le mot juste
© 2008 michele may



Coin of Strength

As I drove further and further North, the leaves seemed to turn from summer's green to the brilliant oranges of fall right before my eyes. I couldn't help but feel that my life would be changed as quickly as the seasons that weekend. It was the strangest feeling. I knew that I would be forever different, yet I had no idea how much.

I remember trembling just a little as I pulled up the long driveway, not knowing how I'd get through this long weekend of uncertainty. A part of me was scared to death while the other part grew increasingly angry that I had to be subjected to this fear. As I parked my car, I noticed a group of people playing football in the field next to me. They looked strangely normal to me, not at all what I expected. I spotted my husband with the ball just as a girl with long blonde hair and very tight jeans tackled him. Just great, I thought, just what I needed. On top of my fear and anger, I now had stabs of jealousy. I had the urge to start the car and drive back home as fast as I could. But I didn't. Still shaking, I went inside.

"Welcome to Valley View," the counselor in front of the room said with a smile -- kind of a nice name, I thought, for a place full of drug addicts and alcoholics. "I know you don't want to be here, but I promise that when you leave on Sunday, you will agree that this has been the best weekend of your life." What, was he crazy? I could think of a million more pleasant places to spend the "best weekend of my life." I kept my mouth shut and sat through orientation with the 30 or so other family members in the room and listened to all the rules and regulations. We'd be staying in the alcoholic's building. Lucky us; you never know what those drug addicts will do. Family therapy was to begin the next day, and we were only allowed to have contact with the patients during therapy.

As promised, therapy began the next morning. I could see my husband across the patio, but I was not allowed to go to him. Did I even want to? There was the girl with the long blonde hair again talking to him. I'd heard all about her the night before when a few of us sneaked to the other building to meet with our respective addicts. She was a heroin junkie with a three-year-old who was almost taken away several times by child services. Rumor had it she was sleeping with one of the patients there. I didn't know her, but I didn't like her.

The session started with everyone in a big circle. There were about 50 of us altogether, patients and families included. One at a time, as they felt ready, the patients would take their chairs out of the circle and sit in front of their families. They were then supposed to tell their families their entire chemical histories, from beginning to end, make their amends, and say anything else that they needed. After that, the families would sit in front of the patients and say whatever they had to say. When the patients and families were through, the group would give feedback on what they heard. The whole idea was to bring everything out, throw it into the circle and flush it away. I had no idea how intense the next four days would be.

The patients began telling their stories and the families answering with their own. There were stories of 14-year-old children using several bags of heroin a week and grown men bringing their two-year-olds on drug runs. Wives were beaten by their husbands, husbands by their wives, and children were abused by their parents. It was revealed right there in front of me by a younger patient's sister, only 15, that her uncle had been sexually abusing her for years. I watched a grown man, a weathered-looking New York policeman, reduced to sobbing tears as he faced his dead father using a counselor as a surrogate. I cried for four days and every night, more than I have ever cried. I wept for all of them, and I wept for myself. How weak I imagined I must be. These stories were horrible stories of pain and fear, and here I was acting so scared and childish. I had my own pain, but I had seen nothing nearly as terrible as what I heard in that room. How did I end up so weak?

I sat quietly during the four days of therapy. Except for once, I did not give any feedback. Who was I to judge these people? I was sure these experienced individuals had nothing to learn from someone like me. I could not even judge the blonde-haired girl anymore after watching her fear-filled eyes try to confront her abusive husband as her whole body shook. Seemingly confident outside with her peers, she looked like a frightened child now. Looking down at her swinging feet, she told the room how she tried to get clean many times, but he would come home with heroin for her, just to keep her in his control. I watched as her husband manipulated her words by nodding his approval and shaking his head in disapproval as she tried to say her piece. It angered me so much that I had to say something. "How can you say you're not controlling her? Look how you're intimidating her by nodding and shaking your head at her! Why don't you just let her say what she has to say?" He gave me an evil glance but said nothing. The poor girl seemed painfully terrified of him.

It was the end of the last day before my husband placed his chair in front of me to recite his history. My stomach felt like a clenched fist, and my body tingled with fear. What was I going to find out? I had waited for this for two years. I expected the whole truth, no matter how bad it hurt. No more guessing. No more unknowns. When he finally began, he spoke at me, not to me. It was as if he had rehearsed. He told me of his cocaine addiction and carefully selected some incidents that I know he was sure I'd already heard. I wanted to slap him as I listened to his insincerity. I'd had enough lies, and I had desperately hoped that here it would end. My lungs seemed to be running out of oxygen, and I had to fight the urge to get up and run outside. It wasn't over. It didn't work.

When it was my turn to talk to him I wasn't scared anymore; I was furious. "You didn't tell me one single thing that I didn't know already." He just stared at me with that phony caring face of his. "I came all the way up here and you can't even be honest? Not even here?" I felt the tears behind my eyes trying to push their way out. They were not tears of sadness. They were tears of anger. Tears of disbelief. Tears of defeat. I had nothing else I could say that I thought he would actually hear except, "If you come home and use again, I'm leaving you - for good." The counselor called him on his insincerity during feedback as did all of his addict peers. I just sat there numb. I couldn't talk to him or even look at him for the rest of therapy.

Before the family members were released to go home, we had to get back into the circle. The counselor handed each of us a small coin with a butterfly on one side and the Serenity Prayer on the other. He told us to exchange the coin with someone in the room that had touched us in some way. I watched as everyone got up one by one and exchanged their coins with someone. Then something happened that I will remember for the rest of my life. The blonde-haired girl, the one I hadn't liked in the beginning, the one that I judged so unfairly, walked over to me. I looked up at her as she stood in front of me. I felt my chin shaking as I tried to smile at her, and tears began to slide down my cheeks before she even spoke. She took my hand and placed her coin in it and said these words that I will hear forever: "I hope that someday I can be as strong as you." Through my tears I looked at her in disbelief. Where had she seen this strength that I did not feel?

She has no idea how much she's touched my life. Her words are what gave me the strength that she was so sure I had. Her words are what helped me leave when I had to. Her words are what I hear whenever I feel weak. I think everyone eventually finds strength from somewhere. She gave me mine. I still carry it in my pocket wherever I go.