by Wendy Swift

I struggle to grasp that Danny is an alcoholic, despite the glaring evidence. I understand drinking is a way of life for him, to the extent that when our kids reach for a sip from his Sunday morning OJ, we warn them not to drink from Dad’s glass. It’s spiked. And then, there are the glasses of scotch found in odd places like the kid’s craft closet or on a shelf in the garage. At one point we discuss the possibility that he should attend a support group―Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, but Danny dismisses that idea. He doesn’t want his reputation to be damaged (I know, I know) if somehow it gets out that he has a drinking problem. There are the headaches, those terrible migraines treated with massive amounts of narcotics prescribed by two different doctors writing scripts. By the time his name comes before the State’s Attorney for embezzlement, it is clear he is in deep trouble. He decides it might be a good idea to visit a psychiatrist in New York who recommends rehab. 

I remember the afternoon when Danny and I take a walk around the trail at Simsbury Farms, a park across the road from our house. It is late April 1994, a few weeks before he leaves for St. Mary’s. He uses this occasion to explain why he is facing arrest. I had found a letter from an attorney regarding restitution but when I ask, he is evasive. He now admits that over the past few years, he embezzled more than $800,000, taking money from clients that was intended to pay off mortgages and investing those funds in an import/export business. I will later learn an additional one million in unaccounted funds is missing, but I don’t know this until his arrest. He tells me he will need to leave for a month for substance abuse treatment. I know nothing about rehab. When I envision St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Hospital, I see doctors in white coats speaking softly to patients while they walk grassy knolls. In the past, he expressed disdain for psychiatrists, saying they are nothing more than tape recorders who playback everything told to them. I ask whether he thinks he could stop drinking for the rest of his life because this is something I cannot fathom. He says he doesn’t know, but he has to start somewhere. He suggests I see someone at the Institute of Living, the venerable Hartford psychiatric hospital once known as the Hartford Retreat for the Insane. 

Our conversation leaves me reeling from what feels like a tectonic shift in our lives from a messy, but lovable Simsbury family with three young daughters, a couple of bunnies and a friendly yellow Lab to a family facing criminal charges and the subsequent upheaval that will inevitably follow. I think about what we will tell the kids, our parents, or our friends who think we are one of them. Before this, when I had peered into our future, I saw myself growing old with Danny, and I pictured a Hollywood version of our life as we walked hand-in-hand along the beach with the sunset casting us in a rosy glow of tenderness. Now I am left to wonder which one of us is more delusional.

I’m nervous when I enter the office of a psychiatrist with whom I am able to get an appointment on short notice. He stands to welcome me and points to an over-sized leather chair across from his desk into which I lower myself, awkwardly smiling and thanking him for taking the time to see me. He nods solemnly and asks what brought me in today. I dive into the memories and anxieties swirling in my brain. We only have an hour, so I talk fast. 

I begin by telling him I met Danny when I was a freshman at Syracuse and he was the boyfriend of my girlfriend, Vicki. When he visited from New Paltz where he was a student, he brought the strongest pot I had ever smoked, along with opiated hash and sometimes Mescaline or LSD.  I tell the psychiatrist he had always loved drugs and took LSD almost every day during high school, offering the lame excuse that he grew-up in a small upstate town, the son of a chicken farmer and a school nurse where his closest neighbors were his aunt, uncle, cousins and grandparents and he where he was bored most of the time.  

“I ended up living with Danny because my girlfriends and I, including Vicki, decided to move off-campus. Days before moving, Vicki told us Danny transferred to Syracuse and was going to be living with her. I wasn’t thrilled because I thought it was just going to be three women, but he was Vicki’s boyfriend, and if she wanted to live with him, there wasn’t much I could do about it. By the end of the first semester, Danny had become my friend.” I visualize the nights we four spent together, smoking pot and listening to Danny’s albums of British rock ‘n roll while hunkered down in our dingy apartment on Westcott Street―the lower floor of a run-down Victorian. It was depressing.

“Syracuse wasn’t a good place for me.  The winters are cold and long and I was reading  literature like The Bell Jar while admiring Sylvia Plath for her suicide attempts.”

“Have you ever been treated for depression?”

 “No, not really. I did see a therapist in Syracuse, particularly after I hooked up with a random guy I met while hitchhiking. But no, I’ve never been in therapy for more than a few weeks at a time. I’m sure I was depressed which is why I finished college in three years―to leave Syracuse and start my life.” He takes notes and encourages me to continue.

I get to the part where Danny and I end up in relationship. “It happened,” I tell the psychiatrist, “the summer we graduated from Syracuse and Vicki’s parents paid for Vicki and me to travel to California as a graduation gift. On the plane ride home Vicki told me she was going to break up with Danny because she was ready to move on. I was surprised but understood since they’d been dating for five years.”

I condense the next few years into a few sentences by talking about how we lived together that summer and moved from friends to lovers between getting high, taking walks in the woods, having sex on his water bed, snorting coke and discussing a future that Dan imagined would include a private jet. I throw in the private jet because, although I was impressed by his ambitious vision for his future, I recognize a private jet is a little over the top. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of grandiosity. I explain that when summer ended, he moved to Long Island to be with me. We had an apartment but when we got behind on rent, we moved in with my parents until we married three years later. We optimistically believed the commissions he earned from selling life insurance and my meager preschool salary could sustain us, but we were wrong. As I describe the sordid details of my life: the unplanned pregnancy and abortion precipitating our decision to marry, his ongoing deceptions about money, his migraines and addiction to Fiorinal and Codeine, his alcohol abuse, his failed import business, his theft of client funds, and my denial, it’s hard to miss the pattern of irresponsible behavior that led to my present circumstances. “Somehow,” I explain, “I held out for the possibility we would outgrow our problems. When we were in our twenties, I was convinced we wouldn’t be smoking pot in our forties.”  The psychiatrist looks up from his note-taking to ask, “What attracted you to Danny?”

            I pause to think about my attraction to Danny which has wavered over the past few years especially when he is drunk and sloppy. “College was over. I would be returning home after that summer we spent together, to work as an elementary school teacher. I worried I would never find someone to love me and would spend my life alone, like some spinster teacher.” The psychiatrist studies my expression, inviting me to continue. “He’s funny. He makes me laugh and he likes doing the same things I enjoy like hiking, playing tennis, watching movies, discussing politics.” I shrug and add,  “He does love to talk. I had never been with a guy before who talked as much as he does―actually speaks in full sentences.”

“You do know you are smiling,” the psychiatrist chastises. “This is a very serious situation you are facing.” I’m embarrassed. I didn’t realize I was smiling. It’s a defensive reaction as I cling to a thread of hope that our situation can be repaired. That’s when the doctor presents his findings.

“Your husband is a psychopath,” he says. “He lied to his mother (I don’t know how he knew this since I never mentioned his mother ) and he is lying to you.”

“I’m sorry.” I lean forward to hear him better. “I’m not sure I’m certain what you’re saying. I know Danny is out of control and we’re in trouble, but did you say a psychopath?” This is not what I expect to hear. My smile broadens.

            “From what you have described, this is the diagnosis that applies. He manifests many of the typical traits including: grandiosity, glib charm, pathological lying, a need for stimulation, manipulative behavior, impulsivity and a lack of empathy.  If you want to learn more, you can read the work of Hervey Cleckley. I am basing this diagnosis on the commonly used Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), developed by Robert Hare and his colleagues.”

            “Yeah…he may have some of those characteristics,” I nod my head.  “But a psychopath? Really, that’s what you think he is?”  I look to the psychiatrist, the authority to offer reassurance. A cure perhaps? Then, he tells me the most startling news.

“There isn’t a cure. There is treatment that includes at least a year in a psychiatric hospital like the Institute.” I stop smiling. I cannot get out of his office fast enough. I stand abruptly and the doctor holds out his hand, wishing me luck and telling me to see his receptionist to pay the bill as I hurriedly exit and decide I will not be returning.

            I don’t remember the ride home. I do remember being in my kitchen that afternoon with  sunlight streaming through the windows and the kids in school. Everything is in the same place as it was before I left that day, but now it looks dirty. I start cleaning―wiping counters, straightening piles of papers and sweeping the floor. I replay each word spoken in the psychiatrist’s office, trying to reconcile the man I know with the label of a psychopath. My understanding is psychopaths are evil and don’t experience remorse. I consider famous psychopaths like Hitler or Charles Manson. Danny isn’t like them. He’s not evil and he isn’t violent.  I think he feels remorse because he seems sorry now that he’s probably going to end up in jail.  I am trapped between this diagnosis and my eighteen years of marriage to a man in whom I have invested so much―the man with whom I have three children.

Later that afternoon, Dan calls from Saint Mary’s. I sob as I tell him the psychiatrist’s impression. Danny laughs, “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “This guy hasn’t met me. How can he diagnose someone he’s never met? You know I’m not a psychopath. I’ve never threatened anyone or hurt anyone. You know me better than that.” He sounds so convincing. “That guy’s a nut. He’s a psychopath. Wendy, you don’t have to believe him or me. Go see someone else. We’ll get this all sorted out when I come home but don’t worry about it. Of course I don’t need to be institutionalized.” He chuckles at the silliness of the whole idea and ends by saying, “That makes no sense.”

For a few minutes after hanging up, I feel better, but then it occurs to me that if he is a psychopath, he would deny these allegations and blame the psychiatrist. Maybe Danny’s right. The psychiatrist hasn’t met him, so really, how could he know? But that’s the psychiatrist’s job―to diagnose crazy people. He must know one when he hears about one. The possibility that my husband is this far afield doesn’t match my experience of living with a man who spends every Sunday afternoon at my parents’ playing chess with my father and enjoying my mother’s pot roast. It doesn’t fit with the soccer coach who reads to his children at night before bed. And, he is so good to his dog. He loves Jake, taking him on long walks after work and rolling around on the floor to play with him. Is this what a psychopath looks like?

I consider what this diagnosis says about me. I admit to going along or turning away from troubling behaviors because I am in too deep. We have three children. When I am frustrated or desperate, I know it is because I feel trapped. I remember speeding away into the nearby hills of New Hartford late one night after a heated argument with Danny. I drive recklessly on back roads, unfurling my anger behind the steering wheel while considering options that lead me to both a physical and metaphorical dead end. I am stuck. There is no way out. I don’t have a job or money of my own and I’m sure as hell not going to ask my parents for help. I am convinced they will shake their heads in disgust since they never approved my marriage to Dan and I want their approval. I want them to think everything they are seeing: the lovely home, the terrific schools our kids attend, the vacations at Disney World, and even our goddamned piano are real. I want to be their smart, respectable daughter, happily married to an attorney with three sweet children and a charmed life. I hide from the truth in order to project an image I so desperately need in order to feel successful―in order to feel I am good enough, but there is no hiding now.
When Danny returns from Saint Mary’s, he meets with psychiatrists and is diagnosed with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder―a slight improvement from the diagnosis of a psychopath. In the weeks and months ahead, I consult with lawyers and other therapists, beginning to understand my role as a caretaker in this dysfunctional relationship. Generally, the advice I receive is that alcohol and drug abuse amplify psychiatric problems and I shouldn’t rush to judgement. I don’t. I wait until Dan is sober for a while and it becomes possible to assess his mental status and reflect upon my own. When I do make a decision about our future a few years later, after he is in jail, it’s to file for divorce. It is time to salvage what is left of my life.

About the Author:

Wendy Swift is a graduate of Syracuse University. She currently directs the Center for Writing at Cheshire Academy, a boarding and day school located in Connecticut. Swift also teaches creative writing and facilitates writing groups for students and faculty. In addition, she writes for the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering’s Bulletin. Swift has pieces published in Grub Street Literary Magazine, The Adirondack Explorer, Long Island Woman, the Litchfield Times and The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. She lives in Farmington, Connecticut.