Lilacs & Shackles (c)GracieKHarold2014
“Lilacs & Shackles”, excerpted from “Across the Street From Normal” by Gracie K. Harold, (c) 2014, used by permission.
TRIGGER WORD WARNING: drug recovery, addiction, abuse, miscarriage, grief, acceptance, motherhood
It started with the lilacs. It was barely spring when my Daddy and my three children gave me a lilac bouquet in honor of Mother’s Day. Instinctively, I rummaged for a vase in my cupboard, filled it with water and placed the flowers on my table.
That night, after my kids were in bed, I realized that my mom had given me the vase as a wedding present. The last time that lilacs were in that vase was on my wedding day many years earlier. My bouquet had been lilacs and a single white rose (in honor of the daughter I had miscarried).
My dad and step-mom planted their bushes after I was married. The previous spring brought a few blooms, but this spring had the bushes “heavy-laden” with flowers.
So, there I sat. I had an immense, fragrant “wedding bouquet” in my “wedding vase”.
I had grieved in the three and a half years since we left; but now I grieved the fact that it had never been a “living” marriage. The bottom line was that it was DOA and I spent five years desperately trying to revive it. Before our wedding, I knew that my ex-husband had been through drug recovery, but his family members and friends assured me that it was all in his past. He had recently graduated from a Bible College with an Associate’s Degree in Theology, and it seemed like he and I would have a great partnership working with inner-city kids and their families. I was naïve and deceived.
I found out on my honeymoon (2,000 miles away from home) that I had indeed married an addict. When I confronted him about the substances, he told me that he hated me and never should have married me.
I was humiliated, devastated, and ashamed. I felt like such a fool. I had given up the jobs that I loved for him. I had given up some of my friends, and I had given up my neighborhood, too. I slipped into denial. I desperately thought that if I could just love him better, I wouldn’t be a failure at marriage.
Being the skilled charmer/deceiver that he is, he proceeded to “spoil” me and lavish gifts on me for the rest of the honeymoon; all the while promising that he would change and things would get better once we were home.
Two weeks after our honeymoon, I woke up at 3:00 in the morning. The back door was swinging in the breeze, and he was gone. No note, no explanation, nothing. I called his cell phone, and he yelled at me. He was at a party with his friends.
Later that month, I was vacuuming the house and rearranging the furniture when I discovered a plate and a straw under our couch. He had gone through $3,000 of drugs in a month. (I eventually found out that his mother had been meeting him to give him money behind my back).
I tried to talk to one of the pastors who had officiated at our wedding. The pastor and his wife blamed me and told my ex-husband that he never should have married me! They told me that I needed to “submit” more under his “Headship as the leader of the Household”, and then he wouldn’t be so stressed out. They accused me of “causing his addiction by not being completely submitted” as a wife.
I spun into deeper denial and guilt, doing everything I could think of to please him. It was never enough.
Around the Christmas holiday season, he decided to sell drugs. I went ballistic. I told him that there was no way that I would have that in my house.
I called another pastor from our wedding, and that pastor warned my ex-husband that I would get him arrested if he didn’t keep me under control. Then, I called a Pastor friend of mine for advice. He said, “Gracie, is he beating you or throwing you around?” I answered, “No.” The pastor literally said, “Then stop being so bitchy and just love your husband”.
So I did, after being absolutely positive that drugs would not be sold.
Right around the same time, we discovered mold in our rental house. To me, it was the perfect illustration. From the outside, the house was an adorable little bungalow. Inside, it was filled with toxins. The entire time that my ex-husband was using drugs, we went to church. He played guitar and helped lead worship. I kept thinking that his addiction was spreading out of control the same way that the mold was rapidly taking over parts of the house.
We ended up moving out of the rental due to health reasons. While in our temporary housing one night, my ex went out to “talk with a friend”. I had a horrible feeling about it before he left, and begged him not to go. He insisted on leaving, and ended up having an altercation with the man; who jammed a gun into his chest. Miraculously, my ex was able to run out of the house and call the police. We found out afterwards that the man had pulled the trigger on his gun as my ex ran away; but it wouldn’t fire. The situation resulted in a stand-off with police, until the man surrendered.
About a week later, we discovered that I was pregnant with our first child.
I thought that if we left our state and were connected with new friends and a new church, then my ex-husband would be able to break free of his addictions. I was wrong. I misjudged and underestimated the determination of an addict. I later learned that he could walk through an unfamiliar crowded street and pick up his drug of choice within 20 minutes.
My Dr. told me that I had a high-risk pregnancy, and I knew I needed my family. Mercifully, my ex finally relented and we returned home months later. My hope returned one night when he dumped out all of his substances and said that he was ready to change. However, throughout the pregnancy, life was an emotional roller coaster.
One minute he would be talking sweetly to my rapidly-growing belly; and the next he would be accusing me of carrying someone else’s baby. I never knew how long the “good” would last.
We became involved with a good church. We had a great network of other young married couples; and I honestly believed that maybe we could finally be “normal”. It was only an illusion. We joined a small group. I maintained the façade for a while, but it was only a matter of time before reality reared its ugly head. He had a way of humiliating people with subtle comments and snide remarks. Little by little, the truth about his temper and obsession with control began to show.
I was about 27 weeks along in my pregnancy when I was admitted to the hospital for pre-term labor. My contractions were so strong that the NICU specialist came into my room to explain everything that would be done to save my baby. Because I had previously lost my daughter through a miscarriage, I was terrified of losing this baby, too. I’ll never forget the isolated feeling that night after my ex fell asleep. I felt so alone, abandoned and desolate.
I began to cry and beg God to heal my baby and my body. And then, I prayed and dedicated my baby to God. I surrendered. I knew that my child was a part of God’s plan long before conception. I yielded my child…for as long as God decided to bless me with my baby. Suddenly, peace washed over me. I knew that no matter what, God would hold me; and I was not alone. I was in the hospital for days, and then amazingly, I was released.
I ended up on bed rest for 10 weeks. People from church were very kind to us. They brought us meals, did our laundry, and prayed for us. We entered into a relatively calm phase.
However, after I was cleared from bed rest, I started having contractions one evening. They were six minutes apart. My ex-husband screamed at me that it was not time to have the baby. He was not ready for this. He shrieked that I needed to knock it off, and he refused to let me go to the hospital. My contractions stopped after a while. This happened at least two more times over the next few weeks.
I was scheduled to be induced on an upcoming holiday. The Sunday before, I thought my water broke. After the initial exam, the Resident told me that they had an extra bed open; and I could be induced the next morning. My ex-husband looked at her and said, “No thank you. She’s scheduled to be induced on the holiday. This baby is being born the day after.”
Thankfully, the wise woman said, “I’ll leave you two alone for a moment. Grace, remember that you’re two weeks past your due date. You’re already here, and you’re welcome to stay.”
I knew I was “safe” at the hospital, I knew that he wouldn’t dream of yelling at me or trying to force me to leave. I put my foot down. I told him we were staying. He was very angry, but for once, powerless.
My son was born and his name was deliberately chosen to remind me that “Yahweh is the God who provides!” What a gift his life has been to me! He has indeed been a constant reminder that Yahweh does provide for all of our needs!
Eventually, we switched to a church that was in our new neighborhood. I knew a lot of people there through the school that I had attended, and I finally felt like my ex-husband was finding his niche as well. He had given up substances in order to be a good father. He had friends who were men of faith.
The following June, we dedicated our son, renewed our vows, and my ex-husband baptized me. We helped out with the kids program that summer. We took a mission trip to New York in August. That’s where things started to unravel.
He had spent a year in New York at a drug recovery center. When we went back to visit, he slipped back into the same old habits. He flirted with other women right in front of me. He demanded that he be allowed to play guitar for worship. He insisted that he only do certain volunteer jobs at the ministry place. He swore at me, yelled at me, and then turned around to hold the door open for me if other people were nearby.
One afternoon, we were helping out with a project on a covered basketball court. I had our son, David, in his stroller. The wind picked up, and it started raining so hard that the only dry place was at center court. Suddenly, we saw treetops getting snapped off about a half mile away. I grabbed my son out of the stroller, and another worker yelled, “Quick! Run to the retaining wall and hunker down!” I did. My ex-husband crouched down a few feet away from me. The other man grabbed him and yelled, “Cover your wife! I’ll cover you!” As the wind roared above us like a train, and trees were snapped in two; I began to cry at the realization that my ex was only concerned about himself. If the other man had not been with us, I would have been the only one trying to protect our son. No one was injured, thank God; and we spent a long afternoon and evening helping with the clean-up effort.
When it was time to leave New York, I was told that our trip money had been spent, so we could no longer afford a hotel like I had originally planned. We had to drive straight through the night from New York to Michigan. When we pulled into our driveway, we discovered that my ex had left the back door unlocked for the entire ten days that we were gone. Miraculously, nothing had been touched. I remembered how devastated I was at his lack of desire to keep us and our home safe from harm.
The dampness on my cheeks startled me back to reality as I began to cry over the recollections of my past marriage. The smell of lilacs wafted over to me again, and I realized that all of these horrific memories were condensed to the first 18 months of my marriage! I endured that much hell in only 18 months?! I grieved the death of my expectations. I grieved and mourned and wailed for the death of my dreams. I became indignant and angry over the good that I had not been given.
I have wrestled throughout my life with allowing my sadness to be expressed. I constantly struggle with feeling inferior if I start to cry. Over the years, I would literally assign time to cry…at night when my children were asleep; or while in the shower, or while running (in the rain). This time, I completely surrendered to my sorrow. I simply let it run its course.
I was surprised by how cleansed I felt afterward. I pulled myself up from the crumpled heap that I had become; and unflinchingly buried my face in the lilac bouquet, breathing in the heady deliciousness. I remembered something that my counselor friend had said about flashbacks. He had told me once that “the worst thing a flashback can do is scare you”. The truth of his statement resonated with me in this moment as I took a quivering deep breath.
I exhaled slowly and evenly, visualizing all of my pain from the rejection of my first marriage. I spoke aloud in a surprisingly firm voice, and said, “The worst thing that my former marriage can do is sadden me. It has no power over me anymore. I am loved by God, I am carried by Him and I can do this”. I recalled a quote from L.M. Montgomery in her book, “A Tangled Web”. The story outlines one of the heroines being jilted by her fiancée’ until he eventually finds himself jilted; at which point he comes back to beg her forgiveness in order to avoid being alone. The heroine’s thoughts after she sends him away are as follows:
“To come back so soon – so shamelessly. Hadn’t he any depth? Couldn’t he care really for anybody? But he had come—and his coming had set her free from phantom fetters.”
I repeated the phrase “phantom fetters” out loud. The very shackles that I was so afraid of, the ones that I feared would limit me and hold me back; were merely “phantom fetters”. They weren’t shackles at all. I was only bound by my resistance to live my new life freely. I held the power to walk forth unafraid. What I thought were my shackles were as a hologram, a shadow of reality.
In that moment, I resolved to embrace life; not to run from it in fear.
I remembered sleeping in my childhood room on summer nights; with the intoxicating smell of lilacs wafting through the screened windows until my bedroom was saturated with the fragrance.
Why should he be allowed to steal the fragrance of my favorite flowers? He had already stolen so much. I was no longer shackled to him.
I picked up the vase, and brought it down to my bedside table. As the aroma of freshly picked lilacs drifted around me, I peacefully gave myself over to a dream-filled sleep.