If you’ve been lied to by an alcoholic, don’t take it personally. Denial is the cornerstone of the disease. And believe me, no one is getting lied to by an alcoholic more than the alcoholic himself. We don’t want to do it. It is not in our DNA. It is not a sign of spiritual deficiency. It isn’t a choice, either. In fact, when I was in active addiction, and expending massive amounts of energy hiding my predicament, I swore to my wife that I never lied, and that I was the most honest person in her life. And I believed that to my core.
Denial is a powerful tool. Sometimes, when we feel trapped and alone – out of options and staring the stark and bitter reality right in the face – denial is all we have left.
Sometimes, often really, denial is what keeps us drinking.
When you need help, really need help, you’ll take it wherever you can get it.
It had been almost two months since our initial visit with the transplant team, when they’d unexpectedly advised us that a liver transplant was not just the next step, but the only remaining step available. John had subsequently, spectacularly, failed tox screens for both alcohol and pot. And instead of being fast-tracked for the transplant list, so I could be reviewed for donation, the team told us they wouldn’t do anything until he was seeing a substance abuse counselor. Steps vital to survival were suddenly, maddeningly, on hold.
He didn’t want to do it, to go to a counselor. He told me, standing there in our kitchen, that it would be easier to just let him die. He’d prefer it.
We were talking about parts of my childhood when my therapist said, almost wistfully, “It sounds very lonely.”
There was a long quiet spot in the conversation while I thought about that.
Lonely? Me? Surely she was mistaken. I had a family. I had friends. I liked being alone, even as a kid. And as an adult … man, I was born to quarantine. I’ve joked before about the moat I’m building. This feels especially conspicuous right now, with so many so excited that they’ll be getting back out there, seeing people, seeing friends, going to school, going to parties, laughing.
I’m dreading that I’m so out of practice making up excuses as to why I can’t make it.
Maybe I don’t understand what loneliness is. And not understanding it, how would I even recognize it?
But I was lucky, at the start. I’d found the perfect partner: someone who felt as good to be with as it felt to be alone.
“But we cannot simply sit and stare at our wounds forever.” – Haruki Murakami
There’s light at the top of the stairs.
(It was never light before. His door was closed, his window shut, his blinds drawn against people, sun, wind and stars.
It was always dark at the top of the stairs.)
So we opened the blinds, opened the window, painted the wall facing it firefly yellow.
I want to talk about intimacy.
When I say “want to,” I actually mean “would prefer to pull my own toenails out with pliers than.” Why would anyone ever want to talk about intimacy? After all, the best thing about the dreams in which you suddenly realize you’re naked in public is waking up from them and realizing they never happened. Whew.
But if you’re reading this, I bet you already know why: intimacy is the most insidiously fucked-up part of life with an alcoholic, and it’s so hard to talk about that some of us would rather part with pieces of our own bodies than even start that conversation.
June 22, 2019, dawns beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic, calling to mind the day of our wedding twelve years before. The second half of those dozen circuits around the sun have been hard. Today, we’re barely seven months post-transplant. My single liver we now share between the two of us, his own having been incinerated with the rest of the biohazardous waste accumulated by the hospital that day back in November. I’ve had plenty of chances to think that we’d never see another anniversary together.
He’d told me, a week or so earlier, “Don’t do anything for the anniversary, I’ve got something planned.”
It felt like the first good sign since our transplant team had diagnosed him as rejecting the new liver graft. Maybe we were finally getting the rejection under control? Maybe we’d finally gotten the meds right? Except for his waxy skin, and his drifting in and out of vacant stares, and the yellow tinges to his eyes coming and going like I might be imagining them…
A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
June 22, 2007, dawned beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic. A perfect day for a little bit of a sail. A perfect day for a little bit of a wedding.
John and I had been living together for most of a decade. We’d always made a big deal about the anniversary of our hooking up, I guess you’d call it, romantics that we were. In thinking of how to celebrate our 10th, getting married seemed like the obvious choice.
There was only ever one consideration for a venue. She was one of a gorgeous pair of 72-foot schooners, operating in town, berthing at night in the slips right outside our apartment complex. Surprisingly affordable, she offered many things, including an organic constraint to the size of a wedding party, and extra conversational points for having been featured in a big-budget movie. Those are just minor details for flavor, though. All we really wanted was to get married on a boat, on the water, with plenty of booze.
Lately I’m seeing, from a social distance, conversations about our potentially post-pandemic summer that can be summed up as: It’s going to be Sodom and Gomorrah out there. If you can’t get laid this summer, just hang it up. Meanwhile, six months post-divorce, my reflexive gag is that not only am I not dating, not even looking, I’m building a moat.
It’s a joke. (Mostly. At least partly. A bit, anyway…) I think it’s funny. But here’s a great tip for free: never tell your good jokes to your therapist. They’ll wreck ‘em. They just can’t help it. I gave mine the whole moat bit with a nudge and a wink (or the Zoom equivalent), and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you’re not keeping others out, you’re keeping yourself in.”
Hope terrified me at the first sight of it. It froze me in my tracks, right there in the basement, the laundry basket on my hip.
I’d done everything I could to end it. I’d gotten the lawyer, gotten the agreements, and refinanced the house. I’d untethered phones, cable, and internet. I’d started in the tightest circle, telling the news, expanding it outward like a slow ripple. I’d packed everything I could from the parts of the house that were mine, the things that we’d agreed would be his, boxes stacked in neat rows as close to the front door as possible. Ready for him to take. Ready for him to go.
For his part, he had managed to get his own place. But he wasn’t leaving. Even with a literal key to his new, loudly-desired life in his hand, he sat, week after week, behind the closed door of his bedroom, drinking, not even hiding it anymore. Not taking. Not going.