This past Monday, Bill and I went to see The Glass Castle. I’d read the book last year and fallen in love with Jeanette and her ability to share her painful story with the world in a way that was full of grace and forgiveness and integration. When I first saw the trailer, I was crazy excited and started counting days.
The movie itself was brutal to watch. I didn’t really expect it. The book somehow didn’t bring the story to life the way the movie did. My response was near nausea. So powerful, so visceral. It was as though someone reached in and found a little nerve buried quite deep that had somehow not been massaged all these years since the trauma all happened. And the touch set me on fire. I couldn’t stop crying – and I mean, ugly crying – and I was shaking for hours.
There is something about seeing the realities you once knew as part of your daily life played out by actors. It is… well, brutal. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. And it’s all so very very personal. Even though the story wasn’t mine and it differs because I didn’t experience the wild poverty that she did, the depiction of alcoholism and how that thread was the undertow to the.entire.story just wracked my senses. I felt ashamed again and embarrassed. I heard someone laugh in the theater at one point and my body instantly jerked. I wanted to stand up and yell and demand their respect and silence. All that pain on such bare display deserves silence and respect.
As we drove home and I babbled through my tears that ran like rivers down my cheeks, I was reminded of the power we have in telling our stories. We have the ability to go places inside of each other that would otherwise remain completely untouched, unmassaged, and unhealed. When we tell our stories, we, in effect, reach into those dark places inside of someone else and say, “It’s going to be ok. I went there too. And here are my scars to prove it. But it’s going to be ok. And you are not alone.” And to any trauma victim, you know full well that the difference between post traumatic stress and post traumatic GROWTH is just that simple. “I am here. You are not alone. You will survive. I won’t leave.”
Telling your story also is a powerful form of personal catharsis. For me, telling my story validates me and it bids my fear to be silent. It reminds me from where I have come and to where I am going. It comforts me when people read my experiences and speak love back to me. It nourishes me when people speak words of hope and acceptance – acceptance even after the darkest of me is known. And finally, telling your story is the washing of the wound. It’s the digging very deep and the scrubbing very hard. Telling your story is a gift to yourself and a gift to others who have and are feeling the same hurt.
After all, we are all so very much more alike than we are different. We all hurt and experience loss and devastation. But somehow we go through those moments often feeling most alone rather than most part of the collective human experience. When others tell us their stories, suddenly the wall falls down, we see ourselves surrounded by a mass of fellow-survivors, and we find courage.
This is my story. The story of how my life fell apart. There are more stories and I will continue telling them, but this one took me five years to find the courage to be able to write it. Since then, four more years have passed and even still, I could barely read it again when it came into my Facebook Memories today.
Tell your stories, my friends. Do not bottle them up inside of you. It’s the only time in life that by releasing poison from your own chest, it transforms into healing balm to those around you. Let it out and let it go.
Next week marks the five-year anniversary of us moving here to MN. It seemed high time I do a little review for myself.
I was driving home from a movie last night when an old song came on the radio. It was Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”. The sappy anthem of the 90’s, right? I mean, anyone and everyone claimed that as “their” song for whatever heartbreak they were going through at the moment. I was no different.
I was 19; he was 17. We met in the cult where we both worked and lived. We got to know each other by passing notes that were taped to the bottom of our dinner plates that we would inconspicuously trade with one another in the food line.
I don’t talk of him often anymore. The world finds that unacceptable, you know. After all, here I am, a very happily married woman. How on earth could it be possible that I even still have those memories, much less, that they can fill my eyes with tears and break my heart all over again almost twenty years later.
He was a troublemaker. Aren’t they all? And isn’t that what we love about them? He was always taking huge risks and in a significant way, it was being around that that gave me the courage to take the plunge and leave the cult just 10 months after we met.
He was fun and sweet and poetic and very thoughtful. I can still see how crystal blue his eyes were as I sat in the hotel window talking to him one day – the sun shining in behind my back and making them glitter with life.
I remember my finger grazing his hair one time on the bus on the way to church. Boys and girls were obviously not allowed to touch, so, there was some thrill to finding ways to make even the smallest of contact with one another. It was rare and it was clean, but it was a world of firsts for this sheltered girl.
All the girls wanted him. They all talked about how he liked them most. I didn’t tell them. I don’t know why, actually. Their talk made me mad, but I didn’t know how to speak up. I didn’t unravel my mysterious muteness until recently, but the signs of it were clear even back then.
I knew it was me. He told me. And I believed him.
The song now changed from the radio. It was no longer some song that time warped me back to the early 90’s. It was something contemporary. From 2013. I was driving down Pinecone Road. A road that only came into my life recently. It doesn’t have the ability to reach back inside of me like the Richard Marx song did.
The music and the landscape brought me back to present day. I was glad for the dark because that stupid song really unsettled me. I wiped some very unwelcome tears away and cranked the music for a second so I could cough and clear my breathing that had become a bit uneven without the kids noticing my distress.
How is it that one life can be so far away – so buried deep– so tucked safely away in a locked box that is never opened and yet… just one song… just one sappy song and the lid comes flying off and all the particles of that life – all the joy and all the longing and all the sorrow and all the torture and all the love – all of it surfaces and flies around in the very air I’m breathing? How is it that I can have recovered as much as I have and still find myself incapacitated over one silly little song?
I think anyone that has spent any large chunk of their life with someone and then has been forced to move on without them and find a new life probably has some similar mental and emotional handicaps. Thirteen years I spent with him. Thirteen Christmases and thirteen birthdays. Thirteen Halloweens and thirteen Valentines days. Thirteen summers and thirteen winters. And try as I may to bury them inside me and forget them all together, moments like last night tell me another story. A story about cell memory and how very much those years are imprinted on me like the fingerprints that identify me. They are me. They made me. To deny them or forget them is to silence myself.
I think emotions are a lot like muscles. I think that muscle strains and adhesions are best healed with time and ice and massage. And I think the same is true with broken emotions. If you refuse to touch them and make contact with them and massage out the adhesions of your heart, you can plan on staying broken for a very long time – if not forever.
And so, it seems fitting to pay some homage to the life that once was so that I can truly celebrate and be alive in the life I have now that only exists because of the tragedy that played out before.
August 31st, 2008 was the day I came here. Minnesota – the frozen Tundra. A place I planned to lay my head down and recuperate before heading home to restart life. I had no intention of staying here and yet, here I am.
Stress had already done its worst on me and the nervous breakdown that wasn’t identified for what it was until a few years later was in full swing. I still wonder sometimes why so many people wanted me to stay. I wonder why they weren’t shouting with joy and patting me on the back. I suppose it’s because no one really knew. I’m private that way. I might share freely with a blog that is seen by a dozen of my closest friends, but it wouldn’t be like me to tell anyone else.
That morning is unforgettable. I rarely allow myself to even contemplate it because the demons that ravaged me back then come back with all of it and wrap it around my face and strangle me again.
He woke up hung over. It was one of the last nights we spent together. That we even spent it together was merely a betrayal of the sheer depth of my disease. That I could want to give myself one last time to the man who’d left me for different women five times that year is something that the new me is appalled and horrified by.
The night before had been filled with yelling and screaming. Even though I had a court order that he fully agreed to that gave me the right to take the kids to MN and reside there, the Jim Beam was now speaking in its normal woeful and highly irrational tone.
I swore to him that I would wait for him to get well. That if there was one thing in the whole world he could count on, it would be me. I forgave him through and through and told him that the past was the past and that all he needed to do was to get clean now.
The yelling would subside momentarily for drunken tears to flow. For some reason, I have the distinct memory of us standing by the end of our driveway and him picking me up and wrapping my legs around his waist and hugging me while he cried in my neck for five solid minutes.
I was stunned. He hadn’t even touched me in a whole year. Well, except that one time that he came by to get his jeans, and he kissed me on the stairs. But I always suspected he didn’t really mean it. I think he liked me there on that wire. He never showed remorse for it anyway. He would give me just enough of him to render me helpless and hopeful and then he would run away again and play husband and father to some other woman and toddler on the other side of town.
That night on the driveway was different though. Somehow it felt real. It felt sure. Some emotional fog lifted and I went to bed that night believing that he would come home to me and stay there. Oh how I loved him. There was nothing in the world that I’d ever loved more than I loved him. I was terribly unhealthy and dysfunctioned, and even now, I can hardly believe how intoxicated I was by his style of loving, but it was the safest love I’d ever known yet, and so I clung to it –to him – as though he was the air in my lungs.
When I packed the car the next morning, he was still sitting on the porch crying. I chose not to cry. I’d read a few books about what to do when your spouse decides to leave you for someone else, and they were my guiding light in choosing to move away. To save myself. To save the kids. To not stay and die along with that life and that marriage and that home. The avalanche of tears were no more than an inch below the surface, but a lifetime of abuses and dysfunction had given me impeccable strength for hiding my feelings. I was truly master of that. If I didn’t want you to see my hurt, wild horses couldn’t drag it from me.
And so, I went quite stoically about my morning. I ate, I packed, I did not flinch. Brian vomited a few times. But he always vomited, so I was able to remain fairly nonplussed. Later, I found Cody in the bathroom vomiting as well. He was 8 then. Old enough to know what was happening, but still young enough to look like a sick baby when he laid on the bathroom floor begging me not to leave daddy behind. Oh how I yearned to tell him. I wanted him to know. I wanted him to understand me and to trust that I was doing what I was doing because of how badly I wanted him to live. How badly I wanted to carve out a new life for him. But I couldn’t. It was too heavy for him. The weight of the knowledge of it all would have burdened him more than his confusion. And so I just held him. And I told him that we would one day be okay again. And that no matter what happened, I would always stay. That I would never leave.
I carried him to the car where he curled up like a ball in the seat. He brought an old ice cream pail in case he needed to throw up more.
The girls were upset, but they mostly were confused. No tears from them. Just questions about who we were going to see and why we were taking beds along with us.
“You’re almost there Heather. You’re almost there. Don’t lose it now. Just hold.it.together.” I told myself.
All that was left now was the good bye. The kids were packed, the house was primarily empty. I had made my plans on where I was going. I even had a job lined up. The stench of a casket and the smell of freedom swirled in the same air. I truly believed that we would be ok. That we would make it. If I had not believed that, I would never have found the courage to go. I thought it was a means to an end. That it was the last thing he needed in order to hit bottom and finally reach up to get well. And so, it was the last mountain for me to climb. And when a girl has spent thirteen years bailing someone from jail and going to DUI court and holding a fevered brow over a toilet while he deposits all the whiskey from the night and a whole number of other insanities that had become my daily life, the thought of fleeing and hiding wasn’t really that much of a mountain after all.
I backed out of the driveway. One last look. There it was. The house we built. The house we loved. Tall and beautiful with white siding with black shutters and a red door – just like I’d wanted since I was a little girl. I stared at the porch and thought of the things that had all transpired there. The times we’d sat in the dark while the kids were already in bed – he’d play his guitar and I’d just sit and listen. The times we’d talk till 2am – about life and love and dreams. And then there were the memories of finding out that another woman was sleeping in my bedroom and how my neighbors told me that she’d sit in my chair on my porch and listen to the same man serenade her.
My stomach turned and I knew that if I didn’t drive away, I would need Cody’s puke bucket.
I turned back to check on him. He was as white as a sheet. With one hand holding his bucket, he reached his other one out toward me. I grabbed it and we drove that way for several hours until he said he was ok.
Past the school, past the store, past the bar where he practically lived, and past the last gas station on the way out of town. I still had it together. The emotions were swirling inside me like oil and water. Nothing mixing correctly and making me feel like I was collapsing and exploding at the same time.
There I sat at the last stop light. Blinker indicating that I was taking a left onto Hwy 80 North. Very north.
I hit the radio… in agony for something to break the horrifying quietness. And this is what came on.
Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all
When the mountains look so big
And my faith just seems so small
So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
And I wake up in the night and feel the dark
It’s so hot inside my soul
I swear there must be blisters on my heart
So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight You for something I don’t really want
Than to take what You give that I need
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls
Now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees
And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn
And Your grace rings out so deep
It makes my resistance seem so thin
I’m singing hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
Cody and I exchanged glances. He understood what the song was about too. Our hands squeezed tighter.
Niagara Falls found its way out of my eyes over the next several hours. The headache came and then faded. Miles and miles under the tires. Kids asleep and kids awake. Gas stops and food stops and potty stops. Further and further away from home. Further and further away from dysfunction. Further and further away from the one I loved more than I loved my own life.
I felt like a raccoon who’d just had to gnaw off all his arms and legs in order to free himself from the trap that would lead to his death. Bleeding everywhere and probably going to die from hemorrhaging, I was hobbling away now. Making my escape. Doing the unthinkable. I looked in the rear view mirror to see four kids – from 8 years old down to 1 year old – sleeping like cherubs. And I reminded myself why. It was them. They were the only reason. If I had to live my whole life with no arms and no legs because gnawing them off was what it took to get them safely to the other side, then so be it. They were my mission. My reason.
“Oh God. Where are you? I don’t think I can survive this.”
“I’m here. Always here. Seeing you. Knowing you. Weeping while you weep. Keep driving, dear child. I am with you.”
After our time in the cult, Brian and I spent 18 months apart. I had no idea where he was and he had no idea where I was. That’s the beauty of life in a cult. Stuff that normally only seems real in the movies happens in real life.
I spent the last three days of my miserable existence inside that cult locked in my room with no food. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. You see, that’s what cults do to people who disobey. They put them in solitary confinement and take away their food. Why? So that we could “get our hearts right with God”.
I don’t really care to spend a bunch of time talking about the miseries of that place or the mental havoc that they inflicted onto me that I still struggle through on a daily basis.
By the time the three days had passed, I was a broken person. I was ready to be kicked out. I was ready to leave it all behind. I was ready for the excommunication and for the public belittling and humiliation that was to come. I just wanted out. I was in so much pain that it was simply intolerable.
I was summoned to “the Office”, given a chance to repent, and then, when I wouldn’t, given three hours to be gone. Gone. From my whole life. I’d been there – part of that organization –since I was barely ten. I was completely unprepared for life. I had no idea how to get a job, how to wear anything but dresses, and how to even speak in the real world. Getting kicked out meant facing all of that and trying to find someone to give me a crash course on being twenty. But staying meant worse. And so, I used the three hours to pack and get ready for my new life.
Freedom only sounds enticing to the free. But to someone who had lived her whole life in chains, the thought of freedom was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. If a person lives in a world like that long enough, they start to find safety in the jail walls. They start to think that being contained is better than that loosey goosey feeling of nothing fettering them.
On my way back to my room, as fate would have it, the elevator doors opened and who would be in there but Brian himself. I could tell by his red eyes and soaked cheeks, he’d probably been given similar treatment while I’d been locked up for three days. Knowing that our time was limited to about 30 seconds, I told him that I’d just been given three hours. And for the first time ever, he hugged me. He told me that if I’d wait, he’d come find me.
He told me. And I believed him.
Eighteen months, almost to the day, passed before I saw his face or heard his voice again. I searched for him but had nothing to go on. This was before the days of Facebook, email, or internet. The main tracking devices of the world available to common people were 411 and caller ID.
After 18 months of depression, I wasn’t in the best state anymore. A friend told me to find him. No matter how hard it was – I needed to find him and find out. If it was “no”, then I needed to let go and get therapy as quickly as possible. If “yes”, then don’t let your parents/his parents or any of the old IBLP authorities tell you otherwise.
I called 411 and asked for the Dyers in Georgia. I had no idea what his parent’s names were. They told me there were about 80 names. I said, “Pick one.” And of course you know they gave me the right one. I wrote a letter and mailed it. And then I waited. I knew it would take about a week to get to him. If it ever got to him at all.
A week later, on the dot, my phone rang one evening and the caller ID showed “Dyer, Mark”. His brother.
We talked for hours and made our plans. Under the guise of a trip to a convention, we both left home and met up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When you see someone that you love desperately that you haven’t seen in 18 months,it can be fairly nerve wracking. I remember every second of it like it was yesterday. And it sort of bothers me that I do. It bothers me for many reasons. Mostly, because, like I said above, it seems fair and right that memories should fade and discolor and lose their charge when that person has walked out of your life. It seems unfair to have to remember the distinct taste of each moment. Of each up and down. Of each joy and each fear. It seems like it should all go away and stay gone.
For the next 11 years, we carried on like best friends. We had shocking highs and shocking lows. Lows so shocking that I once left him for someone else. I was much younger and was simply terrified. Yaegermeister does something far different to a man than whiskey, and he was doing things that brought me back to where I was when I was a young defenseless girl being tossed around or punched or threatened. Of course, his acts were less aggressive, but I knew where they were headed. I saw my out and I took it. It wasn’t for love because of course I didn’t love him. I was just terrified.
But then I changed my mind. I came home and made it right, and we worked through it. Without even needing to think about it, he took me back. And he never punished me for leaving in the first place. He accepted his blame and let me accept mine and we both pushed forward, now stronger in spite of it.
Truthfully, it was that mistake on my part that kept me forgiving and forgiving his affairs that happened so many years later. I knew it could be recovered from. I knew we could make it to the other side. We’d already done it once. And by golly, we could do it again. And so I forgave and forgave and forgave.
One day, early in October 2008, I got a call from my old neighbor. I was driving the kids home from school in North Branch, Minnesota where we’d been living with friends for the past month. My old neighbor, Katie, was especially dear to me. She held me hand through the worst of all that happened, and she was the voice of reason when everyone else told me I should stay. So when she called, I never let her go to voicemail. She was special. I could tell her anything.
“Heather, I have something to tell you. And it’s going to be very hard to hear. Honey, I know how bad you want this to work out, but there are things he’s not telling you.”
There it was. The stench. The sting. The immediate transformation of the atmosphere around me from bright and sunny and warm to dark and deathly and so cold I felt as though I could see my breath. I pulled into the Shop-Ko parking lot because I knew all too well what it felt like to suddenly need to vomit when being told “news” from home.
“Honey, it never ended. She has been living here since you left.”
“The one with long blonde hair. From PJ’s I think. At least, the other neighbors say she bar-tends there.”
“Yes, that would be Melissa.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure as a heart attack. Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry that I’m having to tell you this, but I can’t let you go on and on thinking that it’s going to turn out ok.”
“Recently? Has she been around recently? Because he and I had a really really good talk two days ago and maybe that was the real turning point, and…….”
— long silence —
“Katie, are you there? Has it been recently?”
“Oh Heather. Her car is in your driveway right now. She’s been there every day since you left.”
“SINCE I LEFT?!? Are you sure? Because he and I talk every day and it seems like he’s made so much progress and I know that he doesn’t love her because he’s sworn to me that he never did and he even told me how he…….”
— more silence —
“My friend. I’m just so sorry. Please don’t hate me for telling you. I just couldn’t not. A real friend would tell.”
— much quieter now —
“Of course I don’t hate you. I need to know. I need to know.”
I drove the kids to the park because I didn’t think I could go home just yet. I had still not yet mastered the art of being able to cry in front of someone – that one didn’t come until Bill– and I needed a place to weep my guts out and recompose myself before I got home.
The bugs were bad that day. Swarming around my wet face. I laid in the dry grass, burned brown from a hot summer. The kids were on the playground. I think they’d seen so much of mommy lying around crying for the last year that it didn’t seem odd for me to be prostrate at the park, crying again.
My hands held onto the grass as if the earth was going to throw me right off of fit. Everything was moving and spinning, and I knew there was no way I could drive home. I called my friend that I was living with. She was not home. But there was no one else to call. Other than her, the closest person who knew me was 8+ hours away.
When the nausea passed finally, we loaded up and went home.
My health was beginning to spiral out of control. I would lay in bed at night during the Minnesota fall that can sometimes be frightfully chilly with my window open and my blankets tossed aside, and I would sweat bullets all night long. I started shaking from head to toe sometime around October, and it didn’t really quit till the following June. It wasn’t terribly obvious – a mild tremor really – but it exhausted my nerves and made me feel like a broken Jack-in-the-box who’d been left over-wound and unable to release.
I went through work days moving my arms and legs and mouth robotically –sometimes as though they were detached from me, and I was watching them from a distance.
Talks with Brian were always confusing. I confronted him on the day that Katie called, and he admitted to it all. And of course, he promised to end it as soon as he could. He promised to quit drinking as soon as he could. He promised to come for us as soon as he could.
My mind played constant tricks on me. Believing one day and not believing the next.
There was just nothing left without him. I was 32 years old now. Old enough to have made tentative plans for the rest of my life and how it was going to unfold. Young enough to be way too young to have no reason to live when all those plans got flushed down the toilet.
What was I supposed to do with myself? I probably needed to live like another sixty years or something. And now that there was no hope that we ever would sit in those rocking chairs on the front porch sipping sweet tea like we used to talk about, what was the point of all the rest of it?
There was just nothing.
Except total blackness.
For about six months, I had been searching again. Searching for God. And it’s not that I’d lost Him by any means, it’s that life had just surgically amputated most of my body from me and my nerves could feel nothing. No assurance. No safety. And really, I was now to the point where my numbness also meant that I felt very little pain. I was just cold. And silent. With the occasional burst of hot searing agony.
Sometimes during those long nights of fevered sleeplessness, He would talk to me. And I would talk to Him.
“I’m so desperate. If you don’t show up and save me, I’m toast. I’ve got no hope. Nothing worth living for. All I want – all I long for is to die.”
“Heather. I see you. I hear you.”
“Why can’t You just fix him? Why can’t You just make it be like I need it to be so that this outrageous pain can lift?”
“My dear child, leave him to me. For now, let us look at you. Let us take you apart. Do you trust Me to take you apart? Do you trust Me enough to let mecompletely disassemble your life? Can you let everything else fall away and just hold onto Me? I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. The worst is here now. Everyone else has left. But I stayed. Only I see you. Only I know you. I am utterly faithful. I am utterly trustworthy. You can lay your head down on my chest and rest. Do not hold back your tears, Heather. Don’t you remember that I store them in precious bottles? Don’t you know that I see every single one and catch it and keep it? Don’t you know that I hear every labored sigh when you try to sleep? I am here. I am here. I am here.”
It was now late November of 2008. The kids and I had our own little private retreat over Thanksgiving at my friend’s house in St Cloud. We lived about 90 minutes east with another friend, but we needed some time away and wanted to give them some time to themselves. My St Cloud friend was going to be out of town, so she offered her house as a place for us to rest our heads and just relax.
I got the call that weekend. The first call, I should say. Because that call happened a lot of times before the result finally came into being.
“I’m ready, Heather. I’m ready. Send me the intake forms.”
“Ok, but can you promise me you’ll fill then out immediately? Can I come for you right now? I just got paid and I have just enough money to drive there and get you. I’ll come right now. Today.”
“It’s blizzarding up there. You can’t come today.”
“YES! Yes I can. I can come immediately.”
“Stop suffocating me.”
“Ooo…kay. Ok. Ok, you’re right. It’s just that I’m – well, I’m tired. And I miss you. And I’m just ready to start the rehab road. You know the sooner you start, the sooner it’s over and we can be a family again. I mean, that is what you want, right? To be a family again?”
“Yes. Well, I think so anyway. For now, I need to worry about me. If things work out down the road for us, I’m ok with that, but I’m not making any promises at this point.”
Anything other than flat-out rejection was completely tolerable to me at that point. My self-respect had been obliterated. I loathed myself for accepting such a puny excuse of love as much as he obviously loathed me. But there’s only so much that an armless, legless girl can hope for. And so I settled. It was all I’d ever known.
He never filled out the forms. He never sent them in.
Two more times that month he dangled that precious carrot in front of my face. That carrot had been the sole intensity of my prayer life for over a decade since he’d started drinking. That he would get well. That he would find sobriety. I’d put him through enough weekend detoxes and short-term rehabs to think it could be achieved any other way. I knew he needed the full deal. The 15 month program. I knew that that meant at least another 15 months of being on my own. Another 15 months of living on welfare and food stamps. Life and finances aren’t all that friendly to a mommy of four babies who’s spent a decade out of the working world. But that was ok so long as I could one day have him back.
On December 5th, he was finally ready. He filled out the forms, he faxed them in,and he was accepted into Minnesota Teen Challenge. I was on cloud nine. I was still crippled and broken, but the parts of me that could still dance were dancing their heart out.
I sold a few of my things and bought him a one-way bus ticket on Greyhound. He arrived the next day, and I thought that it was finally happening. All those prayers. All those tears. All those YEARS. And here we were. Today was the day. This week was the week.
I picked him up from the station. I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to hug him, so I didn’t even try. I tried to contain my overwhelming excitement and appear casual and calm. But inside, it felt like every hope and dream that had just been beaten mercilessly out of me for 12 cruel cruel months was suddenly being allowed to live again. Visions of front porch rockers and sweet tea and us very old sitting side by side had found their way back into my consciousness. God was coming through for me. I’d endured. And now I was being rewarded. The story was going to have a good ending. So good in fact, that I would write a book about it and change millions of people’s lives. And Brian was going to get so stinking sober that he was going to be able to help so many people. And our kids were going to have this amazing legacy about how close we all came to death, but somehow, just in the nick of time, God Almighty came through and saved the day.
I had made arrangements for Brian to stay with my St Cloud friend’s friend. A nice gymnastics coach that I’d met months earlier at a baby dedication. He name was Bill. Yes, that Bill. I didn’t know him much, but I did know that he had a big empty house and that he lived alone. My St Cloud friend told me to reach out to him to see if Brian could stay there for the ten days Teen Challenge required so that he would be considered a MN resident. He happily agreed.
During those ten days, I went back home to prepare my house for repossession. It somehow seemed impossible to leave behind the things that were terribly private for some stranger to come find and have to deal with. So I went. I found her razors in my shower and her clothes on my bed. The walls in the living room were sprayed with an entire bottle of mustard – why, I have no idea. Lots of holes punched in walls. Obvious vomit stains on the carpet. Blood in the carpet in the upstairs hallway. It was very cold and echo-y. The heat had been turned off already, so I worked quickly. It took days.
Each night, I would connect with Brian and he would talk to me about how much he was changing and how alcohol wasn’t even appealing to him anymore. He would read Bible verses and such on the phone – leaving me utterly bewildered because even when he was well, he didn’t act like that. I found out later that he was going out each night getting drunk and that his girlfriend and her sister came to visit him while I was in Illinois emptying out the house.
When I finally made it back to MN, I once again made the trip over to St Cloud to pick him up from Bill’s house and get him settled in at rehab.
I still felt on top of the world. Even though I knew we were at least fifteen months away from any real semblance of normal life, at least the feeling of death and eminent doom had begun to lift.
We sat in the car and he filled out his very last form for intake. It was an emergency contact form. There were three lines. On line one, he put my name and phone number. On line two, my brother’s name and phone number. On line three, he put a 708 number that I recognized immediately because of the amount of times that number had tormented me with texts to let me know how much she enjoyed the feeling of my husband inside of her and how she planned to redecorate my house as soon as it was hers.
I had been taught all my life to be still when something hurts. To not speak up. To just take it. But I knew that I knew that I knew that I needed to know if that was Melissa’s number. So, I closed my eyes and dug as deep as I could to find the courage to make the words come out of my mouth.
“Whose number is that?”
“What number? Oh that number? That’s Dave. A friend from PJ’s.”
“Are you sure it’s not Melissa’s? Because I really recognize it.”
“Oh, maybe she used to text you from Dave’s phone?”
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not her number.”
And then, with me sitting right there, he flipped the phone open and scrolled to “Dave from PJ’s”. And there it was. The numbers matched. I must have been losing my mind again. Just like I was always “losing my mind” when the evidence was plain and clear but he wanted to explain his way out of trouble.
A little click here and another click there and voila! The entire phone was wiped clean. No contacts, no photos, no music, no text history. He told me that he did it so that I could use the phone if I wanted to. We both knew better. There were things on there that, if I saw them, he knew I’d probably finally snap and have the sense to leave his sorry ass to rot in rehab.
But no matter. He was here now, right? He was finally in rehab. The long one. The one that was going to make the difference. It was going to be super suckville for me and the kids for the next year and a half, but good things were in the future.
We drove home, and I couldn’t get the phone number out of my mind. I knew her number. I mean, I KNEW her number. When someone harasses you like that, you don’t forget their number. But his phone was wiped. I couldn’t compare it to the texts in my history anymore. I had to just trust him, but I didn’t trust him at all.
I laid in bed that night thinking. Around midnight, his phone rang in my purse. I’d completely forgotten that it was there. I grabbed it and there it was…the magical number that had been haunting me all day. I was too terrified to answer it. But the second the ringing stopped, I suddenly realized this was my chance to find out for sure. After all, he SWORE to me that he ended the affair again and was done with having contact with her. That was part of our deal. I’ll sell stuff I own to feed him and bring him up here and he’ll quit having girlfriends.
In a moment of bravery, I pressed “send”. It rang three times and she answered. I was silent.
“Who is this?”
“What do you mean, who is this? You called me. Where is Brian? Why do you have his phone? Who are you?”
“Is this Melissa?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Don’t ever call this number again.”
For thirteen solid years, there burned inside of me a raging bonfire that nothing seemed to have the power to dampen. No affair blew it out. No amount of lies snuffed it. No episodes of jail bails and DUI court dates and lessened its flames. No pee soaked jeans and vomit deterred what I felt for him. But right there, that night, in that bed, at that minute, it was as though someone reached inside of me and turned a light switch off.
What had helplessly been turned on inside me all those years was suddenly and permanently turned off.
Just like that.
In a second.
I told no one except God. I was terrified that I had come as far as I had and I was what seemed like inches away from this all being turned into something that made it all worth it, but here I was – giving up now. And so I begged for the feeling to return. I tried and tried. I read love letters from our dating years. I looked at our wedding photos. I tried to remember and dwell on the sweetest of our memories.
For three months, I carried on this way. On the weekend following the call from Melissa, I wrote him a letter informing him that he was on his last chance. That if he didn’t finish rehab, that if he ever started drinking again, that if he ever had contact with Melissa or any of her friends or family again, that if he ever had another girlfriend or even someone special that he singled out, that if he ever lied to me again – that it would be over so fast it would make his head spin.
I took the letter directly to him and read it to him in the sanctuary at Teen Challenge. He cried and apologized and promised faithfulness. For weeks, he would write letters about how amazing I was and how he didn’t deserve me. Weeks ago, these letters would have touched me to the core of my being. Today, they were hollow and tasteless. Pure unmitigated gall.
For three months, I told no one of my sudden heart change. Not even Brian. I still hugged and kissed him when I made my weekly trip to the cities to see him. For three months, I stayed silent. I watched every move he made. I listened to every word he said. I probed all of it. And for three months, progressively worse and worse, he lied through his teeth – even about things that didn’t matter. For three months, he could barely contain himself around females – behaving like a hormone driven 13 year old who simply has no control over his behavior. For three months, he would ask me for money or things or favors. Suddenly, the care packages I’d send were not exciting enough for him, so he’d give me a list of requests rather than just showing gratitude that his wife was sharing the very little bit of nothing that she had with him while he was taking a two year break from taking care of her. When I would take him away from rehab, he always wanted some of my cash, he always wanted me to buy something more, a bigger size coffee for him even if it meant I didn’t have enough to buy one for myself, hair products, things for his room, pop and snacks. I would come to see him at church on Sundays, but he would usher me out the door as soon as church was over. I would drive away like a good little girl, but then circle around when he went back inside. I’d come stand by the door or window and watch him go from skirt to skirt to skirt. Stupid little girls lapping up his attention and tiny touches right out of his hands. And he ate it up too.
One day, I finally had enough. It was early March 2009. Around the time I accepted that I would never be returning to my hometown, I moved to St Cloud to begin developing roots. I’d been there for one month the day I went to the courthouse. I told the court officer that I did not have money for legal fees. She sat with me for two days transposing everything we’d agreed upon last summer when our legal separation was enforced over to official divorce documents. I spent my days in her office and my nights sleeping on the bathroom floor and vomiting when the nausea was too much.
The time had come.
There it was.
The freedom that I never wanted.
My chains didn’t want me anymore.
I’d slap them on my wrists and try to fetter myself so I could return to what was familiar, but they would just fall to the ground. Demanding me to move freely. Demanding me to stand up. Demanding me to think on my own. Demanding me to live.
I would look at my kids while they slept and question every single thing about myself.
“Why am I doing this to them? They adore him.”
But then He would come talk to me some more.
“Heather, release him to me. You are in the way of him and Me. He will never find his way to Me while he has you. Don’t you see. You are his god. You are his savior. On the one hand, you beg Me to save him from his addictions. On the other, you refuse to step out of the role of “rescuer” in his life. Can’t you trust Me with him? Can’t you trust Me to be faithful to him as I have been to you?”
“Yes, I trust you.”
“Then let go. Let go, Heather. Let go. You have a lifetime’s worth of work ahead of you just to find your own survival. Let’s you and I focus on that. And you leave Brian to me. I will chase Him. I will go after him. I will not leave him or forsake him just like I never let go of you or forsook you.”
Sixty days is all it took. Sixty days and two signatures. That always bothered me. That something so significant could be so thoroughly undone with just a pen-stroke from the right guy in black robes. That’s just not right. Marriage should be unbreakable. You should be able to try and try and try to hack it in half for years and years, but it should somehow still move back together like some mystical magical chain that just won’t stay broken. After all, that’s what I thought it was. I thought it was unbreakable. I thought Iwas unbreakable. And I thought I could be what held together a marriage that was doomed. I took it quite personally for a long time. I had failed. I had failed my ultimate job.
I left the courthouse that day and went home and sobbed for five solid hours. Then the clock told me to go pick the kids up from school, so I washed my face and got in the car. That night I knew I needed to tell them. I didn’t want to say too many words, but I also did not want to say too few. Cody had been through a pretty bad 7 months already. Since the day we drove way from the house in Minooka, he went to some very bad places. He’d been in intensive therapy with two counselors for months now, and we were all making significant progress together. I was afraid that the finality of it all would send him back to where he’d come from. But I knew he needed to know. Sometimes, being what seems cruel is actually being kind.
I could think of no other words.
“Guys. Daddy’s not coming back.”
I can still see their faces. It will haunt me till I breathe my last breath. Cody’s body slumped over, and his shoulders shook as he cried. He said nothing. Later he sat up and came over to me and hugged me and told me that we’d be ok. I think he learned that posture from me because I’d done it to him so many times when there was nothing left for me to do for him other than to hold him.
Savannah looked up at me. Her big blue eyes engulfed in pooling tears.
“For how long? He’s not coming back for how long?”
“Oh honey. He will never come back like it was before.”
Another one bit the dust. Caved into a pile of convulsing emotion. She still sucked her thumb at that point, and I remember her sucking furiously and then stopping for air because her nose was plugged from crying and then sucking again.
I told them that they would still see him and know him and love him and that he would always be their daddy. I would do everything in my power to be sure they saw him all the time and that they never had to feel bad about it. I had no idea then that he would completely walk away from them. It didn’t seem fathomable. The man who changed their diapers and bathed them and played roly poly on the floor. It just didn’t seem possible for him to go make a new life where there is no room for them. And yet, that is exactly what happened.
Like little amputees, they’ve carried on and learned coping mechanisms. Each new season of life brings with it, for them, a new cycle of grief to process. They experience the loss over and over and over – just at new developmental stages. Honestly, it’s been pretty brutal for them.
Up until this point, Bill was just the guy who was friends with my friends and the guy who had taken care of Brian when he needed a place to stay. I didn’t know much of him, but what I did know of him, he was outstanding. As a person, as a Christian, as a parent, as a friend. No one didn’t like him. Heck, no one didn’t love him.
Late April, when the divorce was about 45 days underway, he had an interesting conversation about me with a friend of mine who’d put him on the spot. It wasn’t for another month that he had that talk with me.
Friends and family told me to freeze and stay out of it. But something much deeper told me to move forward… with caution.
One day, during those months, while on a bike ride with a friend, I wiped out pretty bad and got some serious road rash on my legs and arms. I successfully dug all the gravel out of my skin and managed to get it all healed except my elbow. Weeks passed and that dang thing kept ripping open and getting infected.
I knew what I needed to do. So I soaked it in the sink until the thick scab was soft. And then I took a washcloth and scrubbed it all the way down past any scab and any pus till fresh red blood poured from it. It hurt like hell. I almost bit a hole through my tongue while I scrubbed. There was no other way. It was so infected that if it was ever going to heal, I just had to clean it all the way down to the original injury. It hurt so much that tears were making their way out of the corners of my eyes even though I wasn’t really crying.
Finally, I poured hydrogen peroxide all over it and let it have one last good solid sting. And then I laid out the bandages and Neosporin to finish the job.
My mind was somewhere else. Thinking through the conversations I’d had recently with this new man. He seemed so honest and so straightforward and so trustworthy. Truth be told, I was shocked that I was even considering someone new. It was too soon. I knew it and everyone else did too. I would withdraw, but then find myself opening up again. This happened over and over. This desire to let go of what I’d been told and let something unfold that really seemed to want to happen even though it defied logic, good sense, and 99% of my Christian friends’ advice, was so strong and so powerful that every now and then, I would give it the air it needed to breathe and be alive.
There are times in my life that I have heard God speak to me in a voice that is nearly audible. I can’t really say why He’s chosen to do that for me, but I know one thing and that’s that I’m not crazy. I’m perfectly sane. I know that the people who’ve never heard God in this capacity will always think I’m exaggerating or enhancing the story or trying to make myself look super spiritual. But none of that is true. I’m just replaying the events as they happened.
So there I was, in my little bathroom in the little house on 4 ½ St in St Cloud. The house with the metal front door with three deadbolts. The house that was the safest place I’d ever lived despite the fact that I had a known gang family of Mexicans on one side and a family of big black men who jerked off in my front yard living on the other. It was public housing, but it was a place to lay our heads.
With blood running down my arm and a lovely mess of Band-Aid wrappers piling up on the sink, my inner monologue continued.
“God, I’m terrified that I came this far doing what I think you really wanted me to do and that in the very last second I’m going to go with what sounds easiest to me, what sounds most exciting tome, what sounds happiest to me. Please help me stay in control. More than I want anything, I want you to be pleased with me. And if that’s another life with Brian when he is sober, I will do that. I’ll remarry him, and I’ll find the feelings that I lost. I will do that……. But, in case there is a chance that this Bill guy might be from You, I really like that idea too. In fact, I’m ok with being alone if that’s what keeps me closest to You. I really am. All I need from You is direction. All I need is guidance. Give me the word and consider it done.”
It’s not a moment that a person easily forgets. When God talks to you. I mean, really talks to you. Not “talks to you” like through a song on the radio or “talks to you” through a really great sermon. No. I mean what I said. When He talks to you and you know that you know that you know what is happening right then and there. You are not half asleep and your subconscious is playing tricks. You are fully awake and sane and aware.
“Heather, your life has been so much like this wound. It is infected to the core. Since your birth, pus has been accumulating. Scabs, thick scabs have grown over areas that were intended to stay soft. You aren’t supposed to be like this… all grown over with scabs and pus and broken bones, barely able to limp through life just trying to survive. Can you see that what you’ve just done to your infected arm is what I have been doing to your infected life? I have stripped you bare; I have scrubbed you to the bone. I’ve shown no mercy in wiping the pus and removing the scabs. And here you are now, pulsating in blood-red pain asking me if you should jump back into the cesspool or if it might just be ok for you to apply a little bit of that Neosporin and wrap yourself up in those bandages. Can’t you see? All of that was to get you here. This was no mistake, and it did not happen accidentally. I pulled you across the country and let you be torn to pieces and then dropped you five minutes from the doorstep of your own personal bandage. I have readied him for you and you for him. You both have the same wounds, and you both can heal each other. Trust me. Let go of what others say. Let me apply this healing salve to your bleeding body. And let me wrap you in this bandage. Trust the man. He’s from Me.”