Solving for Z

Swenny and Cher need help. While my posts here aren’t a direct call for such, they do include an unwritten refrain acknowledging a lack of resources for people managing an alcoholic life. In my experience, what I do find available is either financially out of reach, medically unsupported or simply insufficient in its capacity to help an alcoholic move beyond his or her normal to a state of sobriety that is lasting, sustainable and life changing.

I know I’m not alone in this because I hear from others of their frustration with their own alcoholic life, in some cases wishing aloud they could have done something to save their alcoholic from hitting bottom before realizing that the rebound is sometimes just recovery lore. With understanding that the hard work rests with the alcoholic, I do wonder how those of us in the first ring of the alcoholism community can help them by helping each other.

After being party to a series of failures to launch a life free of alcoholism, I am becoming adept at reviewing what resources are available and measuring their potential to help Swenny and me succeed. In a formula where and y represent cost in terms of finances and relationships, I try to solve for z, the elusive answer known as sobriety.

Still standing at the blackboard without a solution, my strategy has evolved. I understand now that this is not a linear equation; it’s too large a problem. But because I am navigating a recovery system founded on anonymity, some of the most helpful factors remain unknown to me: family, friends and neighbors who have also struggled with alcoholism. They are possibly the best resources I have in my quest to find a solution before my piece of chalk is so used it’s merely dust.

And because it’s true that the only source of knowledge is experience, their wisdom is always welcome here.

 

 

 

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Fall Away

Alcoholism is a family affair. It impacts relationships and shifts standings.

Years ago, our son exclaimed he was the man. THE man. The top of our family tree had room for one, and he felt the spot belonged to him. Alcoholism, and the past three years especially, has made a prophet of him. With his sister away at college, and his father often struggling, he became a sound voice in our shared experience of loving an alcoholic. He became the man. And last week, I drove that man to college.

The impact on him of living with an alcoholic father has yet to fully play out, but I think in recent years it has made him steely. Whereas our daughter won’t leave a room before exclaiming her love for everyone in it, our son is reserved with his emotions. When I ask if he loves me, he replies that until I hear otherwise, I should assume it to be so.

Respectful of my son and his preference for subtlety on important occasions like this, I said goodbye at the end of move-in day by wishing him well and heading quickly for the door. Swenny and my daughter protested, expecting a warmer good-bye. And while I believe that flowery sentiments can diminish sincerity, I knew, too, that I needed something more. So when my son opened his arms for a hug good-bye, I fell into him. And then I fell away.

He has held me up long enough. The time has come for me to release him from the daily struggles of living with an alcoholic. He’s adopted my habits of searching for bottles, and of confronting Swenny sternly. Unlike me, though, he is less forgiving of the behavior, finding no favor with harmony. His actual position one branch removed from the top of our tree grants him that luxury.

The night before he left for school, he was clear about what he would do if he were me. With the scent of vodka wafting between us as Swenny came in and out carrying boxes, we agreed to disagree. Because as alcoholism continues to shift standings within our family, it falls to me to do what’s right. And while I remain uncertain about what that is, I think the quietness of an empty house may help me figure it out. Finally. For all of us.

My Mirage

Accepting that some things will never change, I intended for this to be my final post. Because I so want closure to this story, I thought to conclude Swenny and Cher by offering a preview of what’s to come.

Swenny will continue drinking and I will continue to search for evidence. When confronted, he will deny having any part of purchasing, hiding, or drinking the bottles I hold. Eventually, he will confess, with a promise that his latest drink was his last. For the next week, he’ll rise early to exercise, attend meetings and make the most of each day. The following week, he’ll attend fewer meetings and eventually they’ll be erased from his calendar. Soon, we’ll settle into our familiar pattern and within weeks, the scent of relapse will be in the air.

Within a few months, his drinking will escalate to the point where I will question why I stay, knowing that I could never leave. His struggle is mine, and we will face it together.

Due for a relapse, I’m becoming impatient for a full-blown drinking episode. It has been less than one month, but I already feel it’s coming. He’s too relaxed, acting as if he deserves to be here in the comfort of his home and family. When conversations seemingly take place around him, I feel he is insulted. When the time is right, I’ll remind him that he was initially included but because he chose not to participate, we continued without him.

My anticipation is high because his latest relapse fell nearly on top of those that occurred earlier this summer. Following a weekend away with some favorite girlfriends, I returned home to a Swenny I hardly recognized. He was unshaven, disheveled and fighting to start a lawnmower while standing unbalanced in grass needing to be cut. A hug hello revealed he had been drinking, so I took my bags inside to collect myself before confronting him. Because I was holding no bottles, he denied he was intoxicated, wondering why I would even ask.

In that moment, facing Swenny my husband, all I could see was Swenny the alcoholic. And it was like I was seeing him for the very first time. Long gray stubble covered his face,  and his hair was wild and out of place. Centering his expression were glassy eyes that eluded mine as he looked down and continued to pull the cord of a mower that simply would not start. There, in the caricature of a drunk I found upon my arrival home, he stood: Swenny my husband…Swenny my alcoholic.

Days later in a moment of sobriety, he acknowledged that relapse. Miscalculating how much he drank that morning, he said he was unable to sober-up before I returned home. It won’t happen again. 

Now nestled in the calm following this recent storm, I find myself waiting for him to drink. Not for the sake of catching him, but because another relapse holds opportunity to do something. To abide by the promises I have made to myself, our children and to him. As I consider the possibilities of a sober house, an in-patient rehab facility we cannot afford, or a separation to understand all that is at stake, I wait – for the scent of vodka, for a conversation forgotten or a bottle carelessly tossed.

The other night, I thought my chance had arrived. I heard the backdoor open. After it closed shut, I went on our airing porch to see what he was doing. Searching the perimeter of our yard, I looked down to see him tossing his head back repeatedly, and hurriedly, as if to empty a bottle before being noticed.

My reaction was physical. My heart sank, my hands shook and my mouth went dry. Sick, I looked again to see instead a tall vine swaying in the wind. It’s flowers were bobbing up and down in a cadence that might match the head of an alcoholic secretly swigging drinks in the dark of the night. A sight that until revealed in my mind that night, I had never before witnessed.

The false alarm left me shaken and facing the hardest question of all: “What exactly is it you are looking for?”  The answer remains at large. I hope that through future posts it is found.

 

 

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.