During the darkest hours, when my anger burned hottest, I learned to pray. Surprisingly, for someone who never regularly attended church, the prayers came easily. "Please, God, make her stop drinking. Please God, don't let her get into another car accident. Please keep her from harming our daughter, or anyone else. Please remove this anger and restore peace."
When I recited my newfound litany of prayers, I closed my eyes and imagined addressing a person stronger than me, someone able to endure endless days and nights of tension, mistrust, disappointment and abuse. Someone possessing a magical arrangement of words or a secret phone number. Someone who knew a certain someone who could rescue a family that was drowning in a sea of alcohol.
Maybe these were the wrong prayers. Perhaps I should have asked, "Please God, save this precious soul so afflicted with the disease of alcohol, a disease now linked to other brain diseases such as Parkinson's. Show me a way to help her." But I was too filled with anger and disgust to think compassionately, to really believe that I was dealing with a disease instead of a poor life choice. And I was just beginning to learn how to pray.
God may have heard my prayers, but my requests appeared to be granted only on those occasions when my wife was arrested for a DUI and jailed overnight. Her confinement was my respite. I knew my 7-year-old daughter was safe at home with me. We could both sleep, and I could let my boiling anger simmer until the morning. Those few hours of peace were priceless.
Her drinking began about the time we stopped following whims and commenced being adults: the time our daughter was born. Life became serious -- as it should when you are responsible for the future of a child. She entered a rigorous professional program. I earned a college degree and went right to work. I was exhilarated; she was stressed. I attended professional conferences and won some honors. She sat in friends' cars and started drinking. I never saw her alcoholism coming until it was too late.
At that time we resided in a small town with a skyline of grain silos, church steeples and steep, grain-covered hills. Apple and plum trees shaded our yard. Train whistles and bird song punctuated the dry air. I could depend on pheasants calling in March, lilacs blooming in April and the cleansing rains of October. Shouldn't that have been enough to sustain us?
But like so many American families, we had no relatives within 500 miles and could rely only upon our marriage, our young daughter and ourselves to survive whatever life threw our way. Our margin for error was slim. The three of us were adrift in a lifeboat bobbing on precarious waters. When we sprung a leak and the raft filled with alcohol, no one knew how to bail and find land.
Anger is exhausting. I was tired all the time. I dragged my feet on the short walk home from work to our sinking ship, never knowing which spouse would be waiting: The doting wife and mother, the serious college student, the reeling drunk or (the worst scenario) a conglomerate of all three? I often paused at the edge of the driveway to contemplate our wood-frame house sitting so serenely on a spacious one-third-acre lot. Outside were signs of normalcy: the tree swing I built for my daughter, the bed of lipstick-red tulips that signaled spring and a south-facing garden plot where I once grew a gallon's worth of pinto beans.
As I looked at the house with its two glassed-in porches, I wondered, How could such a solid house hold so much instability? I waited for an answer that never came. Then I plunged forward into the chaos that my life had become.
Love led me to dysfunctional vigilance. At the onset of her newfound love of beer and wine, I believed I could control my wife's drinking and stay one step ahead of her. No matter what I tried, I was never prepared for her next move. I took control of the checkbook. She went to the bank and got more checks; soon the overdrafts came. She hid all the bills. I opened a postal box so bills and important correspondence would come directly to me. On my hands and knees, I sifted through the trash in search of grocery receipts, corks and bottle caps that would contradict her assurances about not drinking. Pleading and begging were also part of my arsenal. "Please seek treatment. You need help." "No," she said. "I don't have a drinking problem."
Dramatic contrition is a major part of an alcoholic's roller-coaster behavior and helps enable the enabler. After an overnight in the drunk tank, my wife would wander back home ready to make amends. "Things will be different," she said, vowing never to buy a 12-pack or a gallon jug again. "You'll see," she added tenderly, tying an apron on, holding my hand tight in hers and pulling me back toward her to a place I never imagined existed.
For a few days, things would be better. Calmness would settle over the three of us. I would let up on my prayers even though I knew the peace was temporary. In a few days an odor gave her away: Not a beery scent, but earthy and decomposing, like death itself. Soon her clothes and hair looked oddly arranged as if dropped from the sky with no thought to tidiness. Her gait was awkward; the timing was all wrong. She lurched and swayed heavily on her toes. Bald patches appeared, revealing the red gouges she had dug in her lovely black hair. Her speech became aggressive and confrontational.
"You will have to leave me! I will never leave you," she shouted gleefully, as if she had set an inescapable trap for me. After all, the one who leaves the marriage is usually seen as the culprit, the villain who couldn't "stick it out." In retrospect, however, I stayed far past the point of being useful, or safe.
I stayed, even once the violence began.
To be hit, hard, by a woman is the ultimate test of anger management. As a man, you are allowed to be punched, kicked, slapped, scratched or made the bull's-eye of flying objects such as cast-iron skillets, lamps and chairs. Movies and television shows often try for a cheap laugh with a diminutive woman clocking a guy in the jaw or in the groin. I'm not sure why, but audiences love this scene, yet the reverse -- a man belting a woman in the face or kicking her below the belt -- is never funny and never shown. A father, a husband and a son cannot throw, under any circumstance, a retaliatory punch, even if the woman stands over you and dares you to strike back by calling you a coward and questioning your manhood. Theoretically, a woman is physically weaker, but in practice, a drunk, angry female has awesome strength.
Aside from my own decency, I was further guided in my restraint by the constant presence of my daughter, who took in our battles like a sponge. I reasoned that if I struck back at her mother, the trauma would be worse for my daughter than if I was hit. (Who knows if I was correct?) I learned to cover my face and stifle my anger. So I took one, and then another, for the family. And, at the time, I never told anyone.
I am not a saint. I wanted to hit back and I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to throw her out the door along with the hundreds of empty cans and bottles hidden away in the shed. I wanted her to perish alone in a one-car accident and be done for good with this slow death. But restraint was key. After all, I knew the deputies would almost always haul off the male in a domestic fight. Instead I left, said goodbye to the picturesque house, the south-facing garden, the tulips, the fruit trees and the tree swing.
I left my daughter, too, believing that our separation would last only as long as it took me to find a good attorney. This was a mistake, I think, one of several that I made as panic seemed to overwhelm reason. I thought my wife would only harm me and her. And although she did not physically harm our child, I can only imagine the damage that must have been done in many other ways.
At the time I believed there was a home-court advantage, a safe harbor for a child asleep in her own bed, in her own room among her cats. I was camped out on the floor of my office, surprising the janitor at 5 in the morning when he came in to empty the wastebaskets. I now understand that a safe harbor, presided over by a sober person, can exist almost anywhere.
But I was hooked, too -- on anger. It was my best friend during those terrifying months after leaving home. As I plunged into the divorce proceedings, I leaned on my rage to compile what I thought was convincing evidence for the court to grant me full custody of my (I stopped using the pronoun "our" after the first DUI) daughter. Rage fueled my life, it filled every cell of my being until it became an overdeveloped muscle that felt, well, intoxicating. And I never wavered, even when my wife paid a visit to my new apartment in the middle of the night declaring she had pancreatic cancer and I should take her back. She was lying, of course, which made me even angrier.
Fear still accompanied me, the fallout of too many dizzying punches that came out of nowhere. Soon after the late-night visit, I eventually went to the county courthouse to request an Order of Protection to keep my unpredictable wife from tearing apart my new life. As I made the request at a clerk's window, a woman who worked in the office said, looking at my 6-foot-1 frame and, I suppose, my gender, "He needs an Order of Protection?"
This insensitive aside from a public official was devastating. I immediately phoned Alternatives to Violence, a local organization mainly concerned with abuse toward women. Much to the organization's credit, a woman rushed down to the courthouse and, after chewing out the county functionary, walked me through the hearing, where I received a piece of paper that, in theory, was supposed to keep me safe. In practice, the piece of paper was as valuable as a napkin, but still I felt as if I had finally won my first battle in a war that leaves no one standing.
Eventually, though, I hit an emotional wall and a moral dilemma. To legally be granted sole custody of a child in a state not known for progressiveness in these or any other social matters would involve further destroying my wife's reputation at a time when she was drying out for a month in a state hospital. Attorneys required more money, and I would need an even larger reserve of anger. I could muster neither. Nor could my young daughter, who only wanted stability and, of course, a sober mother. I settled for joint custody.
And then one day, maybe a year after the ink was dry on the dozens of divorce papers, I woke in the morning and the anger was gone -- just like that. There was no epiphany. I can't remember if the sun was shining or if rain was falling or if a rare spring blizzard had blown in from the mountains. I simply rose off my futon, made my usual cup of strong coffee with cream and sugar and everything was different. "Time to feel good and have some fun again." By then I had added up the lawyer fees and counseling bills, and I knew that anger had saved me but also cost me dearly. No wonder I felt lighter.
My former wife finally stopped drinking, in part because some of her remaining friends held an intervention that led to her monthlong residency in a state hospital. By that time, she had lost everything. The abstinence held for a couple of good years that were vital to my daughter, but it wasn't long before there were more wrecked cars, half-truths and angry friends. Instead of obsessing about those dramas, I concentrated on my daughter's mental health and on maintaining my own fragile emergence into light. Perhaps I should have been more sympathetic to my former wife's continuing messes (after all, she is my daughter's mother), but once that first punch was thrown my way, all vestiges of support and concern disappeared.
At times in the first few years of being single -- times that I will never be proud of -- the anger returned, like sparks flaring up following an old forest fire. Standing in line at the grocery store, I would see headlines about the latest Hollywood-Nashville-LA-NFL-NBA bad boy or girl just released from Betty Ford. "Clean and Sober and Back to Work!" "New Attitude, New Baby." "Grateful for Second Chance!" Loving Life Again!" There are no headlines for the rest of us, I would think, rage building. We sober ones have to keep it together: keep the job, pay the bills, console the children, clean up the messes, talk to the insurance man, deal with repossession, foreclosure, humiliation. We have to be grown-ups. Addicts can get high and I hate them for it.
I would stomp around during these episodes, exploring self-imposed misery until I got tired of it. But the passage of time threw dirt on the smoldering ashes, and just as I forgot what I had loved so much about this flawed woman, I eventually forgot what it was that had kept me so angry for so long. Time had worked its amnesiac balm on me, or perhaps God had finally answered my prayers.