“No! Are you fucking crazy? Put that down, right now! You’ll blow us both to kingdom come!” I couldn’t believe what I saw: my husband reaching up to the chandelier above our dining table, oil can in hand, getting ready to pour oil on lighted candles. I imagined the coming firestorm. How could he be so stupid? He froze, turned to me and in that instant, I could see that he was not about to be challenged. The hatred in his eyes was fierce, as if I was the enemy back in Vietnam. I fled. Ran down the front hallway and started up the stairs, glass of wine in hand, miraculously not spilled. He caught up with me in an instant, grabbed my arm. “Don’t you walk away from me!” Normally, I’d try to placate him, calm him down, minimize the issue. How important was it after all? Nobody got hurt.
I thought of the phrase “flash to bang.” It’s those seconds between the launch of a missile and its detonation. Counting the seconds tells how far away the missile launch is and helps locate the enemy. In that pause, you are counting but you are also frozen. You are in a deep, dark void but you know that a huge conflagration is coming. Something much worse than pouring oil on burning candles. We were both held motionless in that void of fear.
Then, my arm twitched with rage, traveled up my neck, a huge startling force like a jolt of electricity from a live wire. I turned back to him, rage for rage. He was startled, like a little boy slapped across the face for saying a bad word. His face turned red right up to the roots of his reddish hair. I took a deep breath and decided the time was now. I’d had it, taking care of his emotions, walking on eggshells, leaving the room when he blew up. It was time to tell the truth, and in that moment, I wanted to smash the glass and jab it in his neck.
What happened next? I can’t say. I woke up, feeling the anger refuse to dissipate, leaving me wobbly and worried that I was losing my mind. The dream had a hold on me, like a boa constrictor squeezing tighter as the day progressed. I knew I needed help. But I didn’t know who could help me.
This led to the first of what I now call my “god moments,” when what I used to think of as instinct or luck has rescued me from danger. I called a man named Henry. Henry was a minister, a short, bearded fellow that I’d heard preach once and knew was a therapist. He seemed quiet, thoughtful, and gentle. I’d never met him. I found his number in the phone book. I got his voicemail. He called me back within an hour and said he would see me right away. I wonder today how desperate I must have sounded.
The year was 2000. I was 52, and thought the emotions overwhelming me might be menopause. The youngest of my three daughters was ten. I had taken a job teaching at night, and was feeling guilty that my youngest, new in middle school, didn’t have her mom to tuck her in at night. She was struggling and I questioned my job choice. I would come home at 10pm, hopped up on adrenalin and looking for a way down. That took a drink, or two. By myself. And before long, those two drinks turned to four. And I’d need the banister to climb the stairs to bed.
But right then, I didn’t know I was an alcoholic. All I knew was I was scared. And I knew I had an anger that threatened to destroy me. It took me years to see the importance of that glass of wine in my hand in that nightmare that sent me to Henry. The dream was my higher power telling me that alcohol had been my solution to living with a man suffering from PTSD who was emotionally dead inside. It also took me years to accept that I had been attracted to him because we were both children of alcoholic families, addicted to excitement, and clinging to a marriage that was empty was far preferable to feeling abandoned. I thought we had each made a free choice. Now I know we were sitting ducks, destined to be attracted to a person who would make us feel emotionally abandoned.
I began to use poetry as a safe way to release anger, much as a pressure cooker will release tiny bursts of steam. It also enabled me to write about my dad as someone sick and suffering who was one of those unfortunates who would never find recovery. Eventually, my poems changed from expressing fear and anger to compassion. In writing about my father working as a farmhand with calves, I came to understand his loneliness and search for connection:
Henry never identified me as an alcoholic. But then I never told him how much I drank, either. In another god moment, I happened to read in my church bulletin one Sunday that there was an A.A. meeting in the Fireside Circle on Friday nights. I’d seen that notice countless times. What made me “notice” it that day?
Today, I’m 70. I’m twelve years sober, eleven years in Al Anon recovery, and five years in Adult Children of Alcoholics. And I’m still married to my husband. I have choices. But I do not have the choice to kill him or to change him. I can choose to stay or go. I can choose to live the life of a sober woman, working with others on writing and recovery, loving and enjoying my grown children and extending compassion to my husband.
I no longer freeze in terror, silently counting out the seconds from a flash of anger to the bang of hurt and fear. It started with a nightmare. But it hasn’t ended. My job today is to pay it forward.