Love and marriage are nothing like I expected when I met my wife, Sheri, going into our last year in college in 1994. The life we have built with four kids and a small business is exhausting, often disappointing and stressful beyond my wildest imagination. There is no room for the physical attraction that first brought us together, and most days we barely speak to each other as we plow forward.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few months ago, I was working to unclog a sink drain at the whole grain bread bakery we have owned for the past 15 years. I made a disgusting mistake. I disconnected a pipe in a tight space against the wall where I was unable to fit a bucket to collect the drainage. I watched helplessly as several gallons of black, greasy sludge poured onto the floor. I had no way to control the oozing of decaying bread dough and fermented hand soap. It was late, and I was very tired. I called Sheri for help.
My wife was at my side in minutes. She didn’t ask me what happened in a disappointed or accusatory tone. She didn’t plug her nose or tiptoe daintily around the lake-of-sludge. She didn’t say a word. She just started cleaning the stinky, oily mess. My gloom of exhausted desperation lifted ever so slightly. This was not what I imagined when we first kissed in the summer of 1994, but this was love.
Nothing has had a more pivotal role in our love than alcohol. It eased any shyness and fear of rejection the first night we hooked-up. Alcohol lubricated the conversation on our first date and helped me feel less awkward as I tried to keep up with this girl who loved to dance. I lured Sheri to my fraternity with promises of expensive bottled Canadian beer (she wasn’t a fan of the Natural Light my brothers and I swilled). When Sheri was furious with someone at the bar one night, rum and Cokes gave me the brilliant idea to suggest she punch me in the stomach to release her fury. Captain and sevens left me buckled over – breathless and in pain – when they helped Sheri take me up on the offer.
We drank and laughed and drank and had sex and drank and argued. The alcohol was so important to our young interactions. It made us laugh at things that weren’t really funny. Our sex was clumsy and selfish – selfish on my part because the fog of booze covered anything deeper than my greedy needs, and selfish for Sheri because alcohol helped her go through the motions she thought necessary to keep me satisfied and bound to her. Our arguments were always exaggerated blow-ups of alcohol fueled nothing. We had no responsibilities. No stress. No worries. Yet, like pouring gasoline on a flickering candle, if we drank enough, we could always find something to fight about.
In 2004, I wrote Sheri a four page letter recapping our first ten years together. I started the closing paragraph, “When we first started dating, we had no idea what our future held, had next to no responsibilities, were committed to nothing, did not know what we wanted, both drank too much, and were madly in physical love with each other. Ten years later, we have no idea what our future holds, we have mountains of responsibilities, we are committed to making a family and small business successful, we know that we want only the best for our children and will not rest until we secure their future, I still drink too much, and I am madly in emotional and physical love with you.” The last two sentiments are so important. Sheri had matured, and I had not. She drank only occasionally, while I drank daily in large quantities. As a direct result, I could not include her feelings in my statement of love. “I am madly in emotional and physical love with you.” I could no longer proclaim that we were in love.
Thirteen years before I quit drinking, I knew my consumption was pushing my wife away from me. I knew it and it scared me and I wrote it in a love letter to her. But do you know what I didn’t do – what I couldn’t even fathom ever doing? I didn’t stop drinking.
I wonder how many marriages end in divorce because the sex is selfish and the arguments are ridiculous. I wonder in how many of those cases, alcohol is the real unidentified cause. We are lucky, Sheri and I. My drinking became so disgusting to my wife that she basically lost her own appetite for alcohol. The contrast in our consumption was staring us both in the face. It became unavoidable. I finally, after a decade of denial, stopped drinking. One of the main factors in my decision to quit was the impact alcohol was having on my marriage. If we both had been moderate daily drinkers, we would still have been selfish and bickery. Much of the negative impact would still have been there. It would just have been hiding in plain sight.
I got sober a year and a half ago. What I didn’t understand when I stopped drinking was that sobriety is not the same thing as recovery. Sobriety is just the traumatic first step. If someone is injured in a car accident, the first step before a plan for recovery is even considered is to stop the bleeding. That’s what sobriety is – stopping the bleeding.
Recovering from a significant life event changes us in the most profound way imaginable. This statement is not limited to addiction. It applies to recovery from other diseases, major injury, the loss of a close loved one, financial catastrophe, infidelity, etc. Once we’ve been through hell and back, we will never be the same.
Sheri and I are both in recovery from alcoholism. I was the drinker, but the disease had a permanently life-changing impact on us both, and our recovery is ongoing. In many ways, it has left us unrecognizable compared to the people we were when we met at Indiana University. Our future was still as uncertain as I speculated when I wrote Sheri that letter in 2004. Even as we turned forty a few years ago, I could not have imagined what we would endure together and how it would change us – change our love.
Recovering together has linked us inextricably. When we battled addiction – the anxiety and depression that engulfed my life and the terror Sheri endured as my spouse – we dug a foxhole for two and went to war together. I have written recently that my sorrow lives forever with my wife and kids and nowhere else. That statement hurt family and friends I love who were impacted by my angry alcoholic words and actions. I hate that my disease hurt people I love. But those people weren’t in the foxhole of recovery with Sheri and me. Many people offered to help, but there simply wasn’t room. This was a war for a man and his wife to wage together against the disease that was tearing us apart.
I owe Sheri everything for loving me enough to battle alcoholism with me. I owe her for standing up for our family and enduring the pain and collateral damage. I owe my wife for making the deep sacrifice required to hold our bond together in the face of trauma that brings about literally millions of divorces. I owe Sheri all of me. When I write that I don’t feel I owe anyone else a thing, I simply don’t have anymore to give. I’m sorry.
Recovery changes us in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Our love is so different now. The attraction that was once all we had is still there. Sheri still catches my eye across a crowded room. Her confident posture and radiant smile is still so stimulating and beautiful to me. In fact, now that I know the smile and confident appearance hides fear and trepidation, it bonds me to her in a way my younger version could never have anticipated. The attraction is still there, it’s just not as important as the truth that unites us.
In recovery, we are still discovering our truth. The lies, deceit, secrecy and defensiveness of alcoholism is gone. The characteristics and emotions that take their place have been well concealed for our entire relationship. While our marriage has endured terror and strain, it is in many ways a new unexplored frontier. I love what I am learning about my wife.
I love Sheri for her disdain for electronic devices. it is sometimes hard for me to reach her because she hates her phone. She uses facebook to a minimal degree and has no interest in comparing her life to others. If not for pictures and videos of cats, I think she would abandon social media altogether. As this summer is winding down, Sheri’s biggest regret is she spent too much time managing the vacation bible school program at our church, and too much time on home improvement projects, and not enough time hiking and swimming and bonding with our children. Sheri gets lost in conversations with friends and neighbors she enjoys, and doesn’t care in the least about the opinions of people who she finds superficial. She always has time to read bedtime stories even if it means staying up late to complete a project, and she is most happy sleeping-in as long as there is a cat in bed with her. Sheri has a short temper, a long memory and holds grudges. She acknowledges these imperfections and is as powerless to change them as I am to control my drinking. They are flaws that are part of her, and I have grown to love her for them.
Sheri loves her family unconditionally. She worries about her parenting decisions and the impact they will have on our kids. She takes care of the five of us without the need for recognition or praise. Sheri has a strong faith, but often disagrees with my interpretation of what it means to be a servant of God. She cried when children were separated from their parents at the border and wasn’t the least bit interested in whether or not it was legal. Some parents are excited the school year is finally starting. Sheri cries when she thinks about how fast our children are growing toward adulthood. My wife would do anything for our kids. There is no question in my mind about it. She has proven it to me. She went through the hell of alcoholism and kept us all together. I can’t find the words to describe what that means to me. I am eternally speechless.
Now, the business we built together is coming to an end. Our lease ends in February, and our landlord will scrape and redevelop our building. The state of the commercial real estate market in Denver makes moving the bakery a risk that is beyond our tolerance. Once again, as in 1994 when we met and in 2004 when I wrote Sheri that letter, we have no idea what the future holds for us. What I do know, however, is the love I feel for Sheri transcends attraction, laughter, selfishness or disagreement. I love her smile, her temper, her grudges, her insecurity, her tenderness and her motherhood. I love my wife completely.
I have no idea what’s next, but I’m not as stressed as I should be. We beat addiction together. We know how to dig a foxhole big enough for two. Bring on the next life chapter.
Sheri – let’s see what’s next together. I can no longer tempt you with Labatt Blue, but if you stick with me, I’ll bring the kids and a cat or two along for the ride. Come what may, I’ll love you until my dying day.