The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
Grief. Mourning. Dealing with a profound and significant loss. Processing all the feelings that accompanied the death of the love of my life was the single most critical necessity to my permanent sobriety.
I am often asked by devastated and hopeless readers who suffer in the pit of alcoholic despair how I quit drinking. The how is very complicated, but this is the most imperative piece of the answer.
When a Man Loves a Woman is my all-time favorite movie because of how it hits home for me. It provides an example of the tremendous challenges a marriage faces when the alcoholic spouse stops drinking. Meg Ryan plays a loving wife and mother who drifts slowly and insidiously over the line that distinguishes a casual drinker from an addict. Andy Garcia plays a loving husband and father who spends increasing amounts of time “picking-up the pieces” when Ryan’s character drinks too much.
I cry a lot when I watch When a Man Loves a Woman. I cry because I know the pain of slowly losing control of my life to alcohol. I cry because I know the intensely agonizing process of gaining my permanent sobriety. I cry because I know eliminating alcohol doesn’t eliminate problems from a marriage. Abstinence fixes some issues, but it creates a whole new set of heartache-filled complexities. I cry because sobriety does not guarantee a happy ending.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
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.
“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
This nonsensical quote is from the 1989 film version of Batman. Immediately after asking the question, Jack Nicholson’s character, The Joker, admits he has no idea what it means. But I know what that question means, and maybe the reason I have never forgotten that throwaway line is because it has so much meaning in my life. If you ask my wife, Sheri, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” she will answer, “Yes.” Why? Because she is married to an alcoholic.
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
Since, in our society, we have turned almost every event from a three-year-old’s birthday party to a 5K-run finish line into a drinking occasion, it was almost impossible to navigate life sober without drawing the attention of everyone I knew. Even when my determination to remove alcohol from my life was most firm and committed – a commitment in response to another morning of shame following another night of overindulgence – my sobriety meant I still had to face questions, ridicule and even humiliation on a weekly basis. “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Are you an alcoholic?” Simply choosing not to drink when all of my friends knew how much I loved alcohol was not an option. Something must have been wrong. I must have been broken in some way. “Did something happen?” “Did you get a DUI?” “Are you and Sheri