Surrender - Inspiring Story by K.B. Quinn
There is no need to run outside for better seeing…Rather abide at the center of your being…Search your heart and see… -Lao-tzu
I woke with a start, realizing my husband’s side of the bed was empty. He had been on his way home when he’d called — hours ago. Did he stop at his brother’s? Or worse?
I got that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. He’d promised. How flatly that loaded word fell. Ben had taught me that promises were just more lines from Cinderella. Once upon a time I had believed in fairy tales — before I learned that promises could be used as weapons in the arsenal of love.
The slight slur and smoky rattle in Ben’s voice on the phone had told me that he’d been drinking. I’d asked, as I always did, and got the “just tired” response, mixed with a healthy dose of indignation for good measure. I loved him. I wanted to believe him. This was the tug-of-war that made my self-doubt grow like weeds among his lies. My logic knew what my heart wouldn’t accept. A mix of fear and anger flooded through me like adrenaline as I searched the house for any signs that he’d come home — a snore from another room, the light from a TV, recently smoked cigarettes. There was nothing but the emptiness that is three a.m.
Through the window, my eye caught the flash from a sliver of moon, reflecting off Ben’s SUV parked in the driveway. I could see swirls of exhaust blowing cold smoke into the night air. Did he just pull in? I waited to hear the sound of the downstairs door as he made his entry, trying to decide how to posture myself in defense. Silence. I tied my terry-cloth robe tightly around me, bracing for the night air’s change in temperature as I ran barefoot to his car.
The motor was running, and so was my heart. He was stretched unnaturally across the bench front seat, lying atop a pile of newspapers and a greasy McDonald’s bag. I pounded on the window, yelling “Ben. BEN.”
He did not even stir. Was he breathing? I pounded hard on the window, using my fingernails, clicking, anything to get his attention. I kicked the side of his door painfully with my frozen bare toes. Was the poison exhaust getting in the car? A long, gray ash hung from the nub of a burned-down cigarette between his fingers. A tiny crescent of half-dried blood crusted on his upper lip where his teeth had bitten through the skin. He breathed in, heavily, and the ash fell to the floor.
I had been placed in gifted programs throughout my schooling. I was the student who had gotten straight “A’s,” even from the toughest teachers. I was the child who had carried a picture of clouds forming the shape of Jesus to Sunday school, eager to share my wide-eyed belief. I was the one my sister nicknamed “Fluffy” because she said I was soft and downy inside like a marshmallow. I was always able to drive and make events happen, to use my will to overcome circumstances. But not now.
I couldn’t show Ben that he was sick and needed help to stop his drinking. I couldn’t prove to him that I loved him enough for him to stop drinking. He didn’t love me enough to try to stop. I imagined running down the beach and into the ocean waves. I wanted to be like James Mason’s character in “A Star is Born.” It was a relief to think of giving up. My heart was in danger of frosting over, justified with anger and evidence. I was tired and worn through in spots, like my terry robe. I was lost, and I was only twenty-four years old.
It was the bad boy in Ben that had attracted me. He had his own unshaven style, donned by a baseball cap with bandannas tucked into his jean pockets and rugged work boots that screamed “man” I thought that meant he was strong.
My own father left our family when my sister and I were girls. We saw him sporadically for afternoons at the movies. My mother tried her best to support us alone. She was a frightened, damaged woman-child, unprepared for the task. She turned to wine, and I turned my childhood into a blur of distractions designed to keep me from her dark home and her self-pity. I left home at eighteen and ran across the country to New York City to follow a family tradition of acting. I thought anything was better than going back to the tears and screaming of my past.
Ben hired me to work on his maintenance team at a trendy restaurant chain in the city. I showed up to the interview in my audition outfit, a silk blouse and linen pants. Later I learned they’d made fun of me, but they thought I was cute, so they hired me. It was the highest paying job listed in the want ads. I lied about my experience.
Before long, my free place to stay in the city fell apart and I had nowhere to go, except home. Ben found me in a back room at work, teary-faced, frightened, and trapped. He squeezed my wrenched shoulders just right, encouraging me to release my worries into his strong touch.
“I will take care of you. I have a great couch. You’ll see, everything will be alright. … string-free,” he added, giving me a twinkling smile to break the flow of my tears. He feather-touched my cheek and shivers went up my spine. I had never felt a sweeter touch. No one had ever promised to take care of me.
I had seen Ben drink at work; the late nights and the party atmosphere made it easy. I even saw him sneak shots before breakfast, his favorite scotch leaving a sour stench around him all day. My hairs stood up like red flags. I knew. I told myself this was not permanent.
“Be careful,” a visiting friend said to me after Ben had gotten so drunk that he actually fell in a gutter. I assured her that the relationship wasn’t serious. I was only having fun. But it soon became easy to rely on him, to love him even, but keep the deepest part of me walled off. I kept this distance protected. As long as I did, I felt secure in Ben’s apartment, and he welcomed me into his world. Soon, I met his family.
As we drove through the wooded lane leading to his family’s huge old farmhouse in the country, I could feel my walled, protected self begin to unfold. Ben’s father was a doctor. His mother greeted me with two Bingo cards as she rushed to seat me at the kitchen table. His grandmother was in the kitchen, cooking, with a tub of Crisco out on the countertop. There was activity everywhere. It was a hive of happiness, protected all around by a German shepherd named Greta who patrolled the property. It was warm and it smelled good. It was a womb.
Every chance I got, I pushed Ben to bring me to his home. I grew close to his family and ignored his drinking. I let down my wall in order to grow up inside his family. I let his relatives nurture me. I thought I could pay the price for this treasure. I convinced myself that I could love him enough to make him stop drinking.
At the wedding, my father walked me down to Ben and kissed him. “Now I don’t have to worry about her anymore.” Angry and embarrassed, I watched the stranger I called my father walk back to his place in line. Since when did you worry about me? I thought to myself. I had asked him to give me away to show Ben’s family that I belonged. I was pretending.
I thought that being married would change Ben. I thought a wedding ring would make him come home when he said he would. I thought a poem about love would keep him from lying. I thought a prayer could heal him. I thought he would know that other things were more important than drinking, now that we were building our own family. “I am what I am: green eggs and ham,” he said to me. I didn’t believe him.
Our fights became like a broken record, the same lines repeated. The anger and resentment built up like storms against a dam. I closed my eyes and lived for the time spent on the farmhouse, safe in that womb where decorations for each holiday lay safely boxed in the attic, orderly and predictable. His family grew as attached to me as I was to them. We fit together. All I had to do was brave the time between visits.
Someone suggested Al-Anon meetings, where I heard messages about turning my will and my life over to a higher power.” The serenity they promised washed over me like the promise of a warm spring rain. I listened and watched, but I was waiting for a recipe to make Ben stop drinking. I believed that was what I needed for serenity. I continued to search outside myself for an ever-elusive peace while my resentment grew like a tumor. Why wouldn’t God make Ben stop drinking?
I quit working for Ben. I had put together a system for him to organize his projects and budgets at the restaurant. He referred to it as that “cute little book.” He said he was kidding, but his belittlement stuck me like pins. I felt proud when a visiting architect saw it and asked who had created it. Ben pointed distractedly over at me. The architect handed me his card and said, “If you ever want a job…”
I quit acting, too. A friend that had known me since grade school said, “It must be hard for you. You are so used to succeeding at everything you do.” I felt no control over my future. I needed to do something that made me feel better about myself. I needed validation; I needed to feel that I was good at something. I decided to go to college. Ben’s career was going well. I talked with him about school and went and registered full-time. It wasn’t long before it was brought up in every fight. He worked harder; he made more money. I never bought anything. My underwear and socks had holes in them; I gained twenty-five pounds. But I kept going to school and earning my A’s.
The years were blurs of holidays and term papers. Ben and I moved to a house in the suburbs. It was framed by tall pines and sat on the edge of a lake. When I saw the large stone hearth, I knew I needed to live there. I imagined long days spent floating on the water, embraced by the warm air. Ben wanted a child. I convinced myself that he would change when he became a father. I was almost finished with school; I had one last semester to go. It became a good idea.
The nights spent making love to create life became science for me. The right timing, the right position. It became an assignment to get an “A” on, as the sour smell of scotch seeping through his skin repulsed me. I started smelling it on my clothes and on the curtains in the house. I focused on having a child, on believing that I could be happy when I had another life to love. I kept doing and thinking to avoid feeling. I repeated all the lessons I had learned from my childhood: move and do to stop the feelings from flooding up like bile. The happiest moment for me was telling his family about our baby; it fueled a big celebration coupled with the 4th of July. At the end of the long weekend of celebration, there was blood on my underwear. I cried myself to sleep alone.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a double major. I finished school despite constant barbs and needles about my schoolwork in psychology being “psychobabble bullshit.” I got a job as a therapist in a nearby hospital. Ben told me I wasn’t qualified. His rancor was growing, and I spent my emotional energy thinking of ways to rehabilitate him. What could I do to make him stop? If he only stopped drinking, I knew we could be happy. We could enjoy our beautiful house and create our family.
But he came home less and less. I never relented trying to find ways to show him how he was hurting himself and me. I was terrified of losing him; at the same time, I nearly hated him. Our relationship became a dance, balancing the love that remained with the acid frustration and anger we both felt. On the nights he was late, I would fantasize that he might have an accident on his way home, leaving me our home and insurance money. I would drown in guilt and relief when the door slammed announcing his presence.
Now, in the driveway under the sliver of moon, I watched Ben, breathing in sync with the rhythm of the car’s motor, comfortable in his own mess. I searched my mind for something new to say to him, some emotion I hadn’t tried, some trick he hadn’t seen. Instead, my mind drew an image of myself holding a baby in this night air as I pounded on the car window, the baby screaming in confusion and bewilderment. I pictured the child waiting patiently for her daddy to come home — he had promised. I saw her grow up wondering what she could do that would make him stop, that would make him love her enough. I saw her choose a husband who needed her to heal his wounds.
How could I do this to another innocent child? All of my illusions slipped away and the cold reality slapped me hard, knocking the breath from my body. How had I lost myself along the way? How had I become so afraid? A faint voice inside me whispered, “Turn your fear into faith.” A voice from all of those Al-Anon meetings I had attended and saved like a bank account to draw from, sitting in the hard metal chairs, cursing the smoky surroundings and the chocolate chip cookies that I ate but didn’t enjoy.
Faith. I remembered all the moments I had been somewhere at exactly the right time, all the people that had been in my path with the right words and the right touch. I remembered warm hands reaching out to guide me across icy roads. I remembered all the moments where the universe had embraced and protected me, and I knew that I would be carried when I didn’t have the strength to carry myself. Hiding is only a temporary harbor. No matter how deep you crawl into your hiding space, the light will find you, even as it does at the depths of the deepest waters. I was exposed, and I couldn’t hide anymore. Sometimes just a glimmer of the burning, unshielded sun is enough to blind you. I surrendered.
The dim light from the quarter moon illuminated Ben’s sleeping body, sprawled over the front seat. I could see my breath in the night. The anger was gone.
I would not run or think away my feelings. I was ready to pull the fragments of myself back together. I had built my own prison. No one had helped me. Only I had the keys. It wouldn’t be easy. Ben’s family would call me cold and harsh. They would not understand my disloyalty. My family would cry for my loss of security. No more house, no more lake. I hugged myself and like the little blue engine, I knew I could do this. My heartbeat slowed to the pace of the thick night. I tasted serenity float in on the salt air. I felt my power grow as I walked back into the house.
I coached myself like a loving parent through the fear. I reminded myself of my successes at work and of the friendships I had nurtured as I packed my suitcase. I imagined living in my own space, truly safe for the first time in my life. I thought of curling into an overstuffed couch, pulling the covers over my cold, naked feet while a fire burned in the hearth. I needed a place in which to unlock my secrets and come out of hiding.
I would get help. I would get a counselor. I knew I was sick. I had been infected in childhood and had never been cured, but I could heal. I would plug myself back into the universe and rekindle the fires of my faith. I got my car keys and my uncashed paycheck and walked out. I would not look back.
K.B. Quinn benefited from many years of therapy. She also continued her schooling while working and earned a masters degree in business. She is now a vice president at a Fortune 50 company. She shares her success with her three sons and her second husband, who live with her happily in their home in the Midwest.