A woman is drowning in the ocean in the background of a cartoon from The New Yorker. In the foreground, a man lounging with a drink on the beach says, “She’s sooo high maintenance.”
The memory of this cartoon, which still makes me giggle, came to me today as I am left reeling from yet another dose of what I will call Dudley World, the mental space my ex inhabits.
The concept of Dudley World came from a friend, who, after hearing about the crazy dialogues I’ve have with my ex, was reminded of her boss. She’d coined Dudley World to refer to her boss’s strange reality in which he was always right and she was always the scape goat. Turns out my ex and her boss shared the same name, which isn’t really Dudley.
My goal now is to get better at dealing with Dudley World so that I can reduce the emotional impact that, simply put, messes with me for a day or so. The good news is I have made progress. However, sometimes, I find myself in that hellish space-time continuum that connects Dudley World with the real world. Sometimes, I can do the emotional adjustment in the blink of an eye, sometimes not.
Of course, now I only have to go for “just the facts ma’am” information about the children or to try to negotiate financial issues. This week the trip through the wormhole was especially fraught because my ex, instead of keeping the financial issue between us, dragged our oldest child smack into the fray.
I could go on at length about my thoughts around whether or not to bring a child (even if he is 18) into a financial “discussion” between two divorced parents. The short version of my thoughts are, “No, no and NO!” I have no idea why my ex does this, because the logic would only apply in Dudley World. But to me it feels like an emotional blackmail bomb aimed at me—but also at the unsuspecting child who only looks at his dad and sees, “Dad.”
The beauty of these bombs is that they have a hidden, back-up detonator if the first impact doesn’t get the desired effect. Therefore, if he shoots a skillfully crafted message at me through an innocent child and I do not succumb to the emotional blackmail, then the back-up device, the one carefully planted to upset the innocent child and to make me look like the villain, blows up.
Just to be clear, I do not think I do everything right! I make more mistakes than I care to get into at the moment. It’s just that in my world, it seems best to admit said mistakes and apologize.
To question Dudley’s behavior would be to invite the wrath of Dudley—something my children go to great lengths to avoid. They can look at how he treats me to see what happens to people who question Dudley. Being good survivors, they try to avoid my fate.
Now, in the wake of the recent explosions, I have a newly angered and forever vengeful Dudley to deal with plus an unnecessarily upset and anxious son who is feeling distinctly unhappy with me. Maybe it’s the rain outside my window, but images of the ocean come to me like the drowning woman. Another memory that comes to me today is from a vacation in the Caribbean.
My son was only 4 at the time. It was his first time snorkeling and, because the water looked calm, and because I was a strong swimmer, and because my ex was fixing a mask to fit our two-year-old daughter–and this was proving difficult–my son and I waded in alone.
The late afternoon sun on my back, we floated and paddled as we pointed at angel fish and parrot fish hanging out near the coral. When we saw the first barracuda, my son tugged my arm. We stopped.
“I’m cold,” he said. I thought the barracuda had freaked him out but his lips were tinged with blue. I looked toward the beach and realized we’d gotten almost to the mouth of the inlet. I felt the current on my legs pull me seaward.
I faced my son and said, “We need to kick harder going back. Can you do that?” He nodded. We began to kick our way very slowly along the first outcrop of coral. In my peripheral vision I kept sight of various markers to gauge our progress and was dismayed to see that for all our kicking, we were inching along.
At some point, I grew cold and my son went slack. I looked behind me and found his wide gaze so I knew he was with still me, but I worried. We were only halfway. I sent a silent prayer of thanks that we both wore life vests. Normally, I might not have worn one but had thought better of it.
I scanned the sharp rocks of the shoreline to my left. What had seemed like a crystalline pool on the way out was now a swirling, murky mix of crashing wave and rock and the barracudas seemed to like this because, where there had been none, there were now several lining up to watch us struggle homeward.
My son tugged my arm. We popped up. His teeth chattering violently, he said, “I’m tired.” I told him we were almost there.
Pulling him behind me, I told myself to kick harder. Up until that point I had been careful not to burn all my energy. At this point, I kicked like I’d never kicked in my life and held tight to that small hand.
About 25 yards from the beach, I tried to get my ex’s attention. I shouted against the wind. He was looking elsewhere, doing something with our daughter. My energy flagged. My legs no longer obeyed my commands and I couldn’t tell if I was actually kicking. Miraculously, when I put my head down again I realized I might be able to touch with my toes pointed. And that was how we made it. With me walking on tiptoe, my son in my arms, we made our way to shallower water.
I shudder at how close we were to a beautiful beach day gone wrong. I also realize now that, at all times, I had the option of turning toward the craggy rocks and risking the cuts and bruises to save our lives. I remember my fear at the time was managing the current and rocks while also holding onto my son so he didn’t get carried away from me.
But I do wonder about the lesson of struggling against a current (of whatever stripe) versus turning sideways and finding certain solid ground even if that choice is uncertain and scary.
In managing the sucking void of Dudley World and trying to hold tight to my children through the sometimes hostile currents, I think more and more of just turning slightly to the left to exit the tide and find solace. I think, “If I figure out how to do it, maybe I can teach my children how.”