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.
“You can’t always be doing great. Why do you always tell me you are doing great?” On the phone from 2,000 miles away, this question from my mother, asked a couple of years before I quit drinking, stunned me a little. “What do you mean? Everything is going very well,” I replied instinctually. I paused and prayed, and to my considerable relief, she dropped that line of questioning. She was right. I was lying. I was very good at lying to my parents.
Saint Patrick’s weekend started early for me. At 5:15am Friday I was opening cans and bottles from a couple of cases of beer and dumping them all into a bucket. We were making our huge annual batch of pale ale and cheddar bread at the bakery my wife and I own, and we needed the warm foamy beer to settle and flatten a bit before we could pour it into the mixing bowl.
I didn’t expect the reaction I had to the sounds of the cans popping open with a carbonated hiss. I was surprised by the wave of emotions that washed over me as I breathed in the aroma. I have been sober for fourteen months. We have beer, wine and booze in our house for guests or on the rare occasion Sheri has a drink, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
But the sounds of cracking cans and the sweet and bitter smell of my beloved hops and barley stirred something deep within me. It was unexpected. It was unwelcomed. The Irish band Blackthorn played drinking songs from the bakery speakers reminding me it was one of my very favorite holidays. At that moment, all I wanted to do was go back to bed.
The moment my daughter was born, my life changed dramatically. Not because I had to bathe her, change her diapers or because of the sleepless nights everyone warns first-time parents about. Rather, my top priority changed from a focus on career and financial success to helping my daughter navigate her young life. When each of my three boys was born, that sense of singular purpose to nurture well-balanced, joyful kids intensified. I wanted my four kids to be happy.
Naturally, I wanted my children to eventually enjoy a similar experience to what I long considered the best time of my life – my four years at Indiana University. College meant freedom. College fostered friendships. College was staying-up late and sleeping-through morning classes. College involved sports and parties and music and girls. I wanted my kids to have the same big-school lack-of-personal-accountability period I recognized as the very best of times.
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.
It was morning again, in America, and our movie-star-turned-real-life-leader-of-the-free-world president was basking in the glory. The economy was humming, interest rates and inflation were low and I had no understanding of any of that grown-up gobbledygook. I was in my first decade of life, and my family was content and comfortable with worries so few I can’t remember a single one.
Weekends were particularly enjoyable because my sister and I were given a well deserved respite from the seemingly arduous routines of learning stuff, and our dad was home from work. It was many a Saturday that my family would lounge on the back deck as the afternoon shadows grew long and we recapped adventures of the day. “Grab me a beer and I’ll give you a sip,” my father would say. The screen door would bang behind me before he completed his request. I would return quickly but carefully, as the foamy taste from a jostled can of Budweiser was far less desirable than the crisp and nose-tingling sip of unshaken lager. I don’t really remember liking or disliking the taste of beer at that young age. What I remember was experiencing a glimpse of manhood – sharing a sip of my hero’s refreshment of choice. His beer tasted divine, no matter what my taste buds said.
After twenty-five years of heavy drinking, and a ten-year battle with alcoholism, my sobriety is going very well. But deep in my soul I know I am one major catastrophe away from succumbing to my addiction again.
Almost fifteen million Americans have cancer and over fifteen million Americans are alcoholics according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cancer is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lung cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer worldwide. Smoking cigarettes, a personal choice, is the most common cause of lung cancer. Drinking alcohol, a personal choice, is a requirement to become an alcoholic. Many forms of cancer are treatable. Alcoholism is treatable, too.
There are many parallels between cancer and alcoholism. So why do we treat these two diseases so differently?