Easing my pile of hurt—one shovelful at a time

I came to Al‑Anon in a state of deep despair. As I began working the program, my husband, who is one of several alcoholics in my life, became angry. He thought I was, once again, trying to change him. As he realized that I was putting no pressure on him to change, he gradually became supportive of my meeting nights. It is because of Al‑Anon that I am still married, although I have a long way to go as far as being happy about it. I am a work in progress.

One of the things that frustrated me was the lack of control in my life. My life was chaos, and it was all tied to my husband. He insisted on doing the car and house maintenance. He promised to fix things around the house—and never did. I eventually bought some tools of my own, which I had to mark with pink tape so they wouldn’t disappear into his work truck, and began learning how to do minor things for myself.

We own a business together. When he’s sober, that’s not a problem. Unfortunately, he’s not sober often. His alcoholic rages, however, have diminished quite a bit, as I have changed with the help of the Al‑Anon program. There were so many nights when he told me he’d be home for dinner, then not show up until two in the morning. I learned not to hold dinner for him, sometimes to spite him, and other times because we were hungry and tired of waiting.

We moved into the unfinished new house we were building, against my wishes, and just before a hurricane. As I suspected, as soon as we moved in, progress on completing the home slowed down to a snail’s pace. With the downturn in the economy, our business took a major hit, and financial problems were piling up. This of course, only added to the reasons for my husband to drink, which meant he did even less with the house than usual.

I was doing what I could, but managing our business affairs, the household, and my family was very difficult. I was angry, hurt, disappointed, frustrated, tired, and I felt trapped. To top it all, every day I had to look at what epitomized everything I was angry about—a huge pile of dirt in our back yard. The dirt came from the excavation for the foundation of the new house.

Our house sits on a lot that is just shy of one acre. The backyard is almost exactly one-half of that, and the dirt pile took up almost one-half of that space. It was between four and five feet high. It showed up on aerial images of our neighborhood. Even though my husband owned a backhoe and had promised to use it to level out the dirt, he never did.

After seven years, the dirt pile had become its own ecosystem, with birds happily making nests in the small trees that had sprouted, creepy crawly things, and rabbits wandering into our backyard and attacking my small garden.

I nicknamed the dirt pile “Mirkwood” after the dark, evil forest in the Lord of the Rings, a bit for fun and because it represented so much of what was wrong in my life. Our yard was a lake every time we had a hard rain—except for “Mirkwood.” I could mow the grass everywhere else—except for “Mirkwood.” I wanted to organize my backyard, but I couldn’t—because of “Mirkwood.” My husband had promised over and over he’d flatten that pile of dirt, but there it was—“Mirkwood.” The more I looked at it, the angrier I became. 

I finally decided one day that I’d had enough. If it took me 20 years, I would move that pile of dirt myself. I couldn’t control my husband and the chaos in my life, but I could begin to control that pile of dirt in my own backyard—one shovelful at a time. I bought my own shovel, marked it with pink tape, and walked with grim determination towards that ominous, weed-covered mess.

I can’t even begin to describe what that first bite of the shovel into that clay felt like. I was finally doing something to bring some order into my life. I took my first shovelful of dirt, carried it to a low spot next to our house, and dropped it. That felt so good, I went back for more, and more.

I asked for a small yard cart for Christmas, and I got one. That meant I could move more than one shovel-load at a time! I went outside as often as I could, and spent an hour or two at a time on my project. It was slow going.

When I started, my maximum workload was 12-13 carts of dirt. After a year or so, when the weather was cooler and I had some practice under my belt, I could easily move 20 carts or more in a couple of hours. My husband would occasionally tease me about how he could move the dirt quickly with his backhoe. I would simply invite him to bring it over, and I would not be heartbroken if he did not. He stopped teasing me.

I was getting some good exercise, which I needed, and I was getting some good therapy, which I also needed. As I was digging, I wasn’t worrying about my husband, or my overloaded desk, or anything else. My biggest concern was where the most strategic place for my next bite of the shovel should be.

I discovered the value in taking breaks and resting. I learned how to pace myself, and I learned patience. It didn’t seem that I was making much progress, but I could see the low spots in my yard slowly filling up.

We held a bridal shower for my daughter, and while showing “Mirkwood” to a friend of mine, I stood at the original boundaries of the dirt pile. It was then that I realized just how much I had accomplished. I had moved the front of the pile at least ten feet, and I had shaved off over a foot of the top for about six feet. One side had also been pushed back a few feet. I had never stopped to look at what I had done before.

So, what has my dirt pile done for me? As I was digging one morning, I realized that moving “Mirkwood” exemplified the many lessons I learned in my time with Al‑Anon:

  • Problems don’t appear overnight, and they won’t disappear overnight.  
  • Use my tools!
  • Solving one problem sometimes solves another.  
  • Solving one problem sometimes causes another.  
  • There’s more than one approach to a problem.
  • Sometimes by waiting, a problem can solve itself.   
  • Find something that occupies my mind—or allows me to escape my daily stresses.
  • Physical exertion helps my mental stress.  
  • Sometimes I need more than one tool.  
  • Take breaks.
  • Measure my progress.
  • Work smarter, not harder—don’t force it!   

So many other analogies came to me as I repeatedly filled my cart with dirt, but I cannot list them all here. I can look at my slowly shrinking hill of dirt, my slowly rising backyard, and I can take comfort in the fact that I am proving to myself my worth and my ability.

I have a long way to go, with Mirkwood, and with my program. Even if my husband were to show up with the backhoe and finish the job for me, he could never take my accomplishments away. All of us have our Mirkwoods, those dark, chaotic places in our lives. I suggest getting a good pair of work gloves, the right tools, the right attitude, and start taking them all down.

By Teresa D.
The Forum, September 2013