Cleaning Out the Basement

November 17, 2013

It’s time to clean out my basement. Not the basement in the house I live in now. My old basement in the house I left behind when my three children and I moved out two years ago. My old house where my old husband lives with his new girlfriend and the five Russians in the basement. She may not know about those Russians, and he may not remember them, but I do and they scare me still.

Back in 2006, on my oldest daughter’s 13th birthday, my husband was drunk. A birthday celebration with cake and presents ended with the children disappearing into their rooms, with him becoming belligerent and threatening. Ended with tears and angry words, and the word “divorce” tossed into the air like a live grenade. My birthday girl could be heard crying in her room and my husband stumbled upstairs to make promises he would never keep.

The next morning, he declared that he would stop drinking. The weekend unrolled, with the children and I tiptoeing around my husband as he appeared restless and agitated. At that point, I had no idea the extent to which he had been drinking in the past months. I later learned how masterful he was at hiding it, and how truly easy I was to fool, especially within my nest of denial.

Because I did not know how much he had been drinking all those months, I did not know that what I was seeing was delirium tremens, or DTs. As the weekend progressed, so did his symptoms. His hands were shaking and he was sweating. He seemed disoriented and was hostile to any advice or help I offered. He insisted that these were signs of cirrhosis and that he had a letter from the doctor telling him as much. In fact, no such letter existed, but warnings to him had apparently been given about his risk. Doctor-patient confidentiality had precluded me from knowing his true condition. I kept an eye on him, suggesting several times that he should call his doctor and he refused.

He stayed home from work that Monday, and some of his  symptoms seemed to lessen. That night he woke me in the middle of the night, shoving me, saying that he saw someone on top of me. I told him he was dreaming, and fell back into a light sleep. A little later, I woke up and heard him downstairs. I found him walking around the house with the fireplace poker in his hand, saying that he heard noises. I offered to sit with him and watch tv and eventually we went back to bed. Again, he insisted he heard someone in the house and he went downstairs, grabbed the poker and walked around the house. I waited for him in the family room, where, upon his return, he told me that there were five Russians in the basement and they were there to kidnap me.

For nearly two hours, my husband made me sit in the family room, as he whispered to me of the Russians’ plans. Of course, I tried to tell him that the only person in the basement was our housekeeper, asleep in her room. I tried to tell him that we should call the police for help, but he would not let me. All the while that I tried to reason with him, (an impossible task, as he was psychotic), I thought of my children sleeping in their beds upstairs. I thought of what would happen if his hallucinations led him upstairs, with that poker in his hand. I made contingency plans in my head for such a scenario and knew I might not be able to protect my children from his insanity. He would not let me leave the room, except for a moment, when he told me to grab his jacket from the office. He watched me, not giving me the opportunity to pick up the phone and call for help. Wild-eyed, he told me that if the lights flickered, we had to run out the back door. His panic grew, and he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the sliding glass doors, his hand grasping the door handle, ready to run. He had on his shoes and a jacket, but I was only in my nightgown. I imagined us running through the backyard and into the woods. I imagined him pulling me behind him, brambles tearing at my nightgown and sticks and stones bloodying my feet. I imagined my children upstairs, waking to find me gone. I imagined my neighbors’ dog waking, barking at the noise outside and I imagined my neighbors’ confusion at finding us. I imagined being rescued, but only for a moment, because I realized that I would have to rescue us.

I told my husband that I thought he was going to have a stroke and that I had to call 911. He told me no.  I told him he was going to have a heart attack and I had to call 911. He told me no. I told him that if he died, the Russians would get me. Finally, he gave me permission to call, with strict instructions. No sirens, no lights, be quiet. The police had to call me when they arrived and ask permission to come to the door. They were told to come around the back, because if the Russians heard them, there would be trouble.

The police never did look in the basement. My husband would not let them. He only agreed to go to the hospital if I rode in the ambulance with him. He was still afraid of the Russians.  I don’t remember much after that. I don’t know if I wore my nightgown to the hospital. I don’t remember if I kissed my children good-bye. I remember all of us leaving through the back door, at my husband’s insistence. I remember wet grass. I know I rode in the ambulance and I remember lights and colors, voices and movement, but that’s all.

I do remember the Russians and I wonder if being kidnapped by them could have been any more frightening than the years that would follow that night.

* Delirium tremens is very dangerous, and, if untreated, can have a mortality rate of up to 35%. To learn more:

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