Alcoholism is a winless waiting game. We wait for things to get better. We wait for the solution to emerge. As the drinkers, we wait for our new rule to keep us in control, or for the stress to decrease so we can enjoy our beloved beverage in harmonious peace. As the loved ones of drinkers, you wait for us to see the light and come to our senses. You wait for us to stop or to slow down – to prioritize family over liquid poison.
But waiting isn’t a strategy. Waiting is a slow, excruciating defeat. Waiting is inevitable failure.
Our friend and leader in the soberevolution could only wait so long. As the wife of an active alcoholic, she knew waiting any longer would deliver a tragic result. Here are her words:
It was over. It was time to move on. The regrets had been overwhelming. In fact, the debilitating shame was the only thing powerful enough to force my hand and mandate my need for behavioral change. The stigma, the embarrassment, the broken promises, the trust I crushed under my clumsy heel like an insignificant ant – all of it accumulated into a malignant mass that had to be cut out of my soul for my very survival. And I did just that. I changed for the only reason anyone ever makes significant change. Pain. I was drowning in pain.
But even the deepest, most fundamental change was not enough for her. The trillions of sincere apologies. The remorse. The repentance. The reparations. None of it was enough. It was never enough.
This is Jane’s story.
For Jane, alcohol was an accent. It was something complimentary and expected, but never really necessary or compulsive. Jane drank when she danced. The alcohol kept her inhibitions quiet, but the drinks were never the main event. Cutting loose and moving her body to the music made her feel alive and free. Jane learned to drink to wash away the stress and pressure of the day. It is a lesson almost universally ingrained in our adult American culture. She drank to feel numb when no one needed her to be present.
Then Jane had kids, and the numbable moments disappeared. Alcohol turned from an accent to an unacceptable distraction from her responsibilities. There was no time to zone out. There was no room for hangovers and sluggishness. She was needed 24/7, and she answered the call every single time.
Jane matured. Her husband kept going. It’s like they were flying to a destination together, and the journey included a change to a connecting flight in some far-away airport. Jane got off the initial flight and boarded the connection, while her husband stayed glued in his seat and rode the first plane to oblivion.
My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.
It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.
Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.
And I ruined it all for her.
I don’t know anyone who likes to deal with death. I am particularly awkward and clumsy at expressing my condolences and finding the right words. A few years ago, I read an article about how empty and unsupportive it is for families to hear, “I’m sorry for your loss,” over and over and over again, and that little piece of advice just made me even more selfconscious about communicating in times of tragedy.
But no matter how ill-prepared and oafy I am, I step up and fumble my way through when someone dies. We all do. We get the rarely worn suit from the closet still with tissues in the pocket from the last funeral, and we practice shaking our heads slowly and staring at our feet. We give hugs, fully prepared for the person on the other end of the embrace to break-down into a sobbing puddle if that’s just where they are in the grieving process. Vulnerability is rewarded, uncontrolled emotions are fully understood and bonds of friendship and family are squeezed just a little tighter. We grieve, but we also connect. None of us want to go through it, some of us are more unpolished than others, but we all do what we know we have to do in support of each other.
Handling death in a supportive, caring, patient and predictable manner is part of being human. It is ingrained in our culture and has become an expectation of our society.
Therefore, it is astonishingly mind-boggling to me how people so committed to a supportive grieving process can suck so completely at supporting each other in times of crisis BEFORE someone actually dies.
I listened yesterday to Dax Shepard and Glennon Doyle talking on Dax’s podcast (Armchair Expert – it’s my favorite) about how in many ways, it is harder to be a high-functioning alcoholic than an obnoxious, obvious, stumbling lush. When we keep our predilection quietly hidden behind a veil of normalcy and productivity, not only must we manage the internal chaos of alcoholism, but we also expend incalculable energy keeping our secrets hidden. We all agreed this was a valid and significant point (they agreed, and I was nodding, but I feel like they could sense my support).
Do you know what’s even harder than being a high-functioning alcoholic? It’s loving a high-functioning alcoholic. The deceit is still there. All the downplaying, making excuses and covering up still exists, but by participating in the denials, the loved one is perpetuating the disease and dysfunction that they so loath. It must feel like constantly painting the house that your alcoholic is trying to tear down from the inside out.
It is my wife’s turn to recover. She knows it. I know it. Getting here was anything but simple.
Listen Now! It’s Sheri’s Turn
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. When I was drinking, I put my love of alcohol ahead of everything, including my wife and kids. I would never have admitted it, but it was true. When I decided to stop drinking, I put my work to stay sober ahead of everything, again, including my wife, Sheri, and our four kids. This time, the selfishness was necessary. But that doesn’t change the fact that my family continued to take a backseat to my addiction.
I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”
“I quit drinking for you, Sheri! What more do you want from me?” I was hurting so badly from the failure and shame and debilitating depression of alcoholism. I was exerting every morsel of strength that I had to battle the cravings and brain hijacking of addiction to alcohol. I was in the fight of my life. Me. Recovery was all about me. If I was to overcome this demon, I needed my wife’s support, and I wasn’t capable of even contemplating her needs.
I had apologized for my drunken behavior so many times. On the mornings after I over drank, became irrationally angry and said despicable things, I had so often apologized and shown sincere remorse. When I made a commitment to sobriety, I had apologized again. I said I was sorry, and do you know what follows sorrow? Forgiveness. What more could Sheri have possibly needed?
Disney on Ice at the Coliseum – my oldest child, our six-year-old daughter, could not have been more excited. It was February, and the arena still smelled like livestock sweat and cow poop after the National Western Stock Show was held there a month prior, but she didn’t notice. Neither did her younger brothers who were only excited because their fearless leader, Cathryn, was bouncing off the walls.