Life is hard. Even the happiest person, with a “perfect” life, encounters trials along the way at some point. The issues people deal with are as varied as the individuals who are afflicted. I want to talk about something that many of us mishandle when it comes to the flaming arrows of life: how we deal with conflict.
Unless you live under a rock, you have to interact with other people. It is understood that people are flawed and eventually, you will encounter someone with whom you get cross ways or someone who hurts you. When we experience conflict with other individuals, it can feel like we are at war. It can consume our minds, cause anger, anxiety and leave us feeling wounded. The reaction can vary from wanting to get payback, to wishing we could crawl in a hole and die.
People are complex and our relationships are as well. I am not afraid to tackle an issue head on when it arises. Rather than letting things fester and escalate, I prefer to address them right away, get them resolved (if possible) and move on. This can be a good thing sometimes and other times it can be disastrous, depending upon how you go about doing it. The key is having your facts straight. How often have you been triggered by something someone did, said to you or said about you and you jumped right in with both feet and started throwing punches? I am raising my hand, by the way. I am guilty of being reactive (sometimes over-reactive).
One of the hardest things for me has always been to squash knee-jerk reactions, which tend to make things worse. Aggressively and immediately confronting a problem is sometimes the worst thing we can do. Can you relate to this? Or do you pretend it is not happening and hope it will all blow over? Maybe you have a cool, level head and know exactly how to resolve conflict, but you (or someone you know) are the victim in a relationship where the other person mishandles the situation.
This is a subject I can speak about with passion because in the past I have made a complete disaster of my life (and other people’s lives). How? By over reacting and making rash decisions before (1) I had time to cool off and think with a level head (2) give the other person a chance to explain and (3) approach every situation with a spirit of forgiveness.
I will give you one example of how my knee jerk reaction to a simple verbal exchange turned lives upside down and set into motion a chain of events that I wish with all my heart I could go back and “undo”.
It was early in my marriage with Eric. For one year, we had been living in the basement apartment of a private residence in Winthrop, MA. Eric’s self-esteem was on the rocks from a long period of unemployment, plus he suffered from PTSD and depression. Much to my dismay, he seemed to have no problem expressing his regrets and sorrow for our current plight. I could not understand how he could feel the way he did, because from my perspective life couldn’t be much better. Sure, we were poor, but he had just recently gotten a good job and I had a job that I loved; we had a roof over our heads; a reliable car and we never went hungry. Most importantly, we were together, in love and for me that was everything. I measured happiness by counting blessings and focusing on what I “have”. Eric measured everything by what he “did not have”. Suffice to say, we were on opposing sides when it came to how we viewed the quality of our life in that little apartment.
One evening in January 2003, Eric went outside to make a phone call. He was out there talking to someone for over an hour. I did not think much of it, other than the fact that it was unusual for him to be on the phone that long with anyone other than me. When he came inside, his demeanor was a little different. I did not have to wait long to find out who he had been talking to and what was troubling him.He had been on the phone with his ex-girlfriend, Lilly. They dated for many years before I came into his life in the summer of 2001. Lilly was several years my senior, established in an esteemed professional career and had a great deal of money and investments. Why things did not work out between them, I never knew for sure. Eric told me that she wanted to get married and he did not, so she ended things once she saw the relationship was never going to go anywhere. However, he was very quick to marry me, so he was not against marriage in general. She was extremely hurt when she found out we had gotten married. There were some ugly, confrontational moments between them when we were newlyweds. However, after a period of time, they were able to resolve their issues and re-establish their friendship. Many women would probably feel like I did: somewhat threatened by the ex-girlfriend who had it all (except the man she wanted), but also wary of that long history they shared and concerned that perhaps there were unresolved feelings surrounding the true reason for their split.
That night, in light of what Eric considered a life that was difficult to cope with, he was looking back over that fence at greener grass. He told me that night, he was tired of struggling and that his life had no meaning. He made it a point to remind me how successful and wealthy Lilly was and that had he stayed with her, he would not be experiencing the hardships he was going through now. He even implied that his depression would not be an issue for him if he were with her. Ouch. Immediately, my defenses went up. As the result of a bruised ego, jealousy and anger, I went into reactive mode. The final straw was when he said, “Lilly was the only one who truly ever loved me.” When I heard those words, something inside me snapped.
Let me just say that if I had simply waited, I would have cooled off enough to understand that Eric was insecure, depressed, frustrated and scared. He was lashing out at me (which was usually the case) because I was the person with whom he was closest. Ever notice how we tend to have ample tolerance and courtesy for strangers or acquaintances, but we can blast our spouses or closest loved ones with both barrels over the least little thing?
I should have taken the necessary time to cool down. I should have prayed. I should have “waited upon the Lord.” I should have been still and kept my wounded ego out of all decision making. I did not do any of that.
The next morning, Eric got ready for work, acting as if nothing had happened the night before. He left for the day, but my shift at the clinic did not start until later that afternoon. There I was, home alone and becoming angrier and angrier about what he had said to me the night before. I stormed around the apartment muttering things like, “Fine, if you want Lilly so bad, allow me to get out of the way!” and “Lilly hasn’t had to deal with half the stuff with you that I have, but sure, she’s the only one that every loved you. I guess I’m nothing to you.” Before I knew it, I was throwing my belongings into my car and I driving away with Massachusetts in my rear view mirror.
I abandoned my job and my marriage without as much as a word of explanation to anyone. I left my life behind based on a rash decision and I refused to answer the phone when my employer, friends and husband called to find out if I was safe. I was unforgiving and unyielding. I was prideful. I was arrogant. I was jealous. This singular act of cowardice is what set the stage for disaster.
I arrived back in Texas to lick my wounds, seeking refuge in my mother who never failed to be there for me when I needed her. I stayed at her house and she welcomed me without judgement or condemnation, but I could see in her eyes that she was worried about me. I was so impulsive. Wasn’t this my typical pattern in life? Didn’t it always cause me misery?
I was only home in Texas a couple of days before I got a voice mail message from Eric’s dad, Byron. Eric had “attempted to harm himself” and was now locked up for the State mandatory 72-hour observation period and entry into treatment. I called Byron back and got the details (as far as his understanding of them) and I told him why I had left. He did not really have much to say about that but rather focused on the fact that Eric needed to hear from me, regardless of whether or not I was going to return. I agreed to do that for Byron, not for Eric because I was still hurt and bitter about the Lilly comments. Byron said Eric would be released into his care because the landlord who found evidence of Eric’s alleged attempt to harm himself had kicked him out after calling the police, which had resulted in the 72-hour lock up. I said I was not sure when I would feel up to speaking to Eric again but I thought I would in time. That is where I left it with Byron.
Eric was released the after that conversation and was allowed to stay with his father temporarily. He refused to eat or come off the couch unless he heard from me. After a couple of days of this, his father called me again and begged me to speak to Eric because he was basically on hunger strike until I spoke to him. I felt manipulated and as if I was being held hostage by his behavior but his father’s pleading melted the ice around my heart. I called Eric and he explained that he had not actually made an attempt to take his life at all. It was simply a matter of the landlord seeing a belt thrown over a ceiling pipe and not understanding there was no actual attempt at hanging nor would there be. This person had lost a spouse to suicide by hanging many years prior and overreacted. I had to ask. Why did he throw the belt over the pipe? He said he had been drinking and was feeling sorry for himself. It was a stupid thing to do, but he swore he never had any intention of following through. Eric went on to apologize for the Lilly comments and explained how he truly felt. He had only said those things because he felt like he had failed me and was afraid that I would eventually see him as useless and leave him. He also admitted that he had been drinking the night of phone call to Lilly, which made the melancholy and depression far worse. Before we hung up, he had convinced me to come back to Massachusetts and give him another chance.
When I got back to Boston, we had no place to live. I had no job. Eric was under psychiatric care with a long list of restrictions and countless flaming hoops for him to jump through in order to remain compliant and avoid detention in a mental health facility. The amount of damage control that I had to do upon my return and the struggles that we experienced were too many for me to cover here, except to say it was a nightmare to restore even a semblance of normalcy to our lives. I was able to get my job back, strictly due to the compassion and benevolence of my employer. We found a place to live eventually, but we were homeless for 6 weeks that felt like 6 years.
There were many contributing factors that sent Eric into the self-destructive spiral that led to his death in 2004. However, each of them is a direct result of my leaving: (1) Eric was despondent and made it look as if he was going to harm himself, which led to the landlord calling the police and kicking him out, leaving him (us) homeless. (2) Eric was locked up for 72 hours, making it impossible to avoid State mandated psychiatric treatment. (3) His daughter’s mother overreacted to the “alleged” suicide attempt and got a restraining order so he could not see his daughter for one year, which created a new, far more devastating aspect to his depressive state. (4) Incompetence on the part of therapists, psychiatrists, treatment facilities resulted in his mental condition becoming worse with the use of anti-depressants along with other medications. (5) Eric self-medicated by sneaking alcohol to "numb the pain" even though it was prohibited because of the potentially deadly side effects of mixing it with the prescription drugs he was taking.
Would the final outcome (Eric's death) have been the same had I not impulsively left that day? I cannot answer that. Only God knows if even before we met, this was how it would end for Eric. Do I feel responsible? Absolutely. I can start with Eric’s death, work backwards and identify the pivotal, life-altering catalyst: my actions that January.
While the consequences of my actions were extreme, it taught me a valuable lesson. I learned not only at my own expense but the expense of others, which makes the lesson stick even more. There is unbearable pain that comes with revisiting this time in my life, but God used that experience to bring about change in me in many ways.
From the point of my return to Boston and we were homeless, I was all in. I vowed that no matter how bad it got, I was going to stand with Eric and put his needs before my own. After all, we were both in this mess because of me. That season of our life together was both the hardest and the most beautiful. It was during this time that I began to change from the selfish, self-serving person I was to become someone who would put everyone else first. I was humbled as I was subjected to being homeless in the northeast during a winter when there was an actual blizzard. Things I always took for granted were suddenly no longer part of my life. Because we had no place to store perishable food, we lived off saltine crackers, beef jerky, and a jug filled with tap water. All we had is what we could transport in our car. We never knew if we would have a bed to sleep in or a warm place to stay from one day to the next. It is hard to be haughty or prideful when you live the way we did. Literally, all we had was each other. But as a result of going through this together, our relationship became stronger; our marriage became bulletproof. There were still hurtful things said; feelings stepped on; and plenty of tears shed during the remaining time we had together. However, we handled any conflict between us differently from that point forward. We had an additional year and a half together, from the time I returned to Boston until the day Eric died, which was 14 years ago.
I'm sure you can imagine the kind of guilt that consumes someone, knowing they set the events into motion that culminated in a loved one taking their own life. All I can tell you is that sometimes it takes something profoundly awful to cause a person to change their ways. I will never be okay with what I did. I think there is pain that never leaves us so it can remind us how fragile life is and how tenderly we must care for others, especially when they are struggling emotionally. I'm not implying that everyone with emotional baggage is mentally ill. However, I believe with all my heart that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, until they prove they don't.
I was reckless with Eric's emotions and my actions were extremely selfish. The cost for my mistake was high. No, I did not "make" Eric commit suicide, but I influenced the conditions that led him down that path. Let's be clear, none of this is about my struggle with the past. This is about how God can take even the most awful things anyone could ever do, and use them for their good. This is not about lamenting over my mistakes. This is about them having such a profound impact that I am no longer the same person with that fatal flaw.
There have been challenges in my life in the past 14 years that I can look back on and I can compare how I handled them versus how “the old me” would have handled them. I can easily identify the moments when I would have quit or run away out of anger or pride rather than waiting it out. I am grateful that I have learned to rely upon God to calm my spirit when my true nature is to have an extreme reaction and do something life altering and regretful. God has refined me and strengthened me through the things that should have destroyed me. He has taught me that His way is the right way, the only way.
That most valuable lesson I learned from this pivotal chapter of my life is never make decisions or take action in the heat of the moment. Take it from someone who learned the hard way, you need to take time to think things through before you ever consider taking action. Whenever possible, talk things over with whomever you are in conflict and try to work through it. Always pray for wisdom and allow God the time and room He requires to resolve the situation His way. In other words, get out of His way and let Him do His thing. You cannot possibly go wrong when you let the one who already knows the outcome of your life take control.