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Jumping Empty-Handed Into the Void

By River Huston

January 14, 2011

Recently my life fell apart financially, emotionally and spiritually. I had hit bottom. I have been in recovery for 25 years but I found a new addiction, or really not so new -- it might have been my first addiction -- and that is control. For the first 13 years of living with HIV infection as well as acute, chronic ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenia pupura) I came to accept I was powerless. It is one thing HIV, if you are willing, will teach you in spades.

But over the last seven years with the availability of treatment I realized if the drugs continue to work, and even if they take 20 years off the back end of my life (sorry AARP -- I wouldn't want them anyway), I might live another 25 years. Without that faithful companion of certain death from HIV infection (all I had to do was worry about getting hit by a bus), I reverted back to that need to try and control everything.

That is how I found myself freezing in a cold house watching my husband's despair turn to bitterness over a failed business that I had invested all my money and most of American Express, Visa and MasterCard's credit lines into. I kept thinking I could make it work; he wanted to let go about $50,000 ago.

I didn't stop there. I tried to control his depression, tried to motivate, change and help him. It made things worse and over the last year it became apparent that our lives were at a standstill.

Even before our financial crisis, things were not going well. It took the loss of everything including money, home, credit and intimate relationship for me to see more clearly. Up until this year, about the time the HIV meds kicked in, I have been living with the decisions I made essentially from a deathbed. It was time to live, but I was imprisoned with these choices that were lovely but not working -- including a half a million dollar home, many toys and a relationship that had morphed into dysfunctional codependence.

Every day was painful. I didn't know what to do. So I took drastic action. I left. I knew it had to be fast because slow is really painful so I pulled the band-aid off with speed I didn't know I had (it took me 10 years to decide on a sofa). I called a lawyer, filed for bankruptcy, stopped paying the mortgage and went on Craigslist and started looking for somewhere else to live.

I looked to the South, but too many churches for this Jew. My girlfriend who settled in Georgia said if I came down there would be two Jews in Georgia and as great as that sounded, I kept looking. I was in San Francisco thinking how much I would love to live there but even the smallest apartment was crazy expensive. On a lark I thought I would look at Craigslist in the Caribbean.

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There was an interesting ad for an apartment on Water Island. I had never heard of Water Island and it took quite a bit of Googling to find it. It is less than 500 acres; about 75 homes, no restaurants, hotels or businesses of any kind and you can only get to it by boat.

I called and asked if the apartment was still available and the woman said yes. I said would call her back. I went to look for a flight. My thinking was, if there is a cheap one then it is meant to be. There was a ticket to fly to St. Thomas the next day for $235.

I called back and asked if I could see the apartment. She asked when would I like to come down and I said tomorrow. She was a little taken aback and said how about the day after. I said okay. I flew to St. Thomas already thinking it was a waste of time and money, and was filled with guilt -- apparently the band-aid was still hanging on.

I landed and took a taxi to my hotel which was advertised as cheap but nice. It was cheap but not very nice. I thought I would look at the apartment and just fly home, no big deal. No expectation.

The next morning I went down to this restaurant by the dock called Tickles and waited for a ferry. Once on the ferry, I started to get a little excited. The amazing color of the water and the warm wind in my hair brought a smile to my face.

A 10-minute ride took me to a plain concrete dock and there waited my host, Linda, to show me the place. We drove up a hill and got out. The first apartment she showed me was a nightmare and I realized why it was so cheap. But she had another apartment. We climbed the stairs of this ancient stone structure reminiscent of the house where Meryl Streep lived in the movie Mamma Mia and walked into a bright white one bedroom with a kitchen that faced St. Thomas and deck that faced the bay. Stunning, but a little pricy.

I didn't want to get stressed out about money again, and then I was still thinking about how it would work with my husband. While I was deep in thought Linda said I would have to hurry if I wanted to catch the ferry. I asked her if I could stay in the apartment a few days to think about it; she said yes.

Over the course of the next few days it was revealed to me that I was meant to live here, from the sunset walks to the morning swims on an empty beach. What sealed the deal was one morning while sitting at a restaurant on the ocean in St. Thomas (I had gone over with Linda to get a feel of what shopping for groceries was like) I was talking about how to make it work in particular with my husband and she said to me, "It will not get any better." What she meant was I was still trying to control everything. She continued by saying, not only was I hurting him, I was hurting myself. Maybe I just wanted to hear that but I felt like I was just punched in the stomach. I knew it was the truth. Once I started to think of only me in the apartment it was easy. I signed a lease and went home to tell my husband.

I was filled with guilt: Here was a man who stood by me when I was ill. For over five years while receiving a weekly IV treatment for ITP, when I was weak and sick and barely had the energy to work let alone really participate in a relationship, he buoyed my spirits and his love carried me through such dark times. What a jerk I was leaving him at his lowest. I talked to my husband about taking a year away so I can sort out my feelings. He was sad about my choice but understanding my need, he agreed.

Two days before I was to leave we were sitting in an empty house, or almost empty. I had sold everything, packed away my paintings and had gone and seen all my doctors, had all my shots and mammograms; and he said to me, "You are not coming back, are you?" I said I didn't know. He became enraged and said all the things I had been thinking: "Thanks for standing by me when I really need you; I was there for you," He stormed off and started making plans for himself.

As painful as that conversation was, he was suddenly taking some action. Up till then he had been paralyzed. The hardest thing was to not give in and tell him how much I love him and want him to come with me. Translate: continue to control his life, take care of everything, and make it work.

He drove me to the airport. Our conversation alternated between love and bitterness. It was three days before our 10th wedding anniversary. I got out of the car and it took everything I had within me to walk away. I lugged the three huge suitcases and a handful of prescriptions from my doctor for every possible disaster or ailment and set forth on another journey. Four hours later I landed in St. Thomas, took a cab to Tickles and a ferry to my new home.

From my front porch.

From my front porch.

It has been several weeks and it is the best thing I have done for myself and my relationship. My husband is OK; he's working very hard to create a life for himself. He is doing some things he dreamed of but because of our beautiful prison he was also unable to do. He is excited and working toward his goals every day. Some days I want to go home so badly but I know that it would revert back to the same dynamic; I am not that well yet. If it is meant to be I know in the future this time and space will allow us to be together in a whole different way.

In the meantime I wake at dawn, go for a run then a swim, do yoga on the beach. Catch a ride with one of my new friends (of Bill W.) on one of their dinghies, go to St. Thomas for a 12-step meeting then take the ferry home back to my lovely retreat and work either painting, writing or running my business. I am scheduling my performances and presentations so I will come up one week out of the month, and I've already connected with the Department of Education for the Caribbean Territories.

At night I sit quietly looking out on the twinkling lights of St. Thomas. Most all the time in-between in waking meditations, no TV, no radio, no distraction; I feel so blessed. I speak with my husband every night (thank you Skype!) before I go to bed.

I still feel twinges of guilt but mostly I have found peace and I am excited about my future. I am broke, no credit cards and I relearned how to live on a super slim budget (rice and beans) and it adds to my meditative state. I have the time to cook.

Island living is not for pussies, as romantic as it may seem; it is very different than anything you can imagine. Every little thing you need you have to bring here. Water is scarce and there are all kinds of creepy crawlies. But it has made me realize how little I need and how aware I have become.

I also know I will not stay here forever. I can go and do anything. My job affords me that luxury. I have enough frequent flyer points to fly around the world. I am thinking Thailand then Madrid. I always wanted to live in San Francisco and now realize, for a couple of months, I can sublet or find a room. I am excited about the possibilities. Most of all I am learning to let go. No expectations.

I no longer say, "I lost everything." Now I say, "I let it go; I shed one life for another." If HIV has taught me anything it is that if I wanted another 10 years in the situation I was in it was sure to stay the same. Nothing changes if nothing changes. The band-aid is now floating in the Caribbean along with 1,000 pounds of dysfunction and I feel lighter, happier and free.

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