Saturday night, when it happened, the shame was crippling, and I couldn't breathe or think. Everything was a muted wash of gray.
Until the waves of rage and nausea, and the fantasies – beating holes in the wall with a microphone stand, slicing my wrists open, shrieking obscenities into the night. Then the addict, slamming me with euphoric recall. Escape this body, plunge into ecstasy, get what you deserve, Eli. I'm a strong swimmer – I've trained in these waters for years – so why the fuck was I drowning again? I was fighting for breath, but my cognitive and recovery tools were failing me.
I got through the night and slept (eventually), but at 5:00 Sunday morning I was begging Linsey for help. I'm so depressed I can't get out of bed, I told her. I can't do this today. Somehow I found myself leading a worship rehearsal three hours later, and I did fine, because when I'm behind a piano I know what I'm doing. I cried in between lyrics, and thanked my God for this moment of competence and peace. For deliverance.
But all of life is not a song. I went home and curled into the fetal position under my covers, and hated my body for convincing me again to approach her with my guard down. One of the ways I cope when I'm triggered is I step back, out of the moment, and imagine retelling the events at some later time. This way I get some distance and perspective. It usually helps, but not this time. Because it sounded so stupid when it came out like this:
“Saturday night everything was right for sex. We'd flirted and hinted, the kids were in bed, the chores were done. I allowed myself to feel desire. I thought I could handle the risk of being vulnerable. I came up behind her at the table and loved on her with a back rub and gentle kisses. She closed her eyes and sighed. Then she jumped up and started turning off lights and putting things away, and disappeared into the bathroom. I tried to hold on to the moment, but I went numb. We never recovered.”
I told our therapist Heidi what happened, that I was emotionally broken and unsalvageable. You shouldn't descend into despair when your wife has to go to the bathroom. But with work, we isolated this part of the story: I had asked Linsey, “Don't worry about the lights, just come to the bedroom with me. I'm coming back out here later and I'll close up.” But she can't do this. The abused and frightened little girl inside my wife still freaks out when an excited man starts touching her, so she looks for ways to stop the flow of intimacy, and to regain control.
And then I'm triggered.
And I tell myself, she's just turning off the lights, just kissing the kids goodnight, just making a quick phone call, just washing her face, but it's a lie, because these silly little games echo all the way back to our honeymoon. And someday, I'll be strong enough to say “IT'S NOT MY FAULT” instead of “what the hell is wrong with you, Eli?”
I've retitled my blog from "Eli's Addict" to "Eli Hornby." Basically, I was tired of seeing "Eli & # 39 ;s Addict" in places where the HTML was not rendered correctly. (It doesn't seem like an apostrophe should be that big of a deal, but whatever.)
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I want to put some kind of warning at the top of posts about Elena (the emotional affair) so that Linsey (the wife) won't have to read them. But why bother? Linsey knows everything anyway. I call her Sherlock Holmes because she's so freakin' hyper-vigilant. Over the years she's become a better and better detective, while I've become a better and better liar. The codependent vs. addict arms race.
Back to Elena. It's hard enough for me to express the officially sanctioned emotions, like gratitude or joy or excitement. So I guess I should go easy on myself for avoiding the grief I feel over ending a relationship with someone else's wife. But feel it I must, as I've been told many times by my therapist brigade.
Elena was a sexual abuse survivor, just like my wife. She was hard on the outside, desperate and scared on the inside. Like all the girls I've been drawn to, she was maddeningly hot and cold. One day she'd flirt, enticing me past my boundaries with warmth and danger, the next day she'd pretend she didn't know me. Women like this get under my skin, and I become obsessed with getting through their defenses. I've lived for this buzz since middle school. I've come to view it as my earliest addiction.
I can honestly say the prize I'm after is their trust. I want permission to tease and talk intimately with the most intriguing girl in the room, while other guys chase after the skirts. Yeah, I'm that guy. The one you can't complain about because he's been a friend to your wife, and you know he's not necessarily trying to get into her pants, but you keep tabs on him all the same. Except Elena's husband didn't know, or care, because he was too busy flirting with the girls at his work.
What made Elena different than all the rest? I'd been drawing bull's eyes on women for years, in classes, in choirs, at work. Basically, she was the first one who truly reciprocated. The rest had flirted back, then moved on. They knew that if you let a guy flirt for too long, he begins to feel entitled, possessive. Elena didn't mind. I was always trying to figure out exactly what was going on, what each of us was getting out of the relationship. My answer was: She likes that I pay attention to her. I like that she lets me.
You must understand where I was at that point. I had long given up on my marriage, and more significantly, me. I'd read the books I was supposed to read and tried the stuff I was supposed to do, and none of it fucking mattered. Each time Linsey tensed up when I touched her, every urgent phone call she remembered just as we headed to the bedroom, each little rejection left me feeling more and more repulsive. I must have been a pretty sick person to take all of her shit and conclude it was entirely my fault. Today, when I get paranoid about what she talks about in her support groups, Linsey likes to say “it's not all about you, Eli.” Oh how I wish somebody had told me that back then.
So it was a big deal when the Starbucks girl flirted with me, while I was buying hot chocolate for my son's preschool teacher, who happened to be Elena. (Who didn't like coffee, hence the hot chocolate.) And each day when I dropped off my son, the Starbucks was payment for Elena's affection and attention. And I ate it up. She was tiny (Linsey says “elfish”), Latina, a little psycho, and had poor boundaries – all the things that turn me on. We texted and talked on the phone, instant messaged, MySpaced. Then we each carefully covered our tracks, erasing our call logs and internet histories, so our spouses wouldn't find out.
Eventually it all came crashing down, but I'll have to tell that story another day. I'm exhausted emotionally, because despite my resolve, Elena still pulls strings in my heart. Don't tell me the difference between “love” (the mature commitment) and “love” (the high school feeling) because you know as well as I do that every human being yearns for both. Elena and I both grew during those years, and for what it's worth, she was a beautiful person. We laughed endlessly and she was kind to me when I was heartbroken.
I remember crying to Elena on the phone over a mess I'd made by relapsing. I understand it cost her nothing to comfort me, to tell me I was going to make it. I understand she didn't have to live with me. I understand our feelings for each other were illicit, addictive, destructive, selfish, reckless, and short-sighted. But they were real, and I miss them. I miss her, her voice and her eyes. Most of all I miss her friendship.
On my porch there are two potted trees (not just one!), waiting to be planted. But don't tell anybody.
Our Palm Sunday musical featured Tree #1, which represented the branches placed at the feet of Christ a week before Easter. But really I just wanted to grab people's attention with a giant tree in the middle of the sanctuary.
Tree #2 was a sneaky replacement prop for Good Friday. We bought this tree larger, and trimmed it to match the first tree's shape. Then we cut off every single leaf. It stood stark and bare for our Friday evening service, a symbol of death and the cross.
Tree #1, bushy and green, returned for Easter morning, newly filled with blooms to symbolize the resurrection.
This illusion involved me carrying trees back and forth to a hiding place in the back yard of an associate who lives next door to the church. Yes, I carried my tree-cross over my shoulder just hours before we commemorated the crucifixion. It was painful, thought-provoking, and I'm sorry, but darkly comical.
There's your back story, so let me get to the point. After Easter, this wiped-out music director went on a week's vacation and forgot all about the Easter Tree. It sat unwatered for days in a dark sanctuary until I rescued it, along with the “dead” tree hidden next door to the church. They're now on my porch. Tonight they gave me a handle on the mess that's in my head.
You see, the Easter Tree looks awful. It was cared for and made beautiful for one special day, then discarded and forgotten as a stage prop. And that's what I do – like a magician – I show you something evocative and poignant, and make you cry while I sing you an Easter song. Meanwhile the ugliness of my Good Friday tree is hiding somewhere behind a fence, because it's messy and unsightly and I'm ashamed that I can't really make it come back to life. But I'm an artist and a shaman, and that's what you pay me to do, isn't it?
So I find myself tonight recognizing a shade of a Madonna-Whore complex in my feelings towards Linsey. (Maybe the limited intimacy in our relationship wasn't just her idea after all.) I present her with a carefully edited version of my needs, a simple and wholesome package of easily palatable human desires. Then I take whatever's left, and hide it in the darker, grimier corners of my life, where no one will see these more shameful needs spilling over, soiling my dignity.
But in sobriety I've learned this doesn't work. I can't meet my needs (for affection, intimacy, play) with images and intrigue. Nor can I destroy them through anger and will. Either path leads, inevitably, to relapse. Instead, I have to look at my needs, which for some reason involves self-loathing and disgust, and what's worse, I have to show them to Linsey. And until this last year, the process generally ended there, with me cursing my vulnerability. But things have changed. Significantly. When I expose my needs to Linsey, when I allow myself to adore and be adored, I find I'm no longer alone.
This mutuality in our love has been unfamiliar, satisfying, even occasionally transcendent. But I can never say, “Good job, Eli – You chose to connect rather than isolate.” Instead, I usually spend the morning after feeling sick that I exposed my needs and desires rather than shrouding them in composure and reserve.
And here's where the tree comes in. Not the Easter Tree that withered from neglect, but the Good Friday tree. The one we we almost killed by stripping its branches of all color and dignity. Though painful, the exposure left it pruned for growth, and vibrant green buds now fill every twig and branch.
There's something about grieving that's...mysterious.
That's what he said. And that's what I needed to hear.
Of course we'd also hit the basics. The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It's funny how you can hear this stuff over and over, think you're so emotionally intelligent, and then completely miss what's going on in your own life. Until your therapist points it out. So part of recovery is facing the grief of loss, even when the losing is intentional, as in letting go of your addictions and the people who've dragged you down.
Not that this is anything new for me. Losing Lita, now that was grief. Linsey and I were young, and naïve, and idealistic. Somehow we got the idea in our heads that we were supposed to adopt Lita, a seven-year-old foster child in my wife's classroom. It didn't work out. And I still don't really understand what happened there. She was never mine to lose in the first place, so why did it hurt so bad? The last day we ever saw Lita, I ran to the store to buy her a gift. Maybe no one noticed the grown man weeping as he looked for a “goodbye” card in the aisles of Food 4 Less, but I know I wasn't alone. Because for some reason that day every angel and muse of longing and heartbreak ascended on me to play me a song, and instead of background muzak I heard these words:
There are roads that can take you to places that you've never been. There are people, when you meet them it's like they have lived inside your skin. There are souls you connect with so strong, a bond that's so deep and so true. And that's the way I feel about you.
There are times, like a magnet you're drawn into some body's life. You don't know what you're doing or why you are there, but you know it's right. There's a sense that the piece that was missing has suddenly come into view. And that's the way I feel about you.
I believe in this world there is nothing that happens by chance. There's a reason that at just this particular moment you came into my hands. Like a gift that you never expected you treasure your whole life through. And that's the way I feel about you.
Lita's ghost haunts my River Isis. I'm not afraid of her, nor am I ashamed of her presence. Because loving Lita was a good and beautiful thing, something that Linsey and I did together, with nothing but good intentions. And that kind of grieving I'm OK with. My struggle is in allowing myself to grieve those things that I'm ashamed of.
I wish I only had to introduce you to ME: dad, husband, songwriter, pastor. That’s the guy I see in the mirror. I love my kids, I’m good at fixing things, I love to read or chase my dogs around the house. But I lose track of myself sometimes when I’m hurting. That’s when my addict comes around, the bastard who would throw it all away for a moment alone with his drugs and his porn. He cuts me with a razor and he steals things just for the rush. He’s even tried to kill me. But there’s a huge difference between us, and I’ll tell you what it is: He’s a coward. And I’m not. I won’t let him have my kids, my beautiful wife, my job or my home. And since he hates exposure, I’m going to tell you all about him. I’m Eli, and I’m an addict.