If you put in the work and make the effort…if you are patient and compassionate…if you learn how to be a really good and empathetic listener – this is when you can expect to be finished with your post-alcoholism relationship recovery:
I bet that’s not the analysis you were expecting when you read the title of this article. Unexpected or not, it is accurate, and it delivers on the two promises in the title. Never is clear in that it is not ambiguous. There is no range of possible timing. And never is manageable in that if you know it will not end during your lifetime, you can be better prepared for that challenge you face, or you can opt out of your relationships if they’re not worth it to you.
If you want sunshine blown up your ass, turn to the recovery community on social media. If you can handle the truth, keep reading.
“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.”
For us imbibers, the calendar can be divided into three drinking seasons.
The holiday season starts about mid October for most. I am an overachiever, both as a lush and as a lover of scary movies, so my holiday season starts on October first, sharp. The holiday season runs through the fourth quarter of the college football national championship game when one SEC team that I don’t care about crushes the year’s eager victim. Between the bookends, the excuses to drink line up in an organized, dependable, evenly spaced out succession making sobriety unthinkable, and moderation a celebratory faux pas. Drinkers have plenty of reasons to drink during the holiday season.
I scoffed at the weak and undisciplined among us. I felt superior to anyone who struggled to control his or her sweet tooth. At a restaurant with clients or friends, I boldly drank my dessert, choosing Irish Coffee over the Creme Brulee everytime. I drank extra-bitter, extra-strong IPAs. When I drank a bourbon and Coke, I asked the bartender to hold the Coke. There was nothing sweet about me…just ask my wife.
Then I stopped drinking.
It had never occurred to me that beer – even a bitter IPA – is basically carbonated sugar water. What the hell did I think malted barley was? As I weaned off of alcohol, I discovered a ravenous sugar addiction lurking just behind the booze bottle.
My ignorance about myself extends far beyond my alcohol-induced addiction to sugar. I also had a misguided interpretation of my relationship to other people – especially people in power who exerted influence over my direction and activities.
Did you ever wonder how your alcoholism has impacted your children? Or your parents?
I have wondered. I have forgiven myself for most of the repercussions of my drinking, but the impact that this family disease had on my kids is what keeps me up at night. Some of us are lucky enough to have time to address the pain and trauma. Others are not so lucky.
In January, I finally get the text from John’s dad that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year.
Oh, and the waiting. It’s astounding the stories we build up in our heads when there’s no intervention from reality to prune them into a sensible shape. I ask myself on a loop, how does he think this happened? Why does he think I gave his son two pounds of my own liver, and a year and a half later handed the same man divorce papers? Doesn’t he want to know? If I have an overactive imagination, I wonder, are some others’ atrophied, seized up and dry? Or is it worse: do they just not care?
Waiting, I compose in my head a pointed, yet directionless reply to a piercingly unasked question. The meat of it wraps around a spinal litany of near-funerals for his son that he doesn’t even realize he’d missed: five by my count, the transplant (the one everyone pays attention to) not even the last one, not even the closest call.
“Come here and listen to this voicemail,” insisted my coworker, Loraine. She had a concerned look on her face, and she gestured in a way that assured me that my participation in her dilemma was not optional. She held her desk phone to my ear as I listened to the wife of another of our coworkers curse and spit venomous insults that would make Louis C.K. blush. “Jim’s wife dialed the wrong extension and left that on my phone instead of his,” Loraine surmised. “Have you ever heard anything so vile? I’m worried about them. If they talk to each other like that…that is not OK.”
More shocking for me than Jim’s wife’s language was Loraine’s reaction. I had heard vile, unhinged communication like that. In fact, I had heard a similar diatribe the previous weekend. And I gave it as good as I got it. For me, that voicemail was hardly noteworthy. For me, talking like that was normal.
I was an alcoholic. Vicious verbal combat had been normalized.
Just because I no longer drink doesn’t mean I am free. This will be my fifth consecutive sober Christmas, and I still wear the chains I forged in my drinking life. They are lighter now. They no longer define me, nor do they prevent me from living the holiday season with a joyful heart. But I can still feel enough weight from the chains that confined me in addiction to serve as a reminder. I am reminded that alcohol is a diabolical poison not meant for human consumption. But I am also reminded of time lost and mistakes made in the indelible ink of holidays spent with a young family. The future is bright, but I’ll never be free of the weight of the mistakes of the past.
The ghosts are all around to remind me. The stockings hang from our fireplace as they have since each of our four children was born. Like our kids, they are ready and sparkling and full of promise. And I can’t help but remember the times my selfish drinking left the promises unfulfilled. The lights twinkle and the decorations adorn, and it all reminds me of both festive times and regrettable memories of my disease trumping the potential for peace and love. The chances are all around me this time of year. Chances to make new memories, but also chances to remember the past lest it be repeated.
Then there are the pictures.
I was shocked when he said it. Not only did he admit to letting his drinking get in the way of spending time with his children, but even when he was actively engaged with his kids, he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to be somewhere else. The connection with his own flesh and blood was empty for him.
For a proud father, that was a bold and vulnerable admission. I know a thing or two about vulnerability. I have written and spoken publicly about some of my most despicable behavior. But I have never admitted to hating spending time with my children.
I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.