What is an expert? According to Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, “An expert is a person who has made all possible errors within a limited range of human experience.” I can certainly claim my fair share of obstacles and “errors” during my lifetime which challenges the very foundations of mental health and emotional wellness. Early on, I became labelled as the “sick one” in the family. Let me explain.
Fathers and Their Daughters
After growing up in an abusive family environment dominated by an oppressive patriarchal religion, I found myself in a marriage to an alcoholic husband — apparently women sometimes marry a man much like their father. However, I didn’t consciously know that at the time. I thought I could be happy with Terry because he was gentle and didn’t beat me. He didn’t try to control me. He didn’t criticize my perceived “failures.” But, I floundered in that loosely constructed environment. I didn’t seem to get the feedback I needed to feel grounded in those strangely quiet, unstructured, and hauntingly unfamiliar surroundings. My native childhood setting was usually filled with my father yelling rules at me — and me feeling terrorized while desperately trying to comply. But, with Terry, the line of familiarity ended right after “alcoholism.” I was distinctly out of my comfort zone as a newly married young woman. I didn’t understand that I was being set up to be labelled as the “sick one” in a seriously dysfunctional relationship.
Being the “Sick One”
My first visit to a psychiatrist was three years into that marriage, after Terry’s huge drinking bout at Christmas. I had two small children by then and I was terrified to think what kind of a life they would experience with an alcoholic father. Terry was quite happy for me to go for therapy — alone — where I talked about my crazy childhood more than my dysfunctional marriage. The subject of my husband’s alcoholism did come up once, but the only solution offered was a prescription for Valium — for myself.
Unfortunately, I was never a big believer in “a pill for every ill” so I would only take a pill occasionally when I got really upset about Terry’s drinking — like on those nights he just didn’t come home for dinner. Clearly my taking a pill was not a real solution for my husband’s alcoholism. Interestingly, Terry was really happy because to all outsiders, I appeared to be the “sick one” because I was the one on pills. I was the one in therapy. With that as the accepted view in the family, who could fault Terry if he needed a few drinks now and then?
The mental health system had utterly failed me. In effect, this was the “Adam & Eve” solution — just blame the woman for everything that goes wrong in a family. And I was a complicit enabler. Clearly, drugs simply do not solve dysfunctional relationships.
My second round of therapy occurred in Lethbridge, where I took on the role of supermom. I was working full-time, raising two teenagers, still trying to fix the alcoholic husband, and seeking refuge in the family religion for some structure. To add to my load, Terry had now graduated to drug abuse and sex addictions. Sadly I didn’t let myself see his multiple dependencies until some years later. I was desperately trying to hold our marriage together — an objective mandated by the religious elders at the Lethbridge congregation. “Winning your husband into the congregation would be a huge victory for Jehovah,” they insisted. Also, I was shunning my mother — something I could not come to terms with, since it was an arbitrary religious rule. I was seriously depressed. Again — very conveniently — I was the “sick one”.
Then my father died. His death seemed to discharge all my suppressed fears of him. It didn’t matter that he lived two provinces away. I was still terrorized to the core. I collapsed — utterly exhausted. My psychotherapist medicated me with Prozac and explained using a clear metaphor, “You have been swimming the English Channel, my dear. Your athletic event is over and you are lying on the beach, exhausted. I suggest you take a month off work — take care of yourself and get lots of sleep — and you’ll be fine.”
Oh, the thought of blissfully sleeping an entire month away — who could argue with that?
Another couple of years went by and Terry was back in Saskatoon, commuting between there and Lethbridge for work. In order to be a good wife I decided I’d better move to Saskatoon and be with him. When I suggested the move to Terry, he was quite agreeable. He helped me pack up and within a few months the move was final.
Just as I was getting settled into my new home in Saskatoon, I discovered Terry had created a secret life while away from me. I learned he had a girlfriend and I was just in the way of his freedom. I was furious. I wished he had told me not to move away from Lethbridge. We could have just simply divorced and gone our own separate ways. And I wouldn’t have had to give up my job. But for some reason, he let me move. I became extremely angry. I’ll never understand his reasoning.
Thankfully, my family doctor gave me the name of a therapist with whom I truly resonated. She knew I had many thinking errors and, without saying so, she helped me see the cognitive dissonance in them. Thus, I began a long road to healing my childhood wounds.
Back at my new home in Saskatoon, things carried on dismally for a few more months until I could stand it no longer. Terry’s drinking turned into weekend binges. After one of his big binge fests, I packed him a suitcase and asked him to move out. He was shocked and didn’t believe me at first. But, I was at the end of the line. He could see that I was holding my ground this time. By the end of the day he left with a suitcase of his things.
After a few days, he phoned from his sister’s place and I was more sure than ever that I didn’t want him to come home if he wasn’t going to deal with his addictions. I didn’t want to be known as the “sick one” any longer.
It was at that point I realized I wanted a divorce.
Divorce as Pathway to Well-Being
I kid you not. Sometimes it’s healthy to opt for divorce. Three years went by and I was feeling much more stable after the shock of the breakup. Amazing to see myself say that, but I suppose it was because of my family conditioning. Marriage was supposed to be “for life” according to the religion.
How beneficial the divorce proved to be. After those three years of freedom and plenty of therapy, I grasped the concept of co-dependence. I also learned of the Karpman Drama Triangle and its application in relationships — and other situations — through Dr. Kat’s therapy sessions. I began assessing all new situations with this analytical model to determine whether such a course of action was healthy — or sick. By using this tool, I became quite skillful in determining whether or not new situations would be healthy for me to pursue. As well, my therapist helped me get off Prozac, which felt just wonderful. I didn’t have to carry forward that label of “sick one” in the family any more.
Following My Heart
Around that same time, I met some new people who were dancers and I began taking ballroom dance lessons. Curiously, an interesting new man began paying attention to me and I was intrigued by his unexpected attentiveness. His charm became irresistible and we ended up having a three-year affair. I got myself disfellowshipped from the family religion because of our fling. At that time, most of my family, including my two grown children began shunning me.
Such a painful experience, being shunned. I lost my friends and family with one brief announcement from the kingdom hall platform. When I measured the family religion against the Karpman Drama Triangle, I suspected their members — who I called friends — could not have been true friends. I was right. Notably — and oddly — the members stared at me like people watching an accident. Yet, if I looked at them or smiled at them, they turned away in disgust. Suddenly, I was a leper. They had to obey the “shunning order.” It’s the unbreakable rule. That was June of the year 2000.
There was an over-active rumor-mill going around the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Saskatoon. The stories were unimaginable and I decided there was no point in addressing the large number of half-truths and outright falsehoods. I was being shunned and no one would listen to me anyway since I was disfellowshipped. It was open season on folks like me. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community were destroying me, as in character assassination. In 2003, I decided to make a major move to British Columbia to start a new job and build a new life, away from the prying eyes of the religious community who scorned me. It was high time to move on.
Hindsight and Looking Forward
Would I change a thing? Perhaps never marrying Terry in the first place? Given that I did marry him, then maybe I could have left that disaster of a marriage much sooner. Instead I got re-involved with the family religion after waking up to major fault lines in the relationship. My downfall at that point was thinking that the only way to prevent my kids from becoming alcoholic like their father was to give them religion and teach them the Bible. Boy, was I wrong.
It seems my life up till then was about learning lessons the hard way. Indeed, my mental and emotional health issues have challenged me to the very core of my existence. If only I had known about books like “Women and Their Fathers” by Victoria Secunda while in the family religion. Such was not to be, since reading non-Jehovah’s Witnesses books were not permitted. My therapist suggested reading that book and I found it immeasurably helpful in understanding the connections between a woman’s father and the men she falls in love with. Conceivably I — like Niels Bohr — could say, “An expert is a person who has made all possible errors within a limited range of human experience.”
How many times have I fallen asleep while praying for death throughout this lifetime? Yet, when morning arrived, I always woke up. That told me that I had a reason to go on. My soul in effect said, “It’s not time yet, sweet one.” Especially was that true since I got involved with another dancing man in British Columbia.
Now I live for my moments of grace. I live for the peaceful awareness — those lovely feelings of happiness and restful togetherness as a couple — this time, with a man who doesn’t drink or carouse — and who loves and cherishes me, without any harsh religious rules. Life is better now in so many ways. Best of all, I’m no longer labeled the “sick one”.
Shunning Mom Losing my humanity in the name of god.
Visit "Phoenix of Faith" a memoir. Follow on Twitter: @_phoenixoffaith Copyright © 2012–Present.