The Lonely House of Truth: Part II—Holiday of Freedom
Shalva kissed the tearful children, who were trying to cling to her as she squeezed through the front door. After weeks of recovery, she was finally able to get out without someone driving her around. Her joy was short-lived, but the manipulative sobbing to keep her home only deepened her resolve. She carefully pulled the door closed, locked it, and kissed the tips of her fingers before grazing the mezuzah with them. She commanded herself to control her desire to skip down the stairs to her car. Pesach was only days away, and she felt like a little kid who had decided to do her homework on the bus the next morning, so she could play outside a little longer. The kitchen was not yet ready, and the bedrooms...It would all get done, because it needed to. She was never one of those types who posted pictures of her freezer, jammed-packed with meals weeks ahead of time. That would be real slavery to Shalva. She drove through the streets, which were barely lit by the twilight sky, and then wove onto the highway. As her speed increased, her tensed muscles relaxed.
She felt less distracted by everything in her life and more aware of her thoughts about herself. She wondered about tonight's topic. Who would lead? Would she relate? Would she share? Of course she would. It was just magical the way the topic always met her right where she needed to be. Could she say “Divinely inspired” when the meeting was in the preschool building adjacent to a church? She found herself laughing out loud, wondering if it was ironic, or perhaps serendipitous, for an Orthodox Jew in a Catholic Church to experience Divine intervention.
Generally, she liked being early, but after a few weeks away, she found herself pulling into the unlit parking lot at half past seven, just as the meeting was beginning. After rummaging through her purse for two one dollar bills and silencing her phone, Shalva locked her doors, walked up the wooden back stairs and pushed open the heavy fire door, into the bright light of the large rec room. The table was almost full, and she gauged the best place to sit. She sought one that would leave her between two women at the end when they all held hands, thus preventing a violation of the halacha not to touch a man.
There were two women on the near side, but there was plenty of room for a latecomer to push in a chair. She decided to place a chair between Jen and...what was that woman's name with the addicted parents and brother? Well, she would be reminded shortly, when they all went around.
"We welcome you to the Al-Anon family group." The meeting began, as she settled in. She dropped her two dollars into the basket in the middle. "We too were lonely, frustrated..." The words washed over her like cool waves on a hot summer day. Refreshing. Necessary. She momentarily reflected back to her children at home. She knew she needed to leave them, but it broke her heart to think of them not going to sleep on time. Watching videos and snacking on whatever until she returned, unless they happened to fall asleep, exhausted. Yet, she must take care of herself. How else could she possibly be able to parent them well otherwise? She needed her strength renewed, her courage readied to face the upcoming weeks.
She brought her attention back and joined in as the serenity prayer was said in unison. "G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." She breathed more easily. Tim, graying at the temples and clean-cut, spoke. He was leading this week. He began the One Day at a Time passage, "Sometimes, we find ourselves in a situation so difficult that it seems like a long, drawn-out crisis..." He discussed his fear of the loneliness he had experienced trying to hide his mother's alcoholism from his teachers and friends when he was 8 years old. About not wanting to bring friends home. About being fearful of getting notifications for parent-teacher conferences, lest his mom turn up at school drunk. And how now, even as he raised his daughter alone and away from his estranged alcoholic wife, he feared the condemnation of his colleagues and his daughter's school. "Each crisis can seem to flow into the next. I am trying to let go and let my Higher Power take the lead. Trying to accept that I can only do my best and keep my daughter and myself safe and happy. When I begin to think about what happens if her mom turns back up...I try to just ask myself if it is worth my serenity to be constantly worried about what will be. I’m trying to hand it over to my Higher Power. Trying to hand it over. Thanks for listening."
"Thanks for sharing, Tim," the small group's response echoed off the oversized rec room's walls.
Shalva's thoughts turned again to Pesach preparations, as a pregnant pause filled the air. So much to accomplish. Alone. While other people had spouses who schlepped boxes and cleaned alongside them, Shalva's path to the holiday was maneuvered alone. Everyone she knew was deep into the panic of, "How is everything going to get done?" Shalva didn't allow herself entry into that type of space. She knew that every year, her Higher Power helped her out and gave her strength. She would make it—like she always did. She just wished it didn't pain her. She wanted to let go of her resentment. Just forge onward with a smile. But the loss of what she had expected in a marriage was real. That was true of everyone in the room—a loss so significant that it upended their lives.
The silence and her thoughts were punctured as two people began at once. "Hi, I'm Julio," said one, as the other said, "Hi, I'm, LaTisha."
‘LaTisha,’ Shalva nodded. ‘Yes, that's her name.’
Julio and LaTisha both laugh briefly, and Julio said, "Ladies first," with a flourish of his hand.
LaTisha capitulated and repeated her opening. Everyone greeted her, and she launched into the latest saga of her parents’ and brother's antics. Their drug use, and LaTisha's ongoing attempts to extricate herself from their problems, was weighing heavily on her as she put herself through college, while living in their basement. She knew that she could not afford to live elsewhere, and she had to keep her emotional distance as much as possible. "I know I can't count on them for anything—except maybe what I don't want from them. I carry around a quote with me from Courage to Change." LaTisha reached into her purse and pulled out a well-worn, creased paper. "An expectation is premeditated resentment." She folded the paper up and put it back in her purse. As she pulled the zipper closed, she added, "I am trying to lower my expectations or rid myself of them. It is really hard for me, but I don't need to have stomach pains with every interaction. I don't have the energy for the resentment. I want to take myself to a different place than that. Thanks for listening."
Julio spoke next. He described trying to live his life in a healthy way, with a brain scarred by living through abuse as a child. "Although I am not in a cycle of crisis in my life, and actually find myself in a healthy relationship, I don't want to mess it up by imposing long-gone problems on today. I am aiming for progress—not perfection—in myself. It is hard to shake myself out of my childhood and my self-perception of myself as a child, alone and helpless. I want to feel my wholeness, my worthiness. Even my power of survival." He sighed deeply, "Thanks."
Progress, not perfection. Shalva was making progress with her cleaning. Most of the shopping was done, except the fresh fruits and vegetables. Step by step. Things would never be perfect in her house, but that was never really her goal. Perfection was perhaps antithetical to anything she aspired to. Healthy functioning. Now that was a good goal.
"Hi, I'm Anne."
"Sometimes, breathing the next breathe is the hardest part. My husband's depression and rage nullified me. He was withdrawn and hopeless. I'm naturally a cheerful person, but juggling so many things and trying to pretend that everything was really ok nearly sucked the life out of me."
Shalva's thoughts began to pound in her head. Too close to home. She knew that Anne had left before they had kids. But Shalva had a whole crew to take care of. Was she so naive that she didn't understand the problems earlier in their relationship? She loved her children with a ferocious passion, but she wondered about a person who would have children—so many children—in such a situation.
Self-condemnation would not help things. She had to take a few deep, calming breaths to re-center herself and bring herself back to the meeting.
"So now," Anne was saying in conclusion, "I am working on myself to be accepting of the choices I have made in the past, and just move forward. One foot in front of the next, writing the next scene, in which there are healthy characters and desirable outcomes. Thanks for listening."
"Thanks for sharing," Shalva responded quietly with the group.
Shlava’s emotions bubbled up, compelling her to begin to speak.
"Hi. I'm Shalva. What LaTisha said earlier about expectations and resentment really resonated with me. I have Passover coming up, and the preparation is daunting. I have to take all the food and dishes and pots and everything out of my kitchen and move all the Passover things in. I know that it is just me. The kids can help a little, but the majority of the work is for adults. I have tried so hard to drop my expectations, but honestly they are still there. I want a partner in my life, but that is not what I have in the way I need. The way I want.
“I asked my husband to go down to get a foil pan from the basement. I don't ask for too much, but I asked for this. He went down, but didn't come back up for a couple of minutes. I figured that he ended up talking to one of the kids or zoning out on his phone, so I decided to just go down and get it calmly myself. As I passed him, he yelled angrily, "I told you I'd get it!" I just lost it. I was ok with him not getting it, but to yell at me? So I turned to him and said that he hadn’t gotten the pan, so I just came to get it since I needed it right now. And that I'd just take care of what I need—as always.
“He later told me that it is not fair that I am throwing things back at him in anger. I tried to explain it all to him, but he just doesn't understand. Or can't. I don't want to be angry, but sometimes that's all there is. I try to focus on, "Say what you mean, but don't say it meanly." But his anger at me when I was simply trying to get the pan to finish dinner...that pushed me over the edge.
“This sounds ridiculous, I'm sure. I just can't control this, any of it. I'm human. Wanting to do the right thing. It's my holiday of freedom—Passover—that's coming up. Maybe I have to accept my humanity to be free. The chaos-spiraling is real. I can feel it and accept it and survive it, and maybe that's all there is. Maybe freedom is facing the truth. I am enslaved to my fantasy life, and I need to live my real one. Maybe that will set me free."
Shalva sighed, and then glanced around at all the faces looking at her. A sign on the wall caught her eye. She pointed to it and read it out loud to the group. "Every time I tell the truth, I gain my own freedom," she read. "Maybe that sign says it all. I need to be truthful with myself to find my freedom. Thanks for being here, and thanks for listening."
Shalva barely listened to the last two people and the closing remarks. She was thinking about freedom. And truth.
She walked out of the building and down the stairs into the darkened parking lot. Humming to herself, she began to skip to the car. LaTisha called to her, "Wait up!" As LaTisha caught up to Shalva, they linked their arms together. They skipped right past Shalva's car and sped up. "Freedom and truth," the words rolled off of Shalva's lips before she even realized she was speaking. LaTisha echoed the words. And before they knew it, they were skipping around the parking lot and chanting together, "Freedom and truth! Freedom and truth! Freedom and truth!" while the dimly lit street lamp sputtered and went out. And in that darkness, they finally saw the beacon of the light of freedom.
If you have a close friend or family member who suffers from addiction and is affecting your life, check out the Al-Anon website to find a support group near you. To read more about what it is like to live with someone who has an addiction problem, read the article, Living with Addiction.