This is not the story you think it is. This is not using the Serenity Prayer instead of drinking. This is giving up. This is grieving in recovery.
I remember walking through the Christmas tree lot, parsing this tree and that. Noble fir? Douglas? The girls ran through the little forest, pointing and naming as they did. He looked concerned and involved. He looked like he believed we were a family. I was still angry about something unimportant (laundry?) so I was only holding his hand coolly, lightly. At any minute, my hand would take flight to adjust my collar, to make sure he knew I wasn't all in.
We found a tree and he sawed it down, the wonder of which made the girls giggle and laugh. They pulled it with him, dragging it over to the old school bus that served as a cashier station on this cold dark day in December. As the man with the red scarf loaded the tree, my youngest sat on his lap. We both noticed that she had not done this before: willingly initiated snuggles with him. Even after two-and-a-half years together, eight months of living in the same house, she'd never really warmed to him-my youngest, sunniest girl. The other two climbed him like spider monkeys, hanging from his shoulders, arms and legs-embracing the man in our lives, making him their own.
This is it, I secretly told myself. He's the one with whom my next decades will be spent. We'd sit together as each of our children passed through adolescence and graduate high school (fingers crossed) and went on their first dates. He was the one we'd decided to build our lives with, my daughters and I. We were a new family, rebuilt out of divorce and loss. We were both sober, though I was the only one who was active in recovery. I'd just gotten my four-year coin and as the dust settled on our life together, there was a quiet inside. We had the elusive serenity the old timers referred to with such confidence.
December 5, 2011 is a day I'll always remember. We arrived home with a Christmas tree and started decorating. He and I squabbled and his reaction was out of character: he kicked a box down the stairs and screamed at me that he'd had enough. I continued on with the evening, letting him cool off, helping the girls hang ornaments and assuring them that adults sometimes fought and that they shouldn't be afraid. "Mama's here," I told them. "Mama is always here." They watched me so closely, searching for some sign that all was well in their world. And I gave it to them — a bright smile, a song, an invocation to start our Christmas season with determined cheeriness.
Later, I walked downstairs where he was typing madly on his computer. When he whipped around, I saw something on his face and it took me a minute to register. This look of his may not be hate but it was definitely in the same family. Contempt? It was so far beyond frustration, or weariness from a family outing, that I stepped back and immediately started shaking. "What's wrong?" I asked. I counted to ten and waited. "What's wrong?"
"I need you to leave right now," he snapped. "I'm too angry to talk." He whipped back around, dismissing me. I made my way back upstairs, replaying my coolness at the tree lot, my behavior of late. What had I done? I put the girls to bed and lay down shaking. Some great thing had shifted in my home. In the man I love. Something had happened so far beyond my ability to comprehend that all I could do was wait. It will be better tomorrow, I told myself. Of that I'm very sure.
He slept downstairs and the next morning, I begged the girls to stop their Saturday morning romping, afraid the noise would wake him. I wanted him refreshed and reset. 10 am came, then 11. At noon, I made my way downstairs into the cool quiet darkness and looked for a sleepy lump of pillows and blankets. I found none.
He was gone.
No sign of him or his computer. I ran upstairs to call his phone and there was no answer. I hurriedly checked email — and there it was. He'd written me an email saying he'd stay in Seattle for a week or two. He needed time to think. Two days later, he changed his status on Facebook to single. He changed his city to Seattle. I barraged him with questions: "Are we broken up? Are you going to tell me why you've left me, left us? What is going on?" Then I begged. I begged and begged and said I'd do anything, anything at all if he'd just stay with me, if he'd just come home.
He never did.
A sponsor asked me early on to write a list of deal-breakers, things I'd drink over, and I dutifully listed them all: terminal illness, death of a child, death of a parent or other loved one. She asked if I thought I could call someone before I drank should one of those horrible things occur and I heartily agreed. Who would want to be alone faced with such tragedy? Not I, with my four years of sobriety and sponsees and belief in the program of recovery upon which I'd embarked. Hell, I wrote a book, articles, I gave talks about my love of sobriety and the gifts it gave me. Should I have included heartache on the list of deal-breakers? Abandonment? Family dissolution? If I had, would it have mattered? Could I have stayed sober had I seen it coming?
After he left, I helped my daughters navigate their own sorrow and loss; tried to answer their unanswerable questions: Will he come back? Can we see him? Will his kids come to my birthday party? "I don't know" became "I don't think so" became "I don't know" again. I went to my women's groups and cried. I called my sponsor every day. I shared in a meeting that this horrible shocking break-up wouldn't shut me down and by God it would not, could not make me drink again. I attended a God-forsaken sober gathering of women armed with glue guns and cheerfulness who talked me into making an ornament. I cried onto the glitter glue and strung together some sparkly shells.
From the outside, how petty and ridiculous it must have looked. I had not lost a child or been through war or endured half of what the majority of the world suffered every day. Was I this weak and broken over a mere relationship ending? Was I really this alone?
"Yes," I said, as I swallowed the pills. "Yes," I said, as the ambulance carried me away. "Yes," I said again as they checked me into the psych ward. Write a gratitude list every day, my sponsor counseled. Try and sponsor more women, call me if you need me. Call me. Call other women.
The first day on the psych unit, they took my computer and cell phone. They assigned me a caseworker and showed me to a grim little blank room overlooking a grey roof. "How long will I have to stay?" I asked. "Here," the nurse said. "Take this journal and write in it."
"Do you know that what you're going through is acute grief?" my caseworker asked later that first day. I shook my head. No. "This is a chart of the grieving process." she said, walking me through an old, hard-to-read Xerox copy. "This is you," she said, pointing to the "shock and denial" part of the line. "This is you grieving," she said, placing a hand on my knee. She held my hand and told me she was going to find me a good therapist when I was discharged — and a good psychiatrist. She never asked me to write a gratitude list or call other women in the program or wash dishes. There at the bottom of the pool, where I touched the darkness, I found neither Higher Power nor succor from the program upon which I had depended for years. I found a Xeroxed map of what was wrong with me. And it saved my life.
It's been nine months since then and I have a new sponsor. She tells me the pills were a relapse and I choose to believe she's right. Next month, I would have had five years; instead it's 10 months. In meetings, I'm quiet and I listen, on the lookout for other lost souls. I have my health and my daughters. I have a home that I love and a few friends who understand but the program has lost its luster and the magic bubble has popped. Maybe this is surrender. I don't honestly know.
"Keep coming back," they say to me on the rare occasions I share. And so I do.
Rachael Brownell is a frequent contributor to The Fix and the author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She has written about the importance of humor in sobriety and natural highs, among many other topics.
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