Our Story – Where it Starts

How do you start a story when you don’t know how it ends? When the beginning keeps shifting backwards and every detail holds significance?


I want you to know what happened without burdening you with every moment. Yet I want to write enough for you to appreciate it’s weight.


This is our defining story.  


~ ~ ~


I moved to Rochester in July, just eight days after becoming a Mrs. A year earlier, Chris settled into a studio apartment down the road from the university, ready to begin his graduate studies. During our engagement, divine stars aligned, opening an opportunity to live in graduate housing (where the rent would be one fourth our current mortgage) and two scholarships which would cover, in it’s entirety, the cost of my final years of college.  


In the same month, five years after our wedding, we signed a very expensive dotted line for an apartment (where the rent would exceed our current monthly mortgage) outside of Old Town Alexandria.  


We moved out of New York the next month. I took a job in a trauma unit in the District of Columbia and Chris finished writing his thesis for his defense in October. After his defense and official Ph.D. recognition (a prerequisite for his job) he would start a two year post-doctoral position.  


I guess this is where it all started.


The headaches. Confusion. Frustrations. “I’ve studied this stuff for so long, but I can’t keep it straight. I don’t know any of it.”


It didn’t seem out of place, since he was reviewing the last six years of his academic career. His (our) outcome was based on a few hundred page written thesis, a half hour long oral presentation, and a behind-closed-doors defense of his research.


As he prepared, I commuted past the U.S. Capitol, getting an education on why women walk through the city in high heels at 6am on a Saturday morning and learning you can’t judge the severity of any injury until you wipe away the blood.


“Of course you have headaches,” I’d tell him. “You’ve never had this much stress. I’d feel like I didn’t know anything either if all I did was read and write for endless hours for months on end.”


At one point, I looked in his eyes and noticed his pupils were uneven. I knew this was an abnormal neurological sign in the clinical setting, but after it went away, I dismissed it as a fluke thing.


He became distant. Preoccupied. Off just enough to be concerning. But not off enough for red flags to wave. A thesis defense is huge. It was okay for him to be nervous, in his own way. Right?


This was the plan: I would work my three shifts for the week — Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Chris would travel to NY via metro, train, and plane on Tuesday. I’d drive up by myself on Wednesday. The defense was Thursday and we’d spend some time in Rochester, visiting friends and favorite places and we’d drive back to our new home over the weekend. Chris would start his job. I’d go back to mine. Two years later we’d pack up and move wherever God wanted us next.


Maybe this is where it really started?


On Wednesday morning, with Chris already in New York, I cleaned up the apartment and went through some bills. I reluctantly wrote out the stupid $1000 check for Chris’ COBRA health insurance, the one I’d been dragging my feet (checkbook) on for a few weeks. I was so annoyed we had to pay to cover him for these three months between his grad school ending and his new job starting. We thought about not paying at all (and hoping for the best), but we’re rule followers. I slapped a frustrated stamp on the envelope and slipped it in the mail on my way down to the garage before my solo drive north.


I met up with Chris, and with his colleagues’ whispers, later that day in his lab. Too much stress. Too many last minute changes from his advisor. Too stoic. Too distant.


He’s introverted and conscientious by nature, so none of this behavior was wildly out of character. That being said, it was unusual enough for everyone to notice.  


“You know they don’t even let you even defend your thesis if you’re not ready.” This was something he told me months ago. It’s supposed to be hard, but if you get to defend at all, they know your research is sound. You’ve already done the work. “You don’t need to be this worried.”


No amount of reasoning brought him back.  


So… I got mad. I picked a fight. I tried to cry. (In five years of marriage, I had not cried once during a fight.) He didn’t seem to care. He didn’t fight back. He had no reaction at all.


“You need to snap out of this! Your defense is TODAY! TODAY!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”


Flatly, he answered, “I don’t know.”


I dropped him off with a kiss and met up with his parents a bit later for his presentation. I sat next to his mom in a row of blue cushioned stackable chairs in the back left corner of the room. Chris stood up front in a black suit and a tie. He started and I held my breath.


Imagine the person you love most falls into a rushing river with a powerful current. He is unusually strong, skilled, and practiced in these waters, but you watch from the side with a pit in your stomach because you know something is not right. He gains his footing quickly and looks like he will walk right out. Then he trips and falls. The icy current carries him away, and he gulps for air while you panic on the shore, completely helpless. This isn’t your thing. You don’t know these waters. You are powerless to do anything but watch. But someone else, one who knows this raging river, throws him a rope. He grabs it  and you smile because you knew he could do it. Then you see his eyes. You watch as he forgets. He is holding the rope but he forgets what it’s for. He looks around, unsure of what to do. And you watch him let go.  


They throw floats and stand at the edge reminding him of all the training they know he knows. But he’s drowning. Realizing he can’t save himself, they make a chain from the shore and grab him from the water.


Despite whatever was going on with him, his advisors already knew his research and knew how well he knew it, too. Hours later, Chris tells us he passed.


A family friend told us in Switzerland, where he grew up, a wife would get the title Frau-Doktor when her husband became a doctor, because she worked hard for it too. I wanted to celebrate our accomplishment. We both did. And it might have been nice, had everything been fine.


“He needs time to unwind.”

“He’ll be okay in a few days.”


I lived with him, loved him, and knew this man well. Something was wrong. But I couldn’t believe it to be true. Under the pressure, could he really have…cracked?


That night, I was waiting at the car, ready to head out for our after-celebration celebration. Chilled by the October evening, I watched in disbelief as my husband walked to the car in his black socks. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”


We both knew something was wrong. We just didn’t know what it was. Maybe a massage will help? Instead of unwinding, the red flags started flying.   


Like when I found him standing in front of the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand, staring at himself. He wasn’t sure how long he was there or what he was supposed to be doing. Or when we woke out of sleep to him getting sick. We were staying with a friend, so I rushed to her basement to clean the comforter while Chris got in the shower. I returned upstairs nearly half an hour later, to find the shower still running. Opening the curtain, he was standing in the water with his arms crossed up against chest. With his clothes on.  


Back in bed, we made a decision. We’d drive to his parent’s house the day. Maybe he’ll feel more normal there?


It’s a one hour ten minute drive from our old apartment to his parent’s house. We tested our time at least once a month for five years. You forgot something? Too bad. You need to pee? Hold it. Usually, I’d fall asleep the minute we hit the interstate. Some sort of power-nap travel narcolepsy when he hit the gas. It was a well-practiced routine.


He’s always been the driver when we go anywhere together, and I hoped he’d feel in control and “normal” driving home. But he drove through a stop sign and almost through a red light. On the highway, he swerved into the next lane.


At the first service area, he pulled over to use the restroom. While he was in the building, I got out my maroon flip-phone and dialed his parent’s number with shaking fingers.


We finished the call quickly. They would have about forty minutes to prepare for our arrival. We had initiated a plan which would forever change the rest of our lives.


He walked back to my side of the car. “What are you doing?” I asked.


“You should drive the rest of the way.”


We switched seats and I wiped the tears from my eyes while adjusting the mirrors. Looking at him with a breaking heart, “You need to put your seatbelt on.”


Compliant, he closed his eyes as I drove east in panicked silence.





~ ~ ~

A thousand thankyous. For reading. For sharing. For joining me in this journey.

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Sonya Spillmann


  1. Dear Sonya,
    Thank you for sharing your story, Chris thank you for allowing her to share your journey. I always “tune in” because I feel like, when I read your blog Sonya, I am sitting right across from you and you are talking to me, in person! Write on.

  2. So riveting-seriously! Can’t wait for the next part. I’m so glad you are listening to your heart and sharing your story. I remember when this was happening in real time, before we were more than acquaintances, getting these updates from Heidi. And then having you tell me this story in the summer of 2004. It will be neat to hear it again from this forum. Love you both/love you all.

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