In case you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been updating or writing, here’s a thing. The pen name is primarily for writing things I’d rather my mother not know about, but I guess it’s pretty good for intensely personal essays, too…
“Please hold,” says the automated voice.
We’ve been on said hold for six or seven minutes at this point. The message repeats itself about once every thirty seconds, devoid of inflection, each announcement a quarter-turn of a dial in my guts that squeezes out bile and makes me clench my jaw. It’s an improvement over our previous transfer, where the hold music was like listening to somebody being force-fed a harmonica on a transistor radio, but really, that isn’t saying much.
“We” is me and my sort of ex-wife. “Sort of” because she’s the mother of my child, but– while we’ve been separated a couple of years now – we’ve never quite managed to get around to the divorce thing. Too much paperwork, not enough money. Without the toddler we share custody of, I’d likely have stumbled from the wreckage of our marriage, packed my meager possessions, and gone north. I’d likely never have spoken to her again.
Yet here we are.
“I just want to go home,” she says, a shivering, crying mess beside me in a small room in the backstage area of an addiction and mental health facility. “I can take care of myself.”
I take a couple of deep, deep breaths. I imagine throwing the phone as hard as I can at the wall.
It started with a DUI last year, the kid’s car seat illegally strapped in alongside his mom. She got belligerent with the police at the scene and bought herself a short stay in the county jail and probation conditions that don’t allow her to drink or drive. She told me it was a couple of glasses of wine with a new anti-depressant medication, that she hadn’t eaten. I had no real reason to disbelieve her; she was never a drinker when we were together.
Everything seemed okay after that, until it wasn’t. I got a call from her parents last month about how she was in a bad place, and suddenly I was in the middle of the mess that is someone pouring hard liquor over an emotional breakdown.
In the last month, I’ve taken her to the emergency room, spent an inordinate amount of time talking to the county mental health crisis team, visited this facility on multiple occasions, shielded my son from the debris that was suddenly flying in all directions, and fielded enquiries and pleas from family in another state. We had it under control for a short while, a week-long inpatient stay followed by a thorough outpatient program that seemed to be working, but then the insurance from the job she’d lost for showing up to work drunk expired, and instead of telling anyone, she went right back to Dr. Vodka and his constant insinuations that the right prescription might well be a hot bath, a razor blade, and whatever she needed to make it not hurt.
I am on the phone with some kind of healthcare advocacy group or the people who administrate COBRA or United Healthcare or the third party that administrates my sort of ex-wife’s ex-employer’s insurance. I don’t fucking know anymore. All I know is that I’m not getting anywhere. I arrived at this facility with my sort of ex-wife in tow at nine this morning. It is closing on three in the afternoon.
Finally, somebody picks up. His name is Isaac, and he’s very sorry, but when you sign up for COBRA, it takes a week for your first bill to generate. Only then can you pay your premium, and only then (after a few more days) will your insurance exist as a real and tangible thing again. I tell Isaac I know how much the premium is and have the ability to pay it right now. He tells me I cannot pay a bill that doesn’t yet exist.
While this is happening, various people from the facility, counsellors and nurses and administrators, poke their heads around the door. They have the strained smiles of people who have seen this scenario go horribly wrong, who have seen the phone shatter against the wall.
With impossible politeness, I tell Isaac I’m aware this situation is not his fault, but that I am dealing with a medical emergency. I ask him if there’s anything at all he can do for me. Isaac tells me my sort of ex-wife has to wait a week.
“And try not to slit her wrists in the meantime,” I say.
I don’t know if all the people we’ve been transferred from who said they would stay on the line to make sure we were helped are still listening, but it’s satisfying to imagine injecting a little dose of shitty reality into the owners of those smiling voices.
“They’re not going to help me,” my sort of ex-wife says.
“Yes, they are.”
They fucking are.
I go to the adminstrator’s office and explain the various phone conversations. I explain that the insurance, when it does kick in, will be backdated so that this admission is covered. I ask if there’s anything we can do now, make a part-payment or set up a plan or something. Finally, I simply tell them they can’t send her away.
They take her. For two thousand non-refundable dollars paid over the phone by her mother, they take her.
I want to find a shitty bar somewhere and ease my stress with a ironic glass of bourbon, but it’s time to collect my son from daycare. Besides that, I’m almost as estranged from alcohol as I am from my sort of ex-wife these days.
Later, my friends will ask me why I don’t just let her family deal with it, why I keep answering the calls and showing up. They know about the cheating, about the lies and the betrayals, about the things she did to our marriage and the things she’s done since. I don’t have a real answer for them, except to say it’s the right thing to do, whatever that may mean, that – as much as I’ve become harder and more pragmatic as I’ve grown older – I measure my morality by what I’d feel okay teaching my boy, and I’d like to teach him that it’s never okay to turn your back on somebody that needs help, even if they may have harmed you. I’d like to teach him that being surrounded by unfeeling assholes doesn’t make it okay to be an unfeeling asshole. Most of all, I’d like to teach him that when I say we’re the good guys, I say it as a thing with weight and meaning, and I want him to look at me and see that it’s true.