Lost in Loss
In the last few days of 2010, my partner of more than 30 years inadvertently and begrudgingly let it be known that she had been deceiving me for years.
We both knew there was an issue with atypical dementia, stemming from multiple closed-head injuries in her youth. The diagnosis, describing a slow but progressive disease, had been confirmed by several neurologists. Cheryl had felt easily overwhelmed for a long time, one of the many reasons we moved to the simpler environment of the California desert from Portland, Oregon in 2002. Managing new information and complex decision-making had become problematic. Even coming up with vacation ideas or where to go for dinner had become impossible.
As if this peril wasn't enough, she had endured at least a dozen major back and neck surgeries. They left her with chronic pain and a need for daily narcotics. Her body seemed to be rotting away. When she almost died in 2004 after surviving several often fatal diseases, a medical coma and a month in the ICU, I was smacked with the very real likelihood of losing her. Within days of being admitted, she was on thirteen IVs and a ventilator, almost unrecognizable amid the tubes and wires. As I sat by her bed, her physician and the hospital "grief counselor" advised me to prepare myself for the end.
"There is a high probability she might not make it," the doctor said, his voice low.
I had no words.
The grief counselor quickly added, "But if you'd like to join a grief group, I can arrange that."
That made me so angry, the presumption of death and of my ineptness in dealing with it, I snapped. "I'm a clinical psychologist, Dane. I know about grief and I know what has to happen in dealing with it. I won't be needing your help, thank you."
Reaching for his time-worn set of clichés, the doctor intoned, "We just have to rely on our faith to get her through this."
Again, the presumptuousness and this, from a man of science.
"This has nothing to do with faith, Joe. It's about your medical expertise—not a primitive belief system." Even in grief, I managed to marshal the snark. Somehow that was reassuring.
I returned to her room four times a day because I couldn't tolerate my own anguish for more than an hour at a time. Watching the vital numbers drop on the all the green digital screens that surrounded her, I struggled to keep the weeping down, just in case she could hear me, not wanting to cause her even more stress. I often walked to the window in an attempt to distract myself. I watched cars pulling in and out of parking spaces and pondered why they were here. Maybe it was just a casual visitation to a friend. Some looked to be carrying something, like a book or magazine. I envied them.
I knew it would be up to me to pull the plug if it came to that.
I knew it would be up to me to pull the plug if it came to that. One of her physicians had asked for a copy of her medical directive, showing that I had the power to do it; another one of the nurses told me we were approaching that time soon. Cheryl and I had discussed this very scenario many times and she left no doubt that's what she would want me to do. My son, Aaron, and his spouse, Dana, flew to the desert from Portland to say goodbye. We sat around our family room, planning a memorial. We talked about how much we would miss her unfailing good humor and gentle spirit of goodwill and were able to laugh at some of her many foibles. Our family has always maintained a strong, if dark, sense of humor, no matter what. Aaron had first met her in my office waiting room. Her appointment was next and he was "home" from school, not feeling well. He asked her to watch the rest of Gilligan's Island because he had to go to the bathroom. They had a long and close history.
But she survived, defying the odds, leaving the hospital after six weeks with 14 different diagnoses across a broad spectrum of usually fatal diseases. The doctors admitted the scattershot nature because they still didn't know what caused it or what had apparently cured it. Equally amazing, within months, she was able to resume her volunteer work with raptors at a local bird center and returned to her many art projects. Most of the time, she seemed like her normal self, even on the increased and varied menu of drugs she had been prescribed. But the lengthy, life-threatening attack on her brain escalated another problem. Though relieved by this reprieve, I could see the gradual cognitive deterioration over the succeeding months and years, especially in the area of judgment. It meant I had to monitor behaviors, pick up any slack, assume more responsibilities, make more decisions. It was an accommodation I was prepared to make, knowing I would eventually be the primary caregiver—and the probable survivor.
It had not started out this way. Not at all. We had met at a meeting of the Board of Psychologist Examiners in 1978 in order to test and screen two potential candidates for licensure. I knew her name as a clinical psychologist by her sterling reputation and was surprised at how quiet she seemed to be. I, on the other hand, not happy to have my busy practice interrupted in the middle of the day by this command performance, asked for—and was brought—lunch. Apparently, she was impressed by this, as she would tell me much later.
Two weeks later, she called my office.
"This is Dr. Cheryl Castles. We met at the BPE hearing. I'm wondering if you're taking new clients."
I was snowed under, with a four-week waiting list, but something about her intrigued me. She had asked intelligent questions at the hearing, though we had not exchanged a word.
"Then I'd like to make an appointment."
Back then in 1977, I was teaching at Portland State University and had some students and professors as clients. In fact, much of my practice consisted of professional people working on existential issues. Contrary to the shrink stereotype, I did not see crazy people. I shared the practice with my husband who had an MSW. The marriage by then was well beyond rocky and part of me was girding myself to leave it. He would be gone within the year. We had a young son. There was a lot going on in my life.
As if I weren't busy enough, I was also sitting in at jazz clubs at night. I had long wanted to sing professionally and it was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. Sometimes, students or clients would wander in but mostly I was undercover. I would leave work around 6 or 7, grab some dinner, then head out to a club, often the Jazz Quarry where I knew I'd be welcomed. The trio was so adept I could just call off a tune and the key, they'd lay out a four bar intro and off we went. It was great fun.
Psychotherapy with professional people often took less time than usual. It's not that they were any smarter, but more likely due to the life interruption and immersion the process requires. They understood the demands and seemed more eager to get it done. My work with Cheryl lasted about nine months and pleased us both. She had worked through some major family dysfunction issues and some about her own identity and history as a gay woman.
I always looked forward to our sessions because she'd bring along a lengthy journal entry, to maximize the effectiveness of our work. Not only was she a diligent client, but an excellent and compelling writer. When she wrote about her family, for instance, she wrote, "I was the eldest of three children, the only boy." I was captivated by her insights, her wit and her intelligence.
By then, she was showing up in clubs when I'd sing, joined by an increasingly large coterie of fans. She subsequently has said that it's hard to overestimate the emotional impact of listening to someone sing love songs with a kickin' jazz trio just a few yards away. From "You Made Me Love You" to "I Get a Kick Out of You"—they all speak of a magnetic romantic attachment. Being onstage is an aphrodisiac both for the performer and the audience.
Within a few months, we were having lunch together in the middle of my workday or she'd bring me a sandwich if I didn't have time to go out. The first time she walked in when I hadn't expected her, I was delighted and not because she brought me my favorite lunch, a roast beef sandwich.
"I brought you lunch," she said in her low-key way.
"Well, thanks. Come on in. I have a half hour."
"I know," she said, having checked with my secretary in advance.
It wasn't long before we began sharing information as equals, which, of course, we were. I had not known anyone like her. She was as well-educated as I was, bright, sensitive, articulate and empathic. We would talk for hours about everything. I already knew that her family pathology was much like mine and that we shared a disdain for organized religion and other forms of hypocrisy. We talked about music, both fans of the Great American Songbook and the emotions that can be so well conveyed by lyrics.
When my enjoyment of her started morphing into more than that, it surprised me but only a little. I had never had a sexual relationship with another woman but I had had lots of "crushes," and all my closest friends had been female. I often lectured both in my classes and in the community on the superiority of androgyny as a mental health concept—high qualities of both male and female in one person.
When my enjoyment of her started morphing into more than that, it surprised me but only a little.
A half a year later, we discussed moving in together. I had joint custody of my five-year-old son and wanted to be sure he bought in. We had done many activities as a threesome and, of course, Cheryl was often at the house. She could do many things I could not do in terms of fixing household items as well as helping Aaron build model cars and do science projects for school and Scouts. He had grown attached, dependent on her. One day when he came home from school, I sat him down in the living room and asked how he would feel if Cheryl moved in with us and we became a family.
"Yeah!" was his enthusiastic response, so I knew this was a go.
Cheryl quit her job heading up a large hospital neuropsychology program and joined my practice. From that point onward, we spent our time together, sharing it all. At the office, she handled the personnel issues with our staff while I took care of the financial end and the strategic planning. Each night we'd come home and get into our hot tub and talk about the day—with Aaron if he was home. We labeled ourselves, "The PAC," Pam, Aaron and Cheryl, and we had started calling her "C" for short. Aaron referred to us as his parents and C as his co-mother. It was a remarkably smooth transition, at least at home.
There were two major sources of tension, both outside our fused relationship. Since my husband and I had been separated for almost two years, I thought it was time for the official divorce. I worried that, were he to discover my new relationship, he might use that in any custody dispute. This was in the late 1970s, before anything other than a traditional heterosexual partnership was even marginally acceptable—not only in conventional society but within the legal system. People in same-sex relationships were, in fact, losing custody on a regular basis. Later on, I found out from one of my clients, an attorney, that he had cornered her at a cocktail party about doing just that. Did he know she was my client? Would he have proceeded to create problems if she had advised such an action? He opted not to fight, which was a good decision, considering the reservoir of ammunition I had from his years of antisocial behavior.
Worse, though, was coming home from a brief summer vacation to find a note on the pillow in the bedroom addressed to "Pam." I recognized my mother's handwriting and wondered why she had been in my house when I wasn't there and why she was writing me a note. As I read through the neatly handwritten letter, I could feel my face getting hot. Months earlier, I had told her that C and I were living together but most certainly not the details of our intimacy. Knowing her conservative approach to most everything and her quick-to-judge first response, I sidestepped it, thinking in time she would come to love her and accept us.
I found out about you and Cheryl and I'm very disappointed in you."
Bear in mind that when I received this letter I was 36 years old. A mother. A well-educated professional. And immediately enraged. But why should I have been surprised? She had sided with my ex when we split up and had never been my strongest ally under the best of circumstances.
"And you should know everyone's talking about 'those dikes on Cedar Hills Boulevard.' You will lose all professional respect as the result of your decision. All your hard work will go down the drain."
My mother was a sedentary bridge player living in a senior complex in King City, leaving it only for intermittent grocery shopping and dinners with us. I knew there was no confiding in her about us or any agitating LGBT underground spy network there, not that anyone who would even know where our office was located. I had to laugh in spite of my rage, in admiration of her creative imagination. As always, she had employed her preferred and well-worn shaming technique to try to control my behavior, pulling out all the stops. As I put down the note, I was involuntarily flooded with the itemized memory of every awful thing she had ever said to me, every alienating accusation or judgment. All the barbed messages, the double meanings. "You can be anything you want but..." And "I wish you were more like…." So many slimes. This time the stakes seemed considerably higher.
I called C in from the other room and silently handed her the note. As I stood there, waiting for her reaction, I realized that, for me at that moment, my mother had just died.
Without delay, I sat down and wrote her a letter, tactfully eliminating my emotionally alphabetized catalog of pain. I told her that she was no longer entitled to intrude in my life, that my choices were my own and that her attitude confirmed her continued lack of acceptance of me as a person. While she could continue to see her grandson, any relationship we had was over.
I read the note to C and she agreed that it was an appropriate response, difficult though the fallout would be. She confirmed her support, whatever I decided to do. I mailed it and heard nothing back.
Months later when Christmas came, she sent over gifts through my brother. We hardly spoke, even when transferring Aaron for visits. Most of the time, he'd jump out of the car and I'd take off after making sure he was inside her apartment. When I picked him up, I'd call first and wait in the car until he came out. I was unhappy this had happened but even sadder to realize I felt no sense of loss. In fact, it was she who ultimately cracked.
A few months after the Christmas chaos, she sent another letter. What now?
I'm sorry this has happened between us. I hope we can mend fences and be friends again."
Such an understated summary of the family Armageddon. Of course, she would minimize it and avoid any responsibility—all part of her familiar playbook. Friends?
In one of those ironic U-turns life can take, in time my mother did come to love C and enjoy her company. Our dinners and holidays celebrated as a family resumed though I understood the sutures were spurious.
In one of those ironic U-turns life can take, in time my mother did come to love C and enjoy her company.
"Did I tell you Nita divorced Denny?" she'd ask, opening a discussion about our former neighbors.
"No, but I'm not surprised. He was a total jerk."
Our dinners were filled with such trivial chit-chat, news about my brother who lived in another state and conversation about the food. I never felt even a semblance of closeness with her again.
But the potential custody threat from the ex and the frontal assault by my mother only served to further cement my growing trust in C. She had her own set of toxic family dysfunctions and it sometimes felt as if we were the only trustworthy people in our universe.
There was practically nothing that could be even construed as an argument between us for years. Everything was discussed, negotiated and resolved with no raised voices or personal invective. Then, maybe three years in, strange behaviors arose. Once in a while and without any obvious antecedent, she would verbally and erratically attack Aaron. She would blame him for something he hadn't done or criticize his tone of voice. It teetered on the edge of abuse but what worried me more was that her language didn't make sense—this, from someone so articulate and well-spoken. It wasn't quite "word salad." There were nouns and verbs but there was little rationality to the sentences or the cause of her anger. The next morning, she would not remember any of it. Aaron and I discussed it when it happened, as I wanted to be sure he knew this had nothing to do with him; I felt I needed to protect him. When C and I would talk about it the next day, I told her what she had said and how it made me feel. It became so confusing even to me that I started to write down her comments because they made so little sense. Eventually, after medical tests, we tentatively concluded it was the result of extreme and sudden hypoglycemia. It was worse with alcohol but also occurred in its absence without any obvious reason. After a year or more of this, it disappeared. Or perhaps it morphed into something more malevolent.
With prudent investing and our collective heavy workloads, we managed to retire from the practice in 1995. I was 51 and she was 50. Just sitting for long periods during the workday caused her significant back and neck pain; sometimes it was she who was on the couch, not her clients. Now, she had trouble remembering details discussed during the sessions, too. At the same time, the insidious managed care movement had made a comfortable home in Oregon. Before its incursion, we could see whom we wanted for as long as necessary. Now, for those on an HMO, sessions were preauthorized, often in blocks of three or four. The paperwork and the bureaucracy were increasingly burdensome. The new restrictions were not only insufficient and impractical for intensive work but it started to feel unethical. The writing was on the wall. It was time to plan our retreat.
After we closed the practice, our lives began to diverge. After a memorable trip to Africa, she became more interested in animals and trained to become a wildlife raptor rehabber. She was an Audubon Society volunteer from then on. I had jumped full force into a world I had long resisted: show business. I loved it and, to my delight, found immediate, if modest, success. The singing career involved travel, though, in order to perform in distant cities. C would fly in for the opening night, return home, then appear again for my closing. It was always special to look out from the stage and see her sitting in the audience with some celebrity. She knew what I was doing and why I was doing it and I loved her for knowing me so well. After each show, we'd talk about how it went.
"I loved your version of 'Here's That Rainy Day' tonight."
"Yeah, it helps to have suffered a lot," I joked.
"The sadness of the lyric is so... affecting." She knew the levels here.
"Sometimes it's a hard song to sing without getting choked up."
"I can imagine. How do you collect yourself to be able to do that?"
I enjoyed talking with her about show biz, something that had meant so much to me. But after some years of this, I noticed she seemed to have more trouble problem-solving in my absence—simple things like calling a plumber threw her into a kerfluffle. Or even the simple process of paying a bill. I started to feel guilty being away as much as I was. And I worried.
For that and for many other more intrapersonal reasons, I decided to stop it all and just stay home. I continued acting in films and commercials locally for a while but the roller coaster that is show biz was getting to me. I was too impatient for all this stuff, too protective of my stability, and cut off the performing completely. This produced more emotional blowback than I had anticipated and I spiraled into a depression.
For years we had been coming to the Palm Springs area for Betty Ford Center continuing education conferences, an excuse to lie in the sun for a week. We began considering the possibility of a move. While I had visited Palm Springs since I was a child and had lived in many places all over the country, C had never lived anywhere but the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. She started to warm to the idea, though. She had felt burdened by the demands of our 4200-foot-square two-story house with all the maintenance and upkeep and, like me, was ready to downsize and simplify. As for me, I hoped for a classic geographic cure from my pervasive depression.
We settled into our new home in Palm Desert and both of us felt lighter. Her anxiety and sense of burden seemed diminished and my sense of loss lessened as well.
Within a few years, she was a regular volunteer at the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center, and I was singing with three bands, including my own Dixieland group, The Bees' Knees. When the darkened mood lifted enough for me to approximate living again, I taught myself to play the cornet. C had refreshed her piano chops enough to serve as the band's piano player. It was something else we were able to build together, another facet to the relationship.
By 2009 and 2010, the frequency of her visits to the ER had escalated. In each of those years, she was there or actually admitted into the hospital on at least seven occasions. Several times, it looked to be life threatening, probable extensions or recurrences of the diagnoses of 2004. Many of the admissions came from episodes following acute pain, later leading to some kind of surgery—and more prescription drugs. It worried me, of course, especially as I saw her having more difficulties with daily living from basic personal maintenance to selecting the appropriate type and amount of food for meals. Few people outside the family knew about any of this. In structured settings, she seemed just fine if a little quirky, just like anyone else.
During one of the ER visits for a fall in 2010, our internist met us there as he always did. This time, seeing something different, he ordered a blood draw. We waited in an exam room for the results. We had been through this so many times, we passed the time discussing the room and how quiet it had seemed in the hall.
The young ER doc briskly entered, carrying a sheaf of papers. What he said next was shocking, almost unfathomable.
"You told me you hadn't taken any narcotics of drunk any alcohol in a week. Yes?"
"You told me you hadn't taken any narcotics of drunk any alcohol in a week. Yes?"
"Yes, that's true," she confirmed.
"Cheryl, you are lying to us. There was a high presence of both in your system." How could that be? It was the middle of the day.
My mind quickly accessed a conversation we had in the pool a few weeks earlier.
We were floating around, doing some water aerobics and talking. It was something we did often, time away from the TV, the phone and the ubiquitous to-do lists. I enjoyed those times very much. In Oregon we had done the same thing, enjoying time in the hot tub each evening after work. The sky was azure, the weather approximating the same temperature as the pool. The conversation that day was typical for us.
"With the dementia and the physical stuff, we don't know how much time you have left to enjoy your life. Is there anything more you want to do? Any place you'd like to travel? Any improvements in our quality of life?" I paddled the raft closer to where she was vigorously moving the water weights around.
"Can't think of anything, really. I feel good being pain-free now, though, and off the narcotics."
I already knew she had weaned herself off, as she had told me several weeks before she didn't need them.
"Why do you think that is?"
"Maybe the back has finally stabilized after all the surgeries."
"Sure hope so. I'm very happy you're off the drugs. Good to have you back!"
The report from the lab in the ER didn't make sense to me. How could I square that with our pool conversation? It never occurred to me she would lie to me. It was completely out of character, unthinkable, without precedent. Even in the doctor's office days later, she continued to deny she had taken anything that day. The lab tests said otherwise.
The doc confronted her. "Were you drinking that day?"
Cheryl responded, "Absolutely not."
I asked our doc, "Are there any instances in which a lab could have mixed up the results?" I couldn't bring myself to consider any other alternative. He humored me and called the lab to double check the results, which were quickly confirmed. He hung up the phone and continued to press her. Then she became coyly evasive with her answers, assuming a different persona.
"I'm pretty sure I didn't take anything. I don't remember doing anything like that. I mean it's possible but I don't think so." I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what it was or its extent.
As a rule, I'm an even-tempered problem-solver, not given over easily or often to fits of anger. I went into my familiar mode of quietly taking care of it. We immediately began the application process for the Betty Ford Center and within 10 days she was admitted to their inpatient program. It had all happened so quickly. How did this get by me? I'm not naïve about such things. My Ph.D. dissertation was about alcoholism, after all. Admittedly, I was busy with musical performances, including running a band, and was active on the political scene. The following week after her BFC admission, in fact, I was given an award in Los Angeles as Chapter Activist of the Year from the ACLU of Southern California. We had taken half a dozen trips a year, too. We were leading busy lives, apart and together. Too many distractions? How long had I had my head in the sand?
While I'm not a believer in the predictable efficacy of 12-step programs, we were both familiar with BFC. When we were in our clinical psychology private practice, we had come to those annual continuing education weeks, sometimes enjoying time with Mrs. Ford, herself. It never occurred to me that either of us would be here under these circumstances. The irony did not escape me.
There was no cathartic truth telling, no admission of the duration and extent of the lying, certainly no apologies.
Once there, she adapted to BFC almost immediately. As a professional, she knew how to fit right in, knew the language. She was likely clean and sober for the first time in many years, perhaps decades. Her friendliness and charm seemed to win everyone over. She made friends with several of the other patients and would spend our limited weekly time each Sunday afternoon together regaling me with their stories, not talking about us at all. It was at this point that I began to realize that she didn't seem emotionally affected by any of this, had no idea the impact this might be having not only on her own life but on ours as well. In spite of the AA Step requiring the newly sober person to make amends, that didn't happen, at least not with me. There was no cathartic truth telling, no admission of the duration and extent of the lying, certainly no apologies. I never did discover how embedded these addictions were. When I asked, it was "I don't remember." Or "I don't know." The lack of information made it difficult for me to get any closure on these thirty plus years. I could only guess, which threw my sense of trust in myself and my own perceptions in limbo. What was the reality? How could this happen?
Her lack of empathy troubled me almost more than anything. We had enjoyed a long, intense "soul-mate" kind of relationship from the start. I had never expected to fall in love with a woman, having had a history of heterosexual relationships. But as I allowed myself to have the feelings, they felt natural. I realized that the plumbing mattered far less than the person. The cliché about being so close we could have finished each other's sentences applied. While we were always respectful of each other's individuality we always seemed to come to the same conclusions when questions arose.
"How do you feel about going to the psychological association meeting?"
"Are you kidding?" she would respond. We'd both laugh, already knowing the answer but never assuming anything.
I had joked with her early on that we had nothing in common except everything that mattered—the core values of honesty and authenticity. She was an unworldly person, more grounded in rural Montana where she spent her summer vacations than the city of Portland where she had grown up. I was the "city mouse," always attracted to the stimulation and opportunities afforded by an urban setting. When I met her, she didn't know how to use a credit card.
Perhaps more than falling in love, I was surprised that I enjoyed being around another person almost 24/7. An independent introvert, I am quite happy alone. But when Cheryl came into my life, we not only worked together in adjoining offices, but we did nearly everything else together as well—at least, until we retired and closed the practice in 1995 when our differing passions sometimes took us in separate directions.
As the years progressed, I had attributed the decline in her relatedness to me to a symptom of the encroaching dementia. She was wrapped up in her own world more and more. "We" no longer seemed a reference point for her.
I visited BFC every Sunday on visitors' day, my possessions searched for contraband as I entered. Each time I stood in front of the officious woman searcher, I felt an odd detachment from this shocking upheaval which masked a deep sadness for both of us. Family members were expected to attend a full time "family week" for five days that was watered down and meaningless. When she was discharged just before Thanksgiving, I hoped the crisis had been successfully addressed, that we could get on with our lives, that she had learned enough. However, she saw AA meetings as too primitive, repetitive and "higher-power" oriented and didn't complete the "90 meetings in 90 days" requirement after discharge. Soon, she stopped utilizing some of the techniques she learned there, too, as she resumed her normal life and her many distractions—and denial.
That Christmas, we went to Portland as usual to spend the holidays with Aaron and Dana. She was a little foggy and out of it—not obviously drunk but more immersed in the now familiar sedative effects from her pain meds, which she had resumed at reduced levels. It seemed she was always in pain from one of the dozen or so back and neck surgeries she had undergone and had become more vocal about every nuance of discomfort. I was increasingly irritated by this, not sure exactly what it was that was pissing me off. The weight of the responsibility for our lives had shifted almost completely to me and I didn't like that, which made me feel guilty and uncaring. And, of course, there was still no information to provide closure. Was I being selfish? I didn't enjoy being the CEO. Betty Ford hadn't fixed anything, really, except there was no sign of alcohol abuse. I still didn't know what happened or how much of everything that had transpired over the years could be attributed to the dementia.
We discussed the growing imbalance in our relationship, a topic we had visited intermittently over the years. It always caused her to feel guilty, which made me feel guilty for bringing it up. But it was now more than subtle and the symptoms had grown beyond inconvenience. With reluctance, she decided to seek further psychotherapy. It's complicated for a psychotherapist to be on the other side. We had both worked successfully with people for decades, developing our own version of what worked and what didn't. There is no approved or right way to engage in the practice, the selection of techniques dependent on the personality and intellectual acuity of the practitioner and the needs of the client. In many ways, she was too sophisticated for run-of-the-mill therapy. She didn't like the AA or 12-step shrinks who had been recommended through BFC so she randomly found someone a few blocks away from our house. I was confused that she opted for geographical contiguity over relevant training and expertise, but I was relieved she was following through. She made the appointment and was scheduled to go the afternoon of December 30, 2010.
I don't remember that morning very well. I suppose I did chores or spent time on the computer. Cheryl was in the bedroom with the door closed, so I assumed she had slept in or wasn't feeling well. An hour or so before the appointment, I knocked on the door and asked if I could come in. She barked out a loud, "No," which startled me. What could that mean? I could feel my adrenaline surge, but I told myself she would emerge soon for her session and we would talk then. I thought she might be worried or even nervous about the upcoming first session.
Around 1 o'clock, the time of the appointment, I heard her leave the bedroom and walk into the garage without speaking to me. The garage door opened but I didn't hear the car leave, again odd. I waited a minute or two, thinking she had dropped something or was looking for paper records for the therapist. Then I heard the garage door close so I returned to finish what I was doing, thinking we'd have a good conversation when she returned home. In ten minutes or, the phone rang. It was the therapist.
"I called to see if Cheryl is coming to her session today."
"She just left. She should be there in a few minutes."
Perhaps 20 minutes later, there was a loud, insistent knock at the door. It was a neighbor, telling me Cheryl had had "a terrible accident" and I should come right away. While I felt my central nervous system lurch, there was a simultaneous, strange calmness, as though I knew this was coming. I locked up the house, walked a few blocks down the street and saw her car tightly jammed up against a palm tree. The accordioned car, only a few months old, was surrounded by several cop cars and lots of neighbors. I went over to an officer and asked where and how Cheryl was. She had already been taken to the ER. I don't remember if the officer said there had been a breathalyzer test administered there (blood alcohol was later determined to be about four times the legal limit), but the cop knew she had apparently been drinking vodka all morning. She found various prescription medications in the car and wanted to look for more at our house, so she could determine what Cheryl had taken. I told the officer she had been discharged from BFC just weeks earlier. As I disclosed this, I noticed the Neighborhood Gossip standing close and moving closer, obviously eavesdropping. I immediately shifted from concern to anger.
It was a neighbor, telling me Cheryl had had "a terrible accident" and I should come right away. While I felt my central nervous system lurch, there was a simultaneous, strange calmness, as though I knew this was coming.
"You getting all this, Earl?" He nodded, as if my question were serious.
We walked back to the house and I let the officer search. I knew this was not good strategy from a legal point of view but I was too stunned to make a calculated decision. She found bags and bags of drugs throughout C's bedroom and bath—all prescribed, therefore, all legal.
"Do you know this bottle marked 'Scope' contains alcohol?" the cop asked.
I just shook my head. When she left, I stood there at the closed door, wondering what to do. I knew something resembling an ending had just happened here. I knew I couldn't continue living this way any longer. This wasn't a person I knew. This wasn't the world I thought I was living in.
I called our physician and he took it from there. He checked in with me every few hours to let me know what was going on. At one point, she stumbled out of the ER AMA (against medical advice) and, after some panicky searching, was tracked down by a staff person on the hospital grounds. I sat at home and waited for the next news bulletin. It seemed as if it were happening to someone else. I couldn't find a way to think about it or to begin to sort out my seismic emotions. Instead, there was loud white noise in my head as if protecting me from an intensity that would likely engulf me.
She came home by cab around 11 p.m., still drunk and defiantly angry. As she started to her bedroom, I informed her we would talk in the morning. I was calm, still trying to parse the landscape of this new reality.
When she arose mid-morning, she sheepishly sat down on the other end of the couch in the family room, like a child awaiting punishment. I started the conversation.
"We have to talk about this."
"What happened yesterday morning?"
"I don't know."
"I know some of it. I know you drank a bottle of vodka and took narcotics."
"Yeah. I guess so."
"But, why? Were you trying to kill yourself?
"No. And I don't know why."
I asked for a better accounting of the drinking patterns over time. I needed to know the amount of duplicity involved here to make sense of it. She said she couldn't remember how long it had been going on. I found that disingenuous. She acknowledged hiding it from me, but once again expressed no regret or awareness of the significance of what had happened to both our lives.
Now, as I thought about it, I could identify long-term patterns over decades that should have raised a red flag—or at least a yellow one. But it was all so intermittent. It was not the "typical" pattern of alcoholism at all. She had no emotional response to any of this, a "la belle indifference" attitude that I found very disturbing. How long had I been alone in this relationship? Was I an enabler who made it possible? Should I have done something sooner? But what? As I thought back, I realized I had habituated to what was a state of constant vigilance alternating with moments of crisis. The anxious trips to the ER, the frequent hospitalizations. It all seemed normal after a while.
I called Aaron in Portland to tell him what had happened.
"That solves a mystery," he said. "We noticed all the levels in the liquor bottles were significantly lower after you left at Christmas."
None of us had any idea. Had she come downstairs in the middle of the night?
Her level of desperation was such that she had involved them in the betrayal. I was angry about that. We all felt violated.
Mostly, though, I was stunned. First, I couldn't believe all this had happened right under my nose and likely for many years, perhaps from the very beginning. Where was I? If I thought it was dementia or "just" heavy pain pill use, how did I make that OK? What did I tell myself? Was I so eager to maintain the illusion of stability that I ignored obvious cues? There had been perhaps three or four confrontations over alcohol in our thirty plus years together, but it always was resolved after our conversation—or so I thought.
There was no doubt that I would always be there for a demented Cheryl but I also acknowledged to myself I wouldn't stay for an untreated, addicted one. Perhaps at some level, she knew that, too.
There was no doubt that I would always be there for a demented Cheryl but I also acknowledged to myself I wouldn't stay for an untreated, addicted one.
I told her she needed to move out, that I was done. Using such simple words to describe this seemed to minimize what had happened. They were words I never thought would come out of my mouth.
"I know," was all she could say.
We both understood she would be unable to manage a house of this size and the complexity it requires. We talked about an apartment but she said even that would be too much. She preferred a structured senior living situation. Her suggestion had come so quickly that I wondered if she had given it some thought beforehand. We had good experience with one local assisted living facility because our Dixieland band had played there often over many years. She called to make an appointment to meet with someone there in a few days and I went with her. The move would happen within two weeks. I helped her make the financial arrangements, package her stuff and watched her sort through it all. She had had exclusive "control" of two rooms in the house and they were both significantly cluttered. One of the judgment issues was that she was practically a hoarder, saving things that most people wouldn't find of value at all—rocks, shells, bones, clippings. When she had finished, I hired a service to take the rest to the dump and to move her possessions to her new home. She would be living in a small one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bath.
But now I just wanted it over. I needed the pressurized flood of emotion to abate. The more we talked—which by now wasn't much—the more her chronic anxiety was apparent. She felt overwhelmed by everything—by me, by the demands of our life—by life, itself. It seemed to me the choice to alter her state was caused by this as much as by the pain. Why hadn't she told me? I could have helped.
The day she left, I had rapidly cycling feelings. Almost at the end, just before leaving the house with the truck driver, she opened the living room closet door and retrieved her many coats. As she piled them on the dining room table, I was close to being felled by the feeling of finality. It resembled an abrupt clash of cymbals directly into my ears, as if I were standing too close to the percussion section. The ringing faded just as she walked out the door, before I could find words to describe what had just happened.
Within hours I could feel the relief that came from ceding the weighty responsibility for her wellbeing. Now there was a growing curiosity about what form my life would take after her departure. We had been a part of each other for 33 years, almost half my life. Our lives had been intertwined in nearly every way. I knew I had a long existential trek ahead, facing an unfamiliar blank slate. There was an undeniable sense of desolation and loss, underscored by the soft sound of the fan whirring in the ceiling. My sense of reality had been fractured, the little pieces gliding in space like one of those glass snowballs at Christmas. Several times a day, I walked into her emptied bedroom and art studio and could sense her presence, our life together. I thought about how quickly this transition had happened. It had only been a little over two weeks since she totaled the car. When I agonizingly pulled the show biz plug in 2001 and stopped performing, it felt as if all my internal furniture had been moved out, that I wasn't who or what I thought I was. This time, that move was literal and even more disorganizing. More than three decades of my life disappeared with the flip of a calendar page.
In the coming weeks and months at her new home, she continued to use and drink. She was hospitalized several more times over the next year, including a psychiatric hospital stay following a near-fatal accidental OD. On one occasion, I visited her at the hospital when she was clearly still in her altered state. She loudly expressed hurt and anger at what she perceived to be my abandonment of her. That charge made me so livid, I could not respond. Au contraire, it seemed to me. But I still had to deal with the insurance as well as the financial and legal issues because they affected me as well.
Fortunately, she was not killed in the palm tree collision—suffering "merely" still another incident of acute brain trauma. If she had made it one more block, she would have been careening across a busy street. What if she had injured or even killed someone? It was hard to get those possibilities out of my mind long after she had moved out. The overwhelming mentation and unremitting stress left me feeling tired and numb, like a victim of PTSS—Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I felt as if I were living in a dark and airless closet with the door closed. I continued to retreat in every way—from everything, actually. I stopped all musical activities, including my own band, and resigned from my multiple ACLU responsibilities. My life was suddenly quieted, my world permanently altered, my very identity in question. What would matter now?
My life was suddenly quieted, my world permanently altered, my very identity in question. What would matter now?
I continued to wonder how she could do that and sabotage the rock-solid entity that I thought was us. How could she get away with that with herself? Our relationship had been founded and conducted on the triumvirate of trust, honesty and respect. While I knew there were things she could no longer be counted on to do, I trusted her with my selfhood. I was completely convinced that she would never knowingly hurt or violate me. There would be no lies, no affairs, no sneaking around. Our solidarity was a given. Who was she? Had it all been a lie? What else didn't I know?
In the end, though, it felt much like the ending of my nine-year marriage. Both commitments ended in lengthy, destructive deceptions. Ironically, at some point, both of them thought it was my fault. Was it? What role had I played in all of it? These were two of the most important relationships in my life and they both ended with betrayal and cataclysmic rupture.
I needed to repair myself somehow. That first year, I began the ongoing task of remodeling the entire house. It was both a symbolic and realistic format in which to reconfigure my new life. After completely redoing both the rooms she had occupied, I invited guests to stay in "her" bedroom, making new associations with the area. I turned her spacious art room into an exercise room, a totally different gestalt. Eventually, I completely refurnished the house and even redid the flooring, removing tile and carpeting and installing bamboo. The master bath was gutted and redone, too, nicely emblematic, I thought. I needed to be able to live in my own house without a ghost still in residence.
In addition, I started to travel. At first it felt awkward but then I came to realize it was an activity over which I had some measure of control and would provide me with memories and experiences, filling the tank anew as a single person.
In another symbolic move, I contacted my attorney, went to court and changed my name on all official documents. I had always cringed at being called "Pamela," quipping to one and all that the "ela" was silent. And lopping off the name I was born with extended to my "maiden name"—Osborne—as well. I was about to recreate myself, in my own image and likeness. From now on, I would be known as Pam Munter. It and I would have to be enough.
After the rough adjustment of the first year, she seemed to find her footing in her new senior independent living home. As with her stay at the Betty Ford Center, she started to pull it together. The daily demands and responsibilities are minimal, leaving her with little anxiety. To my knowledge, there is no alcohol use, though the narcotics will always be a part of her world, along with more surgeries. She is thriving there, functioning at an optimal level, given her memory and organizational limitations. Her friends, her commitments and her heart are there now.
We see each other now and again, still do the twice-yearly trips to Portland and continue to email. I miss the emotional intimacy, the sense of mutual involvement that characterized so much of our early years together. I miss the person I loved and treasured and who loved and valued me. When we meet, I can't help remembering the Cheryl I used to know, someone who once formed the nucleus of my life for better and for worse—first enriching it then nearly destroying it.
When I was a clinical psychologist, I helped people unearth what mattered to them in order to help them create a more meaningful and satisfying life. Now it was my turn.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She's a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone's Daughters Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary, bioStories and others.
Munter's play Life Without was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition and has been nominated for Outstanding Play by the Desert Theatre League. She has also been nominated for the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. Visit her at www.pammunter.com.