Jesse, Let’s Open the Wine and Drink to the Heart Which Has a Will of Its Own

USS Zeilin

Jesse was unwell. They said he came home from the war with shell shock. He may have been unwell before the war and his experiences in the war brought the instability to the fore. He may have just had the genetic predisposition toward mental illness and the war set it off. Maybe he was perfectly fine until the ship he was on was struck by a kamikaze plane and severely damaged. After watching “Jaws,” Joyce told everyone Jesse had been on the ship Quint talks about, the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was struck by a Japanese submarine. She rolled over and sank, taking 300 crewmen with her and setting the remaining almost 900 adrift with few lifeboats or life jackets. Rescue didn’t come for nearly 4 days and only 316 men were pulled from the water alive. It is a harrowing story, but it was not Jesse’s.

Jesse served on the USS Zeilin. The Zeilin didn’t escape attacks or loss of life, but she always made it back to port on her own. I’m not suggesting AT ALL that Zeilin and her crew didn’t suffer the horrors of war, of being attacked on the open sea far from help, of crewmen dying. It’s just that Zeilin and her crew suffered their own terrors and heartbreak; they don’t need to have their story usurped by a different horror. 

It’s almost a certainty that Jesse suffered from PTSD. With the history of mental illness in our family, it’s more than likely he suffered from other things, too. PTSD manifests as depression, insomnia, sudden rages, avoidance. Jesse had all of these and more. He became convinced food was making him sick and decided he could only trust Nita to cook for him. Only Nita could cook every single thing he ate. If he found a hair or speck of foreign substance in his food, the whole meal had to be scrapped and remade. Joyce never learned to cook because Nita couldn’t risk it. It felt like she spent all of her time cooking.

Cooking or cleaning. Jesse also couldn’t abide a dirty house.  It had to be ‘shipshape’ at all times, prepared for whatever might come to pass. The problem was–again–even the slightest speck of dirt, ant on the wall, crumb on the counter, counted as an unacceptable mess. In his rages against the dirt, Jesse would pull down curtains, toss cushions off the furniture, empty cabinets and canisters and laundry baskets.

The rages were more often than not followed by bouts of black depression, but the depression didn’t have to wait for an excuse to come calling. It could be triggered by weeks of insomnia, or Jesse’s nerves getting jangled, or just drop in for a visit for no reason at all. During the worst of these episodes of depression, Jesse would decide it was too hard to go on and he’d get his service pistol and sit in his recliner with the pistol in his lap, weeping and waiting for the right time to end it all. Terrified and hopeless herself, Nita would call the police and try to keep Joyce from seeing anything. Jesse would spend some time in the hospital and then come back home.

PTSD wasn’t a diagnosis until 1980. In World War I it was called shell shock, and that’s what my backwoods family still called it in the 50s when Jesse came home with ‘combat fatigue.’ Whatever it was called, it wasn’t considered to be damage from the horrors of war. Instead, it was considered to be an indication of a flawed character, a sign of cowardice, or worse. Mental illness was also a character flaw, a sign of weakness. AND if the combat fatigue lasted more than 6 months after the soldier’s return, well it obviously wasn’t combat fatigue, because that was more than enough time to get over it. In short, there was little help for Jesse. 

Treatments for mental illness in the 50s were little more than guesswork and frighteningly inhumane: electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy aimed at ‘improving character,’ insulin shock therapy, lobotomy. Combine the fear of treatment with the fear of the black mark of low character for suffering mental illness in the first place, and you can imagine Jesse got little help. Nita tried to help him. She cooked and cooked and cleaned and cleaned. She took him to church without fail. She tried to be the perfect wife and make Joyce the perfect daughter. 

But nowadays we in America are exceedingly aware of how well thoughts and prayers work as a cure. Jesse’s episodes continued.

Once, before Nita realized a service pistol episode was occuring, Joyce walked in on Jesse sitting in his recliner, pistol in his lap, weeping. Just a toddler and unaware of any danger, Joyce climbed up on her father’s lap and asked him why he was sad. He hugged his daughter, his special baby, and they rocked for a while. Jesse couldn’t kill himself in front of his beloved little girl. Eventually he set her back on her feet and handed her the pistol, telling her to take it to her mama. 

And so it became standard operating procedure: when Jesse threatened to kill himself,  Joyce was sent in to retrieve the gun. This continued well after Joyce was old enough to understand the danger she was in. Are you angry at Nita? Try not to be. Instead, pity her: a child raised by a child in a no-win situation. Ruby Mae was only 14 when she married a man who immediately got her pregnant and began beating her for ‘being stupid.’ She wasn’t stupid; she was simply a child. Nita watched Ruby Mae take the abuse until her kids were teenagers because she saw no way to raise them on her own, as a female, divorced, high school dropout. Nita herself was a high school dropout, married too young, in a society that looked down on mental illness and divorce. How would she support Joyce if she left? Stress and fear cause strange reactions in people. Live under stress and in terror long enough, your brain actually changes. Things  you wouldn’t think of doing in ‘normal’ circumstances become not just acceptable, but mundane. Nita was trying to keep the man she loved alive and believed wholeheartedly that Jesse would never ever harm Joyce. She acted without malice; she was doing the best she could.

How did Joyce feel about it? When she talked as an adult about being sent in to retrieve a gun and prevent her father’s suicide, she would laugh, unfazed. It had always been a commonplace event to her. But that’s because her brain was already changed. The trauma of watching her father threaten to kill himself, the very real betrayal of being sent into danger by her mother, the seeming lack of concern from the world around. . . . Joyce’s genetic predisposition to mental illness was triggered before she learned to talk. We should pity her too, and pity all children who live in terrifying circumstances that become mundane, who are raised by parents who are unable or unwilling to keep them safe. 

Jesse’s episodes didn’t always involve suicidal depression. Sometimes he suffered from attacks of paranoia and would decide he and his family needed to escape. For whatever reason, he’d decided Mexico was safe. So he would sell the family’s belongings, pack up the family and the family car, and head for the border. Depending on the nature of Jesse’s episode, the trips to Mexico could take one long hard day’s drive, or 2-3 leisurely days of driving and stopping at tourist traps. Once the family had been in Mexico a few days, Jesse’s episode would pass. He’d realize he didn’t speak Spanish and liked his house in Pensacola better than any house he could find in Nuevo Laredo, and the family would travel back home.

Once Nita learned how to hide valuable and sentimental belongings, she was unconcerned about the Mexico escapes. She thought, as episodes go, the trips to Mexico were pretty risk free. She decided to just try to make the most of the trips when they happened.  When Joyce was little, she’d get very excited when Jesse would announce they were moving to Mexico; she thought ‘moving to Mexico’ meant a short vacation. As she grew older, Joyce began to resent the trips because even though they always came home, her life was  thrown into chaos for a week or two at a time with no warning. It was time she lost with her friends, and she had to make up for missed school work. The road trips were long and boring and there really wasn’t much for a young American girl who didn’t speak Spanish to do or see in Nuevo Laredo.

Life with Jesse wasn’t all suicidal depressions, paranoid road trips, or outraged purging of food and ‘mess.’ When Jesse was well, he was still the man Nita married: charming and funny, a man who could tell stories, who loved to dance and waterski and play cards with friends. Nita’s family spent a lot of time with Nora’s family. The couples went square dancing, they visited each others’ houses, they went to the beach and skied together. Larry, Joyce, and Cheryl played together. It wasn’t the life Nita had imagined when she married Jesse, but it never really had been. And when Jesse was well, life was pretty good. She didn’t tell Nora about Jesse’s episodes; she was ashamed and she felt like a failure. Nora and Richie seemed to have a perfect life: a living son and daughter, a new house, money to spend, a solid and loving relationship. Jesse’s instability was the first secret Nita ever kept from Nora.

Jesse and Joyce

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