believe in me. Then Dan’s love helped me heal and gave me back my confidence. Though some things are the way they used to be before Dan, one thing is very different. Dan’s love is still here, encouraging me. No one can take away our years together. I may be facing another setback, but I am stronger now because of Dan.
I used to say that every time I looked at Dan’s face, I saw how much God Loves me. Dan treasured me despite my aging, ill body. He loved me for my heart. Though he died young, I know I am lucky we had five years together. Dan believed in me and gave me the chance to recover. I pray to honor him by accepting his death with grace and finding a way to thrive.
Life has taught me that hard work, courage and faith are the seeds that grow into miracles. It will take time to recover from Dan’s death and build a new life for myself. I sit in the BungaHoge and wonder, “How will I make it this time? Does God have another miracle in store for me?”