Coming home to a disaster
It was mid-January 2006, and I had just returned the day before from a two-week vacation in Europe. I had gone to visit my childhood friend Diane, who was living in France. Once I arrived in France, we and two of her daughters took off for a week in Rome, and then after that I spent a week by myself touring the south of France. I tell that story in detail here.
I arrived home on a Friday night. I pulled a few necessities out of my suitcases, but the rest of my travel gear remained packed on the floor of my master bedroom, lined up against the wall next to the master bathroom. It was late, so I plopped my travel-weary self in bed and hoped I would fall asleep quickly. I had to open my art gallery the next day and give Michelle, my assistant who’d been running the store while I was gone, the weekend off.
I got up the next morning, took a shower, got ready, and drove to work. After being at the gallery from about 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, I stopped off at the grocery store on the way home. The refrigerator was bare after being gone for two weeks. Grocery shopping took another hour or so.
I arrived home and drove into my garage, got out of the car, and hit the remote to close the garage door. I grabbed a few bags of groceries and headed for the inner door to the house. When I opened that door (which opened to a short hallway just off the kitchen), I heard the sound of water running in the distance, which threw me, and I paused.
Why am I hearing water running?
I took a step into the hallway from the garage. A sound of rushing water. Why am I hearing water? I had one of those momentary irrational thoughts, as one does, when nothing makes sense:
“Someone has broken into my house and is taking a shower with the door open.”
I started to take slow, shaky steps into the house. Halfway into the kitchen, I started stepping into puddles of water. Oh no, I thought. This is bad. The further I walked, the deeper the water got, and the louder the sound of rushing water got.
By the time I reached my master bedroom in the back of the house, I found complete and utter disaster: a collapsed ceiling, fully flooded floors, and a torrent of water gushing through the attic. The collapse had taken place immediately above where I had lined up my suitcases the night before, so they and their contents were a total loss, including my memorabilia from the trip and my camera and disks. Fiberglass insulation had fallen from the attic and was all over the wet carpet and my suitcases, making a huge mess.
I had just started to replace my bedroom furniture with a new set. My brand-new contemporary platform bed, imported from Canada and made from Canadian maple, was standing in several inches of water, as were its matching nightstands. My older teak set, which included a low, six-drawer dresser, an upright dresser, and a vanity, were also standing in water. A small TV, on a stand on the same wall as where the suitcases were lined up, was also getting dumped with water. The new carpet was definitely ruined. The ceiling in the bathroom was bulging and looked like it could go at any minute.
As I backed out of the bedroom, I saw how much water had escaped into the other rooms of the house. Luckily, the kitchen and dining room floors were ceramic tile so they were not damaged. But water had already inundated about half of my living room, onto my newly installed hardwood maple flooring just 8 months earlier. Judging from how much water was already flooding the rooms of the house, that water had to have been pouring through the attic for hours, possibly ever since I had left that morning. Water was raining through most of the ceilings, even the ones that hadn’t collapsed yet.
I had owned this house for 15 months and had only lived on site full time for about a year. I purchased the home in September of 2004 and had been driving back and forth from Houston on weekends to do some renovations. The water heater that was up in the attic space above my master bedroom was brand new—it had been replaced as part of the negotiations when I bought the house. I didn’t move in full time until January 2005, when an idea to open an art gallery with a partner became a reality, we formed an LLC together, and purchased the property for that gallery later that spring.
As far as this home went, I didn’t even know where the water shutoff valve was, it was a Saturday night, I barely knew anyone in this town yet, and I started to panic. I called various plumbers in town who had emergency phone numbers listed in the phone book, and not a single one picked up. I left messages for a few of them, including the one who had replaced that water heater to begin with. After 15 minutes of no response, out of desperation, I called the only person I could think of who I knew was a nice guy and would probably help me out: his name was Ron and he had done some custom woodwork on my wood floors, trimming them out masterfully along a curved surface, something the original installers couldn’t do. He also happened to be my gallery assistant Michelle’s boyfriend, so I knew him slightly.
My judgment of character was spot on this time. Ron came right over, knew exactly where the water shutoff valve could be found, and got the immediate problem fixed. Then he surveyed the damage and was as stunned as I was.
He shook his head. “I don’t know why they put these water heaters in the attic. It’s a terrible idea. All these houses in the Country Club were built this way, and most of them stay up there because it’s so expensive to move them unless something like this happens. Either your water heater tank has completely ruptured, or the hose has come off, or a pipe has burst.
“But listen. You can’t stay here tonight. Your mattress is soaked. I can see you’re exhausted. If you stay here, even if you have a spare bedroom, you’re going to try to clean things up. Come and stay at our house; Michelle will fix up our spare bedroom for you and let’s look at things fresh in the morning. We can get a plumber up there to see what really happened.”
I was exhausted, and grateful for his kindness. In the state I was in, I took him up on his offer. As it turned out, the house they lived in was so small, they did not even have a spare bedroom—they gave me their bed, with fresh sheets, and they slept out in the living room. As much as I protested, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
A previous trauma in Rockport
Leading up to my vacation in France and Italy, a previous devastation had unfolded that I was still processing. My trip overseas, in addition to visiting an old friend, had another purpose: putting some distance between me and one of the biggest heartbreaks and business disasters of my life.
In early 2005, my boyfriend Craig (not his real name) and I had formally gone into business together, forming an LLC for the purpose of opening an art gallery in Rockport, Texas. He was an accomplished artist with a B.A. in Fine Arts, but was discouraged from pursuing a career as an artist by his very successful and domineering father, who didn’t believe it was a realistic career path for anyone. Instead, he went into the business world and became a graphic artist in the oil and gas industry. Like many people who fulfill their parent’s dreams rather than their own, at work he always felt unfulfilled, bored, and that his talents were being wasted. So, one goal of the gallery was to get his artwork out before the public with the hopes of creating a market for his work and making some sales.
As for myself, I had reached “critical mass” with the oil and gas company I’d been contracting with. I was fed up with working on projects that were constantly reorganized, reprioritized, downsized, or outright canceled midway to completion. After 10 years of working for this firm, I had not one finished product in my portfolio to show for all that time, which left me with a fairly hollow and cynical feeling about the point of it all. I was more than a little discouraged myself. I was ready to move on and try something new; maybe make a difference in some people’s lives.
Our dream of the gallery began materializing in earnest in April 2005 when I purchased a second property in Rockport and we began its renovations. It was a historical home, built in 1906, and my model for it was the many Arts-and-Crafts-style homes that were converted into art galleries in the Heights area in Houston. It seemed a perfect candidate, based on those precedents.
I had been living in Rockport full time since January of 2005; Craig moved there later that same summer. He gave up his full-time job and went part-time with his company, and they allowed a remote-working arrangement from Rockport. I had given up my editing clients but was still working part-time as a desktop publisher for my nonprofit clients. This meant we couldn’t devote 100% of our time to the renovation work, as we still had to make some kind of living. This led to some very long days as a great deal was on our plates.
Craig was also sharing custody of his 2 1/2-year-old son on weekends and dealing with an ex-wife who saw no reason to make the 3-hour drive to Rockport to do so, so his weekends were shot. The burden of all that travel to do the handoffs was on him.
(The complete details of this part of my story will be covered in a future long-form memoir, currently in development; events will only be briefly covered here.)
Within a few months of arriving in Rockport, Craig started to show signs that he thought this whole idea was a bad one. A couple of weeks before the gallery was scheduled to open, we had a huge fight one night and he announced he was leaving and going back to Houston, dumping the whole thing in my lap. He started sleeping in the spare bedroom that night.
From our master bedroom, out of sheer panic, I called my brother Gary in Seattle. The minute he answered the phone, I started to cry. The whole story came out: how Craig was pulling out and the whole gallery was about to come crashing down on my head, and I didn’t know what to do.
I still remember how he sounded when he said “Oh, no.” Then Gary did something I never expected: he told me he’d get a ticket and would fly down the next day from Seattle, would stay for a week, and would help me get the gallery ready for opening day! (You gotta love brothers!) He also brought along a good-hearted friend of his, who was a welcome pair of extra hands.
This was just the support I needed at a critical juncture. When I told Craig he had to clear out of the spare bedroom because Gary was going to arrive the next day and he needed a place to sleep, the look on his face was priceless. I had called his bluff. As it turned out, he didn’t go any further than the local Holiday Inn, and in a few days, he came crawling back with his tail between his legs. He didn’t say much for the rest of the week as we all worked together to put the finishing touches on the gallery and, finally, hang the artwork.
The gallery had its grand opening in September 2005. The grand opening party was great fun—we catered in and I made outrageous food, we had beer and wine, the place was packed, and we made great sales. Several of our Texas and Louisiana artists were on hand to meet people, which always helps a new gallery get off on the right foot. I made sure to invite other local gallery owners, in the hopes that we could create a comaraderie amongst ourselves. I felt we were finally on the map in Rockport!
But by the middle of October, none of Craig’s work had sold (even at the grand opening). Craig’s specialty was the human form and he largely drew female nudes, and personally, I thought they were stunning. The faces and hair were exquisite, the bodies were voluptuous and sensual. He understood lighting, texture, shading, composition, all of it. We were told by several people that Rockport had a large gay and lesbian population, and his drawings would probably be a huge hit.
Yet they did not sell. Either the LGBTQ community doesn’t buy that type of artwork, or they didn’t come to the gallery and see his work in the first place—our marketing wasn’t reaching them. For whatever reason, they did not sell, and Craig had run out of patience after only 6 weeks. Not understanding the narcissistic personality I was dealing with at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what a blow to his ego this must have been for Craig until many years later.
The realities of self-employment, no salary coming to him from the gallery, his reduced part-time paycheck, child support, the long-distance custody arrangements, tensions between us resuming—made Craig crack. The man who was to be my full-time business and life partner threw in the towel. On my birthday, October 14, he abandoned me and the gallery we started together and left me to it. He moved out and drove back to Houston. Unbeknownst to me, he’d already arranged with his company to get his full-time job back—for how long this negotiation had been going on, I would never know.
For the next few weeks, I was in shock and disbelief. How could I have been so wrong about someone who I thought was my soulmate? About someone who checked every box for the first year I dated him? How could he leave all this with me? Didn’t he feel any obligation to all these artists we had signed contracts with? What would I tell them if I couldn’t keep this gallery afloat?
I was devastated personally, and terrified for the business we had just opened 6 weeks earlier. Never before had I started a business where I was responsible for so many other people, and I felt a deep obligation to every one of them. They were tying up their inventory with me, in hopes I could sell it for them. Now what?
Within two days of him leaving, I made the humiliating phone call to my lawyer, asking him to dissolve the LLC he had just created for us earlier that same year. I knew I had to protect my investment and my business interests as quickly as possible. To say he was stunned was an understatement.
Surprisingly, to simply dissolve the LLC got quite a bit of pushback from Craig. He seemed to have it in his head that I had to “buy him out” of the business, for all the work he had done on the property renovations. When I relayed this response to my attorney, he just laughed.
“This guy has no idea what it means to go into partnership with someone, does he? He thinks all his physical labor has some incredibly high value, but all the work you did to set up the accounting, to set up the business, to line up the artists, establish those relationships, to get all those contracts signed, to create mailers, set up a mailing list and get a grand opening announced…that has no value?? Is he kidding? The value of what he contributed and the value of what you contributed—it’s a wash. It zeroes out. Besides, it was his choice to leave; you didn’t boot him out. You don’t owe him a penny for anything, especially from a business that’s not making a profit yet.”
It took 2 months to finally get a signed withdrawal agreement from Craig regarding the LLC (nearly twice as long as it took to set the thing up in the first place). Craig hired two different lawyers, trying to get some kind of compensation for his work over the summer, but he ended up with the same answer my lawyer gave him: “You entered an LLC with Gail, you both contributed a huge effort to get it off the ground, but now you are leaving of your own accord. There are no profits to divide after being open for only a few months. Sign the papers and go away.” He finally did so on 12/30/2005.
After all that, oddly, around Christmastime the same year, I started getting weird messages from Craig on the answering machine at the gallery. Luckily, I intercepted them before my assistant Michelle got there and heard them. He clearly was feeling lonely and having second thoughts, but I was having none of it. I was still furious with him and sent him an email to let him know as much.
“Stop leaving messages at the gallery like a coward, when you know I’m not there. You know my home phone number. If you have something to say to me, call me at home. What if Michelle had been the one to intercept that message? Jesus, think about what you’re doing!”**
Meanwhile, back in Italy…
This was the crisis and the trauma that I was still reeling from when I took my trip to France and Italy in January 2006. I discussed this whole sordid chain of events with my friend Diane. I told her, “And now, it looks like he’s trying to get back together with me, after this horrible abandonment and betrayal of all that we built together.”
Much to my surprise, she advised me to give him another chance. She always came from the Christian perspective of forgiveness and second chances, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. She also knew I’d been heartbroken a lot in my life and really wanted to see me happy and settled down with a wonderful guy. She had been hoping this guy was the one.
She said, “Maybe these stresses of your divorces [his and mine] and the moves and the new child custody arrangements and starting a new business and reduced income—it was all just too much and he got overwhelmed and scared. And then he got up in Houston by himself and had time to think, and realized he didn’t want to lose you to all those stresses.”
I reminded her that I was under those same stresses. I had recently been divorced. I had recently moved. I had the same stress of opening a new business while trying to keep my existing business afloat. In addition, I had the new stress of dealing with a young child in the house, something I had zero experience with. A child who acted out around me constantly, who tested his boundaries, who challenged my authority, who outright disobeyed me in front of his father, and then watched to see what would happen.
Yet I didn’t crack, I didn’t throw in the towel, I didn’t bail on the gallery and say “this is all yours, good luck with it,” or tell him our relationship was over.
Thus was our conversation, back and forth, in between touring the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, and other famous sites in Rome. I returned home more confused than ever.
I crack in Rockport
So there’s me, standing in a puddle of water in my kitchen in January, the day after I spent the night at Ron and Michelle’s. That morning I went to the hardware store to get a pair of wading boots, as I had nothing that was waterproof. Also that morning, who did I call, in my desperation for some help? I had no support system whatsoever in Rockport. With my friend’s voice in my head, I called Craig in Houston.
He seized on the opportunity. That same afternoon he arrived in Rockport, like a superhero. I remember it like it was yesterday. He took charge of the situation. He deposited me at my friend Marilynn’s house, who owned a bed and breakfast, and put me to bed in the middle of the afternoon (“You’re in shock.”). He bought a mop and bucket and cleaned up the excess water in the house. He found my files where my insurance records were kept so I could start making phone calls. He got the phone numbers of general contractors in Rockport. And just like that, I was moving out and months of repairs were in motion.*
In my jet-lagged and vulnerable state of mind, I allowed a manipulative and narcissistic person back into my life and gave him complete control over this crisis that had just taken place.
In my mind, he was just helping someone that he cared about get through a rough patch. In his mind, it was so much more than that. He was working his way back into control of an individual, who would later “owe him” for all he had done for her.
He was on his best behavior for the next year. No more wild mood swings, no more freak-outs regarding my interactions with his son. He was tightly controlled. I thought: maybe Diane was right. Maybe getting out of the gallery was what he needed. We have gotten back to the things that initially attracted us, and that love affair is flourishing again.
This led to a disastrous decision to get married on New Year’s Eve, 2006, a marriage that lasted all of 9 months. We were separated by Labor Day of 2007; the divorce was final on Valentine’s Day, 2008. Three holidays kicked in the ass.
Recognizing manipulation through ultimatums
As soon as I was his wife, it was like a switch was flipped. The old behaviors of days of silent treatment (“you should know why I’m mad”); explosions over something I said, or didn’t say, to his son (“I can’t believe you can’t give a 4-year-old a bath”); the withholding of sex. Working late nights with no explanation, or some nights not coming home at all. Repeated phone calls on his cell phone that lasted 45 minutes or more, to a number I didn’t recognize.
Suzanne, a marriage counselor who saw us both together and individually, eventually helped me to see that the whole time we had been together, he had practically held me hostage—he had me living in an “ultimatum state.” “Either you do this, or I withhold that. Either you do this, or I leave/you don’t get my love/sex/our planned vacation/etc.” She said that healthy relationships aren’t constantly under the threat of “do this or I leave.”
Ultimatums should only be given when you truly are at a crossroads, and the only option is to not continue with the relationship if nothing changes. Yet he constantly used this tactic as a way to control me and manipulate me into getting what he wanted.
This may be effective when you’re dealing with a toddler—if they don’t behave, they get punished by withholding certain things from them. But this is a disciplinary tactic and should not be carried through to adulthood and be a part of mature relationships.
I truly credit this marriage counselor for saving my life. It was frightening when she pointed out how much I’d been manipulated. By keeping me constantly off balance, I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. She helped me recognize the pattern of reward and punishment that I was living in. She explained, and I’ve since learned from further research, that ultimatums are frequently used as a form of emotional manipulation by those with narcissistic tendencies.
From this same website, “Extreme by nature, ultimatums are indicative of relational burnout. They are made when all other attempts to mitigate or resolve the issue have been exhausted. With no room for compromise, it becomes an all-or-nothing situation that only further reduces the relationship’s survival chances.”
Also, at a very vulnerable point in my life, when I had no support system in Rockport, I made that fatal phone call—I let a person back in who I had just exorcised from my personal and business life. That is something I will always regret; I regard this as the biggest mistake of my life. Safeguarding against making similar disastrous choices has been a goal of mine ever since.
I am grateful that Suzanne helped me see that getting away from the influence of this manipulative and dangerous person was the best decision I could make for my well being. Making that humiliating phone call to my family and friends that it was over after 9 months and I was moving out? Well, that was pretty awful. But the sense of relief that I knew it was the right thing for my mental health, and has continued to be the right thing—that was worth everything. That feeling of shame didn’t last too long.
Suzanne also gave me the most important insight of all—an understanding into why I was repeatedly choosing the same kind of man to marry. Craig had been my third husband, and she showed me the pattern I was in; the similarities between these men, and why I had made those choices. I tell this story in full here. This was a true breakthrough for me and a turning point in my life.
Guard your heart in a crisis
And so I return to the title of this post: Guard your heart in a crisis. Guard your heart when trauma strikes. It makes you a target for people who have an agenda. Surround yourself with people who love you and want only the best for you. As much as you feel like you are alone in this world, there are people who have been through what you are going through. Seek them out. Listen to their advice. Don’t make big decisions quickly. In-person and online counseling are available.
I hope my sharing of this story has been helpful for someone reading this. If you have a comment, please leave it in the Comments section below.
*[Epilogue: The insurance claim for that house flood was $106,000, and it took 3 months to repair my home. They speculated that after I took a shower that morning, because I had been gone for two weeks, it was possible that the sudden jolt back into action caused the hose to pop off of the water heater. That’s what had caused the flood: a nonstop open firehose of water for about 8 or 9 hours up in my attic (I don’t remember anymore whether the hose just disconnected, or whether there was a hole or split in the hose that burst open). Also, there was supposed to be an emergency shutoff valve in the water heater that apparently had malfunctioned. Allstate, my insurance company, paid for the water heater to be moved from the attic space to the garage. Because of the massive damage done to the structure and my household goods, Allstate tried to sue the manufacturer of the water heater to reclaim the damages. But alas! It was made in Taiwan, and they were untouchable. All they got out of them was reimbursement for the cost of a new unit. Lesson learned: buy “Made in America”!]
**[I made the decision to close the art gallery at the end of the year in 2006, just before getting married to Craig. I simply could not run it without a financial partner, and without a physical partner who could help me with operations and maintenance. I was so proud of what I had accomplished there and thought I had created something of beauty in that town. But misunderstanding the specific art market in Rockport, misunderstanding the town and those who ran it, and misunderstanding the gallery business, all worked against me. It was the harshest business lesson I’ve ever had to learn, and the biggest investment loss I’ve ever had to absorb. After we divorced, I moved back down to Rockport and lived in the gallery property while I put it up for sale. It took 10 years and another disaster—Hurricane Harvey—before that property finally sold.]
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