Pomp and Circumstance

Nine in ten alcoholics will never recover. With Swenny’s latest relapse, I feel this fraction is forever turned against us. One in ten? No. That will never be us.

While there is never a good time to relapse, few are worse than Swenny’s most recent. As our son prepared for his high school graduation, Swenny’s drinking escalated following nearly four months of sobriety. While trying to do everything I could to ensure it didn’t compromise the celebration at hand, my thoughts continually returned to our daughter’s graduation just three years earlier. Reminded always by pictures that caught unfocused eyes, once-in-a-lifetime conversations that will never be  remembered and renewed pleas to get help, I wondered if this narrative will ever change.

Within days of our son’s graduation, I left for California to attend my niece’s. One day after arriving, I read in a text from my son that his father’s relapse continued. Looking for old pictures, he opened a box to find a bottle of vodka. He confronted Swenny who responded with a lie, claiming it was an old bottle. Knowing the truth, our son concluded the conversation, but not before making known to his father his disappointment. Yet again.

I arrived home a few days later to pick up where they left off. Easily done after finding another bottle, large and almost empty, laying atop our Christmas decorations. Calculating nearly two liters drank within a few days, I realized the narrative has changed. This is no longer a quest for sobriety but one for survival.

In the season of graduations, I found lessons in the words of the young people addressing their peers. From Wisconsin to California, the messages were the same. Built on hope for the future, and belief that anything is possible, they acknowledged their gifts, and claimed expectation for failure among their successes.

One speaker in particular, though, captured my attention unlike any of the others. My son. A class officer, his role was less speaker and more emcee. But when he took the stage and introduced himself, I heard him say his name loudly, clearly and with pride. I was struck. At that moment, with my daughter sitting beside me and Swenny on the other side, I realized the narrative has not only changed, it’s no longer in my voice only. It’s now also in the voices of our children.

As they get louder, stronger and clearer, I hope that Swenny will listen closely to what they are saying. Stop drinking. Before it is too late.

 

 

Run

Apparently, the fine line separating alcoholism from sobriety is just a break in a storm that continues to roll through. Finally believing that the four months of sobriety Swenny had achieved was the beginning of longterm recovery, I was greeted in bed one night last weekend by the familiar scent of vodka. My patterns are as predictable as his, so I immediately questioned what my nose was telling me and fell asleep believing I was mistaken.

The next morning, when I was asked about Swenny by a running buddy, I answered that he was good. Surprisingly good. Sensing there was more to my answer, she said nothing for a few strides before I broke the silence by adding that I was certain I smelled vodka the night before. When I returned home, I found it – a nearly empty bottle, poorly camouflaged by a brown paper bag, tucked neatly away in a locked compartment of his trunk.

At first, Swenny denied that he knew anything about it. A few seconds later, he claimed it was an old bottle. I waited while he chased leads on a story he hoped I would buy. Finally, he acknowledged another relapse, characterizing it as small and assuring me it would be short lived.

With nothing left to say, I tossed the bottle in the trash and entered our kitchen to find my favorite coffee mug. Molded by a potter, it sits perfectly in my hand. On the front it says “Run”. So over a cup of coffee, I considered running and alcoholism. And storms after an early morning thundershower washed through.

For those who struggle to achieve longterm recovery, every day of sobriety is also a day closer to relapse. As storm clouds build, those who love someone with alcoholism take heed of what’s to come. Before long, against their better judgment, they run into the storm. With thunderclouds still building, they realize that once again they have underestimated its power, and emerge weakened by their effort.

Knowing that it’s just a matter of time before they run back into that storm, they can’t help but wonder what it will take before they decide to run the other way.

A Fine Line

I imagine a fine line separates drinking from sobriety. For almost four months, Swenny and I have been traversing on the sober side of that line. Over here, when I search for bottles, I find none. Conversations are remembered. Requests are filled. Wishes are granted.

Occasionally, I look to the other side and ask what has made it possible for us to finally cross over to here. It’s as if we woke up one day in a place where alcoholism doesn’t belong, so no space for it is made.

As we work to find comfort in our new reality, we never lose sight of the circumstances that once upon a time – not long ago – made it seem impossible. Circumstances that included people who pushed us away and others who stood by ready to stop us before we went too far.

Standing today on the sober side, those very people who forced most the tension between what was and what one day might be are nowhere to be found. When I wonder where they have gone, I look across the line that distinguishes then from now. To the place from where we have come, and I see them. I see them looking back at us, reflecting on the damage we caused.

Damage so great that in their eyes, no other Swenny and Cher exists. No other Swenny and Cher is possible. And if it is, the collateral required to know is too great. So we move on.

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.

Lucky Man

I have long considered Swenny the luckiest alcoholic. His health is intact, and so is his family. In October, when he lost his job, two better jobs were presented to him the very next day. Where I once searched hardship for the lessons to inspire his sobriety, I no longer believe they will be found by paying a price. Instead, I believe they can be found in the grace and gifts that are continually bestowed. Including recently the opportunity to share dinner with old friends.

After not seeing or even speaking with each other for eight years, Swenny was contacted by an old friend – a fraternity brother and groomsman – planning to be in town. A dinner invitation was immediately extended, instantly accepted, and then made to another friend and member of our wedding party who recently moved back to town after more than a decade away.

Handshakes were met with hugs, and the friends picked up where they left off, as if no years or miles existed between them. Catching up made way for reminiscing, and storytelling commenced. At that moment, there was more around our table than three old friends sharing a meal and good company. Joy was there, too. In the tears the men shed as they laughed until they cried, and in the stories they told, again and again, to extend the evening a little longer. And a little longer still.

As the night’s close started to cast its inevitable shadow, our children began to see their dad through the eyes of his oldest friends. Listening to the stories being shared, they came to understand the role he played in some of the best days of his friends’ lives, and of theirs in his.

Before goodbyes were said, grace joined us. Just in time to introduce Swenny’s children to their dad as the friend any man would be lucky to have.

 

Truth Be Told

Not all questions have answers. The most honest answers, though, do follow questions. Just not necessarily those that have been asked.

Recently, I’ve been trying to confirm what I think I know to be true: Swenny has relapsed. In the absence of proof are questions. And only questions.

Is Swenny sober? Does he forget conversations because we have so many that he can’t keep track? Or is he just tired of having the same conversation again and again? Does balance elude him because he is tired? Or tipsy? Is humiliation really the reason he refuses to take a breathalyzer? Doesn’t he want to prove me wrong in my assumption that he’s relapsed? Or can’t he? What did he spend $7.47 on yesterday? How much is a pint of vodka, anyways?

Where is he hiding the bottles?

Why won’t he look at me?

What is it that I really want to know? That he’s sober? Or that he’s not?

If the truth sometimes rests most comfortably in answers to questions that remain unasked, I need to learn how to choose mine more carefully.

Patience and Fortitude

Swenny and I have been getting on about the business of life. Armed with more than five weeks of sobriety and emboldened by the possibility that the worst might very well be behind us, we are beginning to resemble the happy family central to our story.

Less often do I find myself in the darkest corners of our home searching for bottles. And while old habits die hard, I believe that someday soon, I might make true the promise I made to Swenny when he committed to his own plan for recovery that I will stop scavenging for evidence. And he will make true his promise to me and all who care for him that he is done drinking.

And eventually, as we move beyond the years that have been scripted by alcoholism, we will be able to appreciate our story for what it really is…a story about a marriage that is imperfect, but real. One in which the partners, when faced with decisions of increasingly heavy enormity, do not just reflect on their vows, but say them aloud when nobody is there to listen. Reminders of their commitment in the absence of simple solutions. A story in which the measures of friendship are taken in depth rather than vastness, necessary when invitations ceased. A story in which the children’s belief in their family is at times stronger than their parents’, beautifully illustrating what it means to have faith.

As I continue to turn the pages to what I hope is a happy ending, I become more and more acquainted with two important characters.

Patience and Fortitude.

When a chapter seems filled with more despair than hope, Patience brings tolerance that heightens our threshold of pain, enabling us to endure more. And when the letters on the page spell fear, Fortitude provides the courage we need to persist.

Without them, our story would have ended long ago. And while their presence doesn’t guarantee a happy ending , it does ensure another chapter. Another chance for us to write our story as it is, knowing that we have what we need to continue.

 

 

Family Table

Earlier this week, Swenny and I shared dinner with 12 men living in a recovery home. They have removed themselves or have been removed from their families, friends, and everyday lives to focus on their recovery 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These individuals have hit bottom, some harder than others, and are finding the will to get up and reclaim themselves and the men they were before alcoholism and addiction stole the best of them.

We have been sharing meals with residents of this home for many years. At the first meal, we were a young family wanting to give back. Nice people from a partner congregation who enjoyed taking our turn around this very special table.

As Swenny’s alcoholism worsened, I would marvel at how he separated himself from them. Acting as if he had no idea what they were going through, a struggle that was theirs but never his. Now, though, he has accepted his place as one of them. As a man seeking sobriety and the possibilities it holds. Some recognize him from meetings, and occasionally he can be found in private conversations with those aware of their shared position on the front of a battle to which they were drafted.

Each dinner begins with two questions. One for the residents and one for the guests. Answering is not an option, and dinner isn’t over until everyone takes their turn. The questions are never easy, and the answers can be difficult to hear. Every person’s answer is acknowledged with a simultaneous thank you from the group, followed by the respondent’s name.

While rote, the practice is not insincere. Residents and guests listen to one another so intently that silence follows each answer, leaving long periods where no one speaks. I have never known there to be a spontaneous response. Instead there is nodding, appreciation, acknowledgment and respect.

When the formality of the guided conversation is done, the men sit back in their chairs and tell tales, encourage one another, make fun and enjoy each other’s company. Just like a family.

A family to which we, too, belong.

 

 

Legacies

Swenny and I met in college, at a university known for its leadership in teaching, service, and research. A top public university recognized for the beauty of its campus, the enthusiasm of its sports fans, and the drinking of its students. Alumni and students are known to boast about the university’s undisputed rank as the Number 1 Party School.

Where I was the first in my family to attend, Swenny followed a well-worn path forged by his grandparents, graduates of the Class of 1924. His parents graduated in 1962 and 1963, and we are members of the Classes of 1989 and 1990.

Our daughter is a fourth generation legacy there, now in her junior year. She is social, and, I understand, recognized in some circles for her annual Friendsgiving party and her recipe for wapatui. As the daughter of an alcoholic, though, her intake is modest in comparison to many classmates, tempered by her experiences growing up in a home where alcoholism had a place at the table, and lives on today in pictures, memories and relapses.

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This fall, our son will join his sister there, making come true the dream Swenny and I have had that our children follow in our footsteps as Badgers.  We have always wanted them to walk as students the expanse of the campus they first visited as infants, instinctively grab whoever is closest and sway along with thousands of others whenever Varsity is sung, and in lecture halls filled with hundreds of other students, find themselves.

Unlike his sister, our son’s attitude toward alcohol is abstinence, not moderation. Now at the age where friends are testing their limits, he is known to encourage his closest friends to remain sober, asking that together, they refrain from drinking.

In college, especially on the campus he will call home, my hope for him is that his earnestness isn’t mocked. I hope that somewhere among his classmates is at least one other student wanting to fill his red solo cup with soda, yet willing to hold back the hair of friends visiting the porcelain god after over serving themselves. Watching without judgment and at peace with the decision to go through college sober.