The Day I Broke Free From The Downward Spiral Of My First Marriage

March 10, 2016

Written by: Gail Swineford

I moved to Richmond with my best friend in 1965 after graduating from high school in Jacksonville, FL. When I told her I was moving to VA, she said: “not without me!”, as she knew of my unhappiness at home my senior year and of my need to make a change.

So we made the move together, vowing to never return to live there again.

Richmond was chosen as my new home because it was an hour away from my other family members.  Settling close to my grandparents, aunt, and uncle gave me a sense of comfort and belonging.

Although I had lived a good distance from them, I came to know them well during the summers, helping my grandpa on his large farm. I thought that if I came upon hard times, it would be helpful to be near family members who knew and loved me.

In 1967, my friend and I were both working at a bank in Virginia. I had been there for about four months when a very cute Management Trainee named Donald was hired. He was to be taught every job in the department, even mine. And it did not take him long at all to show his sense of humor and, his talent.

Although I had reservations about dating a fellow employee, some of our co-workers thought we made a good couple. And it was not long at all before we were the “fun couple”, being invited to many parties.

Donald’s talent for playing guitar and singing was being requested more and more. He did Bob Dylan tunes almost as well as Bob did, and got copyrights of some of the best songs he’d written. I was so impressed with his talent, his intelligence and his sense of humor.

Was I in love? I sure thought so…and apparently he did too.

One evening we were attending a bank picnic that lasted past dark. Donald brought his guitar and with some slight coaxing from co-workers, he played and sang. Coupled with the entertainment was drinking … and more drinking. I had noticed early on that he liked to drink when he sang and played or just gathered with friends.

But tonight, he drank more than I had ever seen before. He was certifiably inebriated when he asked me to marry him that evening. I did not give him an answer but told him to bring it up again, when he was sober. He did the next day, and I said “yes.”

I had some concern about the alcohol intake but just ended up telling myself that “we were in the fun stage” of our lives and things would settle down after we were married.

Yes, late in 1967 (and with tears and mixed emotions flowing freely), we had a very small wedding in one of Richmond’s largest and most beautiful churches.

Since the bank did not permit spouse employment, I sought work with another bank in the immediate area and was hired right away. Donald continued to advance in his job and began establishing his career, whereas I just continued to work.

But as the years went on, a downward spiral started to unveil itself.

Donald was becoming an indefinite alcoholic. At the same time I discovered his first affair, I had my first miscarriage. The Dr. prescribed bed rest for two weeks in an attempt to save our baby, but the attempt was not successful. Donald seemed relieved and, after more time with him, I was too.

I had my second miscarriage the following year. And once again, there was a close tie between my pregnancy and another affair. I was beginning to believe that God did not want to bring an innocent child into this dysfunctional, unsettled marriage.

The beginning of our end came in the late 70’s after an embarrassing evening of drinking with some friends. By this time, I was tired of feeling stressed, embarrassed and helpless. As a child, I learned how to be a survivor. I was not accustomed to giving up, but came to feel that I had exhausted all efforts in saving our marriage.

The morning after, I calmly said to Donald: “I do not and should not have control over your life. But I should have control over mine.  Going forward, you can trash your life, but you don’t have permission to trash mine.”

Donald said he had no recollection of his actions. I recognized that as a blackout, which is something most alcoholics will experience when their drinking reaches a certain point. And for the first time, he was in deep thought about his future and the role drinking played in it. I was therefore hopeful that a good change was on the horizon.

As luck, or Divine Order, would have it, Donald hired a young lady at the bank to demonstrate the new ATMs that had just come into being. She was a beautiful blonde and a former Playboy Bunny, and was also a seasoned, recovering alcoholic herself. It did not take her long to recognize the alcoholic characteristics in Donald.

She approached the subject with him over lunch one day. He then freely told her about my recent discussion with him regarding the need for some changes within our marriage. And before you know it, she had him in his first AA meeting.

I showed my support by going to the Al-Anon meetings with him. And while it was easy for me to see Donald’s faults, it was impossible for me to see mine. With the help of these meetings, I learned that I didn’t cause the drinking and could neither cure or control it. The only thing I could change was myself.

When I began learning more about alcoholism, I learned very well the roles I had played so well and for so long. I had been a great Enabler and Rescuer, at times. And the books “Co-Dependent No More” and “Beyond Co-Dependency” were of great help to me in understanding his condition.

As the meetings continued, we grew further and further apart. He eventually changed professions and went into Real Estate. We sought counseling a couple of times, but Donald put forth as much effort with that as he did with the 12 steps of AA (not much).

When Donald left me for six weeks in 1976, I was a basket case. But right at the time I was becoming strong again, he wanted to come back home.  I really had to think about it, as I didn’t know whether I wanted to be tiptoeing around on eggshells again and to constantly be focused on pleasing him. Yet he made some great arguments and apologies, and I finally relented…allowing him to come back home.

As you might suspect, it was not long at all before I was kicking myself. But this time, I didn’t do a thing except begin to focus more on making a career for myself (vs. just having a job). I worked and studied in banking and finally got an AIB Diploma, becoming licensed to handle insurance, tax-deferred annuities, and more.

The more I learned and excelled, the quieter and more withdrawn Donald became. I began thinking that I did not want to wake up in my late 40’s, 50’s or 60’s and be prisoner in a miserable marriage. I thought about this a lot and I wanted the next change to be made by me.

So I began making mental plans about a move while vacillating between fear and excitement. Whenever fear tried to overtake me, I reminded myself of the girl who left her Florida home at age 18 and had not returned to live there again. If I could do that successfully; I could do this as well.

I was 34 years old when I told Donald that I would be leaving to house-sit a good friend’s home for the summer. As I was about to pull out of the driveway that July day, Donald’s comment was, “how will I make the mortgage payments?” I knew we had several thousand dollars in savings; there would be no danger of losing the house.  So I simply said, “You’ll manage.”  But his comment was added confirmation that I was making the right move.

So driving my VW Beetle with 150+ thousand miles on it, filled with dresser drawer clothes in paper grocery bags and all my good work clothes for the season, I set off to Old Gun Estates in 1981. And I never looked back.

I had so many chats with God during these changing times. I would say, “Lord, I know you have not brought me to this point in my life to now, drop me on my head.” I prayed for continued guidance and asked that I be granted discernment to make good and right choices, and His message was to simply take one day at a time.

There will be plenty of times in your life when you have doubt. Times when you lose hope and faith, and let fear dictate your next move. But this experience has taught me that anyone can find the strength to take it “a day at a time”. And that is exactly what I have been doing for 33 years.

I have accepted the role I played in my past, and I’ve mentally forgiven Donald for the old hurts. But it was that very hurt which brought an enlightened woman to where she is today … happily married to Bobby for 28 years; with 3 grown children and 7 grandkids. The BEST place I have ever been!

And if I can find a way to keep going, I know you can too.


America’s Footprints would like to give a special “thank you” to Gail for taking the time to share this story with us today. If you would like to submit a personal story from your past that you believe our blog readers can relate to (and possibly find inspiration through), please contact us for more information. If desired, you can choose to stay anonymous.