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.
The patio door was wide open, and the sheer curtains billowed into our room in the morning breeze. We were on the east side of the highrise hotel building, and the sun was just peaking over the Atlantic Ocean horizon. The scene from our tenth floor room was majestic, looking over the expansive pool area below and the white-sandy beach just beyond. We were attending an industry work convention, but it was much more of a boozy boondoggle and reprieve from the responsibilities of work and parenting.
The setting was very romantic. That’s why I was so disappointed to find my wife sleeping alone in the room’s other queen size bed. We had undressed and plopped down in the same bed after a long night of drinking. I was sure of it. So why was I sleeping alone in the morning?
I was sleeping alone because my relentless commitment to alcohol had driven my wife away, not just that particular night, but slowly, ever since she had met me. She made an excuse that morning about wanting room to stretch and getting closer to the morning breeze blowing in across the ocean, but the truth was, she was far more attracted to freedom than she was to me.
If you’ve even considered joining us for our couples retreat in the Rocky Mountains – even considered it for a moment – even if you’ve decided not to attend, I hope you’ll read this. I’ve got some explaining to do, and I hope you’ll hear me out.
Christmas Eve was one of the biggest days of the year, not just personally or spiritually, but for our business. For fifteen years, my wife and I were bread bakers. We owned a neighborhood whole grain bakery, and holidays that brought families together around the dinner table where huge for us. Christmas Eve meant long production hours, stressful decisions about how much of each product to bake and hundreds of additional customer interactions. Many people think of relaxation and family when they think of Christmas Eve. For those of us in retail or hospitality, Christmas Eve means balls to the walls work. While everybody else was listening to Andy Williams sing about, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was working my ass off.
One particularly stressful Christmas Eve about a decade ago, I was working late to closeout the Christmas season at the bakery while my wife took our four small children to church with my parents who were visiting for the holiday. The bakery was closed and the door was locked. I turned out all the lights and turned up the volume on the Christmas music. I drank eggnog as I worked in the dark. I blended it about 50/50 with the whiskey I kept in my desk drawer, like Lou Grant, for just such occasions.
Kyle asked to enroll in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism on June 13th. He was in the midst of a two month stint of sobriety and looking for something to help him make it stick. In early July, he was on day one and trying again.
Kyle is a few years younger than me, but he is living almost my exact story as alcoholism slowly destroys his life. His two kids are ages five and three, and his wife has run out of love and trust for him as he is losing his battle with the beast of addiction.
On October 13th, Kyle told me, “It seems like every relapse is harder and harder to explain. Explain to myself, my boss, family and kids. But most importantly it is harder and harder for me to have faith that I can stop for good and not lose everything.” On October 31st, Kyle drank a pint of vodka in the morning to nurse a hangover from the day before. He was passed out and vomiting by the evening, and he couldn’t even muster a smile for his children when they came home and wanted to show their candy to their daddy.
And now, Kyle is trying again.
I’ve found statistics that indicate a 20% increase in divorce rate for couples dealing with alcoholism in the marriage. That number is not surprising to me. The overall divorce rate in the United States is roughly 50%, and it makes sense that addiction to alcohol adds significant challenges for couples to overcome in order to stay together.
But those aren’t the important numbers – not to me, anyway. The statistic I’m interested in doesn’t exist. At least I can’t find where this subset has ever been studied. I’m curious about the rate of divorce in marriages where the alcoholic gets sober. Based on the stories I know, and our personal experience, I’ll bet that divorce rate is over 80%. I thought getting sober was the hardest thing I’d ever do until I experienced the damage recovery did to my relationship. Recovering our marriage from alcoholism is the challenge of our lives.
Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. When I quit drinking, our relationship got much worse before it could begin to get better and recover.
Do you think couples know they are getting a divorce before they do? Like all things in an alcoholic marriage, aren’t they in denial until the truth is inevitable? Don’t they resist until the end is unavoidable? My wife and I are struggling mightily. But I think we’ll make it. Then again, I don’t know the answers to my own questions.
Robin Williams famously said, “As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you can lower them.” He’s right, of course. When I drank, my brain often went to a different place. It was a dark and sinister place full of evil creativity. I could think of things to say when arguing with my wife that would make the devil blush. They say alcohol lowers inhibitions, and that’s right, too. My brain would dive deep to create the most malevolent thing I could possibly think to say to crush my wife’s spirit, and I would deliver the verbal blow without a moment’s hesitation.
Sheri would fight back, and she became adept at it, as is often the case with the spouse of an alcoholic. Her weapons were less perverse and twisted, but they were equally impactful. She would rant about divorce and death and her deepest wish that she had never met me in the first place. We hurled our filth at each other relentlessly. When we would go to that place – that dark corner in the seething and desperate pit of hell – the damage delivered was permanent and our love had no hope to survive the onslaught.
My wife, Sheri, tells me often that I walk around like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. In fairness to me, I spend most of my time writing about some pretty weighty topics and communicating with people who are trying to keep their heads above water in the deep end of the pool. The work I do is incredibly rewarding and totally fulfilling. But my wife is right, it’s not very jovial nor lighthearted.
We were stuck. I had not had a drop of alcohol in over a year, but our relationship was unloving and cold. Distrust and painful memories consumed our marriage and made recovery seem impossible. We set aside time each week to mend wounds from memories of drunken arguments and intoxicated antics, but there was still an invisible barrier between us.
My wife’s emotions seemed the most raw when we talked about the rare but painful times when my drinking impacted our four children. Sheri couldn’t seem to forgive me – her instincts as a mother were simply too strong. We had to find a way over the hump that separated us from repairing our badly damaged marriage.