Dancing with the Devil

Dancing with the Devil

“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.

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  • Reply
    TJ Nelson
    January 23, 2018 at 8:26 am

    I am very proud of you and rooting for you and Sheri and your kids!

  • Reply
    Mike Young
    January 23, 2018 at 11:05 am

    What a blessing you have in your good wife. I’d call her a survivor. Your children are so fortunate to have had her anchoring the ship while the captain was walking the plank, teasing the hungry sharks awaiting another victim. Fortunately you both survived.


  • Reply
    Ainley Doyle-Jewell
    January 23, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Sheri….one of my favorite people. You two hang tough!! Prayers from my end of the world!

  • Reply
    Jen M.
    January 27, 2018 at 10:01 am

    MATT: It’s been a wonderful blessing stumbling upon your blog. Your insights are on point and I share with you a similar multiple attempt process to gain sobriety, which I find all too often among our brethren.

    You mentioned that you only have the one amends to make to Sheri. While I too had limited amount of collateral damage to others (or so I thought) when I first got sober. After further contemplation with other sober mentors and working the steps of AA I realized that I had many more amends than previously considered. Many of them are just living amends, in conducting myself in less selfish ways and being more present. I imagine that would be the case with kids and other family members. For me, I can recall plenty of conversations that I wasn’t actually present for (via phone with family), those are a type of amend I need to make as I took away from that person, I put my selfish need to drink first and sacrificed our relationship. I have a LONG history of sacrificing relationships with friends and family over the distance of time and location. Whether it fit into my drinking construct was the first wave of keeping in touch and mostly it was more important for me to have a few drinks over absolutely any other priority (after hours of course). Granted, I was known to let us all consume some beers after long holiday bake shifts, as a right of passage for successfully making or in reality, allowing me to get my drink on because I was at work the majority of the 24 hours and if I didn’t drink at the store, well I just wouldn’t have time before I got home and had to hit the hay. My take-away here is that you might have more revealed to you as you continue to grow you in your sobriety. In AA we talk about it in terms of an onion, peeling away. I thought that seemed so stupid 5 years ago and boy-howdy….has there been more revealed. LOL

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      January 27, 2018 at 11:22 am

      I love your insight, Jen. Thanks for putting this out there!

      Maybe my perspective will change with more distance between me and my addiction. I love what you explain about both not being present for conversations, and also making decisions around drinking. Amen sister – I have done a lot of both of those. I view that as a central part of my disease. I don’t feel bad about it any more than a cancer patient should feel bad about being weak or tired as a result of that disease. I am interested to see how my thoughts develop over time, and I love your participation in the discussion. Let’s see what each onion layer brings!

  • Reply
    Jen M
    January 29, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    There’s a tremendous amount of shame and blame associated with our disease. Usually from people who don’t have direct folks who are afflicted or the reverse, those who have been deeply impacted and hurt by the addicted. I like breaking people down to their innermost child state, it was never anyone’s intention to grow up to be an addict and frankly if many of us had tremendous self love we would probably have not developed quite to the extent we did. So it’s hard for others to see how just “ be stronger, or have better will power, just say no, you shouldn’t have done it in the first place”, all the cliche statements that normies casually throw at us to help encourage us, are actually discouraging. If only it were as simple as will power.

    Part of that unraveling is seeing how we developed unsatisfactory, unhealthy impulses to respond to people, places and things. Our escape has become the trap. I believe alcoholism has roots in many facets of our development through genetics, learned exposure and trauma. I’ve been told that they have scientifically shown brains of addicts to lack linking to our prefrontal cortex and heavy pathways to the mid-brain which deal with survival instincts. While sick, many of us are functioning at a very base level.

    It has nothing to do with how smart we are, rather unraveling pathways that once were productive and now detrimental. Sober and intentional living is an ongoing practice.

    I joke that I probably could have been a mensa candidate had I chased knowledge, as much as I did a good frothy cup of keg beer in college. I love this dialogue and appreciate you inviting me to it.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      January 30, 2018 at 4:42 am

      I, too, have enjoyed learning the brain chemistry stuff. If only it were as simple as will power, indeed. Great insight!

  • Reply
    February 7, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Matt, thank you for sharing a bit of your story. It brings back a lot of memories regarding my past and personal behavior towards those around me, not in any regret more so in a sense that I feel grateful to be where I am today. I’m happy to hear you have such great support in your life!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      February 7, 2018 at 4:37 pm

      Thanks Charles. I’m glad to hear you have moved on to a better place, too!

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