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.”
Disney on Ice at the Coliseum – my oldest child, our six-year-old daughter, could not have been more excited. It was February, and the arena still smelled like livestock sweat and cow poop after the National Western Stock Show was held there a month prior, but she didn’t notice. Neither did her younger brothers who were only excited because their fearless leader, Cathryn, was bouncing off the walls.
If you’ve even considered joining us for our couples retreat in the Rocky Mountains – even considered it for a moment – even if you’ve decided not to attend, I hope you’ll read this. I’ve got some explaining to do, and I hope you’ll hear me out.
Christmas Eve was one of the biggest days of the year, not just personally or spiritually, but for our business. For fifteen years, my wife and I were bread bakers. We owned a neighborhood whole grain bakery, and holidays that brought families together around the dinner table where huge for us. Christmas Eve meant long production hours, stressful decisions about how much of each product to bake and hundreds of additional customer interactions. Many people think of relaxation and family when they think of Christmas Eve. For those of us in retail or hospitality, Christmas Eve means balls to the walls work. While everybody else was listening to Andy Williams sing about, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was working my ass off.
One particularly stressful Christmas Eve about a decade ago, I was working late to closeout the Christmas season at the bakery while my wife took our four small children to church with my parents who were visiting for the holiday. The bakery was closed and the door was locked. I turned out all the lights and turned up the volume on the Christmas music. I drank eggnog as I worked in the dark. I blended it about 50/50 with the whiskey I kept in my desk drawer, like Lou Grant, for just such occasions.
I sat crouched in the woods behind my house as the driving rain continued to lash my thoroughly drenched body. The temperature had dropped into the 40s, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket because I hadn’t planned to spend any time outside. I was drunk. Beyond drunk, really. I was in blackout territory as the lights of my teenage memory flickered in and out.
Do you think couples know they are getting a divorce before they do? Like all things in an alcoholic marriage, aren’t they in denial until the truth is inevitable? Don’t they resist until the end is unavoidable? My wife and I are struggling mightily. But I think we’ll make it. Then again, I don’t know the answers to my own questions.
We were stuck. I had not had a drop of alcohol in over a year, but our relationship was unloving and cold. Distrust and painful memories consumed our marriage and made recovery seem impossible. We set aside time each week to mend wounds from memories of drunken arguments and intoxicated antics, but there was still an invisible barrier between us.
My wife’s emotions seemed the most raw when we talked about the rare but painful times when my drinking impacted our four children. Sheri couldn’t seem to forgive me – her instincts as a mother were simply too strong. We had to find a way over the hump that separated us from repairing our badly damaged marriage.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.