Reaching

Chronicling the circumstances of an alcoholic life in an attempt to write the best possible ending is risky. Swenny and Cher was intended to help me find what it was I wanted most: a happily-ever-after-alcoholism that continues to elude. After fifty-nine posts holding 20,705 carefully placed words my fairy tale ending remains at large.

And in the process of reaching for a better tomorrow, I lost sight of today. Somehow content to leave it misplaced, I continue to fill pages with words I hope will reveal the answer to my favorite question: “How will this story end?” Time and again, I have granted myself an extension with the expectation that it will emerge in the next post. A post that I often anticipate will follow a relapse trailed by an empty threat dampened by an equally hollow promise.

Eventually, because extending can defy gravity for only so long, a person has to land.  Always choosing to land as far ahead as possible on the calendar I keep, I have decided it’s best to land in the here-and-now. To give less to the future and more to the present.

Last weekend, I found myself exploring the neighborhood where Swenny and I first shared an address. The apartment building we called home appeared unchanged, and the sidewalks that surround it remained filled by students, families and shoppers making their way from one place to another as quickly as possible. In the busyness of that afternoon, I got in step and returned myself to the good old days of Swenny and Cher. The time just before alcoholism staked its initial claim on the future we now see mostly in hindsight.

Never then would I have risked a today by reaching too far beyond tomorrow. If I had, the grounds I stomped would have been empty of any memories worth collecting. I would instead have been picking up remnants of a couple that chose to mark days to an end that is still, as of yet, undefined. And while all good endings are, the best are reserved for those who live each day toward what it is they want most.

 

 

 

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From Beginning to End

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

                                         Joan Didion

I remember the beginning – the moment I met Swenny – like it was yesterday. Sitting in a large lecture hall on the first day of class second semester of my sophomore year, I fell nearly head over heels down the stepped aisle to catch him when class let out. By the time we reached the door, we had plans for the weekend. As the semester went along, I fell harder. And before classes let out for summer, I was in love.

And continued to be through a marriage that has held more joy than not. Alcoholism, though, has eclipsed what was best about us. Even with the end on the horizon, I chose to believe that what I was seeing was a future free from alcoholism.

Over time, relapse after relapse blurred that end. As I explored sober houses and recovery programs, Swenny became more determined to manage alone, justifying his inaction with promises as empty as my threats. Using harmony as currency to buy time toward an ending preceded by happy, I lost my way.

So I circled. Taking comfort in my own patterns of searching for bottles and lost conversations, I tracked the scent of relapse. Time and again, my instincts made true what I suspected. Which is why I found myself last night, with nothing more than a hunch, confronting Swenny about his drinking. As he stood in denial, I pulled on my boots as if leaving for the drugstore to purchase a breathalyzer test. Before calling my bluff, he turned away from me in tears.

He told me that his relapse in November has left him feeling alone. Charging me with giving up on him, he has been taking comfort in beers shared with co-workers in a meat cooler after work. Where for them it is a nightcap before heading home, for Swenny it is a way to leave no trace. A way to leave me searching for proof of which I need none. A way to tell me just what he thinks of me and my expectations for his sobriety.

A way to make clear the ending that I have lacked the courage to see through. Until now. With this, Swenny has given me closure.

 

 

From without

When our children turned 18, they made known their independence by getting tattoos. While Swenny and I wrote checks for tuition and housing, and put spending money in their pockets, they drew from their savings to ink themselves. In answer to my expectation that they exercise restraint and judgement in the number and placement, they invited me to get one of my own.

Because our conversations are sprinkled with references to long term recovery and what it would mean for our family, I always fall back on the semicolon. A symbol of recovery, it says with one simple mark that alcoholism is not the end of my story; there is more.

While I’m unsure that the semicolon is for me, I embrace its message that it’s not about the disease, but about the person and the people who surround them. Addiction was introduced into my story long before Swenny by my uncle who succumbed to his use, my grandparents and father who mourned him, and my aunt for whom his passing made all but impossible a happy ending. After he died, she carried on but with struggles of her own, including alcoholism. But that was never her story…she was.

Left a single mother, she raised an accomplished son in my cousin who is building his own happy life. My grandparents sought to ease her burdens by providing support when they could. Because both remained broken by my uncle’s death, and because of circumstances I cannot possibly appreciate, their good intentions were often cut short. Still, she persevered.

My memories of her play in the shadow of my uncle’s death and its aftermath. From the phone call to our home that he had died to the times we spent as a family in the years that followed, I recognize now how misplaced our concern was – always for someone other than her. Not once did we consider the impact of his passing on her. Not once as an adult did I reach out to her, letting slip by the opportunity to know her outside the boundaries of a tragedy we claimed as ours without acknowledging the distress in which she was left. With a sense of entitlement, though, I avowed her as my Godmother and noted each year our shared birthday. And still do.

Somehow, she made room for the family that estranged her because of an event not of her making. What must it have been like for her to wear the burden of my grandparents’ grief? Where from without she was strong, I wonder if the same was true from within.

Eventually, her visits stopped. The last time I saw her was at my cousin’s wedding. Her death a few years ago coincided with a period when Swenny struggled most, so I missed her memorial gathering, spending the day packing boxes for our first of two moves in less than as many years.

Today, my memory is crowded in a way that leaves me unable to smoothly merge our stories. I can, though, treasure what I remember best about her: the courage, strength and steeliness that saw her through. My aunt was tough in a way I have never been, and weathered in a way that made others take note.

Because I could use some of what she had, I woke up recently in the middle of the night with a message for my cousin. “Tell me about your Mom’s tattoos,” I asked. She had many, and none spoke to her struggles. They told instead about what she loved.

Encouraged by my cousin to follow her example, I have decided to stay away from any mark that suggests a break in my story forced by alcoholism or anything else. Because it continues, absent any pause, to the happily ever after that I keep within and guard from without.

 

 

Captain America

Yesterday, I shared a table at a coffee shop with a man who has no place to call home. Because I was covered in Badger gear, he struck up a conversation about the night’s bowl game. When I asked about his Oregon Ducks hat, he responded that like most of his outfit, he found it so therefore wears it.

With temperatures peaking just above zero, I took inventory. His hat seemed sufficient, and his jeans and boots looked warm. His jacket, though, barely reached his wrists and was small and left unzipped. Underneath, he wore a Captain America t-shirt.

Wanting for him a warm place for as long as possible, I purchased a gift card that would fill his mug until closing. His acceptance extended our conversation and before it turned personal, he introduced himself. “I’m Kirk,” he said, taking my right hand in his left.

I learned that Kirk is a poet. Pages of hand written notes were spread out before him, carefully ordered and neatly folded. When I eventually stood to leave, he asked if he could share something with me. I answered yes and listened while he read aloud his most recent work.

“An unsheltered life is beautiful,” he began. Preferring a roof of stars over the trappings of a warm home, Kirk concluded by asking me about what he could possibly complain. He is, after all, blessed.

Upon saying goodbye, I counted my own blessings. Family, friends and a roof over my head made the list. Once home, though, I shook them off and searched for bottles. Looking through closets and drawers, I found instead a journal I gave Swenny the Father’s Day before he moved to a sober house. Hoping to find it filled with his reflections, I discovered a diary chronicling just three days.

Like Kirk, Swenny made note of his blessings and titled them as such. Among them he listed the luxury of a private room for at least one night, going to bed with a full stomach, and a day that ended with a text from me that read, “I love you.”

That journal is from a time when we believed the worst was behind us; from a time when we expected that by now we’d have moved on to other things. And while I wish we could have made true our dream of a life free from alcoholism, there is comfort in some of what remains unchanged. Namely all that we continue to appreciate and the unexpected reminders to take nothing for granted.

Before returning the journal to its hiding place, I added a new blessing to my list: Captain America. The everyday hero whose superpower is the gift of perspective. And whose cape I will seek to earn in the New Year.

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Daughter

Swenny likes to say that I am the worst combination of my parents: I have my mom’s love of shopping and my dad’s love of cars. Mostly, though, I am my father’s daughter. To me, there is no higher compliment than to be told that I am like him.

Lately, I have been thinking about him a lot. Swenny and I share a wedding anniversary with his parents and my parents, making it easy to remember it also as the day my father got sick. Eighteen years ago last month marked the beginning of countless hospitalizations, surgeries, and close calls to which he always answered, “Not yet.”

Eventually, after nine years, he entered hospice early one morning in what I remember as an emergency. He died days later, with Swenny standing alone outside his room. I was at Macy’s.

Following his memorial service, a typo on his grave marker delayed his burial. Somehow, he never made it to the cemetery and remains today on a shelf at the funeral home down the street from my house. I have considered stopping to get him, but out of respect for my mother, and the fact that his cremains are not mine to get, I haven’t.

Swenny’s latest relapse has left me wanting my dad’s advice unlike ever before. With so much at stake, I sense the magnitude of my next step and the importance of taking it deliberately and without falter. But with love and consideration for all involved.

The other day, without a grave to visit, I nearly drove to the funeral home to see him…to hold him. I wanted to feel the weight of him in my hands while I asked him what to do. I wanted to ask his expectations for me in my marriage. I wanted to ask if he thought I had done enough.

Mostly, though, I wanted to ask him what happiness looks like. And to hear him answer that the time has come for me to find out for myself.

“Be deliriously happy or at least leave yourself open to be.”

                 William Parrish

 

 

If Only

There’s a part of all of us that longs to know that even what’s weakest about us can ultimately count for something good.

Fred Rogers

Swenny deserves better. Namely, a life free from alcoholism and someone with the courage to help him get there. In entry after entry, I have described his relapses with a focus on his part in them. What I think about lately, though, is my role in his inability to achieve sobriety lasting longer than a handful of months.

Too often, when he needed my strength, I brought weakness. When he needed my courage, I brought fear. And now, when he needs my assurance, I have none to give.

Understanding that Swenny’s sobriety rests with him, I still wonder how different things might be if I had handled his alcoholism any other way. If only I had followed through on my demands, been less tolerant of relapse, or less willing to accept the circumstances in which we both chose to exist.

If only…

Despite a preclusion to turn back time and undo any harm, I am grateful for the choice that remains: continue to be or live. If I choose the latter, what I want and what I fear most become one, establishing my inability to reconcile them as my biggest weakness. Leaving me longing to know how that can ultimately count for something good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Character

Weeks ago, Swenny and I made plans to celebrate our anniversary by sharing dinner with 13 men establishing sober lives in the recovery home where we volunteer. After they welcomed us at the door, we walked together to the dining room and joined hands in a circle for introductions.

The man on my left was celebrating his rite of passage tomorrow, preparing to move on after six months at the inn. At the table, he spoke about the hope he finally allows and invited his housemates to share the emotions they now permit. Joy and pride were mentioned again and again. Fear of complacency was also noted, followed by conversation about where that might lead.

Which is when I turned to catch a glimpse of Swenny. Last night, I listened as he denounced the effectiveness of the strategies the 13 other alcoholics and addicts around the table were deeming necessary. Necessary to lead lives free from the ransom of their addictions; necessary to remove the layer of shame they once wore; and necessary to be successful in the pursuits of happiness upon which they have finally embarked.

Tonight, I found myself surrounded not by addicts and alcoholics, but by men with choices. All but one of them has chosen sobriety. The other remains complacent.

During dinner, I thought about character as the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life. By the end of the evening, it was clear to me what makes the inn so special. It is a place where men of character go to secure the futures they always intended, and very unlike where Swenny chooses to exist. What remains unclear is why he can’t – or won’t – see the benefit of a community like the one that nourished us tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

For Better

Tonight, on the eve of our 26th anniversary, Swenny and I spoke at length about our marriage. Not surprisingly, the role alcoholism has played in our years together was central to our conversation. It has defined us.

With hands on a clock unique to people struggling with sobriety, we have marked our time relative to milestones in drinking. The earliest hidden drinks coincided with our daughter’s first day of kindergarten and the passing of his mother; my return to full-time work aligned with a call from his father that an employee of his witnessed Swenny buying vodka while at work; his most significant annual relapses came – for five consecutive years – on the eve of our favorite rowing regatta. Swenny’s stay at a sober house found him shortly thereafter drinking again and arriving intoxicated at the closing for our home. The home meant to be the site of our fresh start is where we have navigated over the last two years outpatient rehab, lost jobs, time living apart and another difficult summer. Throughout, I held firm in my demands that things change, or else. And proceeded to do nothing.

And what now? Have we stayed too long at the fair? Time and again, our optimism to achieve longterm recovery has been checked by the strength of temptation and reality of relapse.

Tonight, we sat together reminiscing about what we have endured in our marriage, stunned that it is possibly over. While I can no longer remember the expectations we held at the time of our vows, I prefer to believe we have met many of them. Most importantly, we have built a relationship with love and respect that I am confident would last beyond the life of our marriage.

If we stay any longer, that may not be the case. So it might likely be for better to quit while we are ahead. With and for each other. Always.

 

 

 

 

Anniversary Wishes

Twenty-six years ago this week, Swenny and I were married. Like last year, our anniversary comes on the heels of a relapse that leaves me wondering how to celebrate. Unlike last year, though, when Swenny lived away from home over our anniversary and the holidays surrounding it, this year he is here. With no intention of leaving.

In answer to my colorfully stated request last week that he find someplace else to live, he asked me to instead consider how far he’s come. As he trumpeted his extended periods of sobriety and recent choice to drink less-damaging high-octane beer instead of vodka, I found myself with little left to say. Taking my silence as a win, he woke up the next day and every day since as if nothing has changed.

And why wouldn’t he? In relapse after relapse, my threats have remained unfulfilled. Since finding a bag of crumpled beer cans in a tree in our backyard, I have spent overnights calculating the cost of my inaction. Not surprisingly, it is high – and it has come time to pay.

For our 25th anniversary I found inspiration in the traditional gift, placing a silver lining around our first quarter century together. The 26th anniversary, though, has no traditional gift. Known as a year of adjustment, it is suggested that celebrants mark the occasion by exchanging artwork. So I have decided to paint a picture.

Alcoholism will remain at its center, but the focus will rest elsewhere. Possibly with my happiness, likely secured at the expense of his. In the picture I’m painting, I see myself in a place where previously I could not even glance – to a place of letting go.

What Swenny sees as progress I see as a series of never-ending setbacks. I find the type of alcohol he chooses to pour down his throat irrelevant, and his most recent hiding place horrifying. It’s unimaginable to me what might be next.

When I asked him last week to consider his struggle with alcoholism from my perspective, what I was really asking was permission to make the change I want most. Even though the only consent I need is my own. Let’s hope that early in the year of adjustment, it is granted.

 

One bridge left to cross

The other morning, I ran across a graffiti covered bridge – the second on my regular route. I remember that among the many signs and symbols dressing its rails, it once told all who crossed “I LOVE YOU $OBER.”

Because lately I have been searching for signs, I noticed that the message I held onto for many miles and months was no longer there. I returned to the bridge and scanned its phrases, brushing the rust-covered words with my fingers. The phrase was nowhere to be found. And I missed it.

I first noticed it early in my determination to make the most of a journey with alcoholism over which I had minimal influence but great investment. Believing that my happiness rested with a sober Swenny, I made certain he knew that is how I preferred him, and allowed myself to believe that it was possible. Trustingly, I put the card that I thought held my happiness in his hand and waited for him to play it.

While waiting, I continued on. Along bridges and paths, I minded our way by forging ahead with deliberate steps taken on uncertain footing. Over the years, and the past few especially, I have stumbled. Often choosing the path of least resistance, I allowed myself to be satisfied by attempts at sobriety followed by hands-in-the-air surrenders, shortened separations in response to my need for company, and used for excuses milestones I felt we should celebrate as a family to keep us together. Throughout, I put our happiness and Swenny’s odds for longterm sobriety at risk.

On that early morning run late last week, I eventually came across the graffiti I thought had been erased on a bridge up ahead. When I saw it, I thought about what else I have  missed in pursuit of the ending I thought I wanted most.

Now in a house emptied of children, I find myself looking ahead. Beyond the path I can see to one I hope to someday reach, I am letting the echo of my foot strikes lead me to where I need to go. To the bridge I said I’d cross when I get to it – where the water I was once happy to wash underneath is rising before me. Where not long ago I wished it to subside, I now want it to rush in a way that requires a bridge strong enough to deliver me to a place where my happiness rests with me and Swenny’s sobriety with him. To where there is space between swenny and cher.

Tonight, I am faced with crossing that bridge. Arrived to on a hunch, his latest relapse was confirmed by evidence tucked in the branches of a tree lining our yard. I have decided that this next bridge, I want to cross alone.