Shame of the Second-Hand Drinker
My wife, Sheri, tells me often that I walk around like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. In fairness to me, I spend most of my time writing about some pretty weighty topics and communicating with people who are trying to keep their heads above water in the deep end of the pool. The work I do is incredibly rewarding and totally fulfilling. But my wife is right, it’s not very jovial nor lighthearted.
Sheri tells me she needs to see me be jovial and lighthearted more. It is not unusual for a person to talk too much about work with his spouse, and it’s not an unreasonable request for me to flip the switch and joke around with my wife. I’m working on it. Part of parenting is flipping that switch to protect our children from exposure to our heavy burdens, so I’ve been quite good at laughing with my kids for as long as I’ve been a parent. But now I’m learning to give my wife that same warm and comforting easygoingness that she needs. It’s a struggle for me to stop constantly unloading my worries onto her, but I’m getting better at it.
Here’s the thing: Sheri can’t listen to me talk about my struggles as an innocent observer. She has been with me for twenty-five years now. We are in it together. My struggles are her struggles. And if they aren’t her struggles, they sure remind her of her struggles. And she just doesn’t want to struggle all the time like I seem to be comfortable doing. That’s a legitimate emotional request she is making.
But Sheri can’t be exclusively lighthearted. Not anymore. She’s suffered too much to ever return to innocence. So we have to strike a balance.
Alcoholism changes a marriage. Forever. I’ve written extensively about the shame I faced because I couldn’t control my drinking, and then the shame I faced because I was the only sober person in a society sloshing around in a sea of booze. And I’ve almost completely shed that shame. I’ve embraced my alcoholic label, and I’ve defeated the hold the stigma associated with addiction had on my soul.
But that’s just me. My wife has her guilt and shame, too.
If you’ve never been through this, the idea that the spouse of an alcoholic feels shame and guilt might sound ludicrous. In fact, it sounded pretty ridiculous to me, too, until very recently. “What do you have to feel guilty about?” I would ask. “You weren’t the one drinking and dragging us down into the pit.”
Victims feel shame and guilt. While I’m not yet educated enough on the phenomenon to explain it cogently from a psychological perspective, I can compare it to other things we all see and read about in the big bad world. What is one of the top reasons victims of sexual predators keep their abuse a secret? Shame and guilt. Why do people who are financially scammed and swindled often hide their stories? Shame and guilt. And why does a woman with bruises all over her body claim she fell down the stairs and protect an abusive husband? Sure, there is fear of further abuse, but there is also shame and guilt for getting into the abusive marriage in the first place.
So when my wife, the wife of an alcoholic, carries the burden of shame and guilt from the years of active alcoholism, it really shouldn’t surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise me because shame and guilt is common in victims. But it also shouldn’t surprise me because she has been telling me about it in subtle ways that I have chosen to ignore for a couple of years now.
Sometimes Sheri tells me she is embarrassed that she wasn’t strong enough to leave me, and I rebut her feelings by telling her that her strength and love for our children is what kept our family together during the worst of times. And I am right. 100%. But she is right, too. Strong enough to stay and too weak to leave can coexist – and when they do, they leave a world of shame and guilt in their wake.
Sheri tells me how guilty she feels about arguing back when I was drinking and being irrational. She wishes she had kept her mouth shut and flown under the radar. I dismiss her feelings by telling her that she took as much of my shit as she could take before having the very natural and healthy human reaction of fighting back. And I am right. 100%. But just because Sheri reacted in a natural and healthy manner doesn’t erase the shame and guilt she feels from her angry reaction.
The massive amounts of alcohol I consumed made me physically unattractive to my wife. For the sake of peace in our household, and because she knew I was hurting, too, she continued to be intimate with me. It made her feel dirty and weak to offer her body to a man that repulsed her. I don’t know this because she tells me. It is like a puzzle of reactions, twitches and discomfort I have had to put together over the past couple of years. Now that I understand, I am grateful for her sacrifice to keep our relationship breathing even if ever so tenuously. And I am right. 100%.
But our physical relationship during my active alcoholism entombs legions of shame and guilt for my beloved wife. And there is nothing I can say or do to set her free.
It took a long time for me to figure this out. When those of us in the sobriety community preach that recovery is an ongoing process that takes years to yield results, we are wildly understating the truth. Recovery is grueling work. Recovery is patience. Recovery is tenacity and recovery is forgiveness.
Sheri has forgiven me. Now she has to do the work to forgive herself.
And while she deserves to see the lighthearted and jovial side of her husband sometimes, there has to be a balance, because my wife still has to wade into the trenches and do the work of recovery relentlessly and with grace.
Life has a way of stealing our innocence and permanently preventing a return to ignorant bliss. For me and Sheri, alcoholism is our cross to bear. While our relationship is infinitely better than it was just a handful of years ago, we still have a long way to go. I need to joke around more, and my wife needs to get serious about working through her shame and guilt.
We’ll make it. We both have faith that we will. And we’ll share what we learn along the way because that’s what I think we’re here on earth to do. Sheri’s a little more skeptical, but she humors my passion for our vulnerability. Either way, the truth will set us free, right?
We want you to know our truth. Not just from my written words, but from the spoken conversations of a married couple trying to find love again. A couple of weeks ago we released the second podcast episode in a three part series of conversations between me and my wife, and it is our second most downloaded episode to date. The only conversation with more downloads is our first conversation about our marriage. If you haven’t heard it yet, part two is about the struggles of our marriage in recovery, and we hope you’ll take the time to understand our pain and healing.
We have received tons of emails from couples who have listened to it together to help them understand the pain of their own relationships, and it brings rewarding tears to my eyes every time I hear that our experiences resonate. It is important for people to learn that they are not alone. And through the feedback of readers and listeners, Sheri and I know we are not alone either.
If addiction plays an unwanted role in your relationship, we encourage you to listen to our story. And when you take the time to comment, you are helping so many others feel less isolated – my wife and I included.
If you listen all the way to the end, you’ll get to hear me make a joke. If I dig deep enough, I can still access the lighthearted and jovial. I promise to keep trying to do that for the woman I love the most.
So insightful Matt. Sherry is a wonderful person and so are you. Praying for you to keep making amazing strides in your lives and relationship. ❤️🙏🏻
Thank you, Nancy. Thanks for reading and thanks for supporting us both!
I totally relate to your wife & you. Before I became hooked, I was the sober wife of an alcoholic. I remember all those emotions & they stayed with me though a bit faded today. Then the kids left for college & I started to drink more often, more heavily – anything to numb myself to forget my failures & sadness. Soon after my husband stopped drinking but I had already crossed the line & my body needed the alcohol. I don’t blame my husband because I understand my alcoholism is no one’s fault but my own – I knew it would happen & did nothing to stop it. It’s odd that I never thought that he may have felt the same emotions as I did. As for joy, it’s like exercise – I’ll do it until it is easier.
Thank you for sharing a piece of your story, Emm, and thanks for the perspective on joy. I’ve never heard that comparison before. I rather like it.