At Sea

As the spouse of a man with alcoholism, I fish. For bottles, for lies and for acknowledgments of a struggle in which we remain firmly anchored. My instinct is my line, and I cast it in rhythm between sobriety and relapse.

Where once I was prolific, my line is now slack, opposed only by my continued relentlessness. Daily searches turn up nothing despite my knowing that the evidence is there. No longer under our roof, though, as Swenny now moors his drinking elsewhere. Not, however, in his car while at work. And not in the parking lots of the stores he frequents. I know because I have checked.

And for what? I am already surrounded by a sea of evidence so vast that it leaves me keening. Not only for the alcoholism it first revealed but for the depths to which I will go to find it. To prove what I already know is true. What good can come from finding one more bottle? Or catching him in another lie? Or telling my own to draw from him information he won’t willingly share?

Like Santiago in the Old Man and the Sea, I’ve gone too far and am ill-prepared for the expanse of the hunt I have taken on. In the midst of evidence collected over two-plus decades, I can’t help but look back to where we started. And see a point of no return.

This summer, especially as the relationships between Swenny and our children strengthen even in light of his continued drinking, I wonder why I am so intolerant of relapse. My need to add to what I have already collected in order to corroborate the persistence of his alcoholism is drowning my hope that things might one day be different. With me and my endless fishing to blame, it could be time to replace my bait. To exchange relentlessness with something gentler. Like acceptance. And a desire to see things another way. Maybe then I will catch a bit of the truth skimming the water instead of the lies feeding at the bottom.

“It’s silly not to hope. It’s a sin he thought.” ~ The Old Man and the Sea

 

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Dad’s Day

Mine is a place with room for one. A place from where I chronicle life as the spouse of an alcoholic and mother of two young adults whose dad has alcoholism. In words strung together on these pages and beyond lives their story. Of a man and his children now finding the way on their terms, absent my best yet sometimes crowding intentions to influence their togetherness. Not because they have to but because they want to. He is, after all, theirs and they are his.

I watch how he nurtures them in ways I can’t and challenges them in ways I won’t. And how they in turn, through love that is undoubtedly unconditional, are determining their tolerance for relapse, their means of discovery and their methods of confrontation while growing in their understanding of what one degree of separation is in an alcoholic family.

When they indulge in some of the heavy lifting of Swenny’s alcoholism, they sometimes do so in order to protect him. At times from me.

Summer is our season of relapse. Without an exact pattern to track, it is nearly certain that extended daylight hours will be spent searching for evidence as the symptoms of alcoholism line up in a way that connects the last day of sobriety with one in the drinking continuum that is far past the first.

This summer, though, the only evidence I have found has been circumstantial. Despite scouring the darkest corners of our house, digging in golf bags, checking the underside of box springs and the wheel wells of Swenny’s car, I continue to emerge from my searches without proof. Backed only by instincts which have yet to fail me, I concluded a recent midweek dinner with a serving of questions that asked of Swenny one thing: To let me in. Instead, he lied.

Whatever resolve I brought to the table was consumed by his hedging. So I listened to his untruths and continued to search. Finding nothing combined with Swenny’s refusal to be forthcoming, I asked our son who is home from college how he felt things were going. From the perspective of progress made, he answered in the positive before sharing that which I was never meant to know: Swenny’s relapse is real. And together they have kept it from me.

While I was working late one night in May, our son confirmed a hunch that his father had been drinking by buying a breathalyzer and securing a confession before the test was taken. Just one year ago, almost to the date, he told me immediately of a relapse he had uncovered. This year he was hesitant to share. With words formed by Swenny, he explained his position, asking that I please not confront his dad.

And I won’t. Because as I consider still an exit that leaves each of us whole, I will not risk taking with me any of what they have built. But when it buckles under the weight of the alcoholic lies by which Swenny lives, I will let it fall on him.

 

 

 

Thief

There is no happy ending to the stories I know in which alcoholism has a part. Its introduction seems to commence with unfortunate incidents, often in a series that begins with the misplacement of self to the dissolution of dreams, the breaking of relationships, the loss of livelihoods and sometimes of life.

I have attended two funerals of people whose death came at the hands of alcoholism. Both men. Both family. One was a young husband and father in his early 30s. Living away from home to work on his sobriety, he tumbled down a flight of stairs after losing his balance while reaching to disengage a smoke detector set off by an overcooked pizza.  The other was the nephew of my grandmother who, after learning his liver was failing, spent his final few weeks on towels to absorb fluids that his body could not. His service was on Wednesday night, and I  accompanied my mom so she wouldn’t have to go alone.

I sat in the middle, behind those mourning without qualification.  Close enough to understand their relief for the peace in which he finally rested, but from a distance requiring some interpretation of how he got there. The empty seats around me were waiting for some of the same people present the last time I saw him – at the funeral of his mother one year ago. He stood in the back. I don’t remember that he ever sat down.

Sitting there in consideration, listening to his sons assure a long line of mourners of the comfort they took in knowing their dad could no longer suffer, I determined that alcoholism is a thief. Just as the man takes a drink, the drink takes the man. Slowly but surely, until he seems empty of meaning.

It is never too late, though, I know now, for that which has been stolen to be returned to its rightful owner. So that it can be carried forward and eventually left in the care of those who call upon them with titles of endearment. With words like dad, son, friend and brother. Protecter. And provider.

On Wednesday night, alcoholism did not have the last word. At the time of his passing, the man to whom we said goodbye was adding meaning faster than it was being taken. Seeking medical care, planning to return to work, making known to his children his pride in them and to his grandchildren of his affection. From my seat in the middle yet yards from his shirttail, I learned that his expectation was for another day. When it didn’t come, those who said goodbye first found what was taken, and promptly returned it to him through letters, drawings and stories as love and laughter saw the thief out.

“Every blade in the field – Every leaf in the forest – lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.” – Henry David Thoreau

Runkeeping

I was in my late thirties before I could string together enough miles to measure my distance in numbers followed by K, but still I grew up in the care of running. For more than ten years and counting, along the same six mile route, I have raised my children, buried loved ones, and negotiated life as the spouse of an alcoholic.

The landmarks I pass show like a shaky old movie reel in the backdrop of my runs. Sometimes, they are stilled by the occasions they mark. The train tracks, when empty, are just connectors from one path to another. But when a train passes through, I take in the scene before me while I wait, always noticing first the high-rise community that was my Grandma’s final address. Behind me, beneath a canopy of cranes, is the hospital where my mother-in-law received a new kidney and enough years to meet my son, who was born in a neighboring tower.

Next to the path is the river where my first running buddy, a beautiful black lab, learned to swim. And over which my daughter swung from one bank to another on a rope late at night while I thought she was asleep. Soccer fields, baseball parks and the schools where my parents and kids attended are all there, too.

As are the markers of invisible moments like the bridge I was crossing when I understood that everything I did was in reaction to alcoholism. Tracing hidden bottles, eventually sought and found, filled too many miles. Replays of empty promises and threats filled the others. A roadside memorial where the road dips below a busy freeway always leaves me wondering what time is left to reverse the damage of reactions I can’t undo. Reactions that were poorly played and forever mine.

Through it all, running ensured I wasn’t alone. The foot strikes that helped me determine my path were taken in step with two women whose invitation to run with them years ago marked the beginning of a friendship that has come to be defined by more than the miles we cover. Miles that have helped distill the moments that matter most, and find meaning in the commonplace so that every day counts.

Along the way, each of us has battled something. With shared strides, we have helped each other through the most challenging times and taken comfort in the camaraderie that can only be found running three across on a riverside path. Mile after mile, we have absorbed each other’s worries, drawn one another out of lonely places, and grieved together. We have celebrated occasions large and small, giving rise to the less obvious but more deserving wins.

All the while, we have maintained our positions. Like seats around a table, we know our place on the path upon which we run. Tucking in and out seamlessly when needed, whether momentarily to make room for a passing bike or temporarily to make room for life.

Over thousands of miles, it has become clear that everyone is negotiating something. On a recent run taken alone, I came around a bend and encountered three young women running together. Shoulder to shoulder, their shadows linked them on the path between us. In them, I saw my own running trio. And wondered what they will encounter in the years ahead. Will they help each other through? Will they stop to laugh? How many miles will they share before they understand how special it is – a friendship born of running?

The Perhaps

Last month, I celebrated my birthday by having two beers and proceeding to walk into a sign while leaving the restaurant. Because nearly everything I do is in reaction to alcoholism, I happened to be on my way to pick up a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Alcoholic memoir number four towards one a month in 2018. A series that started with Vin Baker (God and Starbucks), Kate Mulgrew (Born with Teeth), and Stephen King (On Writing). By layering my days with stories of people who have folded the corner of at least one page in deference to alcoholism, I set out in January with the resolution to build perspective through their words.

While each book is completely unlike the others, the pages of their stories hold a shared distinction. Between looking and seeing. From narrowness to awareness. When shaking hands reveal an alcoholic in need of a drink, I should see instead a man who hasn’t had one. In the absence of hidden bottles, I should see the absence of alcohol. And in what I believe is Swenny’s procrastination to redraw blood to evaluate concerning levels, I should see instead a man with alcoholism concerned for his health.

But I don’t.

Because to do that, I need a more steady gaze. One that doesn’t come from living in the moment. From looking only hours, days and weeks ahead while keeping the more distant future shaded dark enough so that I can’t see anything at all.

What is clear is that an existence focused on memory making is fleeting. No more lasting than a glance. And no wonder why in 2018 I have lost sight.

Fortunately, birthdays, like firsts of January, are an opportunity to reset. Refocus. To resolve to do better.

So I have…and I will.

Now weeks untangled from my dance with the sign, I have at last put into context what it is to live in reaction to alcoholism. It’s just life.

And life has been described as the past, the present and the perhaps. In this, my new year, I will seek the perhaps.

“Life is the past, the present and the perhaps,” Bette Davis.

 

Sheltering

It is in the shelter of each other that people live. ~ Irish proverb

I am superstitious. I collect lucky pennies, avoid cracks in the sidewalk, and when a clock reads 11:11 or 1:11, I make a wish. Which is why I rarely share when things are going well. Because when I do, it is followed shortly by a post that either hints at relapse or describes one in full.

So it is with a tempt of fate that I share: things are going well. No longer does that need to mean, though, that Swenny is sober. It reflects instead a new frame of mind. One with right angles squared by the experiences and support of others.

In an effort to not borrow too heavily from the future, I have been immersing myself in each day and dunking Swenny along with me. Which is partly why last week found us boarding a plane – together – to visit family. My last three trips I took alone, only to return to relapses that were difficult and damaging. So with me he came.

A few days in, shaky hands revealed withdrawal. Where my sister saw the positive in their signal that he wasn’t drinking, to me it meant only that he had been. Until he couldn’t. Because consecutive twenty-four hour stretches spent with me ensured that he wouldn’t. It took just one day home, though, at a distance kept safely from me, to steady him.

And the community with which I have surrounded myself has steadied me. Among family and friends, favorite writers and even readers of swennyandcher is where I live. Where some provide advice and others bring support. Where still others reach generously and sometimes painfully into their own experiences with alcoholism to help me see through. Swenny, I hope, is living likewise in his own shelter of others…family, friends, co-workers past and present, and the sober communities with which he is engaged.

So it has become that even though the address we write in the upper lefthand corner of an envelope might be the same, Swenny and I live in different places. In the shelter of distinct groups of others and each other all at once. My broadened frame of mind accepts this as perfectly okay. Because wherever it is we live, it is the right place…or places. For us. For now.

 

 

war…and peace

The other day, Swenny returned home from a meeting and greeted me with a truce. No longer, he said, will he treat me as the enemy. Caught in a moment that presented the last many years as a three-sided war, he offered to fight now alongside me.

Where I had considered us comrades, he thought us to be enemies. Because anyone that comes between him and alcohol is the enemy. Swenny the alcoholic claims this truth. The husband, father, brother, son and friend in him deny it, but alcoholism renders them irrelevant at best, hostile and destructive at worst.

Unsure where it leaves me, I listened to his explanation. And what I heard was a promise. Not a promise to stop drinking, but a promise that when I extend my hand, he will take it. That before I am prompted to  search for bottles, he will acknowledge the strength of the opponent we face with evidence of a retreat not taken. That he trusts I am motivated by what is best for him while understanding that others hurt, too. And that the next time I return to the front, I will do so armed with his willingness to consider resources left yet un-enlisted.

Most importantly, I heard a promise that never again will I find him behind enemy lines battling against me. And my promise to him? To keep fighting.

 

 

The Bend in the River

Long ago, I removed from my hope chest the dream of a house at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. It was a concept borne of cowboy swagger, and it wasn’t for me.

There was a time, though, when I believed that it was. Until the line marking the whiskey bottle was drown by the water used to refill it, determining a different path completely. A path that took me from walking our kids to school and organizing play dates to answering to moms on the playground about where I spent my days, to family questioning my judgment in placing my children in the care of strangers, and to neighbors who tracked my hours and travel schedule, asking me if it was worth it. As the lone witness to Swenny’s increasing struggle with alcoholism, I knew that it was.

Those who enjoyed shelter beneath roofs provided for by someone else thought my only expense was the price of a mortgage and groceries. But those were simply wages well-allocated and never missed. The absence I felt was of what I never had: someone with whom to share hardship. Someone to take the reins on days when I couldn’t, or take the lead when I couldn’t find my way. Someone to place a window at just my height so I could see more clearly what was out there.

Someone to take me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Because while I had once convinced myself that such a thing was not for me, I admit now that it could have been.

 

 

 

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 chosen 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.

 

 

 

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.