Shadow of the Mountains
Nancy Lynn Dietrich
At 7:15 a.m., adrenaline coursing through my veins like Turkish coffee, I watch Rick climb into the passenger seat of my F250 and we head for Idaho Falls. The silence in the cab is deafening, so I reach for the radio. The Rolling Stones’ “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown” is just beginning. God has an unrivaled sense of humor. Scared to draw attention to it, I let it play.
“Do they know we are coming?” he asks.
I nod, too scared to open my mouth and let sarcasm escape. Mick Jagger keeps prodding our open wounds.
“I’m supposed to be at the job site—”
“I’ll handle it.”
I called the hospital at 4 a.m., an hour after I was convinced my husband was dead to the world. They were expecting us at 8 a.m. We have 45 miles of open, rolling farmland ahead of us, and I have no idea if Rick will explode in rage again before we reach our destination. If he does, I am looking at a long walk in either direction—unless I hitch a ride on a passing tractor. I drive with as little movement as possible and pray that his hangover will keep him weighed down on his side of the Ford. It is my curse that he recovers from these binges so quickly. “I’m a professional, Baby,” he often jokes.
I have lost count of the drunken episodes in our three years together, but this was the worst I’d seen thus far. He was delusional, paranoid and, I believed, having some sort of nervous breakdown. I didn’t think he, or I, could survive another one. Knowing his loaded .357 Magnum was just under the bed never left my mind, either. Fear had immobilized me in our RV’s small recliner; RC Cola was curled up in my lap as tightly as a fifty-pound dog could. Someone looking in from the outside (and no one ever did when you needed them to) might imagine she was protecting me, but from the depths of her shaking, I knew it was the other way around. My thoughts repeatedly turned to her little “sister,” SodaPop, my wisp of an Italian Greyhound-cross whom I knew was huddled in the crawl space on the far side of the bed, up over the fifth-wheel. Having just joined us, she was not accustomed to these rages and I pictured her sitting in a pool of her own urine under the drape of the bed cover. Rick’s primary staging area was the foot of the bed, where he could tower over RC and me in the lower, main living area, so Soda was just feet from him—though thankfully he seemed unaware of her presence.
The only one I wasn’t worried about this time was Miss Cocoa, the Siamese cat who accompanied me from Egypt back in 1994. Coming out of the bathroom hours before, I noticed her curled in a pile of clothes in a narrow closet. I shut the door as Rick’s temperature rose. I had little doubt she’d sleep through the entire affair. No need giving him a 10 pound target for his anger, and certainly not the most precious 10 pounds I owned.
After nearly six hours of unrelenting rage, triggered by on-the-job stress and fueled by fears he always carried with him of losing his job, his money, and his wife, Rick finally drank himself into unconsciousness, collapsing in slow motion on the bed. Shortly after quiet returned, I pulled myself together and took a quick head count. I had been right about Cocoa, still safe and asleep in the closet, but I’d also been right about SodaPop, whom I could not coax from her damp hiding place — not without climbing over Rick. It wasn’t worth the risk. She still shook so hard any puppy teeth she had left would be dislodged by morning. She and RC did not stop trembling for almost two hours. The calmer they got, the angrier I got. They hadn’t signed up for this, they didn’t deserve it and, worst of all, I had not protected them from it.
When I gauged he would be most hung over yet still capable of semi-consciousness, I woke him and gave him two choices: Watch me leave, or go in for a psych evaluation (and detox, I thought). It could have gone either way. I had no idea where I’d go in a pickup with no money, two dogs, a cat, and four guinea pigs (out of harm’s way in their hutch under the trailer) fifteen hundred miles from family. I desperately needed him not to call my bluff. Thankfully, he did not.
Anyplace else, I’d have taken off—at least for a few hours—when he started ranting against me, against the world, against himself; but that summer we were set up at the very foot of the Grand Tetons in Swan Valley, Idaho, so unless you were a pack guide with a good rifle, there was nowhere to go at night without risk of attack by bear, mountain lion, or even wolves. After hours of "I detest you and all your pathetic animals!" all these possibilities started looking better than the situation I was in. And as much as I told myself his rage had nothing to do with me, but rather originated long ago in an unimaginable childhood, I was tired of being his target of convenience.
Shortly after eight a.m., we pull into the emergency room parking lot. Rick is still as death, yet alert as a rattler. I got him this far, but now I am shaking so hard at the reality of committing him (who the hell am I to call someone crazy?) I drop the keys on the floorboard as I shut off the motor. I half-expect his boot to slam down on my hand as I reach down to retrieve them. Instead, I hear his strained voice over my head.
“This is a complete waste of time and money.” It is always about the money.
I remain silent as we both get out. The sun is strong for so early in the morning, its July rays reflecting sharply off the newly-painted yellow lines of the parking lot. I raise my eyes quickly and train my gaze on Rick’s back as he walks through the sliding glass doors ahead of me.
The actual admission process goes very quickly. Idaho has met the likes of Rick before, apparently. Two large men come from nowhere and flank him as a nurse checks him in. It takes some pretty big guys to make Rick look small. They make him hand over everything which defines him: cell phone, massive key ring, some guitar picks, the hunting knife he always wears, and his Copenhagen. That is the only time I see anger flash in his eyes. He relaxes after they assure him it will be kept behind the nurses’ desk.
I have never seen him unarmed, defeated, and I feel an overwhelming sense of shame at humiliating him publicly. This I did not expect. The man—the bully—has disappeared, leaving only the child abused and abandoned so long ago. I feel criminal, and begin to lose my resolve.
He picks up on it immediately. “It’s okay, Babe,” he says. “You’re doin’ the right thing.”
Whatever determination I had strung together to make this trip is unraveled by his sympathy. I collapse, sobbing and exhausted, into the nearest stuffed chair, pulling my knees to my chest as I have done all night long. I soon get looks from the staff indicating they are no longer sure who needs hospitalization more. They are right, and it is the first time I see it myself.
Rick stays a week at the hospital, and I sleep better than I have in months. I piece together a great story about a penicillin reaction to keep his boss at bay while Rick is supposed to be welding vangs (the metal arms high up on power line poles) in the mountainous pass leading to Jackson Hole.
Together at the hospital we hear the diagnosis “Borderline Personality Disorder” for the first time. Oddly, it gives me hope—he has let himself be admitted, and he is finally going to get the help he needed. But most importantly, I have a name to put to the horror I’ve been witness to over the years. Alcoholism was a symptom, that I knew, but in Rick’s case, I had no idea to what. His ex-wife labeled him schizophrenic; I suspected bipolar, but nothing fit exactly—until now. The bottom line was that I wasn’t crazy in thinking he was crazy. If he was just a mean drunk, I’d have to leave. If he was sick, then that meant I could—I should—stay and help him get better. If he was sick, it was still okay to love him.
That’s what you tell yourself, anyway. Whether or not that was true, I was proud I had taken the first step towards self-preservation, even if it was in the context of taking care of him. I didn’t fall into an abusive relationship overnight, and it would take another six years to step away for good. Moving out from under the shadow of the mountains is sometimes the most you can do, and it’s the only way to learn to become your own pack guide.