Love and marriage are nothing like I expected when I met my wife, Sheri, going into our last year in college in 1994. The life we have built with four kids and a small business is exhausting, often disappointing and stressful beyond my wildest imagination. There is no room for the physical attraction that first brought us together, and most days we barely speak to each other as we plow forward.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few months ago, I was working to unclog a sink drain at the whole grain bread bakery we have owned for the past 15 years. I made a disgusting mistake. I disconnected a pipe in a tight space against the wall where I was unable to fit a bucket to collect the drainage. I watched helplessly as several gallons of black, greasy sludge poured onto the floor. I had no way to control the oozing of decaying bread dough and fermented hand soap. It was late, and I was very tired. I called Sheri for help.
I was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.
As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
Grief. Mourning. Dealing with a profound and significant loss. Processing all the feelings that accompanied the death of the love of my life was the single most critical necessity to my permanent sobriety.
I am often asked by devastated and hopeless readers who suffer in the pit of alcoholic despair how I quit drinking. The how is very complicated, but this is the most imperative piece of the answer.
When Anna asks me, “How are you?” it is neither a pleasantry nor a rhetorical question. She wants an answer, and if I lie and tell her I am fine when I am not, she smirks and looks down at the ground between us with her doubtful eyes. She might not know what’s wrong, but she knows something is, and later, when we are alone, she will sit quietly and wait for me to tell her. Anna and I have been distant lapsing best friends since we were in college together in the mid 90s. Now 1,000 miles live between us, and we see each other only once or twice a year. I am riddled with guilt about how bad I am at keeping in touch between visits. When we are together, she gives me a hug with an extra squeeze at the end that tells me she forgives me and we are right back where we left off when last we were together.
My grandfather had a pipe-aroma Tiparillo cigar in one hand, and a stemmed glass of Michelob Light with a couple of ice cubes in the other as he approached his ball and squinted to line up his putt. With the beer glass placed sort-of elegantly next to his ball and the cigar dangling from his lips, he drained the putt. Papou (the Greek word for grandfather) exclaimed one of his signature lines. “Next case!” He collected his ball and his beer and was off to the next tee.
When a Man Loves a Woman is my all-time favorite movie because of how it hits home for me. It provides an example of the tremendous challenges a marriage faces when the alcoholic spouse stops drinking. Meg Ryan plays a loving wife and mother who drifts slowly and insidiously over the line that distinguishes a casual drinker from an addict. Andy Garcia plays a loving husband and father who spends increasing amounts of time “picking-up the pieces” when Ryan’s character drinks too much.
I cry a lot when I watch When a Man Loves a Woman. I cry because I know the pain of slowly losing control of my life to alcohol. I cry because I know the intensely agonizing process of gaining my permanent sobriety. I cry because I know eliminating alcohol doesn’t eliminate problems from a marriage. Abstinence fixes some issues, but it creates a whole new set of heartache-filled complexities. I cry because sobriety does not guarantee a happy ending.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.