“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
This nonsensical quote is from the 1989 film version of Batman. Immediately after asking the question, Jack Nicholson’s character, The Joker, admits he has no idea what it means. But I know what that question means, and maybe the reason I have never forgotten that throwaway line is because it has so much meaning in my life. If you ask my wife, Sheri, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” she will answer, “Yes.” Why? Because she is married to an alcoholic.
During the twenty-two years Sheri and I spent together before I stopped drinking, she was forced to follow my pathetic lead. I chose when and how much to drink. Many times I remained civil and respectful and kept my drinking in check. On those occasions, the dance that was our relationship was graceful and flowing. Other times, when I drank too much and acted like a buffoon, Sheri was forced to deal with my unpredictable and often outrageous behavior. It was as if I chose the music and decided how we would dance, and Sheri hung on tight and tried to protect her toes from my clumsy steps. I was the one afflicted with the disease. Sheri was the one forced to deal with the side effects and the aftermath.
I have never liked the term “co-dependence” to describe the suffering of a person living with an alcoholic. I guess I don’t feel that the spouse of an alcoholic is half of the problem as the “co-” implies. As I try to sort out the pain I caused Sheri during my years of alcohol abuse, I think of her in a constant position of defensiveness rather than as a willing co-conspirator in our suffering. I would choose to drink and Sheri would prepare for the many possible outcomes – everything from calm normalcy to drunken rage. I would drink too much and Sheri would take the kids to a movie or pretend to be asleep or try to listen calmly to my lunatic ramblings. She was never allowed to participate in the drinking decisions – when and how much – that led to the messes my drinking often created. She was only allowed to decide how to defend herself and shield the kids from the resulting chaos.
Here’s an example. Sheri and I own a whole grain bread bakery, and the three days leading up to Thanksgiving is a particularly busy time for us. Then, with all the bread and dinner rolls sold and the bakery closed for the day, Thanksgiving Thursday is always a joyous and relaxing time for our family. Nothing invites heavy drinking like long hours and stressful work followed by a holiday centered around festive eating and football watching.
One Thanksgiving just a few years ago I drank beer while Sheri and I prepared our feast and enjoyed the day with our kids. As day turned to evening, my drinking continued and Sheri started keeping her distance and ushering the kids into activities away from their father. As evening turned to night, I was drunk and still drinking, and Sheri’s defense mechanisms where on high alert as she put our children to bed. My drinking that night didn’t result in a loud argument or any other turmoil. It did, however, create more distance between Sheri and me. My decision to get drunk forced Sheri’s hand. She defended and protected and withdrew from our marriage just a little further. She wasn’t co-anything. She was a victim trained by years of experience in the art of self-defense.
Now that I am permanently sober, our relationship is much better. We are both healthier and our kids are no longer in danger of being exposed to the mayhem of alcoholism. Sadly though, Sheri’s role in our family hasn’t changed much. She is still at the mercy of my own personal decision to abstain from alcohol. At any moment, I could choose to drink again and there isn’t a damn thing my beloved wife could do about it. Even as I remain sober, Sheri remains a victim of the disease of alcoholism. She can’t easily let down her guard and relax the defense mechanisms she built up during the many years of my drinking. I know I will never drink again. Sheri, however, can only hope that is true because the decision is not hers. I choose not to drink. The decision is mine alone.
My behavior when drinking did not result in a list of people to whom I need to make amends. I have no legal battles to face and no financial strife with which to deal. My employment status remains intact and my reputation in my community remains unscathed. My behavior when drinking caused pain and suffering for only one victim. My wife danced with the devil for a very long time, and for that I am eternally sorry. I know I will never fully forgive myself and am exceedingly thankful Sheri is a strong person who persevered over my despicable disease.
If you ask Sheri now, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” she would confirm that she has in the past, but that she hopes to never do it again. Sheri is moving forward, slowly and cautiously. She is still the victim. She hopes I never will, but remains prepared for me to start drinking again. She remains defensive.
Now our dance moves to the beat of Sheri’s cautious return to confidence in me. It is the rhythm of hope turning to trust. The dance is very slow because healing takes time and patience. I understand her caution. I understand that she cannot immediately drop her defense. I understand that her fears will take a long time to recede. I love her, and there is one thing I understand above all.
It is Sheri’s turn to lead.