Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 236th story of Our Life Logs |
In 2008, my whole world imploded. Everything I thought was supposed to take place in my life, bar the details, was blown to smithereens and I was left reeling in the aftermath. I was okay with common or garden-variety drama, but tragedy on a grand scale was a foreign concept to me. I was sure I would wake up one day and find it was all a horrible dream.
I was born in South Africa in 1961, but my parents lived in Zambia at the time, so I only spent a couple of weeks there as a baby. We moved around to a few more countries before settling in Harare, Zimbabwe. I finished school there and finally came back to South Africa to go to university. My father was always a bit of a control freak, while my mother was passive and emotionally unavailable. Although they were flawed, they did their best.
As my first year at the University of Cape Town came to a close in 1982, I met my husband. He was smart, funny, and well, gorgeous. I didn’t just love him; I adored him. Though he had a dark side, I was so in love that I often overlooked it, after all, nobody is perfect. He was moody, often sulked when things didn’t go his way, and had inflammatory anger issues. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was simply recreating the relationship my parents had. We married seven years after we met, and our marriage was mostly manic-depressive with “high highs” and “low lows.” It all seemed perfectly normal to me because it was all I’d known.
I’d still like to think that the beginning of our marriage was good, despite the lows. In the early 90s, he started a window and door manufacturing business, and I worked from home after our kids were born. We had enough money to thrive. When his business failed, we moved from the city to a small town near the southern tip of Africa.
At first, it was a bliss to be away from the city—despite the reason. We felt like we were on holiday all the time. The air was crisp and clean, there was no traffic, and there was a stillness and quietness that was soothing to the soul. We got chickens, bottled figs, planted herbs and vegetables, and settled into country life. We had bats in the roof and owls that came to visit us at dusk.
When I turned 40, everything seemed right in my world, but my husband continued to unravel, bit by bit. By the time I noticed, it was too late to stop it. We thought we could start a new life somewhere else after the failed business, but he never recovered from the assumed shame. He kept starting new projects with the desperation of a drowning man clutching at a twig. He would put hours of thought and effort into each new plan, but if I dared say anything negative about it—no matter how small—he would suddenly abandon it and then go on to the next “big” thing. It was exhausting.
He was doing the same thing around our house. He would begin building projects, never complete them, and then start on a new idea. The loft ceiling was three quarters done, skirting boards were removed but never put back, an outside fire pit got halfway, and my daughter’s bedroom was a building site with an open hole to the outside for more than a year until I’d had enough and had a complete meltdown, demanding that he finish it or else. And he did, sort of. The last straw was when he said he wanted to remove a board attached to a low beam at the entrance to the pantry to see what was underneath. I said, “Don’t you dare!”
None of this would have been a major problem if I had not been the target of a constant barrage of criticism. It didn’t matter what I suggested, he’d veto it. If I changed the garden layout or the orientation of the lounge furniture, or moved the bed, he’d complain. If I used the vacuum cleaner, I should be using the broom, but if I used the broom, it wasn’t the right one. It was more than exhausting and I felt like my soul was being slowly sucked out of my body. Despite all of this, I still loved him and wanted desperately for things to go back to those simple, happy days when we were young and first in love.
Then he began trying to kill himself, and with each failed attempt, his shame grew, along with his rage. I was emotionally and psychologically sapped, drained, empty. In between trying to gas himself, overdose on antidepressants, or whatever else he tried, he blamed me for his misery, then apologized for blaming me, then blamed me again. It was a weird and sick little dance that I was tired of.
The vitriol that bubbled up was palpable, but the violence escalated. He’d get so angry, and then he’d pick up whatever was nearest and throw it, or he’d say the vilest things. One day, he put his hands around my throat, and for reasons I will never know, I froze. I do believe that if I’d fought back, he would have throttled me. After a few seconds of tense silence, as time seemed to slow in anticipation, he blinked and seemed to snap back to consciousness. His hands dropped from my neck.
For the first time, I was physically afraid of him, and I then realized that my love would never be enough. I decided I needed to save myself. My children needed at least one functional parent, and it wasn’t going to be him. I couldn’t save him, and worse, I’d lost respect for him. He was a seething mountain of self-pity and I’d turned into a shell. I had no voice and our marriage was in shambles. I knew I needed to get out. The “how” took care of itself, unfortunately.
In 2008, after 26 years together, three children, four houses, and much heartache, he wrapped a rope around his neck in the garage and stepped off a ladder.
I had no idea he was in there or what he was doing, but he phoned me just before doing the deed. He started off by apologizing for blaming me and the children, but the conversation soon deteriorated into more blame. I was beyond weary, and there was a long silence after he’d finished talking. I told him if he wasn’t going to speak to me, then I would put the phone down. I remember hearing funny noises—what I know now was his parting “gift” to me.
About an hour later, a friend came bursting in the back door, screaming for bolt cutters because my husband was trying to hang himself. There was this tiny moment of absolute peace where my soul sighed in relief. My first thought was, “It’s over, it’s done” and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was too late. I just knew in my bones that he was gone.
Of course, the peace didn’t last. Immediately, I felt like I had a deafening roar in my ears and the enormity of what he had done was hard to wrap my head around. I could barely breathe. The very next minute I tried to call the police with hands that trembled so much, I could hardly dial. Nothing can really prepare you for the psychic shock, but my pain was nothing compared to having to witness that of my 15-year-old son. It was horrific. Then I had to wait for my daughters, 18 and 14, to come home and tell them. How do you tell your children their father hung himself?
I cried every night for a year. I was broken, but most of all, I was angry—not so much about the suicide, but at my husband for his abuse, and at myself for not being stronger. I replayed every nasty word and deed, every boundary violation, and every betrayal over and over in my head and chastised myself for not loving myself enough to have walked away from someone who could treat me so badly. I was forced to accept my part in the whole fiasco and move on from it. In doing so, a new me began to emerge.
It’s funny how life works because it seems I had been asleep all along, and the great tragedy was just the thing I needed to wake up. As I began to slowly pick up the pieces, I realized I would be alright. In fact, I was going to be more than alright because now I was going to step into a bigger, better version of myself.
Years before, I had been to a clairvoyant who told me that I would be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. I never understood what that meant until recently. I look at how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown, and what I’ve achieved, and I am indeed a phoenix! There seems to be a clear division in my life bridged by this horrifying event—there’s the BS (before suicide) part, and the PS (post suicide) part. BS, I was pathetic and didn’t know who I was, but in PS, I have reclaimed myself.
I have firm boundaries now and I’m not afraid to enforce them. I have gone from having nothing (my husband left me with three kids, no confidence, no insurance, no car, and no money), to building a good life for myself. I’m by no means rich in material terms, but I am certainly rich in other ways. I remarried, my children are all grown up and doing well, and I have a granddaughter who has brought so much joy into my life.
I can finally say I know what it means to be happy. Life is not a chaotic uphill battle and I no longer accept the scraps. I expect more and I get more. Sometimes it still feels unreal, as if it all didn’t really happen, even though the ten-year anniversary has already come and gone. I don’t ask “Why me?” anymore because it’s quite clear why everything had to be practically razed to the ground so I could rebuild a better me.
This is the story of GB
GB is a health therapist and writer who lives in a tiny town in South Africa. Her first marriage was very unhealthy, filled with abuse and hysteria. It took her husband’s suicide for her to realize how bad it was. GB found that the worst tragedy in life ultimately set her free to become a better version of herself. In the wake of her husband’s death, she started writing as a way to deal with the tsunami of emotions. In it, she discovered a new career as a freelancer, and a happiness that is lasting.
This story first touched our hearts on December 5, 2018.
| Writer: GB | Editor: Colleen Walker |