“You drive tonight and I’ll drive another day.”
Even though I anticipated getting a text like this from my husband today, it still gets my stomach churning and darkens my mood. By now, I’m fluent at translating these texts, and this one is easy: “I’m coming home early to drink so I can be plastered by tonight. I won’t be able to safely drive our family anywhere, so it’s on you.”
We’re supposed to be going to an annual downtown tree lighting, an outdoor family event where the focus is on holiday fun and togetherness, not booze.
I stare at the text, trying to formulate an answer. I really want to reply with, “Fuck off.” I want to write, “Can you please not drink this time, so we can have fun as a family?” But I have asked this of him before, in a variety of methods and manners, and it seems to only result in an increase in his alcohol intake, and increased belligerence, hostility, and blame.
The longer I stare at the text, the closer I come to just agreeing. That makes me even angrier, and I’m perturbed that he’s presented this as a so-called, “deal.” After years of this routine, I can predict the way our evening will go. He’ll spend the early part of the afternoon drinking in giddiness, and unless I match (or fake) his heightened, happy mood, I’ll be accused of killing his fun, making him feel guilty for drinking, or judging him.
Even if I haven’t spoken a word.
After more drinks, his mood will change, and he’ll start explaining how he only attends these things for me, so the least I could do is let him drink at the event, and I should be appreciative because it is his Friday night (another translation: “This event is cramping my style. I’d rather be in the basement getting wasted. You owe me”).
Meanwhile, as he pre-games into oblivion, and makes simply leaving the house a nearly impossible task, I’ll be the one doing all the work to get the kids ready. I’ll ask myself, for the millionth time, Why do I ask him to come to these things? By the time we get to the event, he’ll be in, “asshole mode,” and everything will be my fault. He’ll vacillate between being overly lovey to me (in the form of grabbing and groping and being inappropriate in public), and bickering with me about how I don’t love him enough, or how I give more attention to the kids than him, or how I can’t just loosen up and have fun.
Then he’ll tell me I’m ruining everything. He’ll start a fight, then accuse me of making a scene in public. He’ll make the rest of the evening miserable in a multitude of ways. Wandering away from us so we have to go find him. Riling the kids up. Obliterating the agreements we’d made prior to the event about the amount of money we’d spend, limits on junk food, or the trinkets he’d never buy for the kids if he were sober.
I feel infuriated remembering all the specific events at which he’s acted like such a shithead, oblivious to the energy and happiness it sucks from me. Why am I putting up with this? Why do I keep thinking these events will turn out differently and then get disappointed when they don’t?
In a split second of confidence, I decide I’ve had enough with this dance of ours – the dance around acknowledging the massive elephant that’s taken up residence in our dark, cold, spidery basement where my husband hides away with his booze. With a buzzing brain, sweaty palms, and an awareness that what I am about to do is the potential kiss of death to my marriage, I reply to his text.
“No, I’d rather you just didn’t go. I won’t spend another event with you drinking and angry at me, and ruining the experience.” I force myself to breathe as I hit the send button.
He texts immediately to say that he wanted to have a good time, but if I don’t want him to come, he can’t force me to welcome him. We text back and forth a bit more in frustration and annoyance, still avoiding discussion of the elephant. I put my phone in my purse, get out of the car, and walk into the grocery store.
My brain is pulsating against my skull, and I work on calming myself as I walk through the produce section. I hear my phone ding several times. I debate not looking at it until I’m home, but instead I do what I’ve done for years. I stuff down my feelings of worry, fatigue, and sadness. I take a deep breath, and I look at the texts. “If I’m not allowed to drink on a Friday night and attend an event that you wanted…where many other adults are drinking as well, then I guess I’m just the worst person ever. I won’t bother you with my company. It’s your choice… I would like to go, but if you won’t have me, then that is that.”
I’m fuming as I wander the aisles, phone dinging at me with manipulation, blame, and twisted words. When I’ve nearly completed my shopping, I pull my cart into an empty aisle. Standing alone next to rows of soda bottles, I tune out the world and write a reply, calling out his fallacies, explaining that I’m not a bad person for not wanting my own experience ruined by his choices and behavior. I reiterate my very valid reasons for not wanting him to go with us if he’s drinking. I end with, “I want to have a fun night, I’d like you involved, but not if you’re going to get drunk.” He responds with excuses about needing to drink early at home because he doesn’t want to pay for drinks out, or wait in line for drinks, but this is bullshit and we both know it. He usually brings a flask and/or a large travel mug of booze anyway. I point out that most people are not drinking anything besides hot chocolate or apple cider at this event, and they certainly aren’t drinking for hours ahead of time.
My final text says, “I know how this will go tonight, and I choose not to put myself in that situation.”
I put my phone in my purse and push my cart to the register. While my groceries are scanned and I pay, my phone dings with texts. I hear each one come in quick succession, and by the time I get back to the car, I have thirteen texts from him, full of excuses. He’s had a bad day. He’s had a long week. He’s mad at his job. He’s mad at his coworkers. He’s mad at his boss. So he needs to drink. “Well, I’m drinking before the event. So if that means I can’t go, then that is what it means.”
He’s flinging anything and everything at me, hoping he can block the trickle of light that I’m allowing to stream onto that elephant. He tells me I could fix everything by giving him more love or more hugs. He claims that my emotions and actions affect him and his moods much more than his do for me. Finally, he texts, “You have made your choice. I understand. I am not angry with you. I don’t agree with you, but it is your choice.” He tells me that my silent judgment makes him react childishly. He ends with, “I’m sorry you disagree with my choices so deeply.”
I do not reply.
I feel like I literally have nothing more to say, and I know better than to continue to battle when his commitment to drinking overtakes all logic and reality.
In the early afternoon, he comes home from work prematurely in order to start his drinking. We avoid each other, him hiding in the basement drinking with the elephant, while I get the kids fed, and everything gathered to go to the event. He likely expects me to change my mind, but the kids and I get into the car and drive away.
Although I feel relief, I also feel uneasy – completely unsure what kind of wounded, drunk, narcissistic behavior I’ll come home to, and what other repercussions there will be for my marriage.
I’ve never gone this far before.
My stomach is in knots. I’m anticipating a few hours of angry, increasingly drunk texts about what a terrible person, wife, and mom I am for leaving him behind. Texts about how he always knew I didn’t love him.
My kids ask me if Dad is coming with us or meeting us there. In the dark of the car, I had probably missed the quintessential silent glance between siblings, checking each other’s reaction, gauging whether their sibling knows something they do not. “Why isn’t he coming?” they chirp from the back seat. They’re pretty used to the three of us doing things alone, so their voices aren’t worried, just curious. But I hadn’t had time to plan my answer for them. In the past, I have routinely covered for him with, “Dad’s not feeling well,” or, “Dad just had a long day and needs a break.” But I am so tired of being the excuse peddler in the family. I am not the one who continually makes the choice to put alcohol above my family. Today, I’ve had it, and I’m going to continue offering the elephant a path into the light.
I decide to finally be honest with my kids. “Dad chose to drink this afternoon and tonight, and that makes it hard for me to be around him at these events, so he’s not coming.” My kids are quiet. They haven’t heard me use this reasoning before, and they aren’t sure what to make of it. I ask if they have any questions, and they say, “No.” I tell them their dad loves them very much, but it’s OK that he didn’t come, and we’ll have fun just the three of us.
And we do have a lot of fun that night, while I feel a huge weight off my shoulders for not having to babysit a drunk man. Not thinking about booze, or its repercussions, while in public is a welcome relief. Watching out for just my kids, who are there only seeking innocent fun in the holiday spirit, is really enjoyable and gratifying for me.
It’s peaceful, even in the noisy crowd.
When the kids and I arrive home after their bedtime, I’ve gotten no texts all night. This is strange, and I wonder if my punishment will be silent treatment. As I pull into the garage, I’ve already steeled myself for confrontation from an angry drunk who thinks I’ve wronged him. I’m braced for a stubborn fight every step of the way to getting the kids to bed, and then arguments into the night. Or maybe it will be my least favorite: being woken in the middle of the night by an aggressive, angry, drunk man hell bent on making sure I know I’ve wronged him.
When we walk into the house, he doesn’t seem as totally soused as he usually would be. It is neither a drunken ambush of anger and blame, nor a complete passive-aggressive ignoring of my existence. He calmly helps get the kids to bed and is present with them, asking them about their day at school and how much fun they had at the event. It’s highly unusual for him to be so patient if he’s been drinking and wants to get back to it, so of course, I’m suspicious and remain at the ready, prepared to rush the kids to bed and lure his impending anger away from them. But we make it through bedtime, and then he silently heads back to the basement and continues his night drinking and partying with the elephant. I’m confused and relieved, but I still go to bed early to avoid the inevitable fight, expecting that maybe in the middle of the night, or the next day, he’ll announce that our marriage is over, or he’s found an apartment and is moving out (a common threat over the years). He’s rarely so quiet and subdued, especially when booze is involved.
But the confrontation doesn’t happen. While I spend the next several days waiting for the other shoe to drop, we simply don’t address the texts or the drinking or the night we left without him. The elephant goes back to hiding in plain sight.
A little over a month later, a few days after Christmas, he’ll shock me by telling me he’s contemplating sobriety. On New Year’s Day, he’ll actually go through with it, and has remained successfully sober for almost a year.
Little did I know on that November day, when I thought I was taking a stand that might truly end my marriage, that my husband was already internally grappling with how drinking was negatively affecting his life, how low it had brought him, how much it had removed him from everything he thought he held dear. Little did I know that he would eventually point to that tense and troubled November day as a catalyst in his ability to recognize the depth of his problem, and how alcohol’s tentacles had a chokehold on everything else in his life.
Since getting sober, my husband has told me, repeatedly and regularly, that by simply forcing him to decide that day between alcohol and us, I helped him realize that he was literally making the choice to get drunk instead of being with his family.
He could no longer pretend he didn’t know that he put alcohol first in his life.
The elephant had a name.
If you can see the elephant, even as your drinker tries to ignore it, we encourage you to consider joining us – the loved ones of alcoholics – in Echoes of Recovery. You are not alone. We can see it, too.