Lately I’m seeing, from a social distance, conversations about our potentially post-pandemic summer that can be summed up as: It’s going to be Sodom and Gomorrah out there. If you can’t get laid this summer, just hang it up. Meanwhile, six months post-divorce, my reflexive gag is that not only am I not dating, not even looking, I’m building a moat.
It’s a joke. (Mostly. At least partly. A bit, anyway…) I think it’s funny. But here’s a great tip for free: never tell your good jokes to your therapist. They’ll wreck ‘em. They just can’t help it. I gave mine the whole moat bit with a nudge and a wink (or the Zoom equivalent), and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you’re not keeping others out, you’re keeping yourself in.”
So now, annoyingly, not only do I have a dead joke on my hands, but there’s something big I have to think about. She’s right, of course. I don’t trust myself. Because I don’t know myself.
The point of this prologue is to try to explain why a simple writing prompt pissed me off. And maybe to understand why myself. Let me lower the drawbridge and let you in (a bit, anyway…) so we can see.
I joined Matt and Sheri’s Echoes of Recovery just as my divorce was finalized, and it has been a great source of strength and inspiration and community, keeping me connected to a world beyond my joke moat and not letting me slip into easy or unchallenged thought patterns about my past experiences, my current reality, or my future possibilities. Every other week, this crew of addicts’ partners has the opportunity to write to a prompt. Our most recent prompt was this: Tell the story from your loved one’s honest perspective. Don’t regurgitate your loved one’s gaslighting. Don’t tell us the lies he has told you. Please tell us what he really thinks in his heart of hearts. If your alcoholic loved one has demonstrated baffling behavior resulting from the brain warping of alcohol, this is a tough challenge. But you all see or have seen glimmers of the truth through the denial and the pain. Don’t tell us what your alcoholic is telling you. Tell us what he really feels and thinks.
Yep, that’s the one. That prompt infuriated me so badly that I cranked out fifteen hundred steam-powered, largely cross words in about a half-hour in response to it (well above my usual glacial pace of composition). Then I yelled at it every day for the entire rest of the week.
But anger was not my immediate response. I read the prompt in the email to the group, first thing in the morning, my little writer spidey-sense tingling. Excellent, excellent prompt, I thought. Fantastic idea. Good exercise. Deep and revelatory. I cannot wait to write this! Because I’m a good girl, an attentive student, a diligent employee, a devoted wife. And I always assume that I have something to learn.
It was in this spirit that I started. But as I went along with it, the bright excitement over a brand-new learning opportunity slowly flattened out and corroded and my stomach squirmed with a dawning realization. Baby, I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor…
…because I spent literal years putting myself in his damaged head, in his dying body, tying myself in knots to understand what he was thinking and feeling, because his life, and I thought even mine, depended on it. As the brain damage from his hepatic encephalopathy worsened, I teetered daily between the person that he had been, and the person he was becoming. One moment he’d be fine and familiar, the next he couldn’t walk, or he’d pass out in the middle of a sentence, or fly into a sudden rage. He’d say he just wanted to die, then fall asleep for an hour, wake up, and say, “Ignore me when I’m like that, I don’t know what I’m saying.” I made medical decisions on everything up to and including liver transplant on the basis of the time I spent in his head, working to understand: Which one is he now? Where is the other one? Is he getting better? Worse? Does he really just want to die? Do I just let him?
Other than the day-to-day terror that he was either going to die before someone could help us, or that I was getting this wrong, that I wasn’t qualified to make the decisions I was having to make, that I was killing him myself somehow, I could afford no time thinking about what it was like for me. All I did when my hands weren’t busy was sit on the couch, listening for him, either upstairs in his room or down in his basement, to be in turns snoring (good), falling down (bad), going to the bathroom (could go either way), or on a really good evening laughing at a Seinfeld episode he’s seen literally fifteen times before. With one ear and half a brain focused elsewhere, muscles twitching, I’d read books I’d read before, because I couldn’t stand to start a story that I didn’t already know the ending to.
Despite some of the less-common details in my story, I don’t think time spent trying to navigate someone else’s mind makes me unique in any way. In fact, I’m going to assert that many women are already hard-wired to do this, because by the time you stir substance abuse into the already toxic-masculinity-addled men in our lives, they are mute. We spend huge swaths of our lives and untold mental and emotional capital trying to understand what they are feeling, and unwittingly, wishfully assigning depths to them that aren’t there.
A woman’s unrecognized emotional labor is never done.
I’m hanging over the precipice of wild generalization, which isn’t a place I’m generally comfortable. It’s anger that brings me here.
Empathy is a fundamental component of humanity, or the humane part of it, anyway. Being able to step into another’s perspective is vital to grace in relationships. Women with addicts for partners seem to be particularly adept at these skills. Some of us are so adept at it that we don’t realize we’re doing it.
There’s an ageless, agonizing invisibility to this.
As for me, my opening salvo for this blog declared that we should all be done with this ghostly existence; that we needed to tell our stories about our recoveries from the relationships that addiction kills. And yet, all of my blogs have been about him. About him trying to kill himself. About him opening up a hole in my life. About him calling me an angry ghost, and hating me with everything he had. Everything in my process is easier somehow if I do it through understanding him than understanding myself. Which is complete chickenshit.
Oh, so, I’m angry at myself. I guess I should have seen that coming.
I’m tempted to do some Writing (with a capital W) here, a bit of drama to dodge why it’s easier to tell this from his perspective than mine. Because I went offline. I shut down. I existed not as a human but as a holding pattern. But, as it turns out, my therapist likes my hyperboles and cool literary devices about as much as my jokes. I told her that I wasn’t even there, that I’d been entirely subsumed, and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you were there. You just need to find her. You just need to remember.”
She’s right, of course. I was there. I’m finding. I’m remembering. And I do have things to learn from this neglected, overwritten part of myself. One astonishing thing I’m learning: I had fallen out of love with him before his first hospitalization, more than five years before the divorce was finalized. I couldn’t have said why at the time, but looking back on it with my own eyes instead of his, it was because he was changing, withdrawing, closing in on himself. There was less and less room for me, just a spot beside him on the couch in front of the TV.
I was fitting myself into a smaller and smaller space, in order to stay beside him.
I knew even then that I needed more room.
The space inside someone else’s head was never going to be big enough.