Kill Switch

Kill Switch


He hates me.


Lots of why will be spun up around this in the future I’m falling headlong into (it’s the alcohol, it’s the disease, it’s not him, it’s not real).


But none of you are here right now. None of you can see the way my partner, my husband, is looking at me. We’re two decades past and three thousand miles away from when and where we first fell in love, but there’s a longer time, a deeper distance: both immeasurable. 


He hates me, and it doesn’t matter why.


Empathy, that putative ability to feel the emotions of others as if they were your own… well, you can see how that would be a dangerous prospect at this moment. A thing to guard against. 


I don’t need two people hating me like that.


I would have considered myself empathetic, in the Before Times, perhaps pathologically so. I would have almost preferred to be the one to experience pain, than to watch someone else, someone I cared about, go through it. That way, there’s nothing mysterious about the pain, nothing that I might be missing.


But for an alcoholic numbing themselves with booze, it’s their own pain that’s a mystery, one they shun solving or even acknowledging. What is there then to empathize with?


Numbing is not an option for me, because I am watching. Waiting. 


Of course, there are clarion unmedicated moments. One second, the searching, unbound tethers of my empathy twitch in the ether between us, awaiting connection, and in the next, they’re scorched by a rage, or they’re sunk under an ocean of depression, or they’re twisted into anxious pretzels.


I tell John I’m filing for divorce. 


That night, he tweets: “Getting a divorce. Truly I never really wanted to be married in the first place, but assumptions were made and here I am…” Twitter is his main source of human contact.


I read the tweet to three different people: two of my best friends, and my mother. All three burst in tears, and I am surprised. I have temporarily forgotten about empathy. They are hurt, and it’s unbearable, this feedback loop, this fallout.


Empathy for John may be off the table, but the rest of my emotional connections to him, so completely forsaken by him, are now dangerous, too.


Time to hit the kill switch. 


A kill switch is a lovely thing, a safety mechanism that shuts off a mechanical system in an emergency. The problem with a kill switch is that it bypasses the usual order of shutdown operations, the elaborate step-wise ritual that prevents damage to its machinery. It’s a hard stop that is unconcerned with the system itself, and is only seeking to prevent injury or damage to those outside itself.


To stop a chain reaction.


No fallout. No debris field. No meltdown.


No nothing.


It’s the best you can hope for.


Powering a damaged system back up takes careful attention.


John texts me that there’s been some confusion in an insurance account. He’s been paying for something that he thought he’d set up for his own new condo, but it has actually been for my (formerly our) house. I immediately, as in that second, call the insurance company to clear up the confusion, and send him a year’s worth of payments. 


Something wriggles uncomfortably inside me. What on earth?


John’s father texts me for the first time since the divorce, and I compose a note that I craft to minimize the risk should John read it.


There’s that uneasy crawl again. What is this?


No matter how many times I turn it over, how many different angles I peer at it from, there’s only one answer.


I’m afraid of him.


How can I be afraid of him? I was never afraid of him, not even in the worst of the spiral down. The man never laid a finger on me…


I’m afraid of John.


I learned so much from him, especially catastrophizing, creating disasters out of thin air. The divorce went so smoothly, in stark contrast to everything that had come before. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for him to come and get me. I’m waiting for a cease-and-desist letter to tell me on no uncertain terms to stop writing.


My therapist calls this PTSD-Lite. It’s like PTSD without the D; I’ve got the trauma and the stress, but not the disorder. 


Stressed and not disordered, I’ve tried to put John in a place where he can’t hurt me anymore. I’ve tried to find a place where he can’t hurt me anymore. I don’t know where that place is.


He’s down the road now, a five-minute walk away. I haven’t seen him for more than six months. I never look in the direction of his condo when I drive past (there’s no outlet the other way on the main road, unless you have a boat). It’s there, every time I leave the house, on the road to literally anywhere else.


It’s a regularly-periodic presence that I won’t look at. Not looking, it means my eyes aren’t drawn there, means I’m in control, means I’m unaffected.




My eyes don’t need to see it for my brain to triangulate it.


One drive out recently, I was struck by the sudden memory of a much younger me, in the throes of amorous obsession (usually for those either unattainable or at least emotionally unavailable). I would go out of my way to drive by their house, and slow down maybe, but never stop, never get out. It was just to see the place they were, a vehicular pilgrimage, a lovesick drive-by.


Memories are like stacking wooden matryoshka dolls: each time you open one, there’s another nestled inside, with a slightly different face…


Simon was the first boy I had sex with, a fair number of years ago, who had no interest in me other than that. That was a particularly hard drive-by to execute casually, since he lived on a road that went nowhere except the back entrance to the cemetery, which was closed in the peak of snow and mud to keep people from getting stuck there. (I tried in my dad’s truck once, and have never been more grateful for four-wheel drive.)


The year before, Simon, speeding in his father’s new Camero, had gotten into a terrible accident. It injured him seriously, and killed his passenger, a popular, well-to-do kid who was on the tennis team with him. It seemed our whole small town was in shock. After he’d healed enough physically, Simon came back to school, first with crutches, then a limp that gradually faded even as the whispers got louder. He was drinking. He was smoking pot. Simon was less popular than his passenger, even before the accident, a quirky misfit already desperate to get out of our small town, who lived in that last little house on the right before the cemetery.


I knew him before, but I imagined him afterwards tenderized and deepened by tragedy, my empathy on overdrive. The whispers hurt. I could feel the guilt, the weight, the struggle not to believe it should have been you instead. I could feel the urge to flee.


After that first time, I sought his company often. He would very occasionally take me up on it. But he was always somewhere else, far away. I’d say we drifted apart, except there’d never really been a together.


The next year, I was in France when a friend called to tell me Simon had killed himself, just past the third anniversary of the accident. He’d been drinking more and more, and was having trouble with depression, and when he came home for spring break there was a memorial note in the local paper from his passenger’s family, still in mourning for their son’s death. 


Simon was buried just yards away from the last little house on the right before the cemetery gates.


And I’ve had a recent realization that should have occurred to me years ago: John looked like him. 


It would seem that I have a type.


Am I afraid of John, then, or of myself? Of the part of myself that keeps loving people like him, no matter the cautionary examples?


It’s a funny thing to delve into fear, to research it (research the opposite of catastrophizing, assuming a knowable order instead of cascading chaos). Fear is a primal emotion, one of the first to evolve in pre-mammalian brains. 


It seems to make sense that it’s the first one to arise so specifically, the system coming back online after an emergency shutdown.


At least fear’s not broken.


If you are dealing with (or maybe not dealing with) the fear, anger, resentment and pain of loving an alcoholic, we hope you’ll join us in our Echoes of Recovery program.

Echoes of Recovery

March 7, 2019
Two Sides to the Same Alcoholic Story
October 6, 2020
Positive Proof of why Traditional Recovery Methods Fail
July 14, 2020

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