This is my entry for Week Fifteen of The Real LJ Idol competition, where the topic is ""Cracking Up." I'll post an update about voting later in the week. If you haven't already, you may want to join therealljidol, since some voting will be restricted to community members. Again, I really appreciate all the support so far!
Me at Salem Harbor during the fateful trip
By the time my first husband, The Seeker, and I stood at the water's edge of Salem Harbor, struggling over a silver pentacle necklace, I could no longer fool myself. He had major mental health issues, which were tearing us apart.
At his urging, I had just bought him the handmade silver necklace from one of the plentiful New Age shops. At $40, the necklace was more expensive than we could afford, partly because The Seeker couldn't keep a job.
I'd gotten him hired at the pizza place where I was working as a delivery driver, but even the sweet Greek family who owned the place couldn't abide his flighty, odd behavior. The Seeker would leave during the middle of a shift because he felt he just had to do something: usually, to pray at the top of his lungs to the pagan gods. Sometimes, he had to retrace his steps to a place where he'd had a bad thought, in order to erase it by praying in that spot.
After I'd handed The Seeker the necklace, a blissful smile had crossed his face. He'd held it in his palm, admired it, then hung it around his neck, where the silver had gleamed in contrast to his long, dark hair. I had hoped, foolishly, that the necklace would calm him, help him to find his center, like a rosary or prayer beads. Briefly, that seemed possible, but within hours, he'd gotten a haunted look in his eyes, a look I recognized all too well.
He'd raced ahead of me to the harbor, looking increasingly more agitated. When he'd reached the water's edge, he'd unclasped the necklace, held it in his hand, and pulled his arm back. Before he could throw the necklace into the harbor, to sink beneath the waves forever, I'd grabbed his arm.
"No," I'd said. "Not this time."
For years, he had made small sacrifices to the gods, part of his ever-growing rituals. He'd started with food, offering the last few bites of every meal, usually by placing the food under a tree. Then, I'd noticed my silverware disappearing: an actual silver set given to me by my grandfather. I never was exactly certain where all those forks, knives and spoons went, but I'm certain they were offered to the gods, as well.
Even so, The Seeker had astonished me, on our honeymoon, when he'd thrown a wedding present out the window as we'd whipped down the highway. The gift was a corduroy hat, lovingly handmade by a friend. We were on a divided highway, traveling about 70 miles an hour at the time, and despite my efforts to locate it, the hat and that connection to our friend was gone.
In addition to the offerings, The Seeker had taken to increasingly prohibitive compulsive praying. He often prayed to trees, which he considered to be the divine conduit to nature's gods. Every night at dusk, he went outside, spun around, and sang a prayer, blessing our love. The first time he did it, I thought it was sweet. When the compulsive prayers began to interfere with our daily lives, they were no longer charming.
Every time we went out in public, I feared that his inner forces would dictate he engage in one of his rituals: whether it was loud chanting, making an offering, or retracing his steps. This could be extraordinarily difficult when we were in a hurry. I had to watch how I spoke to him, because if he felt any negativity, he'd retrace to the spot where the conversation happened and engage in ritualized praying until he'd cleared the bad thoughts from his mind.
In the short time we'd been together we'd gotten engaged a few months after we met and married almost exactly a year later he'd given up trying to hide these habits from me, although he still made an effort, I knew, to hold himself together in front of others. It hadn't been long, though, before my family, our friends, and our coworkers must have suspected, even if they'd kept their suspicions to themselves.
Planning a pilgrimage to Salem sounded like a great idea for a vacation. We could stay inexpensively in a nearby campground, check out the historic sites and the New Age stores and perhaps, I thought, find some balance amongst fellow pagans.
But Salem, famous for the witch trials, is awash in psychic energy: from the bad juju left behind by the witch trials, to the overwhelming vibes from modern-day Wiccans and New Agers. As we'd browsed the historic sites and the stores, I'd felt eyes on us everywhere: some of them healing, others predatory. "They know," I'd thought. "There's no hiding here."
And so now we stood at the water's edge, engaged in a contest of wills. The scene must have looked strange to outsiders: a plump hippy chick standing on tiptoes, forcefully holding back the arm of a tall, skinny wisp of a man. Tears dripped down his face. "Please," he said. "You've got to let me. If I don't throw this in the water, there's no future for us."
"Nonsense. Give it to me," I insisted.
He refused, and we struggled more. Despite his pleas, despite his tears, for the first time ever, I would not relent. I used my body mass to push him, like a stubborn bull, away from the water. I grabbed his arm when he tried to run back. Finally, deflated, he handed over the necklace and followed me to the truck.
I'd like to say I learned, in Salem, that my efforts to protect my husband from his mental illness had been futile, and that's why I took a stand. The truth is, I was tired of accommodating his strange behavior, of making excuses for him, of dreading every public trip. I was simply tired of being an enabler. We'd found change in Salem, for sure, but not the type I'd sought.
As we drove home to Central Pennsylvania, he pulled his knees up on the seat, rocking and praying out loud to the Goddess, asking her forgiveness, asking for guidance. I felt like I was torturing him, but I kept driving.
Keeping my voice as calm as possible, I told him, "You need help. We're going to find a way to get you help." He rocked and cried, and I wasn't even sure he heard me.
I wish this story ended differently. I wish I could tell you that we found him a therapist and he found a treatment that improved his life. But the truth is, I couldn't afford an expensive psychiatrist.
I took him to the county mental health services, where a counselor spoke to him, alone. When he emerged from the meeting, The Seeker told me that the therapist said he was only suffering from some mild anxiety and that there was no reason to set up regular appointments. I knew The Seeker was capable of controlling his behavior for brief periods of time, and I was certain he'd hidden the truth from the counselor. I was angry nobody talked to me, but I felt there was nothing I could do. That visit ended our hopes for a therapeutic solution.
Not to mention I was going through my own health issues at the time, awaiting tests to learn if I had cervical cancer. We had no health insurance, and I worried that, should I need treatment, I wouldn't be able to afford it. While I was awaiting the results of my (ultimately negative) biopsy, The Seeker spent a week with friends in the college town where we'd met. When he returned, he told me, again with tears in his eyes, that he was leaving me.
For weeks afterwards, I engaged in my own nightly ritual: listening to a John Lennon album and drinking Jaegermeister from a hidden bottle before falling asleep on my mom's sofa bed. I wasn't yet able to return to our house and face the ghosts of our brief marriage.
I'd like to say that I soon absolved myself of guilt and moved on. But the truth is, I couldn't stop myself from thinking, "Maybe I could have done something. If only I'd sought help sooner." Or the worst, nagging thought: "If only I'd let him throw that damn necklace in the harbor."
My friends rallied around me, and I eventually returned to our apartment. I cleared out the storage space The Seeker had used as a ritual area. I wanted to make a black-light room for a Valentine's Day party for my single friends. We would call it the Lonely Hearts Club Party.
As I boxed up his stuff, I found a piece of fossilized wedding cake, next to a large candle. How odd. Then I found a notebook where The Seeker had written a desperate plea. He wrote, for anyone who found it, that he didn't want to leave me, that he was fighting it, but that the urge was simply too strong.
I guess, in a way, I had become his greatest offering to the gods.
Post-script: The last information I had about The Seeker, he'd joined a Hare Krishna temple and was helping with Hurricane Katrina relief. I learned this from a paper someone wrote for a comparative religions class, which cited his optimistic view of the storm. He said, more or less, that he felt that some things were just unavoidable and that we were meant to learn from them.
Information on Scrupulosity or Religious OCD:
You can only change yourself.