I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”
(If you’d like to hear more about my challenges with assholeness, Sheri does a marvelous job of explaining it on our latest episode of the Untoxicated Podcast.)
In early sobriety, I was so fixated on recovery that I completely ignored the trauma my wife was experiencing. Being ignored was nothing new to her. She had grown accustomed to taking a backseat to my love of alcohol. When I stopped drinking, she was still not allowed to slide into the seat next to me. The spot previously occupied by booze was now taken up by my efforts to not relapse.
It was hard work, not relapsing, what with the cravings and the habits and the stress of the human condition. Besides, I had relapsed so effortlessly so many times before, it seemed only natural to drop the starchy formality of sobriety and slip into something a little more comfortable – like a bottle of whiskey.
But I didn’t relapse this time. I made it to permanent sobriety. My recovery was not without pitfalls and challenges. In fact, it’s the second hardest thing I’ve ever faced. The most arduous challenge of my life has been the recovery of my marriage from my alcoholism. I made this recovery infinitely harder by paying little heed to my wife’s suggestions. I worked hard on my needs, my sobriety and my healing, but I did little to help my wife in her recovery progress. Had I taken seriously her suggestion that I stop acting like an asshole in sobriety, this whole mess could have been ironed out with a lot less flaming catastrophe.
Sobriety was a necessary start, but it didn’t fix anything. It never does. Here are seven things I could have addressed sooner to make our marriage a place in which my wife would have actually found healing.
Seven Ways I Remained an Asshole in Sobriety
Priorities are Actions, Not Words
Here are some of the things I NEEDED to do on a daily basis in early sobriety:
- Read without interruption about alcoholism and recovery.
- Talk incessantly about what I was learning.
- Sulk around the house in depression about my affliction.
- Go for long drives or long walks to think it all through.
- Leave much of the parenting to my wife because I was too busy trying to heal.
- Be forgiven for my short temper. I was suffering, after all.
- Wake Sheri up when I couldn’t sleep so I wouldn’t suffer alone.
Active alcoholism is selfish. Really, really selfish. Early recovery is really selfish, too. It was all about my needs. The oft spoken rule, and all of my actions, reminded my wife that my sobriety was of the utmost importance. There wasn’t much question about the place to which Sheri’s needs were relegated. I all but said, “You’ve already got a fanny mold worn in that back seat. Why don’t you just stay back there for a while.”
Hurry Up and Get Better
The recommended pace of recovery is far different for the alcoholic than it is for the spouse of the alcoholic. I needed to push forward as fast as I could to learn and change patterns and defeat temptation. Speed was of the essence in order to put the threat of relapse behind me. The exact opposite was true for my wife. She had seen me try to get sober, only to relapse, so many times, so she could not afford to begin the healing process until I was well along the path to permanent sobriety. She’d worked hard on all of her defence mechanisms. It would have been illogical for her to let her guard down while the results of my efforts were unknown.
The different paces of our recoveries caused considerable distress for our relationship. I wanted Sheri to be proud of me. I wanted her to be happy with our new life. As is often the case for us, my satisfaction comes quickly and easily, and hers takes time and requires tender patience and loving effort. I wasn’t willing to work for her happiness. My premature recoverization left her unfulfilled and longing for more from our marriage.
Say It Like You Mean It
I apologized often and profusely the mornings after I drank too much and acted like a buffoon. Not always, but quite often, I took responsibility for my overconsumption, the drunken fights I started and the vile and vicious things I said to the woman I loved. But when she knew I would drink again, she knew it would happen again. Apologies in active alcoholism come with an unspoken promise to commit the same awful transgressions again. “Sorry,” doesn’t mean much under those circumstances.
When I was in early sobriety, I didn’t recognize the need to apologize again. I’m not big on making a list of people injured by my drunken actions and going on an apology tour. But my wife is an exception. She lives with me and is exposed to all my bad along with what morsels of good I can muster, so she deserved an apology that came along with a promise that it wouldn’t happen again. It took me far too long to recognize this truth. Luckily, the spouses of alcoholics are singularly blessed with the best memories available to humans. Even though it took me a while to figure this stuff out, we were able to conjure the details of my drunken behaviour so I could apologize sincerely.
Basking in the Vastness of My Oblivion
Sheri and I worked hard to protect our children from my alcoholism. We tried not to argue in front of them, and my wife was skilled in the art of distraction and illusion. When I was particularly intoxicated and moody, she would take them to the park or to see a movie, and leave me to stew in my own pathetic juices.
Once I got sober, I credited her evasive action, and my sincere attempts to keep my affliction from our children, with completely shielding our four kids from any harm. Kids are intuitive and impressionable, and there was damage done. I was reluctant to address it, instead taking the oh so alcoholic approach of ignoring it and hoping it would go away. I eventually picked up what my wife was laying down, and we had a family discussion where my kids let loose and expressed years of pent-up pain. It was cathartic for us all. If only I’d have recognized the need sooner, but denial comes pretty naturally to us alcoholics.
Thick Head, Thin Skin
“I quit drinking for you, Sheri! What more do you want from me?” I was so confused thinking sobriety would fix all of our problems. I didn’t understand why my wife was still so mad, why her pain was so raw and accessible. Years of alcoholic behavior replaced by a few weeks or months of sobriety are simply not enough. Trauma cuts deep and memories don’t easily fade.
And yet, I got my feelings hurt easily in early sobriety when my wife expressed her lingering anger. I had no idea how much damage my alcoholism had caused, and I insisted on viewing the glass as half full. Sheri just wanted to smash the glass on my face after pouring its contents on my head. Complaining to my wife, the wife of an alcoholic, about how much she was hurting my feelings was like complaining to a person stuck in an elevator that his calls for help are annoying.
But Don’t You Want to make ME Feel Better?
For the first year or so of sobriety, my brain chemistry was still all tied up in alcoholic knots. Through years of dedication to my craft, I had trained my brain to only feel pleasure from alcohol. Nothing else made me feel good. Nothing, that is, except for sex. And when I stopped drinking, that left sex as the only pleasurable pastime in my life. Eventually, my synapses started firing properly, and I relearned to enjoy normal life pleasures. But for the first year or so, sex was the only thing that put a temporary smile on my face.
“Come on Sheri. I’m so depressed and so ashamed. Let’s hit it so I won’t feel so worthless.” Now if that’s not an invitation that makes a girl tingle, I don’t know what is. Alcoholism or not, every mature couple knows that nothing makes a woman feel attracted to her partner like begging. I’m sure when we first met, Sheri probably thought, Well, he’s kind of smart and he makes me laugh. He’s not bad looking and he has a lot of friends. I suppose I can lower my standards far enough to devote my life to him. I just hope that over time he learns to become more needy and pathetic.
The Endearing Catch-Phrases
When I was a drinker, I deflected blame, and denied that I had a drinking problem, as a defence against the only eventual solution to my marital distress. As long as I made things Sheri’s fault, I wouldn’t have to look at the damage alcohol was wreaking on my life and marriage. The repertoire of kind and gentle phrases I used to deflect blame from me and onto my beloved wife included hits like, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and, “Just calm down, Sheri.” When I really wanted to rock the house, I played the ever-popular, “Are you crazy?” and “This shit’s all in your head!”
I thought I was saying hurtful things to deflect attention from my addiction. What I didn’t understand was that I was surgically implanting triggers that would elicit the same response even when I was sober years later. I learned a lot in early sobriety, but no one ever taught me to stop telling my wife to calm down or ask her if she was nuts. Those lessons required maturity that eluded me until recently. The triggers will never go away. I’m finally learning not to trip over them.
For so long, I thought my recovery was about my dedication to my sobriety. I didn’t realize that the healing of my loved ones had such an impact on my own happiness. I didn’t realize that the healing of my loved ones, especially my wife, would be exponentially more achievable if only I would get out of my own way and stop reminding them of my alcoholic insecurities. The disease is to blame for our trauma and pain. I believe it, and Sheri believes it, too. But I don’t want us to ever forget. So, every now and again, I act like just enough – just a smidgen of an asshole – so that neither of us will ever forget just how lucky we are to have recovered.
If you love an alcoholic, we’d love to help you on your path to recovery. Our Echoes of Recovery program is for the loved ones of alcoholics, and we offer connection, empathy, experience and maybe even a few laughs where laughter is so hard to find. Your alcoholic can be in recovery or actively drinking, and you can be trying to save the relationship, or trying to free yourself from it. We welcome you regardless of drinking or relationship status. Echoes of Recovery is a donation-based program, and we ask a $25 per month recurring donation from all of our participants to help us keep our mission of destigmatizing alcoholism rolling along. For more information, to make a tax deductible donation or to enroll, please click the button below. A wife in recovery and her husband with years of experience as an asshole are eager to help.
And if you’re the asshole drinker, we’ve got a similar program to help you through the massive challenges of early sobriety. Check out our SHOUT Sobriety program, and join us if you’ve had enough.