I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.
I was the one escaping, the only one with suitcases: four of them in fact, like a baggage tableau of the family itself. (This was a mistake that I never made again. There’s no trip to anywhere, of any duration, that requires more than one bag. I promise.)
But that was one of many things I had yet to learn, and embarking on a year’s study in France, I wanted to bring as much of my familiar life with me as possible.
The line at the gate had formed, with me in it and my family beside me. The boarding call finally came: time to leave. I stepped to them to say goodbye. I started with my father, thinking that might be the easiest. But tears rolled down his cheeks: the first time I’d ever seen him cry, as he hugged me. It was the same but rather more expected response from my sister and Mom.
As I stepped back to my four bags, gripping onto composure with all the tensile strength of a fingernail, the man in line behind me growled, “The end of the line is back there.”
Et voilà, my very first experience with the general public upon getting to the edge of the nest, looking down, and jumping. (In thinking back on this person, I have often wondered, “What kind of dick?” I’m now aware: a very ordinary one.)
“Yep, and I’m in line right here.”
Funnily enough, in the intervening years, I have often thanked that man. He gave my family something to do besides cry, or pretend not to, in the car on the way back home, one fewer than the usual complement.
(“Did you hear what that man said to Barbara?” my sister asked Mom and Dad.
“Did you hear what she said back to him?” Dad countered.
It slicked the grip of worry, at least a bit…)
Beyond that, he showed me something about myself in a pivotal moment, something that became part of my own personal mythology. After, the story I told myself about myself was this: you already took off for France when you were seventeen, and left behind every literal thing that you knew. And to prove that you were ready, properly tempered, a man you’ll never see again spoke a simple devastating sentence to you at the most frightened moment in your life (so far), and even though you wanted to shatter into a million pieces or melt into the floor never to be seen by human eyes again, you fucking didn’t. Everything else, by comparison, is going to be easy. And you might just be, possibly, maybe a little bit… tough.
Obviously, the definition of “devastating” grows more robust with time and experience, expands into spaces you could be forgiven for not imagining at the age of seventeen. I’m currently devastated, according to that expanding definition. But when I look in the mirror, and see myself, devastated, I realize that I look the same as I always do.
Isn’t that interesting?
I hadn’t thought of this early, formative myth for a long time. It came to mind after scratching, seemingly futilely, around an Echoes of Recovery writing prompt: What have you learned about yourself?
Oof. I really hated that question at first blush, and I couldn’t seem to put my finger on why. Maybe I was getting stuck on the idea that the hidden question was: What has your partner’s alcoholism taught you? And I suspect I’m getting fatigued by framing so much of my life, especially of late, in the context of someone else’s disease. I don’t want this to be my identity, my default interface with the world. I am so much more than the ex-wife of an alcoholic.
Trying to find a way inside that troubling query, I wondered if a better question for me would be: What do you need to unlearn? Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to the stories I told myself about myself, not just before someone else’s disease pre-empted my entire life, but before he was part of my life at all.
There’s a parallel mission: to understand how I ended up where I did. I’ve told so many people who know me: I know there’s something the matter with my ex-husband. But what’s the matter with me? I love them all for the way they are so very quick to defend me (it’s someone else’s disease, after all). I know his disease isn’t my fault, and I’m not looking for ways to blame myself, but I was part of that story for a very long time. How did I get there?
It’s going to take a while to unpack, but I’m just starting to clear away some of the (mental) baggage, the stuff I’ve been dragging around because for some reason I couldn’t imagine not needing it for the next phase. (Apparently, there are still things I have yet to learn: a strangely wonderful feeling.)
Escape. It had never been as terrifying as that time in the liminal space of the airport, where, chargée comme une bourrique (“loaded like a pack mule,” and no, I absolutely wouldn’t have known what that meant then), I made my laden way down the aisle of the plane. It had always been so easy, so natural…
My parents were loving and imperfect, absurdly young and hungry for a better place. That meant a lot of work, a lot of hours, and that my sister and I spent a lot of time with other women and their children.
I remember the first caregiver, and that her one constant was anger, so constant it merged into background noise. She wasn’t a hitter, she was a yeller. My most distinct memory of time spent with her, in her presence, was standing in the corner: such a bizarre form of punishment. “Stand there and think about what you’ve done.” I certainly lacked that sort of discipline or introspection as a six-year-old, and I’d get bored sneaking peeks at the show that she seemed to be watching all day long, every day (that nauseatingly haunting theme and the hourglass running, but the sand pile on the bottom never getting bigger like you’re stuck in that moment forever). You might not think that a child would develop such a strong distaste for banality before even knowing what the word meant, but if you’d had your nose in that trailer’s wood-paneled corner as often as I did, while a disembodied voice intoned, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,” you’d realize that going someplace else in your head is a really useful skill set.
The first caregiver’s one constant was anger.
Her husband was an alcoholic.
Isn’t that interesting?
It seems my tribe, from early days, are escape artists: latter-day Houdinis, untethered to the moment-by-moment world. I used to think that my tribe was also vanishingly small, and scattered widely. I think now that it’s been hard to find each other given that particular talent: of not really being there. I’ve surely missed many kindred spirits along the way, keeping myself to myself, never quite touching the earth, never quite occupying my body.
But any time I have found them, rare as comets, the experience has been like being knocked back into the mortal coil, all the springs vibrating, all the cells firing, and it’s the strangest terrain, the wildest safari. The feeling… so much feeling. I’ll do any goddamn thing under the sun for them.
Alcohol is the natural sacrament for the escape artist, of course. It’s the natural balm for all the sudden feelings. I understand the continuum of relationships with alcohol: use, abuse and dependence. For years, I tended toward abuse.
The month before I was scheduled to donate part of my liver to my main fellow Houdini, my surgeon left a message on my cell phone, asking me to please get in touch right away. He wanted to discuss the second set of MRIs they’d taken of my liver (quite routine, my case worker assured me, I suppose attempting not to worry me). When I called him back, he advised that the MRI had shown some features that concerned them: several cysts, and some possible localized fibrous stiffening. They would need to look at my liver via endoscopy before the surgery itself could even happen.
He also said he recommended that I plan not to drink anymore going forward. I’d already quit, I told him.
(I didn’t say that it was because my husband needed a liver, which was true.)
Thank God my tribe has been so few and far between. There’d be nothing left of me otherwise.
If you are the loved on of an alcoholic, and you are looking for a different kind of tribe, consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.