The End

My name is Cher and my husband is an alcoholic.

Four years ago, with those words, I started this blog. And with those words, I am putting it to rest.

What was meant to be chapters of a story with a happy ending became a series of interchangeable essays of relapse, action, hope, and disbelief. With each post, I held open the door for the next, expecting that my good manners and optimism would be rewarded with a change of course toward recovery.

Instead, we landed on a track with hurdles that we didn’t anticipate, the highest being our separation and his advanced liver disease. Others, like the daily consequences of continued drinking, we cleared regularly. Not out of ease but out of practice. Still others remain stacked in an unused lane, sized up with deference to their seriousness; their finality.

The biggest hurdle, now, though, is guilt. Mine for leaving and his for letting me.

The other night in a phone call, we talked about what’s next. Alcoholism won, I told him. Even with knowing that nine times out of ten it does, I held on believing that we would be the exception. Unable to make it come true, we concede.

My name is Cher and my husband is an alcoholic. This was our story.

Heaven, help me now. Heaven, show the way. ~ The Lumineers

Saudade

Only twice have Swenny and I allowed one day to become the next without talking: once when he was fishing in Canada with his Dad and brothers, and now. Otherwise, we have spoken every day, often many times, even when living apart. Last week, though, in another attempt at tough love, I told him not to call me until he has been sober for seven days.

One week ago, I stopped at the store where he works to buy lunch. As I came around the corner, he was sending a text to one of his vendors. My greeting interrupted what he was dictating, and having misplaced his patience, he was uncharacteristically short. His hand was shaking badly, and his eyes were glassy. Because it wasn’t the time or place for a public display of affection, I turned and walked away, saving it for the phone call that followed.

“Where did you go?” he asked. I wanted to respond in kind. Instead, I recapped the past fifteen months in less than as many minutes, asking him to get help. And asking again why he has not.

His answer was a shrug of unknowing that was so well pronounced it could be heard. While it sounded like defeat, it was spelled with the same letters used to form exhaustion. And resignation.

Whatever is keeping him from addressing his addiction remains unknown, likely even to him. What I want to know is how far will he decline before he reaches a place beneath which nothing else can burrow.

With just a few hours left before my established expectation of seven days becomes the anticipation of the week ahead, I still hope that he calls. I know he hasn’t been sober, but I want to tell him that love, even in the best of times, is tough. In the hardest of times, it is necessary. And in all times, it is here. Waiting for his call.

So tell me when you’re gonna let me in. I’m getting tired, and I need somewhere to begin. ~ Keane

Parting Ways

Tough love has an edge. It is unforgiving, sharp and intentional. In the background, though, its lines blur. That’s where I live.

In a place where the happenings of eight days threaten 10,295 of them. Where a marriage being separated with love raises flags because it doesn’t make sense. Where within hours of receiving a court date, we went to dinner. And where the irreconcilability of disease and choice leaves me wanting to take responsibility for the damage to our marriage caused by alcoholism.

In the past week and a day, Swenny and I have sat side-by-side across from strangers trying to explain the amicability of our separation. I took responsibility for our debts and he gave me everything. On the counsel of those with whom we sat, we sifted through our pile of stuff and agreed that none of it really mattered. We’d part it at death, and until then, we’d maintain joint ownership of everything.

Except the dissolution of our marriage. That…is mine. Along with the guilt crowding the place where I live. It leaves little room for anything else, so I rest in conflict between believing that our brokenness is his best chance at sobriety, and my best chance at happiness. I smooth the lines by telling myself that it’s his best chance for that, too. And maybe – just maybe – one day I will believe it.

And at once, I knew I was not magnificent. ~ Bon Iver

Dreamcoat

In a dream I had last night, our entire family was there. Alive and of late, they crossed a gathering space like liturgical dancers. Their every movement was the note of a song, a word in a verse. Sensing a message, I followed them, shadowing their bends. Their sways.

Then I saw Swenny. He was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, alone in a crowd of people who love him. I knelt before him, and without words, asked for his thoughts.

“I made a commitment,” he said. “But you should know…my next test will be very bad.”

I said nothing in answer, and settled in further. My elbow on his knee, we watched the people we love most move around us. And without us.

What does it mean? This dream I have been wearing all day, like a heavy coat too burdensome to warm? Is it a premonition? A nightmare? Or just an overnight manifestation of my growing concern for Swenny’s health and happiness?

I will never know. But as he sits on the verge of another set of tests, I ask again for you to please consider him in the week ahead. And again on the Monday that follows.

May I return to the beginning? The light is dimming. ~ Andrew Lloyd Webber

Old Long Since

Alcoholism almost took 2019. Our marriage, Swenny’s health, and a house with a third bedroom fell victim. Most everything else still stands.

While at times it feels like February, when I asked Swenny for space between his drinking and me, or May when I traded our house for a place too small for our family, or July when I filed separation papers, I know that it is December. Four months since a diagnosis of advanced liver disease changed everything and ten months too late to put back together that which I have pulled apart.

And that’s okay, because 2019 hasn’t been just about alcoholism and the recovery that continues to elude us. Rather than dwell on what was happening, I took the space that Swenny gave me and grew into it. I joined three non-profit boards, one with a focus on addiction. I earned a promotion to extend the influence of my employer to the industry we serve. I bought a cherry red Benz. I became a landlord, and against all advice, chose kindness in my dealings with the tenant I inherited: a man whose dreams loom larger than his opportunities. I drove a U-haul. I danced the night away in Nashville and allowed time to get lost in the backroads of Kentucky on the way home. I saw the most beautiful sunset with my Mom and sister, and represented myself and my marriage in a courtroom, accepting that all good things do, actually, end.

Swenny and I spent Christmas together yet separate. We woke up that morning six blocks from one another, positioned ourselves on opposite ends of the rooms in which we spent the day, drove to and from in separate cars and sat at different dining tables. When he left Christmas night with his presents neatly bagged, the hardship of the year finally struck. Until then, I had kept myself distracted. A safe distance from heart and home.

My hope for 2020 is that Swenny and I continue to find our way together. In the best possible way for us, even when it makes no sense to anyone but us. First, though, I need to still the chaos of 2019, and let myself dwell on it. For long enough to find, in the quietness of its aftermath, the promise of the year ahead.

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet for days of Auld Lang Syne. ~ Robert Burns

Merry

In the merriment of the season is a go-round that Swenny and I have found necessary for the care and keeping of chronic liver disease. Halloween Eve marked Swenny’s first test of cirrhosis, an esophageal scope in which a varix was found and banded. At the same time, a biopsy was done on his stomach with good results. Four weeks later, a second scope was done and the initial varix re-banded. A concerning stomach fold was being watched, so a CT scan was scheduled along with a third esophageal scope.

Results from the CT scan were good: no cancer, no blood clot. The third esophageal scope was postponed until January, and a doctor’s appointment made for late December.

Throughout this, Swenny and I have found a comfortable pattern of tests and treatment, with a routine fitting our separate yet entwined lives. On days when he has a procedure requiring anesthesia, he spends the night here, at the home where we share the title. After we leave the hospital, I drop him off and depending on orders, pick up prescriptions, and return home with soup from whatever restaurant has the softest-of-the-day. A chocolate shake follows. He rests, and when he falls asleep, I study the doctor’s notes, researching what he has written until I find and explore every potential risk, every potential complication and every potential outcome. The possibilities seem endless, so I settle on what I think is likely, without full understanding of what it all means.

Between appointments, the business of life keeps us occupied, more separately of late than not. Daily conversations are no longer a given, and days can stretch to a week or longer before we see each other. I continue to position myself for entry into his appointments to no avail. I’m thankful to have met his doctor, though, and for the opportunity to counter Swenny’s claims of sobriety with what I know to be true: his drinking continues, confirmed by the traces of alcohol I sense in phone calls at night and in shaking hands by day.

This is where cirrhosis is helpful. It opens difficult conversations about the detriment of alcoholism to Swenny’s life and livelihood, and about the threat of more alcohol to take away any chance for an ever-after by turning compensated into decompensated.

When the reality of his symptoms is not enough for him to accept help, we question together why he lets by the opportunities to stop his cirrhosis, or at least slow its progression. And when I ask for how long he intends to use every result that is not devastating as a pass to drink, I do so hoping that bad news doesn’t answer first.

Until then, we continue to go round.

All we ever do, is all we ever knew. ~ The Head and the Heart

Time

Twenty nineteen has been one of passing the baton from what was to what is; from what has been to what might be. Twenty nineteen has been a relay that I chose to run alone, in circles around a track that is familiar and worn by the steps I have taken over and over and over again.

In keeping, I set my laps by relapses, and my intervals by the time and distance between Swenny’s last and next drinks. The pace has become unrelenting, though, without consideration for cirrhosis and its complications or forgiveness for the false starts from which I have leaned away. And into a race I can’t finish.

Because I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.

But I can start over. As one runner on one lap. May it be long. May it be happy.

It’s time to begin, isn’t it? ~ Imagine Dragons

Places Unnamed

We have been here before. To this place where if…then merges into when. Where directions that were written in a hypothetical voice deliver us to a destination meant for our imagination only.

But it exists. Edged as a precautionary tale of where one might find himself after years of thinking that his way was best. Arrived to only after paying with one’s health an expensive toll on the road of alcoholism.

I never made it into Swenny’s first appointment with his liver specialist. In response to his claim that I was worrying for no reason, I passed the time hula hooping at my company picnic. With every turn of the hoop, though, I thought about him as he answered the questions that I assumed were asked. About his drinking and his ability to stop. About the genetics of alcoholism, and whether he is predisposed. About his understanding of advanced liver disease. And its consequences.

As he wound his way out of the hospital’s parking ramp that afternoon, he called me. His recap was non-clinical and nonchalant. He has cirrhosis. The good kind. Every four months, he’ll meet with his doctor. And every six months, he’ll have an ultrasound to track the progress of his disease. Immediately, he needs an endoscopy.

A week later, he shared the full report. His doctor told him about the complications of advanced liver disease: ascites, bleeding varices, liver cancer.

“I could die from this,” he said.

And with that, he let me in.

To a new place. Where there is no longer room to play hide and seek with bottles. Where the only reaction to continued drinking is concern for his health. Where there is little left to lose. And where he will never attend another appointment alone.

I dreamed of this exact place without knowing it. ~ Patti Smith

Fix You

It has always been my dream to grow old with Swenny. And as confusing as it is for everyone other than us, separation hasn’t changed that. With disregard for the expectations of others about how a marriage should be unwound, we are going about it the only way we know: together.

Legally, Swenny’s and my parting of ways is simple – in a court of law, we are joint petitioners with no minor children in agreement on all points relating to the matter of our marriage. And its dissolution.

Outside of the courthouse, though, we are two parts of a marriage with equity worth protecting. Separating has taken us down paths that are parallel instead of divergent. Where we travel in pursuit of a soft landing for the other. And where alcoholism threatens to take us off course. Yet again.

Since filing last month, an ultrasound prompted by elevated liver enzymes and low platelet counts found in him an enlarged liver and spleen, cirrhosis and a single nodule. While Swenny prepares to meet with a liver specialist, I am trying to demand my way into his appointment.

Without the leverage of an unwavering spouse, though, he’s not welcoming me in. So I need to draw on the equity we have so carefully built to change his answer from no to yes. I wish he wanted me there. But mostly, I wish he needed me there as much as I need to be.

Please consider us on Wednesday. And if you struggle with an addiction to alcohol, consider also the permanency of your drinking scars. And know that some are irreversible.

Lights will guide you home. ~ Coldplay

On My Mark

In February, I treated my young adult children to lunch in their hometown some 70-miles west of me. At a second floor cafe that was a favorite when I was a student, I told them of my plans to leave their father. Another relapse had caused his invitation for sober living to be rescinded, and I was finally ready to enforce the boundaries I set long ago. Anything less was enabling. My son wanted to know my timeline, and my daughter cried while I described the memories we could still make, but as a family split in two. Waking up under the same roof on Christmas morning, traveling together, and sharing the shifting load of everyday life were all part of the picture I was painting, a bottle of vodka hidden in plain sight.

Once home, I gathered enough distractions so that my procrastination in filing was barely noticed. To explain my lack of action, I cited laws like abandonment of property as reason to stay married. Eventually, Swenny was coming over regularly to help with home repairs, cut the grass, and run boxes to Goodwill. We exchanged gifts for Mother’s and Father’s Day, giving each other time together. My gift was a ballet matinee and his was a baseball game. We walked the dog and spoke of the new neighborhood as ours. I sprinkled references to him into introductory conversations with neighbors, and we closed each day with a goodnight text.

Unsure that he was sober, I watched for signs of relapse. Shaking hands and confusing conversations left me with a hunch he was drinking. His desire to hurry home after abbreviated visits made me suspicious. But I know vodka when I smell it. And I know it when I see it. Even when the bottle lays face down, I recognize it as the drink that took my husband. Though it feels now like he went willingly.

And so can I.

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is a local four-mile race. It’s timing has always coincided with relapses that have marked some of our most trying moments in Swenny’s struggle with alcoholism: in 2015, a move from the house our family will always call home to make available resources for sober living; in 2016, his enrollment in an intensive outpatient treatment program demanded by his job; and last year, his own testing of his addiction with an exchange of vodka for beer.

This year is no different. Yesterday, less than 24 hours before lining up for the Firecracker Four Miler, I went to our county courthouse to take my first step toward a life independent of alcoholism. My fear of loneliness and feelings of guilt are no longer enough to extinguish my wish for something more. I’m not sure if I will ever find it, but I know that it’s not among the bottles hidden by a man so willing to see me go.

Like in past years, I ran the race to a playlist of thoughts of what’s ahead. Today, I also carried the number given to me for my place in line at the courthouse: 52. The moment it was called, the finish line I was there to draw became a starting line instead.