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.
What is really compelling to me is how the film handles the challenges the family faces when the alcoholic gets sober. Before I experienced a similar situation in my life, I didn’t understand the stress sobriety puts on this movie family. I found myself pleading with the screen to let the characters find piece in beating alcoholism. Rather, Ryan’s character faces her demons instead of drinking them away, and Garcia’s character finds his role diminished as he is no longer called upon to fix his wife. The marriage breaks-up for a time, and while the couple is working toward reconciliation, there is no promise of a happy ending.
My descent into the debilitating grip of addiction was almost imperceivably slow. My wife, Sheri, and I adjusted to the ever-increasing levels of destruction my disease injected into our marriage. Sheri built defense mechanisms to “handle” me when I drank too much. She learned how to avoid conflict and shield our four kids and shove the pain I caused way down deep inside her soul.
I drank for the first twenty-two years of our relationship. That is a long time to learn and adapt and change and adjust. Our marriage bumped along with the pain and disappointment and deceit and shame that my alcoholism caused. We were committed to staying together. We clung to our marriage for the sake of our kids and because there was always love. It was often hard to see through the pain and the distance alcohol wedged between us, but we never stopped loving each other.
While dealing with alcoholism was a process of minor coping modifications made slowly over a long period of time, the pace of adjusting to sobriety is altogether very different. For me, the alcoholic, curing my disease required a very rapid change of thinking. Beating my physical addiction was easy. The extremely difficult part for me was vilifying booze, one of the true loves of my life.
I had to look past the “good times” like drinking a cold beer on my patio on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon or cocktail hour with friends and family while on vacation. I had to see past that joy and remember the nights I spent behaving irrationally or the mornings filled with intense debilitating regret from over-consumption. I had to learn through research about how drinking enough alcohol permanently altered the way neurotransmitters are released in my brain. I had to accept my greatest fear that as my children grew older they would grow to be ashamed of their father, the drunk.
This process of changing both my conscious and underlying subconscious mindset about the poison alcohol had become in my life was excruciatingly tough, and it occupied almost all of my waking hours for a few months. At first, my chaotic mind swirled with an internal debate. Was I really and alcoholic? My drinking did not cause major financial problems. I did not have any DUIs or other legal issues, and my marriage was intact. Maybe if I just tried harder to control my drinking. Maybe just one more try. The mental anguish as my subconscious – the pattern my brain knew from my years of heavy drinking – tried to convince me to drink again, was agonizing. I had to untangle mental corruption from over twenty-five years of abusing alcohol, and I had to do it fast. If I didn’t believe with total conviction that alcohol was my enemy, I would surely have started drinking again. I should know. I failed on half a dozen previous attempts to quit. This time, my understanding of the changes alcohol had made to my brain combined with my determination to remain sober that was complete and unwavering. This was the only way for me to successfully achieve permanent sobriety.
For Sheri, the process of healing from my addiction, is very, very different. There is no sense of urgency as she is not threatened by her own relapse. While her healing process can take place at a slower pace, the depth of her torment from memories of my drunken behavior is just as severe. Sheri has to find relief and closure from pain my alcoholism inflicted on her for over two decades.
I have always been quick to apologize when I have done wrong. When I refused to leave a party at an appropriate time instead insisting we stay to the end and find a bar for a nightcap after, I apologized the next morning for being inconsiderate of Sheri’s desires. When I ran into a friend and went for a couple of beers on a Halloween evening leaving Sheri to manage our enthusiastic and fully costumed kids, including an infant, I said I was sorry for dumping the shared parenting responsibilities on her. When I said nasty things or stormed out of the room in anger, I sobered-up, came to my senses and showed my sincere contrition.
But when those apologizes came with the unspoken promise of more rounds of drunken antics to come, they missed the mark – badly. It was often as though Sheri did not hear my words at all. My words were far less impactful than her certain knowledge that I would over-drink and hurt her again.
How do I know what Sheri is thinking and feeling? I know because she is opening-up and sharing her deepest emotions with me. Her sharing – her vulnerability – is a very good start.
Now, Sheri is slowly converting her hope that I will maintain my commitment and never drink again into trust and belief that alcoholism is behind us. The process of moving from hope to trust will be long and grueling. It will require sifting through twenty-two years of bad memories and dealing with each emotionally knowing that my apology now carries with it the weight of commitment to permanent sobriety. When she recalls in horror a night when my alcohol-induced anger caused me to say hurtful things that kept us up all night arguing, she can now know that not only was my apology sincere, but that the event will not be repeated. My permanent sobriety ensures it won’t. That changes things. Now, sorry is not just contrition about a past action, but a promise for a peaceful future.
Sheri has already forgiven me for my actions as an alcoholic, but she will never forget. Gradually, her faith that my drunken past will stay in the past eases her pain and allows comfort to replace fear. This process is ongoing and will take a lot of time. Sheri struggles to read my writing about the destruction alcoholism caused in our lives. Reading my words causes her to relive not just the memories about which I write, but many other painful memories at the same time. It is a rush of agony. It is just too much for her to tolerate. She has to work through the terror at her own pace. I support her healing process, and I know my patience will be rewarded with a healthier, happier wife.
My deceit and thoughtless actions as an alcoholic created barriers and distance between us. With permanent sobriety, the barriers have crumbled leaving me with a clear vision of the troubled state of our marriage. As a drinker, I forced my wife to protect herself from me emotionally. That is a trait not easily unlearned. Trust is so precious and fragile, and I drowned it in booze for a very long time. Rebuilding trust will be a long process with eventual benefits that will make the effort well worthwhile.
The first step to making our marriage better was for me to stop making our lives worse. However, sobriety in and of itself only exchanges addiction problems for a whole new set of complex emotional obstacles. Overcoming them will require understanding, patience and, eventually, trust.
There are no promises. But when a man loves a woman, and a woman loves a man, there is hope for a happy ending.