Why do I stay?
by Carol Lepage

Jean-françois was handsome, younger and full of charm. He also lied, stole and ran carelessly away again and again. As his wife, Carol Lepage, tells us, she was on the very edge of leaving--until she discovered what his problem was.

I was spending a solitary day at Wreck Beach--a secluded clothing-optional beach in Vancouver--when I first saw Jean-françois. Youthful, tanned and slim, he was hard to miss; I could not help contemplating what might have been if I were 20 years younger. When he stopped and asked about the book I was reading, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it unusual that he had read even one Danielle Steel novel, never mind all of them, as I later discovered. He said his reading material had come from a prison library and that he had been released a month earlier.

He was 25 and I was 45 that August day in 1995, but the age difference seemed irrelevant. Without reservation, he talked about life in prison and hitchhiking from Montreal to Vancouver, of finding his way to Wreck, pitching his tent and selling beer to buy the few things for which he could not barter. He was a charming character. Boyfriend material he was not, but when he asked for my phone number, I obliged.

Later that night, he called. "Do you believe in love at first sight?" he asked. I laughed when he said, "I do and I think I have fallen in love with you."

I spent the next three days out of town, positive I would never hear from him again. I arrived home to several messages from J.f. We spent the next day together at the beach and when he kissed me good night, I felt something stir inside that I had not felt in a long time.

J.f. came home with me a few nights later and, as I lay nestled in his arms, I asked him what prison was like. "I hated it. I made some mistakes when I was younger and I've paid the price," he replied. "All I want now is to forget it, move on, have a normal life, get a job, buy a car. I'd rather die than go back there." His passion persuaded me that his criminal days were in the past, that he had learned his lesson.

Our backgrounds couldn't have been more different. I'd grown up in Moncton, N.B., and Winnipeg. When I was 21, I'd married a man I'd met at a high school graduation party. My husband was an aspiring politician, and I wanted a career in social work, having earned my certificate prior to our marriage. We fought all the time about having children--I never wanted them. The marriage ended after eight years. In 1993, I earned another degree in human resource management. I currently hold two positions, full time in the office of a B.C. deputy minister and part time teaching computer graphics.

Jean-françois was born in Montreal and speaks English and French fluently. He was raised by wonderful adoptive parents who searched desperately for the reasons behind his frequently intolerable behaviour. As a teenager, J.f. spent a great deal of time in group homes, from which he always ran away. His police file is lengthy and includes armed robbery, car theft, break and enter, impaired driving and aggravated assault. During more than six years in federal maximum-security prisons, he earned his high school equivalency diploma and certificates in auto body repair and mechanics.

Three weeks after we met, J.f. moved into the suburban town house I consider my sanctuary. I told myself that it was just an experiment--one I could call off whenever I wanted to. Besides, I thought if I was going to have a midlife crisis, I might as well do it with someone as delightful as J.f. I was growing to love his enthusiasm and childlike playfulness, the way he'd be waiting for me at the bus stop with an umbrella when it rained and hug me near to him all night. I could do and say silly things--such as running through the sprinkler on a hot day in the park--and he would never tell me to act my age. Within weeks, though, I was anxiously questioning my sanity.

J.f. had found a job at a small car-repair shop shortly after moving in and for the first month looked after his own expenses, even contributing to mine. But the contributions soon dwindled to nothing and he began asking me for money. He would borrow my Visa and bank cards and forget to advise me of purchases and withdrawals. He would leave for a litre of milk and not return for hours or even days. The emotional roller-coaster I rode while he was gone took me from wishing he would never reappear to praying for his safe return. "Too much is happening too fast," he would offer in explanation. Or, "Being locked in a cell didn't prepare me for a life outside. I had to get away but I can't explain why." Always disturbed by his actions, he would beg my forgiveness and promise to change, and I would forgive him once again.

In mid-October, I received a $600 phone bill--mostly calls to phone sex and chat lines. My anger and frustration peaked. I was forced to admit J.f. had not put his criminal ways behind him; he was a skilful and manipulative liar and thief. I realized I had wanted him and us to succeed and had lost all perspective. The moment he walked in that night, I screamed at him: "How do you expect me to pay this? Do you have no brains whatsoever?" When he calmly replied, "It happened weeks ago. What are you so angry about?" I started throwing punches. Hours later, exhausted from trying to make him hear me, I went to bed wondering what I had gotten into and why I was not strong enough to get out.

A few evenings later, I arrived home to find J.f. gone, along with my camping equipment, car and all his belongings. He called later, crying and begging forgiveness while admitting to emptying my bank account. Just as suddenly he was back, unable to explain his actions and sick at what he had done. He collapsed on my bed, promising never to let it happen again.

Somehow, his remorse seemed genuine and despite everything he'd done, the spark of excitement and love that J.f had ignited in me was still aglow. The next few weeks passed peacefully, J.f. trying desperately to make up for his transgressions. Then it happened again--he disappeared with my car. This time, I resolved to end the madness and reported him to the RCMP. A few days later, he called from Montreal to explain. He had driven 3,000 kilometres to resolve a parole issue that could have been done three kilometres from home. I was stunned. J.f. was intelligent, yet he seemed unable to solve the simplest of problems. He was impulsive and lacked certain social skills, but was he "bad"?

A few days later, J.f. was stopped by the RCMP in Ontario for car theft, parole violation and possession of stolen licence plates. He eventually ended up in Millhaven Institution, where he would spend the next 10 months. Tired of his erratic and upsetting behaviour, I took comfort in the knowledge that my possessions, at least, were now safe.

In December, I left Vancouver for a long-planned two months in Australia. At that point, my anger at J.f. overwhelmed any other feelings I'd had for him. I had trusted him and he had betrayed me. Watching the fireworks in Sydney harbour on New Year's Eve, I realized I could not remember what he sounded, looked or felt like lying next to me.

The stack of letters awaiting me upon my return from Australia was overwhelming. J.f. had written daily--sometimes more often--from prison, positive that our love could be rekindled, that he could make up for all that he had done. It was hard to remain emotionally withdrawn while reading his words: "...amidst the cold steel and concrete your love warms my heart and reaches deep inside my soul and makes me feel alive."

J.f. kept writing and he called every chance he got, talking about our future together. He spoke of driving back a truck he said he owned--but he had no driver's licence and no money. He rambled on about finding a great job, trips we would take and things we would do. All of it was fantasy, but he seemed to believe everything he was saying. He often referred to psychologists, prison guards and police officers who seemed certain he was destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars. He talked of his struggle to understand why he continually messed up. As J.f. searched his inner soul for answers, I searched mine, reluctantly finding the willingness to try again.

The closer J.f.'s release date got, the more anxious I became. Was I crazy to consider seeing him again? I questioned my motives in taking up with him in the first place. Was he the child I never got to nurture or a worthy but troubled man whose rehabilitation hinged on my guidance and unconditional love? Part of me was saying I deserved better, but no other relationship had given me the genuine adoration I knew J.f. felt for me--despite all the aggravation. I was also asking myself if this stint in prison had truly changed him. His letters suggested a new found understanding of himself. I was not yet ready to give up on the man I loved.

May 24, 1996, awash in doubt, determined to keep a tight rein on my emotions, I drove to the airport. If I had resolved to hold back my feelings, all was lost when I felt the warmth of J.f.'s breath on my hair, the beating of his heart and the strength of his arms around me.

We met with J.f.'s parole officer, who declared him a bad apple who appeared to suffer no remorse. Friends told me I was crazy, that our relationship was abusive and codependent. But I sensed a calmness and maturity in J.f. that had not been there before. My family knew very little of his past and J.f. and I decided to keep it that way.

In early June, a friend offered J.f. a job and he felt as if he had finally become a part of society. He planted a garden and each day would tenderly weed and water it, just as he fed every animal that appeared on our patio--squirrel, raccoon, cat or dog. His love for life was intense and he thanked me every day for helping him see it.

The following weeks passed peacefully and J.f.'s tenderness and devotion made me start to think we might have a future. He kept talking about getting married, certain our union would magically bring him harmony and contentment. For me, it would be a huge leap of faith. Finally, I relented and the date was set--Sept. 2. When his parents arrived 10 days before, I felt their immediate love and acceptance and convinced myself we were doing the right thing.

The day arrived. J.f was handsome in white shirt and dress pants. I wore a simple, long white dress. Barefoot on the grass in my sister's backyard, with the sun on our faces, surrounded by family and friends, we said our vows. As the minister wished us "fulfillment of hopes and peace and contentment of mind," I prayed that somehow it would come true.

Within a month, J.f. was behaving as deceitfully as ever. Desperately seeking an answer, I invited a coworker for lunch. Jay had met J.f. and seemed to understand and like him. Without hesitation, Jay told me he was sure J.f. had fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)--a neurological birth defect caused by his birth mother's use of alcohol while she was pregnant. Jay and his wife had adopted a son with FAS and they had recognized the symptoms in J.f.--the behavioural problems, poor concept of time, attention deficit disorder and impulsive behaviour.

My relief was immediate--and so was J.f.'s. Suddenly the lying, stealing and craziness had a context. He was not an evil person vindictively destroying our lives; he was brain-damaged. This we could deal with together.

With new purpose I made phone calls and scoured the Internet and library looking for information on fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects (FAE). The FAS/FAE Support Network offered encouragement and hope. The knowledge that we were not alone and that J.f.'s actions were not intentional gave us the strength we needed to get through each week.

In January 1997, we agreed to participate in a documentary being made by Eve Savory of CBC TV's The National Magazine. Dr. Christine Lock formally diagnosed J.f. during filming. The documentary revealed how FAS affects every aspect of life, including work, school and social functioning and how individuals afflicted by the syndrome often end up in the justice system because they "just don't get it." It touched on issues such as the greatly increased risk of alcohol and drug involvement, depression and suicide.

Diagnosis wasn't an immediate solution. It was just the first step along the unpredictable rocky road of rehabilitation for a man who suffers from an almost invisible, lifelong mental disability. J.f. continued to steal from me and his employers, lie, drink too much, stay out all night and run away. He would get a job and lose it almost before he got his first paycheque.

With the help of our support group, we developed a new approach. I stopped blaming J.f. personally and J.f. worked hard at doing the same. As he wrote at the time: "There is an awful lot of pain inside my soul and the fight going on within me is almost out of control." I exchanged my anger for understanding. I put in supports that had not been there before, such as having all banking correspondence sent to me at work, thus presenting J.f. with fewer chances to "mess up." With no memory retention, J.f. relies on detailed written instructions for even daily tasks. His spontaneous comings and goings can be reported on his cell phone. If J.f. says he will be home "soon," we settle on an exact time.

We started to speak of abilities rather than disabilities. We changed our focus from negative to positive and uncovered a trusting, caring, artistic, friendly and affectionate human being in J.f. When he proclaimed at a support meeting that FAS stands for "forgets a lot of stuff," we all roared. We took two steps forward and one back, and slowly things got better.

My biggest struggle continues to be controlling my reactions so as not to make a bad situation worse. I still get angry, frightened and frustrated and I must resist the urge to yell and ask for explanations that he cannot provide. I now realize how futile it is to try to "talk things through," given his inability to stay focused, problem-solve or make decisions. Most important, I have taken the pressure off myself to have a marriage just like everyone else's.

J.f. now takes Prozac for his mood swings, somewhat controlling the depression and anger that get him into trouble. The stress of working seemed the primary catalyst that triggered his running away, so we have abandoned the idea of permanent full-time employment. He loves staying at home and I enjoy returning each evening to a clean house and a meal of his wonderful Chinese rice or stir-fried vegetables.

J.f. still behaves badly but it happens much less often and with less severity. It's typically set off by something that happens without my knowledge--such as the time a credit-card company offered J.f. a card, prompting him to run away for more than a week.

The most difficult times remain those when he disappears for days without warning. I once thought it was me J.f. was running from but now realize he is only trying to escape from himself. With J.f. gone, my life is one of peaceful respite as long as I can control my urge to worry. I miss his thoughtfulness, kindness and his passion for the simple things--such as the joy he takes in playing for hours with our two cats. I miss the kind of devotion I've never felt with another man. I don't miss wondering if he has pawned anything recently, his mood swings or the terror I feel each time he storms out after a misunderstanding. I think of reasons I want him back and reasons I want him to stay away. I miss the love and acceptance of my parents, who have never come to terms with my feelings for J.f. My sanity during these times depends on one thing: I have given myself permission to feel all this without guilt or remorse.

Each day I bicycle through the hopelessness and despair of drug addiction, prostitution and mental illness that is the Downtown East Side of Vancouver and shudder at where J.f. might yet end up. Research from the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that 60 percent of people with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects have been charged with or convicted of a crime and 50 percent have been confined for treatment or incarcerated for a crime. J.f. and I now speak publicly on this topic. At a recent FAS convention, I heard J.f. speak of six years in prison, of being misunderstood and misdiagnosed, of being thrown in "the hole" for reasons he could not comprehend, and I wept.

When times are good, J.f. and I often wander through the forest just outside our back door, hand in hand, amazed by how much we love each other after all we've been through. When times are bad, I wander there alone, looking for strength, looking for answers, looking for that sense of peace that is there when J.f. is behaving and so elusive when he is not. As I write this, I can think only of how hard this wonderful man has to work to achieve so little and how he keeps going when you or I would give up.

Life is very different now, for both of us. The joy I feel starts deep inside of me and spreads to every aspect of my life. Every time I hear J.f. laugh, see him accomplish something he never thought possible, hear him say "I love you," I know it has all been worth it. J.f. says he has come to terms, finally, with what he can and cannot do. Each successful encounter and good decision paves the way for more and his self-esteem grows proportionally.

J.f.'s letters from prison were frequently punctuated by poetry. They bring tears to my eyes still. What lies behind us and what lies before us is nothing compared to the love that lies between us.

© 1999 Carol Lepage
First published in Chatelaine's August 1999 issue.

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