If only I had been gifted a brilliant career as a successful, childless writer, I, too, could have jetted off to Italy, India, and Indonesia to eat, pray, and love. But while Elizabeth Gilbert partook of the exotic pleasures of the world, I was an everyday housewife.
In the wake of ending a destructive marriage, I inherited two kids, a dog, and an intimate relationship with creditors. An affordable destination for me was traveling to 7-Eleven for Ben and Jerry’s at midnight.
I realized I had become a participant in “domesticide.” It’s my word. I made it up. It’s this housewife’s word for the mental suicide you commit when, after years of abuse, you dare to depart the marital domicile.
Let me be clear that domesticide doesn’t happen at the time of divorce. The actual moment you split up is simply when you find out what you’ve been doing to yourself for years, most likely ever since childhood. Domesticide denotes the slow death of who you really are by what you have become through endlessly chasing the elusive “happily ever after.”
The signs of big trouble were apparent in my recurring sexual fantasy of my husband being run over by a large lawnmower with rusty blades. It became abundantly clear to me that obsessively fantasizing about the freedom one would gain by redeeming a spouse’s life insurance was not healthy.
My exploration of awakening was a bit different than E.G’s. I did, however, eat. Well, more accurately, binged. Chocolate bars, ice cream, and chips. I do seem to remember one desperate night being curled up on the bathroom floor, quickly gulping an entire pint of gelato. There were many occasions I plucked sauce-laden spaghetti out of my child’s hair or off the walls and floors. At least my path was not entirely without Italian food.
I also prayed. Well, perhaps it was more like swearing:
“Jesus f’ing Christ, what did I do in my last life to deserve this f’ing bulls*it?”
I was not always an ordinary housewife. Before I married so many years ago, I was a spirited girl whose adventurous nature propelled me into exhilarating situations and extraordinary geographical locations.
Among my many adventures, I joined the U.S. Coast Guard, now clear to me it was actually an act of teenage rebellion. I despised the fact my dad was a big-time drug dealer. What better way to rebel than to chase drug boats? Another impetus was that my brother was a professional diver and worshiped the ocean. He spent much of his time swimming, boating, and diving. When a drunk driver killed him at the age of nineteen, he was buried at sea, and I have always felt connected to him when I’m near the ocean. My career choice was a natural fit: Chase drug runners and rescue people from the stormy billows.
I recall a rescue in which a swordfish launched itself right through a seaman’s kneecap. Riding ten-foot to fifteen-foot seas, our little forty-four-foot motor lifeboat was a mere toy as we approached the unforgiving rusty steel walls of the one-hundred-and-forty-foot ship. The plan was to come alongside the vessel, and then for two of us to jump from the bow onto the ladder and climb our way to the top. We would apply first aid and prepare the patient for helicopter medivac.
It was cold, gray, and perilous. One slip of the hand or foot, or the misjudgment of the coxswain, and death would follow. Yet I was charged with excitement, with no fear in me whatever. I was completely in the moment, ruggedly alive.
So, how did I allow the adventurous spirit in me to be buried under the weighty role of an everyday housewife? What under-the-radar parts of me emerged to ensure I would lose track—for a while—of what was real in me.
When I was a child, my skin fit perfectly. It felt wonderful to be me. In fact, it never occurred to me to consider being anything but myself.
I especially loved my toes, because they let me plow through life with enthusiastic glee. I remember feeling my feet fly through the lumpy knolls of grass in our yard, leaping, spinning, stumbling, and laughing without concern for the wheres, hows, or whys of the world.
As the years passed, my unrestrained gladness evaporated like the unused perfume on the vanity: the brand in a bottle that looked so pretty, you thought you would save it forever. Life pointed out to me things unnoticed before: a puff of my belly, my uneven smile, jiggly thighs, saggy breasts, and worst of all, crooked toes.
I also learned speech and joy are best edited. You are judged by every word you speak, and kids on the playground or school bus can be cruel. And, even more so, adults. My father’s first arrest and subsequent media frenzy incarcerated me, too, sentencing me to isolation and loneliness when my childhood friends were forbidden by their parents to talk or play with me anymore.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I heard repeatedly.
I see now these small erosions of my natural face, of my own wellspring later kept me tethered to trying to play a role and make “happily ever after” work, whatever the cost. Adult cruelty—sometimes more eloquently disguised and often not, especially in a marriage where there is abuse—only escalated the erosion. Fears surfaced in the heat of stress: fears drilled in from the past where I learned early—though forgot for a while—that you don’t take risks when it comes to affection. Generations of adult cynicism rose halting that unbridled enthusiasm, which initially led me to adventure.
The final key to losing that youthful spirit: fear of being broke. The last place I was taught you don’t risk is matters of money. I’ve coined a special term for money matters and that fear. Friganomics: The science dealing with the changes occurring in the production and distribution of money, the consumption of good and services or the material welfare of my checking account once I implement a critical life decision. Translated, it means F**** I’m going to be broke again!
We were warned about that one.
How will you support yourself?
That one slams the door shut on unbridled enthusiasm. And if a man says it, those creatures that we learn as a little girl onward are powerful, dominant, and, therefore, sacred (even God has been assigned the male gender), then we find our brighter parts of ourselves eroding yet further.
Besides, I believed the path to “happily ever after” was to have the devoted attention of the opposite sex, to reproduce miniature versions of ourselves and pose proudly at the local Sears photography studio to show everybody we had achieved “the dream.” It follows that domesticide would be inevitable.
Spiraling back through seven years, I clearly see now my equal share of responsibility in this suburban derailment of happily ever after.
I fell into an age-old pattern of victim in the face of abuse.
Did I understand that then? No, who does?
Each year of the fifteen-year marriage, I gave away more power. When I left, I paid a price. Someone once said, “As goes the marriage, so goes the divorce.” Amen. Did I really think my ex would do anything other than “cut off the funding?” No surprise there.
Did I cave at times and want to grab him by the ankles on his way out the door and pull him back? Been there, done that. Did it even cross my mind to seek to win him back? Yeah, that also occurred to me.
Sheer Frigonometry alone makes most women slip into those delusions. Frigonometry, the sister of Friganomics: the science of carefully extracting enough money from one’s grocery budget to pay for something you don’t really want, like the tire to fix the unexpected flat on one’s car.
Or, F**** A flat tire! But I need new shoes!
Looking at the bottom line, though, I started to value myself and realized the only people who belong in our lives at that intimate level called marriage are those who treasure us. They need to have at least as much affection for us as our cats and dogs do.
In the long body of memory I am clear and know that before I left the pain of my past behind, I resembled all of those corseted women who came before me: women who drove their real desire, the core of their true and natural face deeply within until it disappeared like drops of dew on a spider web warmed by the morning sun, like the perfume in the bottle. Men, too, often are captives to society’s tight reign on the “happily ever after myth” when it becomes a matter of role-playing and not a vital and authentic existence. How the unwritten contracts of the day, decade, and century have tangled us all at times.
This next part of my story is dark—really dark. Not like the hue of dark chocolate, but more like the tint of a two-hundred-year-old musty basement with a single burned-out light bulb.
It’s difficult for one who is truly unhappy in a marriage to determine what the snapping point will be. Somehow, we endure wildly inexplicable swings between, “It’s not so bad, I can stick this out,” and, “If I have to feel his penis slowly undulating against my backside to try and wake me out of my escapist sleep one more time! I mean, what does he think I am? I’m sleeping over here! And P.S., I have the flu, moron!”
I have a vivid memory of when I developed the skill of biting into my lip during sex to distract me from the hideousness of the act. Not that I find sex itself obnoxious, just sex with “him.”
When the lip biting stopped working, I implemented the well-studied techniques chronicled by former prisoners of war. I tried to carry myself away to a place far away from my reality. I didn’t know at the time that this was actually a primitive form of meditation. I realize now it was attempting to establish a state of being in place of doing. This can only be achieved by the abandonment of external expectations and a strict adherence to the aphorism, “To thine own self be true.”
With no income of your own, no resume of substance, and little courage, it can be tricky to call the game. Eventually, you must have faith in yourself and the universe, throw a dart at the calendar, and rip out the plug. Don’t forget to sign the “do not resuscitate order.” Also, be sure to pack a large bucket because, trust me, that ship is going to take on a lot of water.
For me it was January 1, 2001. 01-01-01. I picked this date for no other reason than it rolled off the tongue and I had run out of excuses for the previous 365 days. Oh, not to forget: times fourteen years. Besides, 01-01-01 had a fresh start veneer.
I would like to report that, as our marriage was ending, I courageously looked him right in the eyes. I did not. Standing in the bedroom, I looked right past his ear and toward the door announcing, “I’m leaving you.”
No obligatory, “I’m sorry, but …,” as I simply was not sorry at all.
Even though I feared death by strangulation, leaving him was a much more humane act than the alternative. My other idea was to push him down the stairs into a thousand alcohol-soaked fondue forks. That might sound a bit harsh, but the truth often stinks like dog sh*t on the bottom of your brand new Jimmy Choos.
On 01-02-01, I stood alone in the kitchen, wondering how I would feed my children. The only thing I had was the twenty-dollar bill he had thrown on the floor in front of me.
“You want a life of your own?” he had yelled. “Now you have it! Of course, you won’t be getting the kids ‘cause all you have is twenty dollars, you useless *****!”
How many fondue forks can one buy with twenty dollars?
Friggin’ Friganomics was going to haunt me from day one.
This is what hate does to you. It turns good human beings into mean-spirited mongrels.
My body crumpled into a lumpy pile of flesh and bones in a puddle of tears on the linoleum floor, much like the witch in the Wizard of Oz after she was doused with a bucket of water. I fell asleep there on the floor.
When I awakened, there were polar opposite feelings. The first was fear, the horror movie “cellar” kind of fear. I was petrified of what the future would bring. The second feeling was a weird sort of deep internal peace, though at the time I did not recognize this for what it really was because it was so foreign to me, kind of like a tourist paying a quick visit. Or, like when flipping through the TV channels, you land on the Spanish station and have no clue what they are talking about.
I glanced at the yellowish tile smooshed into my cheek and remembered that once, not so long ago, my dream was to have a ceramic floor. I turned my gaze up to the crab apple tree outside my kitchen window. Its craggy old branches reminded me of an eighty-eight-year-old arthritic grandma, guarding the yard with her straw broom and stern eyes.
Then a flake of snow fell, a single solitary pure white jewel. It floated to the ground effortlessly, gliding as if music was carrying it through the wintry air. It jarred something inside me. I remembered the teeniest fragment of that carefree little girl twirling through the grass, and I realized she was still here.
Then as quickly as she arrived, she disappeared.