Unguarded

We are now counting in weeks, and almost months, the time that has passed since a relapse. No hidden bottles have been discovered, and I have had no cause to look for them. Coincidentally, as a family, we have spent more time together than usual. Celebrating birthdays, playing board games, planning trips and just being, paying little attention to any consequences of alcoholism. Tears, worry, distress and surrender are absent.

As the presence of alcoholism fades with every passing day of sobriety, I find myself letting down my guard. Slightly but never completely, because reminders remain. The pipes that trace the ceiling in our basement, shelves with dark corners, and golf bags with ample side pockets return me to the days not that long ago when they cast the shadow and took the shape of the bottles they held. Days found just a page or so ago on the calendar hanging outside of our kitchen.

I have no interest in revisiting them, and little desire to page ahead. A few days ago, though, I did both when I found myself behind an alcoholic in line at the store. First, I noticed bones protruding from his back like wings, pointing sharply under the sweater he wore. Next, I watched as he reached to insert his credit card into the chip reader, his hand shaking so badly he could hardly align it with the machine. His pin number escaped his memory. Once and then twice. Gently, the clerk told him that he had one more try before his card would be declined.

When I saw the items he had placed on the counter, I found myself silently rooting for him to remember his pin so that he could complete his purchase. A purchase I imagined he did not want to make, but needed to – a pint of vodka and Gatorade with which to mix it. My eyes caught the clerk’s, and I knew he was wishing for the same.

This man wasn’t my alcoholic, but in that moment I cared as if he were. I cared that he get the alcohol he needed immediately and the help he should have gotten long ago.

As he exited the store with his purchases neatly bagged, I wondered how he got there. To a moment in time that was once his future, and most likely far removed from the one he imagined for himself.

Did he reach a point in his sobriety where he was so comfortable that he let down his guard? Or did the people who were keeping watch for him let down theirs? Had he given up, or were the drinks he purchased his last before steadying himself to face alcoholism once again?

I cared because that could have been Swenny. By the time I left the store, my guard was back where it belongs. Up.

Ties That Bind

Years ago, with only a hint of alcoholism in the air, I shared with my grandma my concern about Swenny’s drinking. In response to her questioning my need to work, my desire for a career, and my pride in what I felt was some early success, she would have none of it.

“If you don’t cook for him, you are going to lose him,” she warned. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I answered, “If I DO cook for him, I’m going to lose him.”

Knowing I hadn’t convinced her of the value of my time spent outside the home, and wanting advice on managing a growing problem, I said out loud for the very first time, “He is an alcoholic.” Knowing that her questioning of my self-established authority in Swenny’s and my young marriage was unwelcome and unhelpful considering the circumstances we faced, those four words concluded the conversation for good. With the utmost respect for her position as my grandma, and with love and affection that exceeded familial responsibility, I never mentioned it again.

She passed away before the burden of alcoholism really took hold, and last week for the first time since she died, I had the opportunity to visit with her brother and nieces. My sister was in town visiting, so when my great uncle called to say he’d be here, too, my mom organized lunch. In the course of catching up, my turn around the table came. And I was asked how my husband is.

So I shared, with carefully chosen words, that he has alcoholism. That he has struggled with sobriety, and while long sought and difficult, his recovery – new yet – is going well.

Just like that, we went from a table managed by polite and measured conversation to a family talking about life. And about lives. And the impact that alcoholism has had on them.

My great uncle spoke of his pain in watching his son struggle. In response, he established Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at his country church. Even though his son lives thousands of miles away, it was his way of acknowledging the disease by smoothing the road for alcoholics in his community. My mom’s cousins shook their heads knowingly while sharing about their younger brother’s battle with alcoholism and its cost to his family and theirs.

While the words he is an alcoholic flow more easily now, I instantly questioned my wisdom of saying them in this setting. They are still more easily spoken to strangers. Reminded of the anguish these very words caused my grandma, how would her brother react? Would her daughter – my mother – be disappointed in me for sharing so casually at a long overdue lunch with family? Was the expected answer he’s good the best answer?

No. The best answer is the one that invites more questions. The answer that takes courage to give because of the risk it holds. Risk balanced, I found, by its reward in getting to know others, even family we’ve known a lifetime, just a little bit better. Revealing ties that bind ever more tightly.