One man’s journey to forget, after living in “the dungeon of this sub-conscious torture chamber for 15 years.”
I was yelling. Roaring. Hitting out in homicidal rage.
I can’t remember what words I was trying so shout in my sleep but animal sounds were coming out of my mouth and they simultaneously jolted me and my wife awake.
“What’s happening?” Laura asked, frightened, confused, turning towards me in our bed, in our darkened room.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was dreaming that you were Emma and that you had been with Maurice.”
“Huh!” she sighed. “Wrong woman.” She put her head down on her pillow, said “Go back to sleep” and was almost instantaneously asleep again. Next morning, there was no mention of this moment. She seems to have forgotten it.
But I lay there for some time, shaken and sickened, feeling imprisoned, possessed, ready to put a rope round my neck. How many more years must I be damned to go on dreaming and compulsively thinking about these people – my ex-wife and the former friend and neighbour with whom she had the affair that destroyed our marriage so long ago?
I got out of bed, slipped quietly out of the room and went to the kitchen, where the clock on the oven told me it was 2.53 on Thursday January 3 2013. What it didn’t say was that I have been imprisoned in the dungeon of this sub-conscious torture chamber for 15 years.
Emma and I separated in 1998. I moved to another country. I met Laura in 2000. Our first daughter was born in 2002. Laura and I married in 2004. Our second daughter was born in 2005. We have a successful, stable marriage and a happy family.
The last 13 years have been, incomparably, the best, the happiest and the most fruitful of my life. We have not only created the loving family I always wanted: we have also built a house and fenced and cultivated an acre of garden that was previously rough pasture. In this marriage, for the first time in my life, I have enjoyed financial security, with no mortgage and no debt of any kind.
Our greatest achievement – the one that gives me most pride out of my entire life – is that, before they went to school full-time, Laura and I brought up our little girls throughout their early years as a joint and mutual enterprise. We both looked after the children, in every respect; and we both supported them financially, fitting our work around our parental duties. It wasn’t easy and there were times when we were tight for money but we proved to ourselves that it was – as we had wanted to believe – possible for two parents to bring up babies cooperatively themselves and to enjoy their infancies fully.
With so much to celebrate – so much to be grateful for – why the hell (the word is completely appropriate) does my mind constantly churn with thoughts of those people who did me so much harm? Why does my sub-conscious dwell so darkly on the losses that I suffered rather than in the light of all that I have gained – not just in dreams when I am asleep but as a constant undertow to my daily, waking existence?
In “Some Thoughts on Forgiveness” – a moving and touching piece on GMP on December 28, 2012 – Rick Belden wrote: “Every wound has its own story and its own life, and many wounds are not healed simply by waiting and thinking happy thoughts. They have to be faced, entered, lived in, listened to, understood. They have to be cleansed with tears and shouting and shaking and all the other ways that the human body expresses and discharges the stored energies of fear and pain and grief. They have to be allowed to speak, to tell their stories in their own way and their own time. They have to be met and seen, acknowledged and accepted in all their painful glory as the wild, primal things they are.”
That is the kind of process that is going on my deranged head all the time. That’s what I am dealing with every other hour, even while I am successfully and happily conducting a normal family life.
For example, every afternoon, when I cook our family meal, I listen to Radio Heartland from St Paul/Minneapolis on the internet radio in the kitchen. That eclectic mix of acoustic, blues and country music constantly triggers thoughts of Emma and me and Maurice. I peel the potatoes to George Jones’s He Stopped Loving Her Today and I remember Emma telling me “I do love you but not in the way you want me to.” I check the oven while Ray Charles is singing Then I’ll Be Over You and I think of the times when Emma and I were in bed together and, after we had separated and gathered our breath, she had whispered “Can we do it again?” My lovely girls are watching television. One of them comes to the kitchen to ask for food. I tell her to take a banana. Meanwhile Bill Withers’ Who Is He and What Is He to You? is playing on the radio and I am remembering the time I asked Emma what was going on between her and Maurice and she paused a beat, looking scared (I would now say), and then answered – in tones that suggested that the question itself was unreasonable – “He’s nothing more than a friend who needs me as a friend.”
Is it necessary to exhume the detailed story of that affair and the destruction of the relationship between me and Emma? I would like to think not. As I said to Emma in the summer of 1998, after we had separated, “it’s a tawdry cliché, nothing more than the story of a classic triangle” and, at bottom, that’s about as much as anybody else needs to know. It could have cost a life or maybe more than one; but that drama occupies the pages of every local newspaper carries every other week. The deceits, the betrayals, the humiliations, the rages, the desperation, the despair – that all went on for years before we separated; but so what? As B.B.King once sang “That’s a story everybody knows.” I loved Emma passionately, devotedly, faithfully and found in her the union of sex and love I had always sought. But every other country music song resounds with that heartbreak.
What is extraordinary, unprecedented about the trauma of those years, in my experience, is the depth of the wounds that they inflicted and the soreness of the mental scars 15 years later.
In the first years after we separated – when the pain was so unbearable that I was in the most imminent, unremitting danger of doing away with myself – I went to sessions of cognitive therapy to try to dislodge the obsessions that occupied my mind, day and night.
Didn’t make any difference.
In my conscious mind, I actively forgave them both many years ago. I frequently repeat a mantra to myself “Forgive. Bless. Thank. Dismiss.”
It doesn’t work.
My head is full of mottos and slogans that are supposed to succour the wounded mind – such as “love like you’ve never been hurt.” I do try to follow that guide and it gives me pleasure that my children have never heard Emma’s name (still less Maurice’s) and that my wife Laura has no idea what goes on in my deepest unconscious mind. How could I ever tell her?
It doesn’t help for me to tell myself, consciously, that I have no moral right at all to condemn Maurice for fucking my wife, having several times had affairs with the wives and girlfriends of my own friends when I was much younger.
It doesn’t make any difference to list and give thanks for all the benefits and advantages that I have enjoyed since leaving Emma. I have got that list on my smart phone. I open it frequently. Reading it does remind me that, in my conscious mind, I wouldn’t risk my family’s happiness or well-being for a micro-second to be with Emma again. But the list might shift my sub-conscious preoccupations for – oh, half a minute.
Likewise, it hasn’t made a damn of difference to write out a list of all the reasons why I am glad that Emma, herself, is out of my life. I did that years ago. The document on my word processor is called Good Riddance. It runs to five pages. If I read it through – which I do maybe once a month – I feel utterly cleansed by the time I get to the fourth page, because it is so overwhelmingly evident that I am far better off without her.
Ten minutes later, however, I will probably be murmuring “How could you do that to me?”, thinking about the time I found Maurice’s glasses case on the table at my side of our bed; and Emma said that she had put it there, thinking it was mine, when she was “tidying up.”
What do you call this state of mind? Love? Madness? Satanic possession? Possessive narcissism? Injured pride? I search myself for answers. None comes back.
In my daily prayers, on my knees and facing East before my family is awake, I give thanks for the revelation that God may be apprehended in love; that – for all we know – God is love; and that love cannot and will not die.
That truly is an element of my religious belief and I try to live by that perception every day; but a love that cannot die sure has a peculiar way of making itself felt when it takes such agonisingly unbearable form.
I can only ask: Is this the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life? Will I be released only when I die?
But who am I asking? Does anybody have an answer?
photo smabs sputzer / flickr