We were talking about parts of my childhood when my therapist said, almost wistfully, “It sounds very lonely.”
There was a long quiet spot in the conversation while I thought about that.
Lonely? Me? Surely she was mistaken. I had a family. I had friends. I liked being alone, even as a kid. And as an adult … man, I was born to quarantine. I’ve joked before about the moat I’m building. This feels especially conspicuous right now, with so many so excited that they’ll be getting back out there, seeing people, seeing friends, going to school, going to parties, laughing.
I’m dreading that I’m so out of practice making up excuses as to why I can’t make it.
Maybe I don’t understand what loneliness is. And not understanding it, how would I even recognize it?
But I was lucky, at the start. I’d found the perfect partner: someone who felt as good to be with as it felt to be alone.
I was recently engaged in a conversation about loneliness with some people in circumstances similar to mine. We were all trying to figure out a word for the special isolation we’d all felt: that fearsome aloneness in the company of a life partner who is lost in an alcoholic vacuum. (There’s probably a six-syllable German word for it. Or a four-letter Inuit one.)
We made do with other words. Anger was one: at them and at ourselves. We’re forced to defend ourselves from the person who’s supposed to be defending us, and we can’t seem to stop believing the lies. Shame was another: being abandoned was our fault, our secret. We’re unlovable; deficient. Pathetic: that one hit like a brick, describing the way we’d survive by getting wrapped up in other people’s lives, or worse, the lives of fictional characters. Our woeful means of escape. I learned something big from this, something I was not consciously expecting.
Loneliness is embarrassing.
I’m renewing my passport. My mother is now my emergency contact for that. Closer to home (Mom’s 600 miles away), my uncle is my updated contact for my health records.
I’m 50 and am scheduling a colonoscopy. I’m not sure who to ask to be my ride there and back.
I remember taking John to his colonoscopies. They were frequent during his 40s, that fun period during which we engaged in no activities that were outside a certain small radius of a toilet. We were trying so hard to understand what could be wrong with him. Or, to be more accurate, I was.
I was in the waiting room for one of these, when I’d heard Prince had been found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park. He’d been by himself, on his way to his studio, and had collapsed: an accidental fentanyl overdose, most unexpected for a diminutive Pentecostal musical polymath who wouldn’t let you swear or eat hamburgers in his presence. If someone had been with him when he’d gone down, they might have been able to help him. But no one was. So they didn’t. And a man who lived surround by people died alone, and was already cold by the time one of his entourage finally called the elevator.
I was always so glad that John wasn’t alone. Something had happened to me during our relationship: I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being alone, not having a partner, especially in sickness. I wasn’t just glad for him, I was glad for me. But I didn’t do anything because I wanted it done for me. I did things for someone I was sure would want to do them for me.
I did them for someone I was sure would care.
We were getting close to his diagnosis of encephalopathy when I finally had the nodules that had been growing on my thyroid biopsied. I’d been edgy for days waiting for the results.
They finally came, and when I told him it was benign, he didn’t say he was glad. Or that it was good news. He fixed me with a put-out look and said, “I knew it wasn’t cancer.” Well, it’s too bad you’re not the doctor then, you could have saved me this nasty punch in the throat and three days of wondering what would happen if it were cancer.
After a huge fight, we’d withdrawn to our separate rooms. Then he texted me, from across the hall.
‘I’m sorry babe but I grew up alone. And I mean alone no parents or anyone. Some times when I’m going through issues I just need to be by myself. It has no reflection on you. That’s why I took this time off.’
He’d taken the week off from work. I wasn’t even supposed to have been here, in the house, our house, this week. I was interfering, unwelcome, unbidden, to a degree that it wasn’t even possible to feign happiness at a diagnosis of benign.
I shot back my own text.
‘You weren’t the only one going through issues this week.’
And after twenty minutes with no response, I fired off another one.
‘Sorry to have spent three days at home this week quietly hoping I don’t have fucking cancer.’
I understand that anger and grief are the opposite sides of the same coin. Sometimes, anger just feels better. Sometimes, I’m just not in the mood to cry. Sometimes, I forget how much I like to be alone, too.
He took over an hour to send his one-word response:
Feeling the drift, the gulf growing, I worked to try to include him in things. The answer was always “no.” Sometimes not even a nice “no,” but a “just because you’re interested in something doesn’t mean I have to be.”
I tried to talk to him about this.
“You always say no when I ask you to join me,” I said.
“Ugh, that’s not true. I say yes all the time.”
“Name a time you’ve said yes,” I said.
Absolutely exasperated with me, he responded, “I can’t think of anything, you’ll have to think of an example.”
(Have you really been alone if you’ve never been asked to have both sides of an argument?)
At this point, I’m torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to tear my own fucking face off, fiercely wishing there were a camera I could look into like I’m in the cast of The Office, or that at least there’s literally any other human being on the planet who’s heard this. “That… is not how this works. I have made a claim, you have made a contrary claim, I’ve asked for evidence supporting your claim, you’ve said you can’t think of anything, and that now… it’s my actual job to put in the effort to come up with the evidence to support your claim? Jesus, when did you get so bad at fighting?”
(The claim that he eventually managed in his defense was: “I used to go to the park with you and I hated it.” The last time we’d gone to the park regularly was with our first dog, who by this point had been dead for two and a half years.)
It was surely an obituary for an alcoholic.
I’d read it just after one of the big paralyzing Mid-Atlantic snowstorms that took a week to dig out from. A man who was not particularly old died, because his partner couldn’t get him out to get medical attention. I think she must have written the obituary. I don’t think she knew much about his family, or maybe he didn’t have any. The thing he loved most was watching TV.
That obit undid me.
It’s been over a decade and it still gives me chills.
I turned it over and over in my mind, worrying it like a tongue against a new filling with a rough spot, while we sat on the couch. The big screen, a window onto a fake, untouchable world, glowed cold and blue. I started to pull away, first with my phone (a smaller window onto a fake, untouchable world: weaning myself slowly, I guess). I still wanted to sit with him. I wasn’t prepared to leave the room. But he would get so angry. “Why are you always on your phone?”
“Take my buddy, doc, he’s been shot.”
That’s an episode of MASH, my most beloved show as a kid, from which I learned some of my own close-to-alcoholic tendencies, and also probably a great deal of my attitude toward the military. The soldier with the gun brings his wounded buddy into the camp, and demands Hawkeye and the gang take his buddy before anyone else. Hawkeye tries to explain triage to him but, you know, the guy’s got a gun, and he keeps pointing it at the doctors, so in you go, buddy. As soon as they let him know that his buddy is going to pull through, he collapses. Turns out he’s been shot, too. But he was the one dying less badly, so he drove over the Korean hills, slowly bleeding out, still covered in the mud flung up during the shelling, standing vigil, figuring it would be okay if at least one of them could be saved.
Triage for two.
Of course, his buddy’d have done the same for him.
I know a secret that John probably doesn’t realize I know. I know he wouldn’t have done this for me if the situation were reversed, if it were a matter of life or death for me. He would never have given me a piece of his liver. I expect he’s had people tell him, “You’d have done the same for her!” (I wonder if he’s ever corrected them.)
I saw this happen once with my own eyes. We were at a session with his substance abuse counselor, together this time because I’d just found him with a beer, a month before the surgery. She said, about my giving him this piece of myself to keep him alive, “But you’d do the same for her if you could! If you had to cut off your hand so that she could live, you’d do it, right?!” I remember the way she said it, with great passion and enthusiasm. Conviction, even. I remember an instant urge to laugh out loud: he’d told me before that she knew him better than anyone else (including me), and yet somehow she managed not to know this. I held in the laugh and looked at him instead. His face was priceless. He didn’t even want to answer, because it was either going to be the awful humiliating truth, or a palatable decent lie, and to his credit he hated both of them. It was like someone had an axe over his hand right at that moment: if he said yes, off it was going to come right then. After a few stammering starts, that I wonder now if the counselor even noticed, the lie won.
I can’t blame him. That would be a terrible thing to have to admit.
So many people knew our story, up to and including the surgery. And they all knew that the story ended happily. He didn’t die, he was saved, and just in the nick of time. We survived, with a pair of matching incisions. We were home, together. We’d won. The music swells, the screen fades to black, the credits roll. Everybody claps, and then they return to their lives.
Or the next show.
It’s funny to realize now that we ourselves were the fictional characters in this story. That someone would care about us: it’s not pathetic at all.
If you understand this kind of loneliness, and would like to know some people who understand and are eager to discuss it, please consider joining our Echoes of Recovery program for the loves ones of alcoholics.