By Deb Avery
Any writer can tell you that when writing of difficult and painful times, it can feel like cutting your heart out and putting it on display for all to see.
I know that feeling well, for I have shared many of the most painful times of my life in my writing, hoping that it would help someone else in some small way. This has included my leaving a 30 year marriage which culminated with my husband’s death from a stroke a few days after Thanksgiving, seven years ago.
I don’t remember much about the holidays that year. And while they continue to be somewhat emotional for me, they now include joy and gratitude.
Looking back over my life I can see the many times I made excuses for bad behavior, the many times I bent over backwards to please, and how I stayed in my marriage for far longer than I probably should have. Always trying to make everything okay, trying to make the best of it all.
But even so, the death of my husband, the father of my son, brought grief, guilt, doubt and remorse, bringing me to my knees—again, and again over these past several years.
In all my sharing and writing of what I have been through and overcome, there is one thing that I still have not shared, and the reason was simple. The reason was shame.
It would be a lie to say that all the shame is gone. But now I can look back with compassion on both myself and my late husband. Now I have found a measure of peace and acceptance without blame and I want to tell my story. For it in the telling of our stories that we heal and help heal others.
In the spirit of helping and healing one another, here is the rest of my story.
For the last few years of my marriage I exhausted myself trying to be the person that someone else needed. It took a lot of energy in keeping up the facade of a perfect marriage that was expected from me, working and homeschooling my son through to graduation with a 4.0 grade point average.
Oh, and during the last four or so years of all this, I was a high functioning alcoholic.
For the most part, I convinced myself I was in control. I was careful. I only drank at certain times and never in front of anyone. My mom, an avid church goer and teetotaler, lived with us. I was so good at it that she never had a clue. It actually worked out because I had her there to look out for my son on those occassions when I had one or two drinks (or three).
But after a certain point, somewhere around his middle teens, my son figured it out. I was so ashamed. And even though I loved him more than anything else in the whole wide world, by then—I was no longer in control—the alcohol was.
And so began my journey through hell.
Between an extremely low self-esteem as a result of a traumatic and troubled childhood, a controlling marriage where my husband’s expectations for my behavior were impossible to achieve, plus the self-reproach and shame I felt toward myself for always failing, I fell into a pit of despair that almost ended everything for me.
The one thing that saved me during this decent, was my son. He was a light at the end of a deep dark tunnel.
It is a long and sordid story leading up to my dependence on alcohol. And even though no one is to blame, except myself, my husband played a huge role in it. He wanted to control everything I did. That control included many areas of my life, and how much and when I could drink.
I had one addiction, my husband another; he was addicted to sex. I wasn’t allowed to say no, at least not without repercussions. But he was very good at manipulation, and he found a way to not only get what he wanted, but to keep me compliant and dependent on him.
What he didn’t figure on was the fact that it also helped me forget that I was miserable. At least for awhile.
We had never drank much before this strange nightly ritual began, just socially on a few occassions and we never, ever overindulged. He knew about the tendency I had in my younger days to overindulge on weekends trying to fit in with the crowd. His father was also an alcoholic, so he tended to stear clear of alcohol himself. But, all this took a back seat to his addiction.
He would buy large quanities of liquor and store them in our bedroom for secrecy’s sake. I was only allowed to drink at night, with him, after our son had turned in. This was our “special” time and he assured me he would look after me, that he loved me and just wanted to make me happy. He told me it would help “loosen” me up and make our special time together even better.
At first it was a welcomed relief. I understood that by lowering my inhibitions this was also making me more compliant, but hey, it helped me escape for awhile too. I soon found myself looking forward to that free-fall into really not caring or worrying about it all for awhile.
And for awhile I walked that high wire act with a lot of agility. I held it together and actually convinced myself that everything was going to be alright. I actually allowed him to dole out alcohol to get me more compliancy from me and to help me escape my misery. This continued for quite some time. It continued until I was sneaking drinks during the day and replacing it with water so that he wouldn’t notice. Of course that didn’t last long and when he did find out it was just one more failure on my part to add to the many already on my list.
He told me that I just had to be stronger.
He told me that if I really loved him I could conquer my addition. And of course he told me that we needed this nightly ritual. So, he would help me by not buying it in such large quanties. That way he could keep an eye on it better. When that no longer worked, he began hide the bottle. So yes, he knew I was struggling. And though he might get angry and go a few days in between, he would eventually bring the liquor back into the bedroom at night.
This went on for a period of about four years. I was struggling badly. Here I was a grown woman being treated like a child yet still trying to be this super strong person who could master the addition while still drinking. And once again—I failed.
To speak of this now it all seems so unreal. You see, I haven’t had a drink, (other than a beer with a friend once every blue moon) in many years now. I won’t say I have never had the urge to drink since then, but you see, life is funny.
When I found myself alone and that I was responsible for my life and no one else, I found that I had a life that I did not need to escape from. I learned, through much soul searching, much alone time and many tears, to rebuild my self-esteem. Eventually I was able to find peace. The need for something to help me get through the day/night simply went away.
It didn’t happen overnight. And there were a few times when I did struggle, but it happened so much faster than I could have ever imagined.
For the first time in my life I was able to do the deep soul searching that comes when one hits rock bottom. I knew I had to find a way to get back on my feet. And without anyone there to shame me, control me or tell me how to live my life, I managed to do that. For the first time in my life I knew who I was and what I wanted.
And while others did play a role in how my life was, it was I who made the choices. I had to face that. No more victim. No more trying to please others. No one else to blame or praise. No one else was there to help or hinder, it was just me.
And my son.
My son, whom I had loved unconditionally from the day he first took form in my body. We grew up together, he and I. He taught me so much about love, life, wonder—and myself. He was the one wonderful and constant thing in my life. That I failed him in any way hurt my heart so deeply. Of course we talked about it and I think, I hope, he understands.
Yet, even with all that my son means to me, I didn’t come out the other side of hell just for him. This time I did it also for me.
Looking back, I see all my mistakes—all the things I should have done or not done. I see where even though others actions shaped the person I was then, I always had a choice. And that has made forgiveness so much easier for me. And that in turn, has helped me to forgive myself. But when I look back, I also see my courage, perseverance and determination to not give up on myself, my life or my son.
There’s so much more to this story. There so much I want to tell you about how nature, Buddhism, meditation and learning to be alone (and like it) helped me to change into the person I am today; a strong, independent, kind and caring woman.
But then, those are stories for another day.
What I want to impress upon you today is this:
No matter where you are in life. No matter how deep into hell you may have trod—don’t you ever give up on yourself. Take time for you. Take time to take care of you and what is important to you. Learn to nurture your heart and all that good and right within you. And never let others tell you who you should be. That is your choice. It belongs to no one else.
We may walk out of Hell’s back door gasping, singed, with burns and scars, but we will walk out.
And after we catch our breath and rest for awhile, we will stand stronger, more loving and more compassionate than ever before.
I stand here today as living proof. And if I can do it—so can you.
Editor: Dana Gornall