I watch Oprah on TV at 4:00 p.m. every day after work waiting for Bruce to get home from the bar, but today I'm watching myself watch Oprah on TV. This happens to me sometimes. I suddenly find myself looking on from a distance at whatever is happening to me, like I'm an actor in a made-for-TV movie and I'm not even the star. Maybe I'm the sidekick of the star or I play a supporting role, but I am definitely not the star of this movie. The moment is happening to someone else, and I'm just watching it all unfold. It's how I've been able to live with an abusive, alcoholic speed freak for fifteen years.
Sun through the small rectangular windows glazes the room in gold. This is my favorite place of the close to thirty rentals and squats we've had since we started living together in 1980. I'm waiting for Bruce to get home from the bar with what's left of his paycheck. I'm watching my past, present, and future selves do this same thing—sit on a couch in one rental after another, waiting for the next bad thing to happen and not getting out of the way even when I see it coming. The habit of living in constant fear and the resignation that nothing can ever change are the glue that holds me in place.
This will always be my life. I'll be waiting on Bruce to change as long as I am waiting on Bruce to change. I've been putting my life on hold to be lived at some unspecified date in the future, and it all depends on Bruce. Bruce, who can only be counted on not to be counted on.
In all the family support programs I've gone to over the years, I've heard the spouses and partners of all types of addicts talk about detachment. I've heard people say you can't change anybody but yourself, and I've nodded my head and smiled sagely like I got what the old-timers were saying. Needless to say, I didn't.
After the meetings and the therapy, I'd go home and try some new strategy to make Bruce quit using. I once read a book about how sugar was the basis of all addictions, so I tried feeding him (when he'd eat) a sugar-free, high-protein diet. I bought vitamins and herbs and snuck them into his food, but speed freaks don't eat and beer is a very filling meal in itself. When he was just high on pot, he'd eat whatever I put in front of him, but speed and alcohol are his drugs of choice. They act like rocket fuel, igniting his rage and precipitating his blackouts. The blackouts last for hours, for days. He never remembers what he does to me, and since he doesn't remember, I have to forget.
It be what it be, Bruce says about all things unchangeable and unknowable—eye color, electricity, his need to be high—it be what it be. Today I see things clearly for the first time. Today I see myself on this couch waiting for someone else to do the changing. Today I see that this stuck-ness is all mine. This will be my life until the day he kills me or he dies or I leave. I can't count on his recovery. I've been disappointed too many times. Addiction, his to drugs and mine to him, are so habitual. We've been doing a dance all these years and I didn't see my part until now.
My only friend has been telling me for months that when I'm ready, I'll leave, and I have left many times for a day or a week, but I've always come back hoping he would stop drinking, stop using, stop hurting me. It occurs to me for the first time that this is absurd and a huge waste of time. It occurs to me that maybe it's me who needs to change, and not because that will fix him somehow. Maybe his addiction is his business.
Soon enough Bruce will come home. He'll be wasted because it was payday, and most of his check will likely be gone. I calculate the scenarios that may or may not unfold depending on my husband's chemical screen for blood alcohol, crank, any stray pharmaceuticals or hallucinogens he's traded or bought, and how those will interact with his mood, the kind of day he had, and if he's eaten.
None of it I can control, but I've believed for such a long time that I could. Like every person who has ever loved an addict, I've believed that if I did all the right things I would figure out a way to fix him. All my energy was focused on his recovery, his addiction—his life, not mine. I worked like some kind of crazy statistician, making up story problems to predict what he might do: If a two-hundred-pound alcoholic addict has a shitty day at his shitty factory job and drinks two six-packs of Budweiser without eating anything except the gut-wagon burrito at his 11:00 a.m. break, and then injects what's left of a gram of crank at 8:00 p.m. before going to the bar to drink more beer, and upon returning home mistakes his second wife for his first wife, how long will it take him to pass out? Please, show your work.
I have never been able to figure out the recipe for equilibrium. His or mine.
Oprah is over and the news is on when Bruce comes through the door. He's drunk but not wired and hasn't crossed the line yet. His face slants from the pitchers of Budweiser. “What the fuck are you looking at?” he says.
It's not really a question, but I answer, “Nothing.” I'm not looking but I'm seeing him clearly for the first time. I see his addiction in action and how it's driving him and how I have nothing at all to do with it. It's the weirdest thing. I feel at peace. There isn't a thing I can do for him, so I sit quiet.
It's best not to say too much and not to look at him for too long when he's been drinking, kind of like running into a bear in the woods—you just back away slowly and try not to piss him off. The fights can start just by the way I look at him. He says it's my face. My face shows too much of what I'm thinking no matter how little I say, but maybe that's just what he needs to believe because he has to be mad at someone and I happen to be available. Tonight I'm just watching him start to spin. I can see by the way he's crashing around pissed off about nothing that it was never my face that pissed him off, never anything I did or didn't do. He needs a reason to fight with me so he can leave to drink more, and that's what he intends to do no matter what I do or don't do. This idea is a revelation.
He asks me again, “What the fuck are you looking at?” but this time he's yelling.
“Nothing.” I'm not sure what to do. I sit on the couch and pick at the pink chenille bedspread that covers its stained, sagging cushions. The cats are under the bed and our terrier mutt is curled up small on the rug. They're afraid when he's like this, and they should be. He's told me on more than one occasion that he'll kill them if I leave. That he'll kill me, too. Do I stay because he might? Yes, I do—but what if he does kill me? In so many ways, I'm already dead, or at least not living, just existing on the edge of his story. But what's my own story? Is this what my life was supposed to be? I'm suddenly more tired of being afraid than I am afraid of being killed.
I look around at the junk I've collected to make a home. The china teacups that I strung together with brass wire and hung from hooks in the window like a mobile. The plants, my books—so many books. The orange glow of the sun as it goes from day to dusk. Cats under the bed my dad and I refinished before I left home. The quilt I made for Bruce's long-ago birthday. The fifteen years of history we have together, one year short of half my life tonight, not all of it bad. He is no monster, just a man struggling with addiction who's unwilling or unable to face it.
He says, “You think you're better than me?”
He says, “You think I need this shit?”
He says, “Get the fuck out.”
Only he doesn't just say these words. He screams them at me, knowing how in the past these are the very words that made me cling to him and beg to stay. Love me. Don't make me go. Don't leave me. That's my usual response, but this time it's not there—the ache in my chest, the shame. There's not a thing I can do about his addiction. He'll do whatever it is he does. I'm watching myself sit on this couch, and I'm seeing him clearly for the first time—this man I've tried so hard to please. This man I've tried to help for his own good, right? This man I've tried to save—that's the truth—like somebody made me the boss of what's best for him when I can't even figure out what's best for myself. Bruce yells and turns red but I can't muster the usual response.
I know three things tonight. Number one: If I stay, this will be my life until I die. Number two: It's nothing personal. His addiction has nothing to do with me. Number three: I can leave whenever I want.
I finally get it.
The sun through the window. The cats under the bed. The dog on the rug.
He says it again, “Get the fuck out.”
Today I hear these words as an invitation. I stand and take my purse with the keys to the car. He's raging at me as I walk out the door. No one will ever love you like this again, he screams at me, and for once I sincerely hope he's right.
I don't look back. I get in the car and drive away shaking because I don't know what will happen now. I drive around not sure where to go or who to call. Eventually I call my sister. The sun is slowly sinking behind the West Hills and there's a lot of traffic. I'm supposed to work in the morning. I didn't bring clothes or anything. No toothbrush, no makeup.
I'm not thinking that I'm leaving him for good. I can't think that yet.
At first, there are threats to my family, suicide threats, murder/suicide threats. I quit my job. I move to a place where he won't find me. I don't call him. I never go to the places we used to go. I never talk to the people we knew. I leave him with everything including the car, the cats, and the dog. I hope they'll be all right. This is how I move on, headed in a new direction—the direction of my own sweet life. I don't look too far ahead. I keep going by not stopping. I stay gone by not going back.
14 comments have been posted.
I feel so sad for the animals:( glad you let but the animals had no choice.
Mari | February 2016 | San diego
I can so relate to this as I was living in a similar situation for 18 years but I had 4 children to consider as well. I left finally and didn't go back out of fear, not for myself anymore but for the children and I got to the point where I was wishing my husband would die at work and not come back. Then I visualized myself standing over him and stabbing him to death thinking this would finally end all the pain for us..........I had to leave because I didn't really know that I wouldn't end up doing it.
Andrea | January 2016 | Australia
I thank you all for your responses and good wishes. I am honored that OHM used my piece. Living in constant fear is not living. It's mere existence. So much more is possible but it requires that first step out of the nest just like a fledgling learning to fly. It's been almost twenty years since I left and the life I live now is nothing I could have imagined then. That's the thing--when you're in a bad situation, you really can't imagine another life. It took time and space for me to recover hope for a new future and learn to walk toward it, even when it was scary. And, let me tell you, the first year was super scary. But I had so much support from my friend and my dear sisters who'd had no idea how bad it was for me. They put themselves at risk during that time and believed (when I didn't) that I was worth that risk. Leaving my pets was the single hardest part of that experience. I didn't know where I was going to live and couldn't take them with me. Later, my ex gave them up to my sister and brother-in-law and all four lived good long lives on their farm. For those of you in a similar situation, I wish you clarity and peace.
Loretta Stinson | January 2016 |
Touching story that many of us need to emulate that at some point in life we too need to make that decision.
Eleanor | January 2016 | Jamaica
I can remember my day of clarity. It was Christmas 2011. It took ten months and lots of planning but I left and changed my life forever.
Free at 45 | January 2016 | South Carolina
This a great piece. Real and Needed! Thank youQ
Gabriel T. Girard | January 2016 | Plattsburgh, NY
Can't believe you left your animals.
Anda Chalmers | January 2016 | United States
This was a definite piece of great courage! Well done on this. It made me wonder if you had ever been touched by abuse, knew someone that was, or just interested in helping others because this would for sure. I only hope that more women would summon the courage to walk away from an abusive relationship/ and men, because women and men have a right to be safe. No one deserves to live in fear. No one! Thanks for sharing, Barbara.
Barbara | January 2016 | Australia
Liked your story so much, it feels like your action not only liberated you and made you independent but it gave me the confidence too to speak and react wisely in tough situations. I am also not very vocal about my feelings and therefore get hurt a lot although I am not in any bad circumstance or relationship. But I feel if I had a little more confidence in myself I could explain myself better and feel good too. Thanks and God bless!!!
Indiegirl1 | January 2016 | Mumbai
Thankyou so much for sharing this. It literally gave me hope. I am not in any of this kind of relationship or anything. I am just stuck. Stuck in things. But this gave me a little strength that I also can get out of things. I am speechless.. Loved every bit of it.. Prayers for you..
saher | January 2016 |
It strikes a chord with me, I'm in nothing like the relationship that the author describes but at the same time it feels like I'm an onlooker, not getting to decide my future, constantly changing my future to incorporate the dreams of another. My wife puts me in scenarios where I do the decent thing. I ditch my very good job because we live too far apart, move back to where my wife lives and look for another job. I stay in the same place because she won't leave after I am made redundant. I leave the country because she leaves the country to progress her career and I don't want the family to break up. When push comes to shove, she always seems to have the deciding vote and I seem to end up further away from what I want to do. I'm a moanbag, ah well.... how bad?
S | January 2016 | UK
Thank you so much for writing this, and for telling it like it is. The last three sentences really hit home for me, and brought me right back to my own leaving.
Lee Ann | January 2016 | NH
A moment with obsession Movement makes it real
W Newell | January 2016 | Brantford
This piece is full of insight and wisdom for us all - whether living with an addict or not. And it is written with a kind of honesty and openness that invites the reader to personal self-refection. Great literature does such things. I applaud Ms Stinson for her courage and hope her experience of leaving will give others courage to also hear the words of invitation to choose life.
M. Kalesse | December 2015 | Beaverton, OR