Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.
I know Sheri so well I can envision this is what she was thinking on this night – one of hundreds of times she had to deal with me when drunk and unpredictable. It didn’t happen every time I drank. If I had to estimate, I would say my overdrinking and Sheri’s subsequent need to handle me occurred about once a month. That means over our first twenty-two years together, nights like this one occurred almost 300 times. That is a lot of messy situations for Sheri to manage. Over the years, she became very good at navigating the shark-infested seas without chumming the water, just like in this situation with me in a noisy puddle inside our backdoor.
Sheri was desperate and worried, but not for me. Her concern was for our four children that she had tucked into bed by herself a couple of hours earlier. She had long since lost the emotional capacity to worry about me when I was drunk. I had simply squeezed that emotion out of her with years – no, decades – of heavy drinking and the associated hysterical aftermath. Heeding my calls, she came to my side – not because of concern for me, but out of love for her children.
Just minutes before I barged in the backdoor and collapsed on the kitchen floor, she could hear me laughing and telling stories with our neighbors. It had been a beautiful summer Sunday night, and the couple that lived next door had invited us to their side of the fence five hours earlier to meet their friends and have a beer. The kids were welcome. There were a couple of dogs that needed some petting, and our childless neighbors loved the enthusiasm and expressiveness of our kids. The Salis Six traipsed from our yard to theirs.
“Just a beer or two, then back home to wind things down for the evening,” I assured my wife who needed some encouragement to join the next-door festivities. Sometimes, I was able to keep a promise like that. All too often, however, a couple of beers would turn into seven and the happy occasion would turn into a nightmare. Sheri was doubtful. Sundays were particularly precarious for me as I often tried to squeeze out ever last ounce of weekend before Monday morning rolled around. Her trepidation that night was justified. My neighbor was a craft beer connoisseur with an impressive collection, and I was an alcoholic who felt somehow less out-of-control when I avoided liquor and stuck with beer. My neighbor and I were, for my wife, a match made in hell.
As my neighbor poured my third beer, Sheri gathered our children and returned to our side of the fence. She wasn’t mad. She had learned that expressing anger at my inevitable behavior was as pointless as shouting at the rain. Besides, she needed to save her energy to deal with me later. She helped our kiddos brush their teeth, put on pajamas and crawl into bed. As she said prayers with them, they asked why their father was not home. She made an excuse as she had done so often in the past and kissed them all goodnight. Then she said a prayer herself. It was not a prayer for my wellbeing, but rather a prayer for the strength to keep my impending disruption to a minimum.
As Sheri drifted in and out of restless sleep, she listened to the muffled sounds of frivolity as the party lingered on. Sometimes she could make-out my voice or my laugh. She couldn’t comprehend how so much joy would soon turn into so much pain. Sheri, like all social drinkers, could take or leave alcohol. It did not give her unmatched relief and pleasure. She was not addicted. The way I consumed and reacted to alcohol did not make sense to her. However, Sheri didn’t need to understand my addiction in order to know what to expect when I stumbled home. She dreaded it. She HATED it. But she was numb to it and accepted it as her dark and sad reality. She was married to an alcoholic. It was just a despicable part of the deal.
Sheri guided me quietly to bed and listened to me ramble nonsensically until I passed out. The kids remained asleep and Sheri rested fitfully for the four hours until I awoke – mostly sober now – with overwhelming anxiety once I realizing I had broken my promises and lost control yet again. I was sorry for how I treated my wife and ignored my duties as a father, but mostly my panic centered on my own selfish, turbulent relationship with alcohol. Sheri listened calmly as I described the pain of what I often referred to as The Pit, the dark and hopeless depression that always followed a failed attempt to control my drinking. Meanwhile, Sheri felt trapped; she was married to a man who was productive, loving and compassionate one minute, and a despicable self-loathing shell of himself the next.
Divorce was not an option. We were both unquestionably committed to staying together even as my behavior was destroying us both. Sheri was painfully aware that my alcoholism was toxic to our marriage and our stubborn commitment was not solving our problems. We had four kids together, owned a business together, and both of our names were on the mortgage. We gave all outward appearances of a happy, even enviable marriage. It was much, much easier to stay together and battle my demons than to deal with the complexities of untangling our lives. We were standing at the gates of hell together, and dissolving our union, right or wrong, was not up for debate.
It was three-o-clock in the morning. As Sheri listed to me whine about another failed attempt to control my drinking, she felt she was sinking in quicksand. She was inextricably linked to a man who was completely unable to defeat his addiction. She had struggled for many years to help, understand and guide me. The more she struggled, the deeper she sank into her own hopeless despair. She was stuck. While I rambled on about my failure that night, the emotional distance between us grew.
I never lied intentionally and I never wanted to hurt Sheri, but when the beer was in charge, I carelessly and consistently lied and broke promises and called Sheri names – vile names I knew would cause her pain. When drinking, my temper was short and my understanding nonexistent.
Just as a person needs oxygen, water, food and shelter to survive, so too does a marriage need certain things. Our relationship, like most, requires compromise, patience and compassion. But when I was drinking, I was incapable of providing those necessities, which meant I was starving and suffocating my relationship with every drink.
I often blamed our problems on Sheri’s negative feelings towards alcohol. My booze-soaked mind left me blind to the fact that my wife’s negativity was about MY drinking, not alcohol overall. I refused to admit what is now, in my permanent sobriety, so clear to me. That I was the problem. Instead, I blamed Sheri. I pointed out her mistakes. I called her names. I subconsciously but systematically destroyed her ability to trust me and did serious damage to her ability to love me. My lies and anger left my wife with more than scars. They left her with open wounds that will take years to heal.
Our relationship is slowly getting better. Sheri is confiding in me again. She is trying to trust me. She tells me she loves me, and she knows I love her completely. She is slowly letting that love warm her heart instead of clinging to our commitment as the only thing holding us together.
Sheri managed my drunken hysteria almost 300 times. I am permanently sober now, and that nightmare is behind us. The healing has begun, and I am prepared for it to take a long time. As the trust returns to our marriage, my wife’s pain diminishes. Patience is better than guilt, and compassion is better than shame. I will wait tenderly for the complete and trusting relationship Sheri deserves. In the mean time, she is showing me glimpses of peace and joy. After all the agony I have caused her, there is nothing better than seeing my wife smile.