I will be sixty-five this fall. Of those soon to be sixty-five years, thirty of them have been spent surviving the crucible of emotional fire, struggling to make sense of the personal disaster I brought upon myself, and rising from the ashes a new person. Like the Phoenix of mythology, I have been born anew, but oh, what a terrible and painful birth it has been.
Time heals, I am told, and using the gift of retrospection, I know this statement holds not only truth but hope and healing. Certainly it has been the case in my life. Only now, with the advantage of hindsight, am I able to put all of the pieces of the puzzle in their correct places, and to see how the journey through loss and indescribable pain was, in reality, the path to wholeness.
I was born into a family dynamic that placed success, material wealth and status above all else. I was forbidden to date outside a certain social circle, a circle to which my family did not belong but to which it slavishly aspired. Truly, I have no memories of laughter in my childhood home, only memories of anger, yelling and punishment for goals not achieved. My parents were desperately unhappy, miserable with each other and with a life that had in their minds unfairly wronged them. They had neither the tools nor the insight to move beyond the trap they had set for themselves. Their deficiencies were imprinted on me. How could it have been otherwise?
Taking the distorted messaging to heart, I set my sights on capturing the highest prize – a wealthy husband – and using the only tools I thought I had – beauty and sex – I emotionally prostituted myself in my quest for wealth, status and acceptance. Blind to the reality of my actions, I could not understand why the wealthy men I slept with did not want to marry me. In ignorance, I silenced the still, small voice that attempted to turn me from this damaging assault on my soul.
Then, after six years of sustained yet ineffective social climbing, my efforts were rewarded. I snagged a man from a very wealthy family. Owner of a chain of bakeries and a Kentucky Derby winner, the family I was marrying into was, in my eyes, the pinnacle of social and financial success. It never occurred to me that the man I actually was marrying was my emotionally and spiritually damaged twin. My inability to recognize the pain that my husband carried inside him, to see him as a person rather than a goal, to love him unconditionally – these failures haunt me still.
The marriage never had a chance. The bakeries were sold and the lifestyle I thought would be mine vanished. My husband floundered, unable to accept the fact that he actually would have to work for a living, and I began to look elsewhere for salvation. An old boyfriend, a co-worker. Fantasy blended with reality. My husband and I found constant fault with each other, and we sought relief everywhere other than in our marriage. Finally, after seven years and two children, there was nothing left to save.
A comment my husband made to me during the last weeks of our marriage best describes the insanity in which we found ourselves. After I had filed the divorce petition, but before he had filed a counter-petition, my husband angrily tossed these words in my face: “No one would want to live with a bitch like you, but if you think I’m giving you a divorce you’re crazy.” We were both crazy, both in excruciating pain, lost souls striking out trying to hurt the other has badly as we had been hurt.
I lost my children and I almost lost my life. Imprinted on my psyche forever is the memory of my daughter, aged four, being pulled screaming from me by her father and grandmother as they took her and my two year old son away from me. Imprinted on my psyche forever is the memory of my son crying over the phone saying “Mommy, when are you coming to get me?” Imprinted on my psyche forever is the memory of my ex-husband’s girlfriend answering the phone and saying to me “When are you going to give up?” Imprinted on my psyche forever is the memory of putting my children on a plane back to their father, using all my courage to stop the tears from falling until I had said good-bye, then weeping uncontrollably as I turned away.
The loss of my children was the fire in which I was consumed.
Shame and guilt became my companions. My divorce attorney had told me there was no way I would lose custody, that I could have been “a whore on 9th Street” but because I was a good mother I had nothing to worry about. If that were true, then how much lower than the low must I be to have lost custody of two young children? I considered suicide, but discarded that option only because it would have allowed my ex-husband to win permanently.
My circumstances must have terrified the women who I thought had been my friends. Like the heroine in The Scarlet Letter, in the next few years I learned what it meant to be shunned. I was shunned in the grocery store, on the ball field, in the elementary school. Anathema became my name. Later I learned that one of the men in my ex-husband’s circle held me up as an example of what would happen to his wife if she tried to leave him. The power of wealth and influence is terrifying when used as a weapon.
Alcohol became my crutch. When people discover that I am a recovering alcoholic, they immediately assume that my drinking must have been the reason I lost custody. How wrong they would be. At the time of my divorce I barely drank. I hated the taste of alcohol and was afraid of the loss of control that drinking could bring. But in my crucible of loss, alcohol saved me. Alcohol dulled the pain, took off the edge, blurred the reality of my life, allowed me to function.
I drank alcoholically for five years. On the outside I looked great. No outward consequences. In fact, just the opposite. I had remarried, had a new baby, and was on the fast track professionally. I “looked good” on the outside, but was black, bleak and deteriorating on the inside. The last year I drank I told myself the same thing every morning – I would not drink that day. But, no matter how strong my will power, a drink was in my hand as soon as I walked in the door after work. And on the weekends, the drink appeared by noon. As much as I wanted to stop drinking, I could not.
I stayed in the ashes of the fire for a long, long time.
April 15, 1990. The irony of April 15 does not escape me, and perhaps it is the Universe’s way of getting a well-intended chuckle on my account. While tax day drives some people to drink, for me it is the day I rose from the ashes and began my journey to wholeness. On that day, twenty-six years ago, I asked a God I wasn’t sure existed to remove the compulsion to drink from me, and I felt an actual weight lift from my chest. Let me repeat: I felt an actual weight be lifted from my chest. The compulsion was removed. It has never returned.
The path to wholeness is not a straight one. Recovery is part of the path, certainly, because I could not be whole and still use alcohol to fill the void inside me. But recovery has two companions that must negotiate the path to wholeness as well. The inner journey is as necessary a companion to the journey as not drinking, but neither sobriety nor inner knowledge will direct me on the path to wholeness without spiritual understanding.
“Life is difficult” say the Buddhists, but once that fact is accepted, the path of life becomes easier. Rising from the ashes was only the beginning of my journey. If I am fortunate, the last twenty-six years will only be the middle. When I have been ready, the teacher has appeared. My children were restored to me decades ago, and I have peace with myself and others.
I have struggled with a way to end this essay, but the Muse has left me. Perhaps that is the message she intended for me to discern. We are birthed, we are given direction, and then we must walk the path alone. Self-immolation was a most horrendous, but apparently necessary, beginning for me. It was a path only I could take, alone, broken and willing to be reborn. I am grateful to have arisen from the ashes.