Finding Our Way

I thought my husband had Alzheimer's, until I discovered it was something that could truly ruin our marriage.

I pulled into our driveway that Valentine's Day to find the house dark. I walked into the kitchen and dropped my purse on a chair. I picked up the candy box I'd left tied with a red ribbon that morning when my husband, Wendell, walked into the room.

"Welcome home!" He gave me a quick hug and looked out the kitchen window. "Was the organ grinder's monkey on the front lawn when you came in?"

I stared at him and answered slowly. "No."

He shrugged and smiled, "Huh. He was there just a minute ago." Then Wendell walked into the living room, crashed on the sofa, and began to snore.

I slammed the lid on the trashcan and stomped toward the bedroom. No response. I flipped on every light switch as I went through the house, but Wendell didn't move.

In the bedroom, I kicked my shoes toward the closet and sighed. Maybe the neurologist was wrong. Maybe Wendell does have Alzheimer's. Maybe he has finally, truly lost it.

I thought about the two years of doctors, tests, and trouble we'd been through. It started with mild symptoms. General fatigue, headaches. It progressed to the point Wendell fell into walls, stumbled on sidewalks, and couldn't remember where we were going once we were five minutes down the road. We'd chased every disease from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer's, going all the way to the Mayo Clinic and back again.

"God, please tell me what's wrong with Wendell!"

And then God answered my prayer.

"You Can't Trust Him Right Now"

I spotted a used syringe from Wendell's medical bag lying on my hope chest. Beside it, an empty vial of something I couldn't pronounce. What had my doctor husband done?

I grabbed the incriminating evidence and hustled into the living room.

"Wendell, wake up!" I shook him until his eyes fluttered, but they never focused. "Talk to me! I need to know what you took."

He was still breathing. But I had no idea what to do. The truth of what I'd discovered crouched at the edge of my mind like a flaming dragon, ready to swallow me in rage and despair. But first I had to make sure Wendell wasn't going to die. Then I'd yell at him.

I called a friend who had been a pharmacist years ago and read him the name of the drug.

"Wendell should be able to sleep it off," he told me. "Then we can deal with the problem in the morning."

The problem. What a nice way to put it.

When Wendell became partially coherent a few hours later, I confronted him. "I am so mad at you right now," I said. "But you are so drugged you'll never even remember what I'm saying. And that makes me even madder!"

I was right. He didn't remember. The next day I met with our pastor and a few trusted friends. Ironically, we'd moved to an intentional community two years before because we wanted to help troubled people, especially those addicted to alcohol and drugs. Now we were the ones needing help.

"Well, the first thing you need to do is go home and stay with Wendell today," our pastor said. "You can't trust him to be alone right now."

"I can't live like that," I said. "I can't bear not trusting my husband."

"I don't mean you can't trust him as a person. Of course you can. He's still a wonderful husband, father, doctor, and man of God. But he has a sin issue to deal with. He's got an addiction. And you can't trust him in that area right now. You need to go home. Empty all the closets, cabinets, and drawers and find his stash. Get rid of it all and we'll figure out what to do from there."

Pastor Charlie's clear-headed assessment of addiction was exactly what I needed to hear. It kept the dragon from carrying me away.

Releasing the Truth

Wendell and I spent the next 48 hours making phone calls. The hardest ones were to our adult children.

"I have bad news," I told our son. "Your dad has been taking prescription medications. It looks like he's become addicted to them. And he's going to need some help."

I waited for the explosion, for the denial and disbelief. Instead, I heard, "Well, that's good. At least it isn't Alzheimer's. We can do something about addiction."

Our daughters had a similar response. The enemy now had a name, and we could fight him with swords drawn and faces set.

I didn't respond with that same enthusiasm. For me, the enemy had other ramifications.

"All these months," I said to Wendell one afternoon, "I thought some disease was stealing you away from me. I blamed some chronic illness for all the birthday parties you missed and all the church services you couldn't attend. Every time I had to go somewhere by myself, I put on my brave face and told people you were sick and sent your regrets. And now I find out none of it was true. Every single time, you chose drugs over me. Over us. And I don't know how to handle that. I feel like you had an affair."

In those first few days, the truth came out slowly. I learned the problem had started with over-the-counter cold medicine and the typical addict's creed, "If one is good, two is better." Then it moved up to prescription drugs and eventually to injections. Even during our conversations, I didn't understand that Wendell was still partially sedated from the drugs. That's why he could remain calm while I cried.

And while I was struggling with betrayal, he was feeling relief.

"For me to live in my own lies, I had to start believing them," he said. "I convinced myself I needed the drugs. That I really was sick and this was the only way to get help. But deep down I knew that wasn't true. In my subconscious, I think I wanted someone to find me out."

"That's why you agreed to go to Mayo? And to see all the doctors?"

"I think so. I couldn't bring myself to admit it, but I wanted someone to ask me the right questions that would finally release the truth."

The Enemy's Calling Cards

Our family physician helped us contact the state licensing board. They have a wellness program for impaired physicians, and Wendell signed on for an inpatient treatment facility in Wisconsin.

But six days later while we toured the facility, every step became harder for me. Even though I was furious with Wendell, I thought my heart might stop beating when the door actually closed behind him that day. I had no idea how long our separation might be. Iit might take weeks or even months before Wendell would be ready to come home again.

I went back home to try and hold together what was left of our lives. I went to work every day, and I paid the bills. I talked with our children, accepted the support of our friends, and listened to the counsel of our pastor. I also did my best to stay mad.

At night, when I couldn't fall asleep, I replayed all the indignities I'd suffered. I catalogued all of Wendell's wrongs. But in the daylight, those thoughts were always countered by memories of my own shortcomings.

Now that our enemy had a name, I started to recognize the calling cards left along the way. Things I should have seen, or admitted seeing, glared at me in the light of truth.

I remembered the night Wendell arose from a stupor and said, "I need to go up to the office. I've got to restock my house call bag."

I should have said, "What for? You haven't been on a house call in months. How could your supplies be low?"

I didn't say it, because I didn't want to consider what the answer might mean. I'd played my own games of denial. I'd coddled when I should have confronted. I'd soothed when I should have shouted. I had put on my best Nancy Reagan face and simply waited for the end to come.

But the end wasn't coming that way. It wouldn't be a dignified funeral with respectable mourners. It would be an ugly, public surgery with our hearts laid bare before God and the people bent on helping us. Addiction normally roams the earth in a cloak of silence, a pact of anonymity. But we had decided the first week to go public with our problems. If we were honest about wanting to help other people, we had to be honest about needing help. Slowly, I started to see this disaster as the mercy of God at work in our lives.

Slowly Rebuilding Our Lives

Our daughters drove to Wisconsin with me two weeks later for our first family counseling session. I had nine hours on the road to rehearse what I'd say, and I mentally practiced it over and over. I wanted to make sure Wendell understood that drugs had become his mistress, and I wasn't going to stand for it anymore. I wanted him to know how badly he'd hurt me, how lost and alone I felt. I wanted him to suffer.

Wendell approached us wearing a baseball cap and looking ten years younger. His first steps toward the car were quick and eager, but then he slowed. I could see the wary expression on his face.

"I wasn't sure you'd come," he said.

"Why not?"

"I thought you might be through with me."

Through with him? I'd never dreamed of being through with him. I'd been mad at him. Furious, in fact. I planned to make him squirm a while before he could woo me back into his good graces. But it never entered my mind that we wouldn't work this out. Good grief. Through with him? I planned to grow old with him.

"I'm not through with you," I said.

If life was a movie script, the music would have risen at that point and the screen would have faded out in a long kiss. Real life doesn't work that way. Instead, the girls and I joined Wendell in a conference room with a dozen other residents and their families. We stepped into the foreign country of addiction, and we didn't have a guidebook.

After that first meeting, I drove to Wisconsin every two weeks while Wendell and I started to rebuild our relationship. One morning after a group session, Wendell said, "Why don't you go get your hair cut next week?"

"What?"

"Well, you've always tried to wear your hair in a style I like. But you need to become your own person too. You need to have your own opinions about things. Why not start with your hair?"

The thought thrilled me. Become my own person. Discover my own voice. Then I felt something thud in my chest. I had no idea how I wanted to wear my hair.

For 62 soul-searching days, Wendell and I explored our lives trying to find out where things had gone wrong and how to make them right. Eventually our Wisconsin weekends started to feel like a courtship again.

But then Wendell came home.

The Real Testing Ground

The day Wendell came home, we glanced at each other across the living room now and then, but we stared mostly at the floor. The ticking clock echoed in our silence. It seemed ludicrous that after 30 years of marriage and four babies together we could suddenly feel like awkward strangers on a first date.

Suddenly we had no counselor in the room to guide our conversation. There was no curfew looming to tell us when we could retreat into private thoughts again. Being home together in the pressure of daily life wasn't the same as spending idyllic weekends by a frozen lake.

Wendell had brought me flowers. Two bouquets, because he didn't know which one I'd like best. That seemed symbolic of where our marriage stood. I simply didn't know where to begin, and I said so.

Wendell took a deep breath. "Well, maybe we could just start by sitting on the same sofa together."

So we did.

And although it was uncomfortable, I knew this discomfort was an improvement. Two months earlier I wasn't sure we'd even get to this point.

We survived that first day back. And every day brought new challenges as we learned to live in our new reality. One issue we'd discovered was how overpowering an addictive personality can be. I'd spent decades afraid to tell Wendell what I really thought. So with his encouragement, I started trying to assert my opinions here and there.

One afternoon, we were driving with two of our daughters, and the conversation between Wendell and I started to feel tense. It had been that way all week, and neither of us could figure out why. Finally, I said to the girls, "Can you help us out here? It feels like we're mad at each other, but we really aren't. What are we doing that's making this so difficult?"

It was quiet for a moment, and then one of the girls said, "Well, Mom, it's cool how you're becoming your own person. We like your new haircut and all. But … maybe you shouldn't say everything that comes to your mind."

Good point.

In those early days of recovery, I still wanted to make sure Wendell knew every detail of what he'd done wrong.

Oh, you don't remember the night you fell asleep with a glass of milk in your hand, and then poured it all over my side of the bed at 3:00 a.m.? Well, let me describe that to you!

Eventually, I figured out that wasn't really forgiveness. That was keeping score.

Dealing with Judgmental Thoughts

If Wendell had truly repented, and I believed he had, I needed to forget. Or at least let go. So I started practicing the holy art of silence. This wasn't the same silence of the past, where I shoved down all my thoughts and pretended they didn't exist.

This was the kind of silence where I took every thought captive. Then I led the thought to Christ in handcuffs. I stood it before God the Judge and asked, "Is this thought safe to let loose on the streets? Or does it need thrown back into the pit because it's destined to kill?"

Occasionally, a thought was put on probation. It was a little too dangerous to set free right away, but with the right attitude and motive, it might eventually be trusted.

The organ grinder's monkey was one of those. I waited a year before I finally told Wendell the story of the monkey on Valentine's Day. I waited until addiction had lost its stigma in our minds. Until my own motives were more to heal than to hurt. I waited until I could look across the room and see not a man who had done me wrong, but a man who had humbled himself and earned my greatest respect.

I waited, most of all, until we could laugh.

Wendell was healed and able to return to his medical practice. These days we spend our time working together at his medical clinic and staying active in our church and community. We're amazed by how much stronger our love for each other is.

And we're especially grateful that the organ grinder's monkey has left town.

Kathy Nickerson writes from her home in northeast Missouri where she also works as the office manager for her husband's medical clinic. This year she and Wendell celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary and their 12th grandchild. You can read more about their life on Mercy Street at www.kathynick.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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