A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
The week apart had me longing for her smile and embrace. I had fantasized about closing our bedroom door after the kids went to sleep that first night back. My wife looked at me like her mind was in a slightly different place than that of her horny husband. I had not shaved for the week, and unattended hair grows rapidly on me. Check out my selfie from the end of the mission trip at the top of this article as evidence (that’s me – I only wish I had thought to take a picture of the bison).
Sheri looked at my beard and my wild hair from a six-hour drive with the windows down and curled up her nose a little as she sniffed to see if I had even taken a shower on the trip (which I had, incidentally, as the teenage boys didn’t feel as much of a need to shower as the teenage girls did, thus leaving the men’s shower available to me at least once per day).
The longing I felt for my wife was not reciprocated. And I was emotionally devastated.
Thirty months had passed since my last drink. Thirty months since I stopped injecting trauma into our marriage. Thirty month of white knuckling, growth, discovery, setbacks, promises kept, sobbing, defeating cravings, eating sugar, trying not to eat sugar, listening, learning, struggling, and succeeding. Thirty months of progress.
And still, I was met by a wife struggling with lingering resentments, lack of trust and no attraction for me, hairy and disheveled as I was, or otherwise.
Recovering a marriage from alcoholism takes a long time. Sobriety fixes nothing, but it is a most necessary prerequisite. Alcohol abuse and love cannot coexist. But just because we stop making it worse doesn’t mean we immediately start making it better.
There is a trustless, loveless limbo. That’s our penance for worshiping at the throne of alcohol.
We work with people all the time who have such predictable experiences with rehab – from both sides of the relationship. The drinker returns refreshed but humble, and full of hope and clinical information about how addiction works. The spouse welcomes the newly sober alcoholic home with hope, but lots of trepidation, hesitancy and unresolved resentment.
They are both hopeful, but hope neither fixes damage done nor ensures sobriety and healing in the future. Hope is not enough.
Sheri spent years building her defense mechanisms in reaction to my increasingly abusive alcohol consumption. I medicated, and she detached. It is the natural yin and yang that takes place over years or decades of affliction by this diabolical disease.
And the idea that she could untie all those knots at the snap of my sober fingers is ludicrous. I know this now. But at the time, I often worried that she wasn’t trying hard enough. Imagine that – an alcoholic blaming the woman he loves for the aftermath of his alcoholism.
Does it sound familiar?
I am all about blaming the alcohol. It is one of the world’s most highly addictive and destructive substances, and it gets off the hook easy as a majority of Americans treat it like the panacea of stress, mourning, celebration and discomfort. The alcohol is to blame for the intoxicated behavior of the drinker. But it’s to blame for the deep, festering wounds of the loved ones as well.
Accurately assessing who is to blame (reminder: it’s the alcohol) is nice. It gets our minds in a place where the shame can be released and healing can take place. But it doesn’t fix the wounds of the alcoholic past.
What a downer I am. All I am talking about is the things that don’t solve problems. Sobriety fixes nothing. Rehab doesn’t heal the wounds. Now pinning the blame on alcohol doesn’t fix anything, either. What an uplifting article, huh. It might make you want to get trampled by a big hairy buffalo while letting a teenager saw off your foot with a circular saw.
But hey…what do you expect? Alcoholism crushes trust. Trust is something that we humans tend to give initially with relative ease. But once it is broken, it is ever-so hard to repair.
When the kids on the mission trip fed the bison out of their bare hands, do you know why he didn’t bite off half of their arms? It wasn’t because he respected or cared for us. It was because we were trusting him, and he knew that if he broke that trust by eating one of us, we would never feed him again.
Us alcoholics just can’t be expected to understand how trust works as well as a prefrontal-cortex-lacking, slobbering buffalo. We’re only humans. We’re just not that smart.
So how does trust get repaired? Simple. Time. Lots and lots of time in sobriety, no longer creating new trauma, and doing the work to slowly grow toward enlightenment in sobriety. Simple, but far from easy.
Maybe you and your spouse will be better at it than Sheri and me. We sure made a lot of mistakes along the way. Now in our fifth year of sobriety together, the trust is back and the resentments are shared in a healthy way. Sometimes, Sheri doesn’t even curl her nose in disgust at the sight of me anymore. Along with the other benefits of permanent abstinence, Sheri’s trust makes sobriety a complete package and the best decision of my life.
If you had told me in my early sobriety that the road to a healthy marriage was several years long, I don’t know how I would have responded. But now, looking back, getting here was so worth the struggle.
It all starts with sobriety. If you are a drinker trying to leave the booze behind, we hope you’ll check out our SHOUT Sobriety program.
And if you are the spouse of a drinker, you’ve got some serious recovery work to do, too. We hope you’ll connect with us in Echoes of Recovery, and we can walk through it together.