Sandra Bullock told me to leave my husband.
Well, that’s only partially true. It was God but he used Sandy to do it. God doesn’t often speak to me in words or pictures that are crystal clear but when he does, it’s generally one of two ways. The first method is more subtle. It’s a tap on the shoulder; a “hey, over here” kind of thing. The other method has all the subtlety of blunt force trauma. This time, though, was something between the two.
A brief recap for those of you who might not have seen the movie: Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock’s character) is part of a US space shuttle mission. Near the end of their mission, she and the rest of the shuttle crew are caught in a shower of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite that demolishes their shuttle and leaves Dr. Stone stranded in space with a very slim chance of ever returning to Earth.
My life at the time I saw Gravity was feeling more and more fragmented. Like Bullock’s character, I saw almost no chance of our life returning to anything close to what it had been. When the Spousal Unit and I met and married, he was AA sober and had stayed that way for many years. However, over the last decade, and especially the last six years or so, his drinking had steadily increased to the point where he was now drinking copiously every day – whole bottles, morning and night. His willingness or desire to try and hide it was less and he was becoming more vocal about how I needed to just shut up and deal with it or leave. The SU and I were both in the grip of alcoholism and codependency. I wasn’t the one drinking but alcohol and its effects ruled both our lives: irresponsible behavior, isolation, lies, deceit, anger, sorrow, rage…
Living with a drunk is difficult at best and soul-destroying at worst. Part of that is the actions and attitudes of the alcoholic but part of that generates from the person living with the alcoholic; in this case, me. In general, those of us who love alcoholics become part of the insanity without even really knowing it. To borrow the AA/Al-Anon phraseology, our lives become unmanageable but we don’t really see it. We’re so set on trying to figure out the set of circumstances, the ritual, the “bottom”, the ONE THING that will cause the alcoholic to realize what he or she is doing and turn away from their self-destruction and towards sobriety that we miss the signpost that says we passed the Twilight Zone a long time ago.
To quote Eeyore: “It’ll never work.”
During this time, I started journaling again. My opening entries are full of anger and fear, so many of them starting with some variation of “SU drank. And lied. Again.” I desperately wanted change and healing. I wanted my husband back and I brought that to God time and time again. There was no one prayer. There was no one time. There was no one experience. All of it involved tears. I did not understand why I continually implored God to rescue my husband and was always met with the response (subtle in this case) to remain in the marriage, to continue to learn about God and to be Jesus with skin on to my husband. Didn’t God know how hard this was? I mean, seriously, dude (Lord)? You want me to be Jesus to a guy who gets blind drunk every night, calls me names, lies to me, threatens to beat me, leaves me feeling bereft, alone and insecure?
Every time I’d ask that, He’d say “Yes. I do.”
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I can see better what was happening at that time. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace versus costly grace. Cheap grace acknowledges what Jesus did for me but lets me go about living my life exactly as if nothing has changed. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, to understand what He did changed everything and I am to follow in his footsteps. With cheap grace, it was very easy to consider that God loved me. After all, I wasn’t the alcoholic. I wasn’t the one wreaking havoc. Costly grace told me to remember that my sins were no better than the Spousal Unit's and that God loved him just as much as He loved me and hurt just as much for the SU as I did. Cheap grace creates a hierarchy. Costly grace makes us all equal.
While I prayed to God to change the Spousal Unit, God was working on changing me. One of the first things that He worked on was my willingness to be obedient and submit and one of the biggest ways I was asked to submit was by staying in my marriage because He was telling me to do so. God and I talked a lot about that one because, to be totally honest, there were a lot of days where I desperately wanted to leave. But I had to come to a place where I was willing to put God back in his proper place, to let him be my security above all else – even my husband and my relationship with him. To help with that, He pointed me towards Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen. Manning wrote a Christian classic, The Ragamuffin Gospel, yet he struggled with alcoholism his whole life and died from its effects. Nouwen dealt with deep depression. Both of them wrote truthfully about their struggles and how God loves us as we are in all our brokenness and pain; that He hurts along with us even as He asks us to follow him and carry the crosses He assigns to us. Their writings gave me hope and showed me a God who was NOT indifferent but was, in fact, deeply involved in my life and in my particular circumstances. A journal entry of mine on that topic reads:
“Whose mind, whose outlook do I adopt? God’s or man’s? I must deny the right to set myself up as the authority. You have my interests at heart. I must deny my desire to take authority and wrest this situation away from you. I must pick up my cross and follow you, seek you, become you. Be your beloved and find my identity and my safety in you and not the things of this world – not even my relationship with my husband.”
Another thing God taught me was the need for consistent prayer and that my timing was not necessarily His. I learned to beat a path to Him every day and, more than that, to be honest when I prayed. A lot of times there was nothing very pretty about my prayers. There were no elegant words or pretty turns of phrase. If I recall correctly, there was some cursing involved at times. I had to ask forgiveness a lot for trying to impose my timeline and asking for proof. I had to learn that just because I didn’t feel like God was there didn’t mean He wasn’t. It meant I wasn’t experiencing Him the way I thought I should or wanted to and I had to back up and rethink my attitude and mindset.
In Gravity, there is a point shortly after the space shuttle is destroyed where it appears communication with Mission Central in Houston has been lost. However, Dr. Stone keeps talking, telling Houston what she is doing, what is going on and what she is going to try to do next with the hope that they can hear her even if she can’t hear them. Every time she does, she starts off her transmission with “Houston in the blind” and I tend to classify a lot of my early prayers as starting off with some version of “Houston in the blind” because I was angry. Angry that even though I was praying and trying to do what God wanted me to, I still wanted my timeline. I wanted my miracle – even more so when it became very apparent that my husband would, in all likelihood, drink himself to death. You see stories all the time about God miraculously doing something or another in response to someone’s prayer and all those stories seem to sum up with “And the next thing you know…”. How could God ask me to stand by and try to be Jesus in a situation like this? Wasn’t He going to rescue my husband? Wasn’t there going to be some obvious, unmistakable turning point where everything magically became better?
Yeah…no. God can certainly do that if He wants to but a lot of times I think he has things to teach us in the midst of our suffering and we can only learn those if we choose to bend our will, submit and be obedient to what he asks us to do. In Jesus, the One and Only, Beth Moore writes, “A plan of profound importance exists that sometimes overrides the miracle we desperately desire.” She also says later that Jesus doesn’t only see our excitement but that he also sees our exhaustion. Well, he was seeing a lot of exhaustion with me.
Let me tell you, obedience is a slog. It’s a painful, heartbreaking slog where you have to get up every day and ask for the strength to submit to Him again because you just don’t see the freaking point. You have to bend your stiff knees and remind yourself in prayer that you have asked for God’s will to be ascendant, not your own. You ask for patience when you can feel the frayed threads of your sanity ready to snap. Some days you can say that all in a normal tone of voice. Some days you scream it out in the car on the way to work. Or sob. Or a combination of both.
It’s a good thing waterproof mascara exists.
God was speaking to me but he was doing it in a book chapter here, a worship song there, a conversation with someone. Then, in July 2013, God spoke directly to me through my journal. I’m not going to write it all down but there were some very important things he said that I kept holding on to as things continued to get worse and worse:
“Do not try to steer. You don’t know the way, where I want you to go. Let me steer. You cannot perceive of what I am doing but I am about my Father’s business…. Your strength is in your submission…The beauty of what I will do is far beyond your imagining...Do not hold back until you “see” me act because you will miss it. Step forward. Act forward. Act in love. Act in faith…What you ask for will be done. Do not hasten it or try to craft it, push it into being. We are on my timeline. Walk the beaten path to me everyday…I will give you everything you need if you trust me to do so.”
That was in July. In December or so, we went to see Gravity. I remember watching the Spousal Unit to try and gauge how sober he was and settled down for what I figured was going to be just some time to turn my mind off and get away from the wreck of my life and my marriage for a little while.
I got much more than that.
One of the first introductions we get to Dr. Stone is when the mission commander, Matt Kowalski asks her what she does after work. She just says she listens to music and “just drives”. It turns out this is what she was doing when she received word her daughter had died from a freak accident and it’s what she’s kept doing since, caught up in an endless cycle. After the debris destroys the shuttle, Dr. Stone manages to make it to the International Space Station. She takes off her space suit and curls up in the fetal position, floating. The hoses attached to the airlock door look almost like umbilical cords. This was the point where I truly heard God say, “I want you to pay close attention from right now through the end of this movie.”
What became clear to me through the words and pictures of Gravity was rebirth, was the idea of more than just the will to exist but to more than that, do more than survive. Bullock’s character became me in a way. She was showing all the behaviors and all the ways I’d shut down and shut myself off – I’d been “just driving” the same way she had been. When she makes the choice to try and get to the Chinese shuttle, Tiangong, and says that it’s time to stop just driving and go home, God said, “I want you to do this.”
My response? You want me to fly in a space shuttle, God? Really? ‘Cause that’s a little weird, I gotta say. Also a little out of my price range.
That was the moment God proved He has a sense of humor ‘cause he didn’t smite me. Instead, he said, “No, keep watching to see what I mean.”
I watched the last several minutes of the movie feeling like I could barely breathe. The Chinese escape pod, pointed towards Earth, is caught in the planet’s gravity and Stone’s control of the pod and the outcome of her journey is negligible at best. She calls out to “Houston in the blind” and says:
“All right, the way I see it, there’s only two possible outcomes: I either make it down in one piece and I’ll have a hell of a story to tell or I burn up in the next ten minutes. No harm, no foul. Either way, whichever way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.
Stone then punches the ignition button and begins a bone-rattling, fiery free fall to Earth. At this point, I’m starting to cry because I understand what God is telling me. He’s saying,
I’m going to ask you to do something that seems at least as scary as this. You’re going to feel like you’re in free fall too; completely out of control. You have to trust me and be ready. You have to love me more than you love your husband. You have to love clinging to me in uncertainty and faith more than you love the predictable insanity you now live in. You have to decide who you love more: the person I gave to you or the One who did the giving.”
On February 6th, I told my husband we needed to separate. My journal entry that day contains a plea to God that this not be the road He is asking me to walk down. On February 8th, our 22nd wedding anniversary, I wrote: “Henri (Nouwen) talks about choosing to respond to circumstances and how you can choose to respond with joy. Right now all I have is sorrow. Abba, the cry of my heart is that this can be stopped. ..my first request is for my husband to be returned. If not, help me to be obedient to you and walk the path and someday find joy again in it.”
That was my own way of saying “I’m ready.”
At what looks like the last possible second in the movie, Stone’s escape pod releases its parachute. My parachute came in the form of friends, and family and church members who grieved with me and helped me do the things I needed to do in order to move out and set up my own apartment.
The parachute deployed again when my husband left me a note pleading with me to help get him to rehab and God moved swiftly and obviously, bringing together both the rehab and the funds to get him there in just a four days. On February 14th, I put my husband on a plane to California to begin three months of rehab (which means I totally win Valentine’s Day forever). My prayer that day and every day since has been for both of us to have the courage to face up to the triggers, issues and pain we have been carrying around, that we would have the strength to submit and seek to make God the center of our lives both individually and collectively as a couple. I’ve prayed for both of us to be able to find the resources He will provide to live in a state of separation while we work on reconciliation – and He has. He’s provided my husband with a job, a place to live and even a car. He’s provided us a therapist who cuts through the smokescreens we cling to and helps us figure out other ways to go with care and with honesty (and not without a little sarcasm as well).
He’s now been sober nearly eight months. We are tentatively talking about living together again and how that will work. There are no guarantees he will never drink again. Of course, there’s no guarantee I won’t try to revert to previously insane behavior again so, you know, all’s fair. Our therapist asked me during our session last week what I would do if the Spousal Unit started drinking again. My response was that if he stumbled but got back up on the horse, I would have all the time in the world for him. If it began to turn into what it had been previously, it would depend on the situation and what God was telling me to do. But I know now that I can do more than survive. I can do more than “just drive” whether or not he is drinking, whether or not our marriage falters or is renewed.
Either way, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.