It was May, 2012. I'd been drinking a lot during this time. Daily. Not during the day, but daily. A lot of wine. A lot of dosing myself with countless glasses of it and Ambien each night. I wanted to completely black out of reality as often as possible and that combo worked. I'd often come to at 3 or 4 am with a freight-train rush of adrenaline and the smell of red wine searing my nostrils from the inside and out. I was soaked with booze inside and also often laying in a pool of it, having spilled the last glass upon passing out.
Sometimes the walls and floor around my side of the bed would be spattered with maroon, like dried blood; shards of glass scattered about from the fallen glass. I'd whip my head around to find my husband either situated as far away from me as possible in our bed, or not there at all. I'd frantically scan the bed, floor, nightstand for my phone, running my shaky fingers across the surfaces until I felt it. Once I’d find it I’d blink a few times hard – willing my eyes to focus on the screen – to check the time, scan through my texts and calls.
Did I make phone calls?
Was my last memory really the last thing I did? (It almost never was.)
This was a nightly routine and it was horrific. I'd been caught in this dilemma in the true, greek sense of the word, “a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable” for too long at that point. Leaving or staying, staying or leaving. Both outcomes were undesirable, painful, unfathomable.
I drank to numb this reality. I drank to pursue it. I drank to find the truth. I drank to un-know it.
One Wednesday that May, I was making my way to a conference room after eating lunch at my desk. My agency was in the final rounds of a pitch to the state of Massachusetts tourism board and we had a prep meeting to walk through our presentation. As we were filing into the room my stomach suddenly started aching badly. Stabbing pain with waves of nausea. I sat down at the table and took a few deep breaths, assuming this was just the regular-grade anxiety I had in these types of situations. But with each breath my stomach and chest only clenched tighter. I leaned toward my boss and quietly told him I'd be back. I hurried to our bathroom, shut the door, and knelt in front of the toilet. I placed my forehead down on the cool tile of the floor. What was happening? I needed to throw up. I started to shake. Gasped for air. Tingles radiated from my chest out to my limbs. I stood up and paced the tiny circle of this bathroom I'd cried in so many times before. I wrung out my hands, shook my head and whispering loudly to the whir of the fan, no no no no no no no no.
Whatever was happening was escalating fast and I needed help. I stumbled out of the bathroom to face the open landscape of the office. I spotted my co-worker Kelly across the room and made my way over to her. It took years.
"I need help. I don't know what's happening."
She nodded in that knowing way and helped me to one of the couches. I was positive I was dying. My hands curled in on themselves, sweat poured out from everywhere, my chest was getting crushed, and my face went numb while I repeated over and over what’s happening, what’s happening, what’s happening. Concerned faces hovered above me as the scene played out (it is not a large office) – the partners, my boss, a few others – and then, the EMTs. An oxygen mask went on. They said I’d be alright. They wheeled me out on a stretcher, onto the elevator, down four floors, I was gone.
Anyone who’s experienced a panic attack knows just how terrifying they are. That you actually, truly believe you are about to die. That death is a flit of a second away.
So naturally when the terror passes, you are washed over with profound exhaustion and relief. A kind of rawness I’ve only ever experienced after childbirth. I rode in the back of the ambulance to Boston Medical, still holding Kelly’s hand.
She asked me what was happening.
I heard my voice speak these words, “I know it’s done, Kelly. I know my marriage is over.” With those words came a river of slow, hot, salty tears - each one carrying an equal amount of pain and relief. There it was. I had said it. I let the words hang out there in the space of that ambulance. Without further explanation, justification, debate, backtracking. I just let them be. I closed my eyes.
I got checked in, Kelly called my husband, and eventually he came.
Despite all we’d been through – the countless ways I’d hurt him and he’d disappointed me, despite our colossal failings and unresolved resentments that preceded this moment – he sat at my side and held my hand. Under the hard armor of grief and frustration, I saw a trace of old, familiar kindness in the back of his eyes. The softness one has for someone with whom they’ve fought a war. The marrow part of love.
“This happens when you're drinking too much,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
Silence. A long silence.
“Are we going to be okay?” I turned to him, looking up from the hospital bed.
“Yeah.” He nodded quietly, knowing what I meant. That I was not referring to the married “we,” but to each of us, separately. Separate. That we were letting it all fall apart.
I do not remember the rest of that night. If we slept in the same bed, or alone. Who put our daughter to bed. Whether or not we ate. The moving out, the reorganization of drawers to fill extra space, the purchase of his new navy couch, the old hiking boots he left behind and never took back, waking up alone after a blizzard one Saturday morning in January and digging out my own path, for eight hours, hungover.
We could have arrived at that point dozens of other times before or after that. There were countless crescendos to fights where we pushed up to the edge of the end, but did not leap. Stretches of time we filled with day-to-day comings and goings, talk about our daughter, bills, a party, family, so we could turn away from the elephant – still unsure whether it had come to stay. But this is how it goes, doesn’t it? We hold on when we do not know whether to let go.
We stand still when can’t decide which way to turn.
We put our hands over our eyes until we are forced to peel them away.
We keep it together until we are forced to let it all fall apart.
We suspend disbelief and hold out for a miracle.