Guts and glory: The story of a couple’s love

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Ain’t nothing like a good power ballad to weaken your knees and get set some sparks flying just in time for Valentine’s Day. But if you really “wanna know what love is” — like the lead singer in Foreigner’s 1984 pop hit does — you might have to look beyond a titillating track. Instead, I’d recommend asking Alex Belth and Emily Shapiro; I know they can show you.

In fact, they will tell you; in their own words, through a series of interviews compiled in their Audible Original story, “Here I Are: Anatomy of a Marriage.

“Ostensibly a book about a couple living with chronic illness, ‘Here I Are’ is really a story about navigating the highs and lows of a conscious, committed relationship with an emphasis on dealing with the uninvited third party of chronic illness,” Belth and Shapiro explained in a teaser for the Audible show.

The husband and wife team left New York City at the beginning of the pandemic and relocated to the Champlain Valley where both their parents retired. They recorded the sessions remotely from their Bristol home throughout 2021 and the final audio story (which runs just over two and a half hours) releases today, Feb. 10, on Audible.

Belth works as an editor at Esquire magazine, and serves as the Hearst magazine archivist — he’s also the primary caregiver for Shapiro, who developed Crohn’s (an incurable autoimmune disease) in her early 20s.

Emily Shapiro ‘n’ Alex Belth

In 2018, Belth wrote an article for Men’s Health magazine detailing his perspective as a caregiver.

“Five years and nine surgeries later, the illness consumed her life,” he wrote in the article. “I thought I knew what I was getting into when we started dating. Em told me about the Crohn’s, but it wasn’t until the first time we made love that the reality set in. We were lying in bed in my apartment; Em stilled my hand as I started to unbutton her jeans, and prepared me for what was next.”

“Publishing that article was very much letting the cat out of the bag,” Shapiro reflected during an interview last week.

“It was huge, it was really brave of her,” Belth applauded. “Audible approached me and asked if we would want to do something similar in the audio format. They were very open. They were like, ‘What do you want this to be.’ It’s like the wild, wild west of what could be done, and that was very exciting.”

The duo decided to go for it.

“Emily’s voice is really good,” Belth said. “She’s poised and emotionally expressive; matter of fact and clear.”

So they made a 30-minute demo for Audible.

“We didn’t hold back in that demo,” Shapiro added. “That was important to me… You gotta put the juice in there.

“It’s kind of like a coming out for me,” she continued. “Having hid my chronic illness for more than 25 years, now I want to be of service for others who might be experiencing something like this — there is someone else walking the planet like you. Those were my motivators to ‘let it all hang out’ in no uncertain terms.”

In addition to living with the effects of Crohn’s, Shapiro has also experienced “convergence insufficiency,” a spatial management issue, chronic migraines and anxiety.

“Another major coming out was about my anxiety,” she explained. “Dear friends of mine knew nothing about the history of my anxiety. They knew about the Crohn’s and migraines, but nothing about the anxiety.”

“Sometimes I can’t do anything; I can’t fix her,” Belth explained. “I used to experience my helplessness as uselessness… But sometimes Emily just wants me to listen; to be present.”

“When I start to melt down and go dark, Alex will ask me how can I be supportive,” Shapiro described. “Sometimes I need to be alone, to stew and do my whole meltdown thing. He doesn’t have to be a receptacle for my fury.”

“The discomfort of having a partner who’s that upset is a challenge,” Belth leveled. “Sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait for the time to pass. I gotta be OK, so what am I going to do to take care of myself? To come to that place of surrender — there’s nothing to do except dig and sit — that’s a place of power.”

“Dig and sit,” she said. “You dig and you sit… And then go eat a box of Twinkies.”

But not really, mealtimes for Shapiro are carefully crafted to ease her digestion.

With all this out in the open now, Shapiro said she feels “more centered, grounded, appreciative, and humbled beyond belief” to offer her experience to others.

Prior to moving to Vermont, Shapiro worked as a unit secretary at the nursing station in the ER of a Connecticut hospital for 21 years. Now in Bristol, she established her own coaching and energy healing business with a focus on providing relief from anxiety through reiki, breathwork and crystal healing.

“We are so different,” said Belth, who counts himself as a “sports guy.” “We are both nerds for the things we are enthusiastic about… We’re a classic example of opposites attract.”

Belth and Shapiro attended the same middle and high schools an hour north of New York City, but didn’t really connect until they were in their 20s.

“She was a hot chick,” Belth comments in the audio story.

Life found a way of bringing them back together time after time, until it stuck.

“We do have a love story,” Shapiro said, looking into the eyes of her husband of nearly 15 years. “We don’t skip on telling how we feel. I say ‘I love you’ daily.”

“And I say ‘How fortunately we are’ almost daily,” added Belth, meeting Shapiro’s steady gaze.

“It’s not a ‘happily ever after;’ there’s no finish line, no victory,” Shapiro clarified. “Yesterday we argued about two different things and we will again tomorrow. But the point is, we show up.”

“Emily and I have a similar disposition to be able to show up for each other,” Belth agreed. “Love is not enough to save a relationship. You have to be willing to grow and put in the work with each other.”

“I also think there’s a bit of luck,” Shapiro said. “You can’t shoehorn a relationship when a couple’s compass is pointed in two opposite directions.”

It doesn’t hurt either that Belth says things like this:

“I think my wife is incredibly amazing. She’s a freakin’ goddess.”

I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to hear that?

But down deep, these two are connect in a real way that helps them get through some real stuff.

“All these years that I’ve been striving to get better are almost amusing to me,” Shapiro reflected. “What makes me think I’ll find the answer to this incurable disease? It’s a constant cycle: maybe another specialist, or a special off-the-beaten-path therapy… but I come up empty handed each time. I’m getting to a place of accepting what is; and being OK with not being ‘fixed.’

“I’m learning to be open to what is, and embracing what I have,” she continued. “Sometimes I think it is pretty amazing that I’ve been gifted this horrendous experience… and sometimes I think, no, this is a bunch of horse shit. Get rid of it; just make it go away. The polarity is a struggle.”

“This is hard stuff, it’s very difficult,” Belth admitted. “And it’s still as difficult as it was 20 years ago… But we have each other’s back — no envy or competition — and a profound amount of respect for each other.”

It’s true Marvin Gaye: “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

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Wanna keep up with Emily and Alex? Follow them on Instagram: Emily’s @livingbeyondwellness and Alex is @alexbelth.

DID YOU KNOW? Alex is also a painter. You guessed it, his subject is his wife Emily. In fact, he’s working on putting a book of his pictures of Emily together as an illustrated story — another departure of their experience as a couple dealing with illness. “It’s incredibly personal. For me it’s been a reawakening of expression that’s long been dormant. It’s actually drawn us closer together.”

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