She was good. Really good. Like most high school stars who are awarded full-ride athletic scholarships to division one universities, Amber was used to being the best ball player on the diamond. Her freshman year at Baylor University in 2000 would be her first experience having to work hard to keep up. How did she respond? She drank.
I scoffed at the weak and undisciplined among us. I felt superior to anyone who struggled to control his or her sweet tooth. At a restaurant with clients or friends, I boldly drank my dessert, choosing Irish Coffee over the Creme Brulee everytime. I drank extra-bitter, extra-strong IPAs. When I drank a bourbon and Coke, I asked the bartender to hold the Coke. There was nothing sweet about me…just ask my wife.
Then I stopped drinking.
It had never occurred to me that beer – even a bitter IPA – is basically carbonated sugar water. What the hell did I think malted barley was? As I weaned off of alcohol, I discovered a ravenous sugar addiction lurking just behind the booze bottle.
My ignorance about myself extends far beyond my alcohol-induced addiction to sugar. I also had a misguided interpretation of my relationship to other people – especially people in power who exerted influence over my direction and activities.
How dare you?
That’s the voice in my head every time I sit down to write. What gives me the right to tell these stories about my life with my alcoholic ex-husband, and the long, slow demise of our relationship? Alcoholism is personal, certainly in our culture. It’s a secret, one that he labored to keep from his family, from his friends, from his co-workers and employers (and even from me, whenever he could). Despite that, since I was his partner, it was understood that I would keep the secret, too.
“We all have a voice that tells us why we shouldn’t write.” I was surprised to hear this from a professional writing coach during a workshop. (I thought it was just me.) “We need to get to know the voice, negotiate with it. Ask it what it wants to tell us about our writing.”
I didn’t write about the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. I didn’t talk about them in our Echoes of Recovery group. It wasn’t a writing prompt for our SHOUT Sobriety program. Not a word about it was mentioned during our monthly Marragevolution session, and I don’t even remember a related side discussion on our Untoxicated Podcast. I didn’t ignore it, Far from it, in fact. I internalized and anguished about January 6th. But as the most hyper-political and toxic event of my lifetime (if you think I’m exaggerating, please challenge me in the comments), I didn’t want to pour fuel on anyone’s fire by sharing my thoughts and emotions.
That was a mistake. People relapsed over January 6th.
“We can.” That’s the response I received for years when I asked my wife, Sheri, if she wanted to have sex. As an active alcoholic, that consent was good enough for me. I didn’t know it, but I was looking to sex for the same dopamine hit I got from alcohol. A reluctant, “We can,” was enough.
When the question is, “Do you want to…?” and the response is, “We can,” that’s never really enough.
I’m not just talking about the psychological damage her consent did to Sheri. “We can,” really messed me up in profound and lasting ways.
I wouldn’t wish alcoholism on anyone. But…but…if I had it all to do over again, I don’t think I’d change a thing.
Do you remember the Kiefer Sutherland advertising campaign for Jose Cuervo? One of the taglines was, “Just don’t have any regrets.” That’s more than a little ambitious for a pusher of tequila, don’t you think? I have always assumed tequila was the Spanish word for regret. Has anyone ever started a night with, “lick it, slam it, suck its,” that didn’t end in regret? My life is chalked full of regrets, and more than a few of them can be directly attributed to Jose Cuervo.
There’s nothing more important to a successful marriage than intimacy.
There are things that are equally important, like trust (which is the cornerstone of intimacy) and loyalty and cohesive parenting and mutual protection, but there is nothing more important, if a long-term romantic relationship is to thrive, than intimacy.
These aren’t the ramblings of a horny teenager. I’m not just talking about sex. I’m talking about the emotional connection that takes place at the intersection of vulnerability and sexual contact. It is important. In fact, nothing is more important. And if we are going to solve the catastrophic intimacy problems that are enmeshed in alcoholic relationships, we’d better stop moving intimacy to the back burner and downplaying it as hopeless, and thus, unimportant.
The most temporarily effective thing my wife and I tried to help us get along during my alcoholism was simple: Be nice. I describe this plan as temporarily effective because while it created moments of peace in our house more successfully than anything else we tried for the ten years of my active addiction, it ultimately didn’t work. So it was the most effective ineffective path we went down to fix our marriage.
Here are the details. Before we said anything to each other, we were to run it through this filter: Is it nice? Yep, we banked our marriage on the childhood mantra, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
This is a family week, if such a thing exists. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks time spent with, or at the very least thoughts about, family. Joyous times. Painful times. Sober thoughts. Intoxicated memories. Family is complicated. The grip they have on our emotions comes and goes, often in correlation to our geographical proximity. But make no mistake about it – on a week like this one, the family-o-meter is pegged in overdrive.
I recently challenged my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety program with this writing prompt: “Describe the stages of knowing that alcohol had no place in your life.” Sarah wrote the response to the prompt that follows. As we navigate the messiness of a week with family in the spotlight, I thought it particularly appropriate to share her experience. And yes…there is a bit of irony to featuring the lessons of a Canadian on U.S. Thanksgiving week (in my defense, she wrote it very close to Canadian Thanksgiving last month).
I can’t remember not knowing that alcohol was likely to be a danger in my life – that the number of alcoholics on both sides of my family tree meant I was at high risk. I was lectured to. from a young age, about this by my mother, the same person who insisted I have a glass of wine with dinner the day my first child was born. Because that drink was safe.
Grief is an amputation, but hope is an incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.
Author’s Note: This is the very first piece I wrote for the Echoes of Recovery group, by way of introduction. The prompt was: How are you preparing for Thanksgiving?
I’m preparing by remembering.
I’m remembering the last hopeful Thanksgiving.
Two years ago, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my husband and I woke up in separate beds at four in the morning. Time to go. We slipped off our wedding rings. I stacked them on the bathroom counter and took a picture of them in the soft overhead light.