Storytime

I know my good fortune in being married to an alcoholic who is non-violent, high-functioning and without repercussions of a criminal record. I have been told by people who know him best that Swenny is a good person. I have also been told by well-meaning outsiders that it would be easier if he were not, because then I could go.

If that was my goal, though, I would never have come here. To the place where I have written to make sense of something about which I could make none. To face something from which I had always looked away, and to pull toward me a life that I had been watching from a distance.

Here, my life as someone who loves a person with alcoholism has played out. I have chronicled relapses and enablement with essays as a measure of how much we could take and remain. Even after alcoholism made its grip permanent with cirrhosis complete with complications, ours has remained a story about drinking.

Now, though, it has the potential to be about recovery. Swenny has been sober for more than three months, and is looking back to see what he has missed. In order to move forward, I am filling in the blanks. Those conversations are difficult. And necessary.

He recently opened one by noting how bad things could have been. People he has met in recovery have stories that are so harrowing, it’s a wonder that they are here to tell them. When he shakes his head with an air of relief and superiority that those stories aren’t his, I bring him into ours.

Four houses ago, when we were a family kept busy by school, sports and work, I would fall into bed after our kids but before Swenny. Night after night, I would hear him walk down into the basement. Over time, I would hear him rummaging in our air returns. Then nothing. Never once did I hear him come back upstairs, so in the middle of the night, I would go looking for him. There he would be, asleep in a bucket chair with a glass of lemonade, kept cool by the temperature of the room, next to him. He would drink vodka from the bottle, return it to the vent, chase it with Crystal Light and pass out. Every night.

When I told him this story, he asked why I never woke him up. “I tried,” I said. “But couldn’t.”

I have hundreds of stories like this. And the time is right for him to hear them. Because even though our pain wasn’t inflicted by one or more catastrophic events, but instead by a series of small though serious occasions, the wound still weeps.

I remember shots without a chaser

Man Overboard: Blink-182

Five Days in February

For five days recently, Swenny and I lived together. A Valentine’s Eve fall left him with a boxer’s break to his left hand. Upon discharge from the emergency room, he was provided with a list of over-the-counter pain meds to take, and a prescription for oxycodone. His cirrhosis limits his over-the-counter options, so he took a Tylenol and returned to his sober house late Saturday night after sharing with me an 11:30 p.m. dinner eaten hurriedly, the time of his curfew long past. Out of respect for his sober house mates and rules of living there, he left the oxycodone prescription unfilled.

By Sunday, his pain was extreme. After discussing it with the operator of the house where he is living, he decided to take a temporary leave to allow the pain medication he needed, understanding that he could return after it was out of his system. Needing a place to stay, he came home.

For five days, we played house. We became reacquainted. With each other and with our comings; our goings. With morning routines and nighttime rituals. He has an electric gum cleaner and likes the heat up high. He makes a perfectly strong cup of coffee and delivers it to my bedside table. I let him sleep while I shoveled, and recommended books from our shelves. When I arrived home after work at night, he had dinner waiting.

Throughout his stay, Swenny maintained his commitment to daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He made time to call his younger brother and father to share about his disease and his decision to move to a sober living facility. One night, we talked about his addiction and its affect on us and our family. I reminded him of the people who remain on his side while he considers how best to respond to the well-intended messages that he has so far left unanswered.

By Wednesday, we resembled a couple. For two years, his side of the bed has been empty. The sheets have stayed tightly tucked; the pillows perfectly stacked. When he asked four days in if I would like company upstairs, I said, of course, yes. While the dog took his rightful place between us, I realized that having the warmth of another person – my person – sleeping next to me was something that I missed more than I knew. When he announced the next morning that he was returning to his sober house, I was sorry. Sorry to see him go. And sorry that he had to.

But he did…

Because our house is still held in place by chance, strengthened only by his determination and my belief that what we had for a working week was more than house play. It was about possibility more than pretending.

For five days in February, we were a rendering: of a couple, of a marriage. Of what could still be.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” ~ C.S. Lewis

Everything in Between

Alcoholism is made of extremes. Its highs and lows are well-documented, and of what its stories are made. Its tales, though, are in the everyday. Between the fallout of wavering expectations and evitable consequences, life goes on.

For Swenny and me, the cost of alcoholism has been significant. We have lost friends, and of others we let go. Family members are unsure about how to spend time with us, and us with them. Even within our family of four, years of wear-and-tear have left us threadbare.

With peaks that have become ever less distinguishable from valleys, our range of movement has become limited. Each ultimatum has left us with fewer steps to take, and with nowhere else to go. Somehow, though, we have found room to take the stakes higher. And are now living in the aftermath of the latest ultimatum: a collection of final offers in a decade-long negotiation that has found us here.

It was almost two years ago when Swenny and I sat together at a sober house being told that he could not move in until he sought recovery. His physical condition, combined with a positive breathalyzer taken during a tour, confirmed that he needed more help than they could provide. We discussed a course of action in which he would be welcome there that included twenty-eight days at an inpatient rehabilitation center. Swenny considered this carefully. As I pushed for him to go – to do the hard work of recovery that he hadn’t yet – he pushed back, finding a friend in recovery to stay with while he worked on his sobriety.

Despite trying, he continued to drink. Since living apart wasn’t consequence enough, I filed for separation in a gesture intended to catch his attention. In answer, he continued to drink. In what was becoming a battle of wills, fate delivered the next blow: a diagnosis of advanced liver disease. To cope, he continued to drink. As scopes and scans measured time, he continued to drink. As our date of separation approached, he continued to drink. Cirrhotic ascites upped the ante, and he continued to drink.

Given a list of recovery programs by his doctor in August, he continued to drink, procrastinating any move to ensure that day-to-day he would be present. For getaways, birthdays, and walks with the dog. For our son’s graduation and Christmas Day.

His insistence on the everyday, though, has been costly. Five months have been spent further damaging his liver. And our already precarious marriage by denying that he is drinking, even as his carefully procured alcohol waits for him on ice in his closet a block away. Our separation continuing indefinitely; our life’s equity somehow still intact.

And while the joy of the everyday is undeniable, it doesn’t compare to what’s possible when the highs and lows are allowed to arc in the direction of hope. Building each day toward a story worth telling.

Tomorrow, Swenny is following that arc. With a grand gesture of his own, he is moving to a sober house. Neither a peak nor a valley, it is simply necessary. A decision he arrived to alone. A step toward recovery. And a chance to recapture everything in between.

I just want you to know that this is me trying. At least I’m trying. ~ Taylor Swift

Quieting

Christmas fell away quickly. The house emptied of my children and Swenny, and the blanket of presents beneath the tree went with them. Without errands to run and gifts to wrap, my attention took me home. It is disquieting to be here alone, especially after spending two days functioning as a family with only one front door.

Aloneness, though, is what I need most. Not as a state of being, but as a place to be. Where I am unreachable except by my own expectations. Where I am closed away from responsibility for the assumptions of others about what would make my life good. Where I don’t need another disappointment to confirm the importance of my own happiness. Where I can let go of my share in Swenny’s alcoholism.

For a moment today, I had time to spend. So I silenced my calls and shut my eyes. I woke up wanting to make room for something else.

Even in the quietest moments I wish I knew what I had to do. ~ Supertramp

All Our Novembers

Growing up, my son felt his father’s and my marriage breaking. He noticed the nicks in my armor, and found my overreactions startling. Especially in contrast to Swenny’s collected exterior. My behavior confused him. Once he realized that my reactions were compensation for Swenny’s alcoholism, he made sense of it, releasing me from my role as villain to one of someone distressed. But determined to protect him and our family from the inside out.

Now a senior in college, he continues to process what it is to be the son of an alcoholic. He has established boundaries, and enforces them thoughtfully. When necessary, he is considerate with reminders that punishing me is never his intention, even though sometimes it is a consequence.

As the door swung open for him to go, my daughter came back through. Like her brother, she is processing what it means to be the child of an alcoholic. She, too, has boundaries, but like me, allows the edges to give way. Even after experiencing up close the chaos I have caused with my continual resetting of the boundaries I established, she gives: a testament to her generosity. To her grace. She makes time to share space with her father along the trails of an urban woodland near home where they exchange stories about the people of late who rest there while our dog determines the path they follow.

When she asks him to get help, he promises to. She believes he wants to, but has no expectation that he will. My son no longer asks.

Neither do I.

Monday is Swenny and my anniversary. For twenty-nine Novembers, I have considered us…the decisions we have made and those we have left unmade. I have considered the childhoods of our daughter and son, and the circumstances we allowed to frame them. Lately, I check my watch to see what time is left to tidy up before the troubling of their youth becomes the horizon that lines their future.

In tending the mess, I plan to leave in place what is best: parents in Swenny and me who love them. Who believe in them. And with acknowledgment of our own shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, are in awe of them. Most importantly, I will leave in place them. Their strength to remain firm. Their courage to remind us why when we lose track of how. Their willingness to accept, without condition, us.

Because that is what makes all our Novembers possible.

In the fall, we let you go your way. ~ Neil Young

In Pieces

Five years ago today, we moved into a new home. What it lacked in architecture, it made up for in promise. It was to be our new beginning.

That was two new beginnings ago. Nothing has changed, but everything is different. Alcoholism remains the condition by which every decision I make is hedged. But advanced liver disease has softened my response to the battle scars it has cut.

The deepest of which has been to our marriage. I am no longer just Swenny’s wife. I am his keeper. With responsibility to guard him from the consequences of his own decisions, and to keep him as whole as possible. In the meantime, I have fallen into a million pieces.

I am broken.

And brittle. Stiffened by the pose I have kept of caring more for him than for me. For what he needs more than for what I want.

How can I pick up the pieces of me without getting cut by the sharp edges of us that I need to traverse? Or is hurting necessary? Even preferable in order to temper the joy I would feel of a weight lifted with his distress in feeling it shift?

Mostly, though, is it possible for me to put myself back together in a way that doesn’t resemble who I am now? An estranged wife whose lack of courage has enabled the continued drinking of a man with whom she can no longer live? But loves. And cannot leave for fear of an accusation of abandonment?

Is it possible to repair what is broken and leave visible the flaws that have kept me with him? And him with me?

Will acknowledging the beauty of those flaws help make me whole? Can I separate mine from his without compromising the strength we need to face what lies ahead?

Am I strong enough to stand alone? Is he? Are we?

…I’ve been afraid of changing. Cause I’ve built my life around you. ~ Fleetwood Mac

Come Good Home

The only way is through. It was how I came to take possession of the keys to my fifth address in as many years, hard fought peace found at the hearth of a faux fireplace. But with a master suite too big for one, its dormer ironically facing the place exactly one block east where Swenny lives. Close enough to be caught in the same moon shadow yet still out of reach.

But an alley way erases almost any distance between us at all, making Swenny’s visits so frequent that our dog spends his days in anticipation. And leaving me lightened by the chores he so willingly takes on, seeing for himself what needs to be done. As if he lived here, too.

But he doesn’t. And when he stopped by last week with flowers and candy after I hurt myself on a run, the familiar scent of vodka reminded me why. He denied that he had been drinking, so I let it go. But that doesn’t mean I accepted it. Which is why, for as long as I am able, I will remain firm that a sober Swenny is welcome to live here. One with cirrhosis and ascites who continues to drink has at least one stop to make before calling our house home.

My hope is that that stop will be inpatient rehab. At this point, it is just a phone call away…ten numbers to tap on his screen to continue the conversation he left off on Wednesday – his second – with an admissions specialist named Linda. A conversation he chased with a swig of vodka to steady himself to take flowers to his wife.

I’m not able to make sense of that day, or of his procrastination to secure the help he needs. But without an endless supply of time, I am tempted to force the call. To stand ready with his bag packed, like an expectant parent anxious to get to the hospital. All the while considering his return home: to a house intended for two.

A house so sturdy that the strongest of winds leave it unrattled. A house uncluttered by the innuendo of addiction. Where the music we have listened to for years plays differently…with lyrics that once described the chaos of our recent past rewritten to sound our passage home.

Not all who wander are lost. ~ J.R. Tolkien

Continued…

Every story breaks. Some because of pauses intentionally placed by tellers wanting to start again. Others when a point has gone missing, lost amidst words that tumble upon it, burying it until their weight forces open a fissure through which it can be found. When those same words reassemble, they tell a different side of that story, the point becoming counter.

Lately here, the words I’ve left unwritten have instead been spoken. To Swenny, to our children, and to a receptionist at an inpatient treatment facility north of our home. They have been said while alcoholic liver disease advances and measured days look on; hidden bottles and ultimatums now just reminders of a time not that long ago when I believed that the conclusion to this story was ours to write.

Which it is not, and I likely knew that all along. Where it came apart, though, I’m not sure. Perhaps the seam holding our pages gave way as Swenny continued to go through the motions of recovery, and I set boundaries that were, at best, simulations. Bluffs to be called.

No more. This is no longer a story about drinking. It is about what is possible if he is able to stop. And the consequences if he cannot.

Two weeks ago, when his doctor provided him with a list of programs to aid in his recovery, I favored the in–patient rehab centers while he leaned toward a sober house. Like a couple that can’t agree on the setting for the thermostat, we are not finding compromise. So I am doing my best to let it go. The decision is not mine to make. It is his, and I will support him.

Last week, I concluded our fourth move in five years. While I hold alcoholism responsible for being unable to remain in place for any length of time, the continuous need to forward our mail has been because of me. So I weather the jokes, laughing at my own expense at the punch lines unknowing people tee up about my real estate problem. Embarrassed, even though each move allowed me to live with a new stage of alcoholism: fear, hope, despair and now, finally, acceptance.

There is peace in acceptance.

From here, I hope to reassemble the words that I pull from the rubble of our story to tell the best part yet. About the beauty of perseverance.

I’m falling. ~ Shallow

Mad Love

About a month ago, I asked Swenny to call his doctor. He didn’t look good: he was losing weight, he appeared exhausted, and the tone of his skin was concerning. Surprisingly, he called. That’s when I knew that he was worried, too.

Like for many right now, non-emergency procedures and tests have been postponed. Swenny hadn’t had an esophageal scope since January and his last ultrasound was last Fall. After calling his doctor, both tests were scheduled last month, a week between them. I told him that I was eager for the results so that I could return to being mad at him, rather than worried, hoping for positive news.

The first results were good: the esophageal scope showed no bleeding varices but white patches on his esophagus. They were brushed and determined to be benign.

The ultrasound, though, was less positive. Swenny shared the results with me in a text after I left his call unanswered because it came while I was in a meeting. The ultrasound showed no spots on his liver, but found ascites. With that, I stopped reading, knowing that the development of ascites marks a point in the progression of his disease from which he will not recover. If he continues to drink, he will likely shorten his prognosis from a couple of years to something less than.

And he continues to drink.

In response, I’m concluding my lesson in tough love. It didn’t work, and responsibility for its failure rests with me. In the past ten years, I have drawn more lines in the sand than I can count. As they were crossed, I stepped each one closer to the shoreline, with less and less time lapsing before the tide of life would erase them. Now we’re at the water’s edge, and there is no sand left upon which to draw.

So while the water laps at our feet, we will focus on the positive. His ascites are low-volume. His doctor wishes to discuss in-patient rehab. Our petition for divorce has been dismissed. And our family of four is circling.

…no one said enough is enough ~ Gloria, The Lumineers

Epilogue

Mostly, I am an optimist. I describe glasses as half-full, and I’m earnest in my collection of lucky coins, believing that a penny can turn a day around, and a nickel an entire workweek.

Sometimes, though, I’m a realist. Shortly after posting “The End” Swenny and my separation was denied. Our terms were deemed unreasonable, so the commissioner sent us away with homework due July 23rd. Shortly thereafter, my mom’s health took a sudden and unexpected turn. Consumed by responsibility for her and her affairs, and with no chance of meeting the established deadline, I put our separation away. For good. By default judgment of circumstances, we would remain married.

Sharing this news with my mom was a bright spot in an otherwise distressing time. When revisiting terrifying hallucinations caused by her newly diagnosed vascular dementia, she described a trip to court with Swenny and me for our divorce. A high school friend of mine was there. He is a local attorney, and she was thrilled that he didn’t charge her for services rendered. I took that opportunity to tell her that our proceedings had concluded. We would remain married.

Accepting her happiness as confirmation that I was doing right by everyone involved, I began looking at houses where we would live together. I was convinced that with Swenny’s help, and caregivers, we could spare my mom the heartache of skilled nursing during a global pandemic that limits our ability to be with her.

Believing that anything is possible, I found the perfect house. Listed on the National Historic Registry, its amenities included a first floor bedroom and bathroom with a walk-in shower. A basement suite complete with a working fireplace was the perfect apartment for a caregiver. It also included a cook’s kitchen, a beautiful yard and a three-season porch that I could turn into a writing space. A small parking slab was perfect for the German convertible I dream to buy.

Life changes, though, quickly extinguishing my dream. People with more resources than me made offers on the home, removing me from contention. So now, I am making arrangements for my mom to move to Assisted Living with memory care services. And Swenny and my separation has escalated to a divorce.

Tonight, after a long day spent orchestrating things on behalf of my Mom, my evening walk found me on his porch. I needed to talk, to tell him about the return of her hallucinations and how I hoped to make her new apartment feel like home. A few minutes into our conversation, his phone alerted him to a message. When he stood up to answer it in his room, it felt odd. So I followed him, finding him immersed in the closet.

Even though I stood inches behind him, he didn’t know I was there. He was busy rummaging, and when he stood up and turned, I was hit with the stench of booze. Swenny stumbled around me, and I dove to the spot from where he had emerged. In a ziploc bag filled with ice was an unopened can of high-octane beer. On the floor, was a half-empty one.

Stunned, I made my disappointment clear. Before I left, I made sure that he – and the neighbors – knew that I have had enough. I don’t need much, and I expect even less. But tonight, I wanted more.

And finally, I believe I deserve it. With my determination intact, I’m off to find it. With my glass half-full, here’s to me.

“And even when you know the way it’s gonna blow, it’s hard to get around the wind.” ~ Alex Turner