|Via Eric Nyffeler *|
But without further ado ...
I recently attended a writers' workshop that was hosted at Tim Faulkner's, a local art gallery in Louisville, not really expecting anything actually. I had arrived too late to speak to any publishers or printers like I'd wanted to, and I had to take a seat at the back of the venue where my friend, who'd been there all afternoon, had set up shop. It was a little disappointing to see the small turnout, but I was told there were plenty of people there earlier, mainly drawn by the promise of class credit to college students but also by the various author names on the flier. I wasn't familiar with any of them, but that doesn't mean that they weren't accomplished writers with wisdom to share.
The last speaker came up to the podium, a waifish, soft-spoken woman, and introduced herself as Leslie Jamison before letting us know that she'd be reading excerpts from her upcoming book, The Recovering, about her experiences with alcoholism. My stomach tightened a bit, but I just readjusted my position on the stool and glanced over at my friend, hoping she hadn't seen my discomfort. Despite my best efforts, I found myself at several points trying to hold back tears.
The first moment was when she discussed how strikingly similar the stories from AA are. I've never been to a meeting, but I did attend Al-Anon, a group formed for the friends and family members of alcoholics, for a short while before I ended up deciding to leave Three. From my experience, all of Al-Anon members are similar, too: we love them, we feel powerless, we can't understand why we didn't see it before, we are angry, we have an overwhelming sense of responsibility, we are tired, we are hopeful.
I remember Three finding me after one of his meetings and telling me the bits he could. He felt a kinship with some of the people that also showed up, like they had a special bond that only other alcoholics could understand. The Al-Anon meetings were usually held on the same nights as the AA meetings, so very often we'd meet up outside the church where they were held and talk for a bit before heading home separately. I felt like I was talking to a stranger, someone I barely knew outside of physical recognition, because I honestly didn't. The man I thought I'd married was not the one in front of me. He was a liar, a narcissist, a manipulator, and finally, an alcoholic. He kept telling me that he wasn't really an alcoholic, and I coddled him because I was still in the throes of his influence. I also didn't want to start any arguments. And then I'd hear the voices of the fellow Al-Anon members, echoing in my head: "you may have to leave him."
The second moment was when she confessed to having lied about drinking. There wasn't a follow-up, just a statement that she remembered the first time she did it, and then she moved on to another short admission.
Once Three was released from the hospital, he told me he hadn't drank since October 19th. I still don't know if I necessarily believe him. I kept finding stashes of crushed beer cans, half-consumed wine bottles, empty glass flasks of cheap whiskey around our house; they were random and seemingly decided on in a hurried manner, as if I'd just come through the front door and he'd been mid-gulp. There were even some outside, underneath the deck in the backyard. Before, he would blame it on the former owner of the house, E, who had been an alcoholic himself. One day that he and a friend were going to work on the house, E had brought a 24-pack of nasty beer and a carton of cigarettes. By noon, E had imbibed on over half of the beers, tossing the cans into a corner of the garage, and instead of coming inside to use the restroom, he whipped his penis out and pissed on the side of the house. So when Three surmised that all the random beverages littering our property was the fault of E, I had no reason to question him. But after the hospital cleared him to leave, I kept finding them and was having a difficult time accepting Three's explanations. He swore he wasn't drinking any longer, but after everything, nothing could have convinced me that he wasn't just lying to my face.
The third moment was when she was describing a woman named Nell, who was showing Leslie all the alcohol hiding spots she used to have in her house and explaining that her husband was having a hard time dealing with her relapses. I almost had to leave the room and was certain there were people staring at me, wondering why this woman in the back of the venue was crying. No one was, obviously, as they were just as caught up in this narrative as I was. I used to be Nell's husband.
When I finally decided to leave, it was heartbreaking. After Three got back from the hospital, I told him the slate was wiped clean; we were going to get to know each other again, and nothing he'd done before would have any weight. A naive action, now that I think about it, but I just couldn't imagine my life without him at that point. I spent the next several months, trying to explain to myself that he was just learning to live honestly and that his temper tantrums were just him having a difficult time without alcohol. That, no, he wasn't really an alcoholic, just a guy who'd had a problem for a short period. But when he kept comparing me to his most recent ex, to his dad, I started to question everything.
The real kicker was when, in the middle of a heated argument, he looked at me and said angrily, "Every time we've taken your lead, it's ruined my life."
At first, I started to cry, devastated by this accusation, but my brain for some reason decided to start working. I wondered, "When had we ever taken my lead?" Throughout our entire marriage, everything had been his idea: my decision to leave my job at the Department of Human Services**, us moving to Kentucky and then to South Carolina, buying a house. He told me that I had not been prepared to be an adult, so I wasn't allowed to have access to our finances, to go to the grocery store***. He had broken me down to be completely dependent upon him so I wouldn't question any of these decisions, so I'd just agree and blissfully follow him like a puppy craving his affection.
I will admit this: I was not perfect in our marriage, as no one ever is, but regardless of that, I did not deserve to be treated like that. I did not deserve to have my personality, my drive, my wit, everything whittled into a mere shell of a person. And in that very moment, the fire relit inside of me, and I told him that, for our relationship to work, he was going to have to give me the same blank slate that I had given him.
The next day, he came home from his work early, and I was worried he wanted to start another fight with me. He just had this look in his eye.
"I can't give you that blank slate, Juju. I just can't."
You'd think this would start another crying fit for me, but I was numb, and in a weird way, almost relieved.
"Then we are done."
Right then, I realized that, while Three was addicted to alcohol, I was addicted to him. And I needed to cut him out of my life, at least for a little while. My assumption was that we would just need a few months apart, to figure out who we were outside of our marriage and we'd just meet in the middle, reuniting happily for the rest of our lives. Obviously, it didn't happen that way, as we are currently working on getting a divorce, but my thought process at the time was clouded. It took several months before I finally started dealing with the reality of my abuse, a destructive drug that I've been steadily recovering from over the past year and a half.
Over the past two weeks, I've often thought about how Nell's husband is doing, wondering if he'd been forced into making a choice like I did: to leave a situation that was toxic for him because marital duty was no longer enough to stay. Or maybe Nell did actually defeat (or continues the good fight) her alcoholism, and their marriage is stronger than ever. Or maybe the need to love, the need for the emotional gratification of soothing an angry alcoholic after angering them with a simple, innocent comment left him believing that her outburst was really, after all, his fault, and so he remained to walk on eggshells and worry about the next time he caught her at a bad time, noticed that yellow tint to her glazed sclera and the slight slur to her speech.
I don't think I got the same thing out of Leslie's readings as everyone else. There were at least two other recovering alcoholics in the audience who applauded her for her approach to writing about her own addiction to alcohol and for her humility about it, but all I could think was how many stories about addiction focus on those living with and around an alcoholic? Why is the one suffering from addiction more important than the one from the wife/husband/parent/friend? And why are the partners who stay with the person considered strong? The strongest I've ever been was when I pulled out of that driveway for the last time and drove over eight hours to escape someone whose psyche was so self-focused that even his own failings were somehow my fault.
I approached Leslie after her reading and asked her if she ever got to a point in writing her book where the emotions were just too raw and she had to stop. Thankfully, she admitted she had but was lucky enough to be able to write about someone else in another part of the book, giving her a reprieve and the ability to look more objectively at the tough topics that triggered her once she had removed herself from them for a bit. She encouraged me to get back into writing my fiction story about a woman inspired by my own experiences, saying it could be cathartic, another step in my recovery.
It's a long road to recovering completely, if it does actually end. I often wonder when my panic attacks will end, when I'll start to trust people again, when I'll feel completely whole. Maybe never. But maybe it will. I've gotten to a point in my life to where I look at things in a bit more of a realistic way: I hope for the best but don't put too much stock in it because everything can change in a single second. That blank stare on Three's face as he told me he'd lied every single day of our marriage was that very second, although I didn't know it at the time. But it set me on the path to where I am today: a damaged but hardy vessel, ready to keep moving with the lessons I've learned.
* You should totally check out all of Eric's work on his webpage. I love his style so much.
** This was a suggestion of his that I wholly supported at the time because I was desperate to leave the job.
*** He told me that this was because he wanted to buy me all these things that I showed an interest in but didn't want to feel bad when he had to tell me no, like I was some sort of child.