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

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