But willingness comes from the pain, and when I got to the point of believing I had really lost my mind, another voice inside me stepped in, grown-up and gentle. This one said, "Well? Who knows. Maybe not..."
It was lovely and amazing. I was marshalling a parent who I hadn't had consistently as a child, who assured me that we would figure it out, together. The person believed what I reported, and felt that my perceptions could be trusted or were at least worthy of investigation.
~Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
I recently visited with my 88-year-old father who dropped this little nugget of his wisdom on me: You know, he said. If your mother had just stuck with either pills or booze and hadn't combined the two, she would have been just fine.
There should be some sort of Razzie for a guy who can live almost to 90 and still be so clueless about his wife of more than 50 years. It takes some serious effort to have absorbed literally nothing from her 25-plus years of hard-won sobriety. To be able to convince himself that, sure there were months spent in locked psychiatric wards, years lost, hopes dashed, and – oh yeah – a daughter who essentially raised herself because her parents were fighting over who was more horrible than the other, but that's because she mixed her poison. Seriously.
What's more, my father has kept up his defence of an emotional affair with a woman he worked with as "harmless" for half a century. The problem wasn't his secret friendship with this woman, it was my mother's response to it, by descending into years of addiction to numb her pain.
Clearly, denial still runs deep in my father's bones.
So it's not surprising that I've spent a significant part of adulthood wondering where the truth lies. Was I being "dramatic", the often-lobbed challenge to my version of events in childhood? Did the two drunk adults somehow have a tighter grasp on reality than I did? That was certainly what I was told. That everything was fine. That I was the one rocking the boat. That if my mom just drank herself into a stupor rather than mixed in pills, she would have been great. Mother of the year. Pillar of her community.
It has taken me a lot of years and a lot of therapy to be able to say this: That is total and absolute bullshit.
Fast forward from my fiction-is-truth childhood to months before D-Day. I was pretty sure something wasn't right but my husband assured me I was mistaken. He promised me that everything was fine. Ignore that knot in your stomach, he might have said. Dismiss that nagging doubt in your brain. Don't believe what's right under your nose. Instead trust me. If I'd had any sense (and hadn't had years of grooming to doubt my own reality), I would have said this: That is total and absolute bullshit.
It's one of the great casualties with infidelity: Our version of reality becomes shaky. Even for those of you who didn't come from a long line of bullshitters, it can be hard to hold tight to what you know when what you know seems so contrary to what you want to believe. Or to what you thought you knew.
But, as Lamott reminds us, if we can listen to still small voice, the one that whispers rather than shouts, we'll often hear the truth. It's a voice that suggests we've always known who to trust (spoiler: ourselves). It's a voice that urges us to ignore that other version of reality when it doesn't sound...right. When it doesn't sound true, no matter how badly we wish it was.
At the very least, that voice will encourage us to investigate our version of reality, to give it the dignity of consideration.
As for my dad, he's 88. And while it seems he hardly learned a thing from those crazy years, I was lucky enough to have my mom until she passed away almost a decade ago. And she learned tons. She would never EVER have pretended that her problem was a consequence of what she mixed, rather than how she coped. She would have howled with laughter at my dad's version of events. Because the most important lesson she learned through sobriety was to trust herself and her reality. To stand firm in her convictions and make no excuses for anyone, least of all herself.
I miss her. I thought, as I drove home from my visit with my dad, how we would have laughed at what he said. She would have shaken her head with exasperation and said to me what she often did when I brought to her some other version of a story that I was trying to figure out: "Oh sweetie. You know exactly what's true."
In other words, if my mother ever swore (which she didn't), she would have said, "Hey, the other guy's story? Total and absolute bullshit."