In our house, it is affectionately called “mal juju”. I guess acknowledging temporary insanity with a dose of humor is half the battle. But when our lives are moving at a fairly even pace, it’s not funny when one of us suddenly stumbles upon it. The bad juju.
For us, bad juju is what we call an old wound that we thought was healed but is not, something akin to post-traumatic stress. An otherwise innocent situation can unexpectedly throw us back to a disturbing memory, registering an immediate fear-based reaction: an emotional downfall.
One of those unfortunate ambushes happened when I was dating my husband, Doug. We lived about 300 miles apart at the time, and we had spent many wonderful hours on the phone getting to know each other over the past few weeks. Then he was aware of my dark story: my 20-year marriage to an abusive man. I felt pretty confident that the combination of many months of counseling, along with the support of family and friends, had gotten me a long way on my road to recovery. I was naive, not having the slightest suspicion that bad juju was nearby but hidden from view: an emotional landmine.
On that particular day, Doug had taken the 7-hour walk to spend a weekend with me and my children. This afternoon he and I were completely at ease as I showed him my world, and we stopped at a local imported grocery store to browse. We stroll leisurely through the aisles of the busy store, inspecting the fresh produce, gourmet appetizers, and tantalizing desserts. Unfortunately, we ended up in a corridor displaying a generous variety of national and international wines. And without warning, my heart began to beat faster. My ex-husband was quite cruel when he was sober and much worse when he drank. In the past, I had felt physically ill when I discovered a bottle of whatever was hidden in the most unlikely places after he promised to leave it and seek help. Before our divorce, alcohol had become her first love and an accomplice in a terrible series of abuses that occurred in our home.
In the years leading up to divorce and ever since, I viewed alcohol as an enemy and consciously avoided it, deliberately avoiding the aisles where it was stored every time I went shopping. Now, standing in the presence of a familiar and terrifying enemy, I tried to regain my composure, but the reaction was automatic. My mind struggled to quell a rising wave of fear and confusion, and I literally wanted to run away or cry, or both. What if Doug drank a lot? What would it be like when you drank? Was I contemplating a relationship with another man who could fill my life with more of the same pain that I had fought so hard to escape?
In my effort to stay calm, I picked up my pace, walked to the other end of the hall, and waited alone, hoping Doug would follow me. In vain I tried to control my emotions with my highest goal of escaping what felt like a suffocating cloud of despair. I pretended to show interest in other items, but Doug still entertained himself, choosing a bottle of wine to inspect, returning it to its place, and then pulling another from a nearby shelf for closer inspection. I walked to his side and said quietly, “So, are you a wine snob?”
Although I tried to give the words a lighthearted tone, they fell like a stone and I felt like an idiot. The truth is, I had no resources to counter the confusion that threatened to consume me.
A surprised Doug fell silent, and my embarrassment only increased as the long seconds ticked by. Doug replaced the bottle in his hands on the shelf, then turned to give me his full attention. There was nowhere to run. “No,” he replied (to my insulting question). Then he placed his big hands gently on my shoulders. “What’s going on with you?” I looked into his eyes, ashamed of my fear and my terrible inability to control it.
Even in the presence of this caring man, the weight of my lingering pain refused to let go. And in the middle of the liquor aisle at a locally imported grocery store, the man I loved wrapped his arms around me and let me cry, reminding me that I had nothing to fear. It was a terrible and unavoidable hike through some of my bad juju. It was the first painful episode between us, but a lot of juju has surfaced since that day.
I am not the only one who suffers it. There have been several occasions since we got married when Doug has nonchalantly scheduled a day of gardening for the whole family to streamline the work of pulling weeds, trimming trees, and sweeping the yard. But as soon as the words left his lips, my four children and I panicked. The bad juju had taken root long before. Every time we were asked to garden with her father, it was an excellent opportunity for the kind of hypercritical or cruelty that imperfection invites. Simply raking leaves in the garden was a scary affair, as my ex-husband would order the children to pick up every last leaf scattered across the lawn, and if the work wasn’t done to his satisfaction, he would throw the leaves out of the garbage bags. . on the lawn and start over. It was never a pleasant experience; in fact, it was one they feared. Who could blame them? As a result, after the separation, I rarely asked the children to help me with my garden work, because I didn’t want to risk seeing that terrible expression of fear on their faces. But that wasn’t the best approach either. I let the pendulum swing too far the other way. Juju had too much power over us.
Because it hadn’t been addressed, simply asking me and my post-traumatic children to help out with the yard work was a terrifying proposition, and I think even Doug could feel the temperature in the room drop as he watched the blood rush out of our faces. But Doug has graciously and consistently helped all of us break the ties of juju and restore a sense of normalcy in our shocked family. We have set reasonable expectations so that we can all begin to see and feel that what was no longer has to be.
Seven months after the embarrassing “alcohol incident,” perhaps due to both Doug’s grace and good luck, Doug and I were married. I can’t imagine life much sweeter. But in addition to our marriage working, Doug has some of his own juju, and I have mine.
We have found it helpful to recognize situations, events, or conversations that juju has trapped us in before. And, when we unintentionally prick each other’s old wounds, we admit that bad juju continues to dominate more than it should. We take some time to talk about what it triggers in us and expose it to the light so that, over time, our wounds can heal more fully.
So be careful. You may think that all your bad juju is a thing of the past. But the day may come when I return without warning. You will be surprised to find that what seems like such a small thing can lead to so much residual pain. And you will know what you are dealing with. Confess it for what it is, identify the source, and watch its power begin to wane in your life.
It’s a bit disconcerting to learn that those emotional landmines are out there. But the battles against the bad juju must be fought and won.
And I’m happy to share that every now and then I get to enjoy a late night snuggled up on the couch with my husband and a nice glass of wine.