What I Learned By Staying: The Other Side of Alcoholism

Disclaimer:  I am not writing this to persuade anyone to make any of the choices I made- I wasn’t always right.  I am not writing this to shame my husband- I celebrate his six years sobriety as evidence that alcohol does not always win.  I am writing this because when I needed to hear someone’s story, there weren’t many available, especially not ones that looked like mine.  

He was standing on an island, looking just like he did the day I married him, and I was on the shore, yelling across the water to him. But my voice was caught up in the wind and blown away. He was facing me, yet my message was so clearly not received. That was the nightmarish feeling of being married to a man suffering from alcoholism. And as the tides of the water between us rose, they threatened to wash the sand right out from under me.

I married my husband after dating him for many, many years.  We met in high school, knew each other’s families, and fell in love that outlasted many difficult times.  Nick was not a drinker in the traditional sense.  He drank on his 21st birthday, but to my knowledge, hardly if ever drank before that point.  We had a dry wedding.  Neither of us hung out at bars in the beginning of our marriage.  For all those reasons, I just didn’t see alcoholism becoming a tenant in my household.  But it did.  Nick will openly tell you his experience with alcoholism, but this really isn’t about him (sorry, honey).  This is about me.

Alcohol crept into our lives little by little.  A new job for Nick opened up a daily tradition of stopping at a restaurant nearby for a drink with coworkers.  We didn’t have kids, so there was no rush to get home.  New friends brought new opportunities to drink.  I was raised in an alcohol-less family, and honestly, drinking never interested me much.  I have had a couple drinks I have liked, but mostly ones that don’t taste like alcohol- I guess I’ll just take the cheap lemonade, then, thanks!  Nick, on the other hand, loved beer, and we live in a city where craft beers are readily available and interesting.  As a total tightwad myself, this became a big problem as his drinking grew- none of the cheap stuff for him!  

When alcohol went from being just a drink for Nick to being an essential part of his day, it took me a while to sense the change.  The wind shifted subtly, and I didn’t see the approaching storm.  I knew when Nick started stashing six packs in the basement or garage that he was drinking more than I was comfortable with, but I also wasn’t sure where the line really should be.  I am a fairly black and white person in some issues, so to me there was all or there was nothing, and I was cautiously uncomfortable as this middle ground widened.  

     As time went on, I mostly ignored the growing problem. Nick struggles with depression and some social anxiety, and alcohol brought him out of his shell at parties. At home, he would drink and then go to sleep. He wasn’t an angry drunk, and I certainly never felt threatened around him. At this point, my biggest issue was the loneliness of being a non-drinker married to a drinker. His after-work pit stops were stretching longer and longer until I ate a few meals a week alone. I became pregnant with our first daughter, which was an exciting, but isolating, time.  Life went on in this manner through Maeve’s first year of life.  I didn’t consider Nick an alcoholic, but I did feel the effects of alcohol taking hold of our life.  

    After one night of drinking, Nick became very emotional.  He felt out of control of his drinking, although neither of us said the word ‘alcoholism’ then.  He called my dad and a friend from church, who came over in the dark of night to pray with him.  I thought maybe this would help him regain control.  It did- for a while.  But after a few months of self-imposed sobriety, he figured he had a good grasp on things, and he missed his craft beers, so he started drinking again, slowly at first, but then a quick drop back into the deep end.  I knew we were in big trouble when Nick could not go a day without alcohol, and when, instead of just his beloved craft beer, he would mix vodka into drinks to hide the amount of alcohol he was consuming.

I stayed. I thought of leaving. I played a dozen different scenarios in my mind. A glimpse of Nick as I knew and loved him would rebuild hope.  A sleepless night praying he would not drive home would shatter it.

    But I stayed. And this is what I learned:

  • Being the spouse of an alcoholic is lonely.  I didn’t want to divulge his secret drinking because I was afraid he would be judged, this man I still loved, and I couldn’t quite explain the difference between his alcoholism and the hyped-up version we often see in the media.  Between not talking about our reality and functioning without him on a fairly regular basis, I felt completely alone.
  • Being the spouse of an alcoholic is exhausting.  Many nights while Nick was away on business, I was awake worrying about when, and how, he would get back to his hotel, and what might happen in that time in between.  I became an obsessive phone-dialer, hoping every 30 seconds that he might pick up.  
  • Alcoholism is a sign of deeper trouble.  Nick liked beer, but he didn’t become an alcoholic because of a drink preference.  His addictions come out of a struggle to control his own depressive thoughts and a physical and mental predisposition toward addiction.  That made it both easier, and harder, for me to understand.
  • Dealing with alcoholism made me someone else.  I had always been, for the most part, carefree and easygoing.  Now, between parenting babies and feeling like I needed to parent Nick, I became rigid, easily frustrated, and often overwhelmed.  
  • Alcohol became the enemy to me then, and it still is to this day.  I can go out with friends and it does not bother me a bit if they drink alcohol.  But sometimes, when I see a portrayal of alcohol as necessary for a good time, as making people incomparably happy, I want to scream the truth: Alcohol is dangerous.  Most people don’t see that they have a problem until they are so deep into it that they can’t escape on their own.
  • More people exist to help an alcoholic than to help his or her family.  Nick had people in his life who came alongside him once he asked them to, holding him accountable, praying for him, calling him and sending him notes.  Outside of the fact that I know beyond a doubt that my family was praying for me, no one asked me about me.  It goes back to the point that being married to an alcoholic is lonely and exhausting.  I would have loved someone to take my two young daughters at the time so I could leave my house that felt like a prison and breathe some fresh air.  Or someone to just drop me a note of encouragement.  Or someone to guide me to Al-Anon. But people don’t know what you need if you don’t ask, and I was too tired, and too proud, and too confused, to even know what help looked like in that moment.
  • The Alcoholics Anonymous book is arguably one of the most important published works of our time.  After Nick brought that book home from his first meeting the day he decided to quit, I picked it up numerous times.  The stories made me feel less alone, more connected.  The advice is simple, but profound.  The successes written there gave me hope.  I highly recommend that book to anyone who deals with, or has dealt with, an alcoholic on any level.  It helped me better understand my husband and gave us words to put to our discussions.
  • You will not change an alcoholic.  Nothing you say, or do, no groveling, yelling, or forming ultimatums will stop him or her from drinking.  Until Nick fully realized the extent of the problem for himself, there was no communicating it from my end.  Talk about feeling helpless.  The best you can do is be honest: with yourself, with your spouse, and with others.  Don’t make excuses and don’t accept them.
  • Substance abuse sticks around.  Alcohol is just one substance. We live in a country where there are prescriptions for everything. We are well-versed in our own version of drug culture.  Nick’s struggle with alcohol can, and has, manifested in other forms of substance abuse.  He has to be vigilant about what he takes and how he treats it.  The battle is ongoing.  This makes me cautious about substances, too.     
  • There is hope.  I am six years into Nick’s sobriety journey, and I can tell you, there is hope.  Healing can be beautiful.  The sunrise on the other side of our night is more breath-taking because I know what the darkness felt like.  We both have grown in amazing ways.  We communicate openly about things many married people don’t talk about.  We have reached a power equilibrium where Nick and I make decisions together; alcohol and other substances do not control our world anymore.  
  • Forgiveness is hard.  Deciding to forgive Nick was easy.  Separating his behavior and choices from the disease of alcoholism was hard.  Rebuilding trust was hard.  It took time.  Nick healed more quickly from the physical addiction than I did from the emotional toll of it.  For a while, I became a crazy person.  I wanted to know where he was every second and what he was doing; I wanted to know every detail of his alcoholism, thinking I could sift some sense into it.  Over time, God took those compulsions from me, and I was able to forgive wholly.  I cannot be trite about this part: it takes time and effort and supernatural help to forgive, but without that entire forgiveness, our marriage would not have been healed.  
  • In case this is not clear in any of my points above, I love my husband.  I loved him through the fire, through the ashes, and in the green regrowth of our lives.  His healing is a testament to God’s faithfulness.  He is a different, more whole version of himself now than he was even before his drinking began.

If you are reading this, and you are some semblance of Nick, or some semblance of me, I hope that you find truth in something written here.  I wrote this for you and I wrote this for the me I was, desperate and helpless.  God can rewrite your story, and you can not even imagine the ending He might pen for you.

Isaiah 43:19

“Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”

Ezekiel 36:26

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

A Toast to Cousins

shoes

    I tiptoed down the stairs around 11:30 last night to check on the living room sleepover extravaganza, and before I was on the third or fourth step, I heard it: the satisfied snoring of three exhausted girls, my two oldest and one of my cousin’s daughters.  One was crunched up on the double chair, another was sprawled on the open loveseat, and the third was cuddled under blankets across the couch, mouth open and lanky legs askew under her blanket.  The trampoline-jumping, firefly-catching evening had melted into a loud movie then ended abruptly in triumphant sleep. This is summer, I thought.  I went back to my bed, reminiscing.    

I was raised in a family of cousins. Growing up, there were four aunts and uncles, and over the years a total of fifteen cousins parading across a wide span, followed quickly by marriages, and then children, so many that we all just blend together into one large family picture of smiling faces.  There were Christmas dinners crammed in Grandma’s basement, eating potluck style and roasting dinner rolls over candles while our parents were too busy talking to bother scolding us.  There were summer evenings at the pond catching frogs or jumping in the pool at Uncle Jim’s house- more like, watching our older cousins attempt to break their necks jumping from the chimney into the deep end.  There was the year I was a preteen invited to stay in my cousin Sharie’s college apartment, sleeping on the floor and admiring the college girls’ wicked bangs; then, on the flipside, there was the time I babysat my two-year-old cousin in my dorm room, feeding him nothing but cottage cheese in the commons because he refused everything else.  I learned to climb trees, throw a football, tie a sled to the back of a van on slippery roads, and all kinds of other important, sometimes incriminating, things from my cousins.                          

Now my kiddos have cousins.  They are blessed with five actual, true-definition cousins. Last week, we all camped together at a small campground nearby, and those kids swam, fished, boated, scootered, and roasted marshmallows until they could hardly see straight!  It was the pure, unadulterated version of summer that I remember. Then this weekend, we joined forces with the swarm of loose-definition cousins, a conglomeration of kids belonging to us cousins that just turn into a dust-covered, gyrating cloud of action.  There was tree-climbing, turtle-catching, frisbee-throwing, summer fun in the 90 degree heat.  Now I am the adult, and I served cake, talked shop with my teacher cousin, and watched the fun I remember from childhood.

In all the reminiscing, I thought about how necessary cousins were to who I was, and even to who I am.  I get down-right kid-giddy when I know the cousins are getting back together.  In fact, the idea of a great cousin reunion tour across the U.S. may have crossed my mind now and then.  I sometimes lose sight as an adult of the importance of down time spent with family, but it is the most energizing time for me.  Last night, on my back porch with two aunts, an adult cousin, and my mom, then again today with six of my adult cousins, their spouses and children, I was reminded how cool my family is.  I have teenage cousins who corral the kids for a rousing game of croquet, cousins’ little kids who hug me and affectionately call me “Aunt Katie”, cousins who are amazing humans that are connected to me in inextricable ways.  Family reminds me of the simplicity and love that surrounded me and sheltered me, creating a warm, Instagram-glow to all my childhood memories.  I feel blessed to be given opportunities to recreate those same moments for my own children, and in those moments, to feel safe and loved and just simply happy.  This is my plastic cup, lemonade toast to all my cousins; thank you for making memories sweeter, thirty years ago and again and again and again in multiplied moments of bliss.  

12 Years toward forever…

    This weekend I celebrated my 12th anniversary eating ice cream from a plastic cup with my husband in a noisy camp store in Allegan. Then he prayed for me. It was a 20-minute date while my kids say around the campfire with my parents. It was magical.

   If there is one thing that twelve years of marriage has taught me, it is what makes a magical moment and what makes a game-ending one. And as the years go on, the magical moments increase and the game-ending ones decrease.

   One of my first magical marriage moments occurred early in our marriage when, out of curiosity, Nick and I bought a box of churro mix on a late night Walmart run.  An hour or so later, our tiny kitchen was covered in little imperfect churros, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. It was an enormous explosion of sweetness, but it was fun! There were bigger moments: standing on the Cliffs of Moher our first day together in Ireland, the births of our three beautiful daughters, other events both large and small that marked our journey together.  But as the years pass by, messy churro-making in the kitchen or ice cream eaten with plastic spoons become the moments that make me the most satisfied in my marriage. It is in those moments that we connect, feel comfortable, and focus on each other. Sometimes focusing on just the big magic becomes dissatisfying as those times become further apart as life gets busier.  The little moments don’t require finances, or limitless time, or exhaustive creativity, just the desire to be real and to carve out minutes together amidst the craziness of our lives.

     On the other side of marriage are the events that feel like game-enders. Sometimes one of us disappoints the other on a grand scale; sometimes an unexpected impasse threatens to halt our journey; still other times we go through personal valleys that separate us from one another temporarily. We have been fortunate not to have as many of these moments, but we have had some.  In the depths of these times, we have trouble imagining how we can continue. We find ourselves tired, spent, confused. We yell, or withdraw, depending on our mood. Instead of praying for each other, we pray for ourselves. We become selfish and mean. I won’t spend my anniversary post dwelling on these moments, but know that we have had them, and they weren’t pretty. If you are in one right now, hold on. Turn your prayers to your spouse. Try serving. Try forgiving. Try letting go. Many times, one of those choices works, if not to change your situation, at least to change your heart.  If you find yourself lying on the ground in front of a car to stop your spouse from driving away, get up. If that is just metaphorical for you, great. It was a real moment at one point for me, and one that I don’t look back on with pride. But we have likely all been there, in one way or another.  Face down on the concrete, teeth gritted, wondering if this is where the journey together ends.  Fortunately, as Nick and I navigated the rough patches of our marriage, we grew together, not apart.  We are stronger, more understanding, and more forgiving because those skills have been tested in the dark times.  And it is for those reasons that the game-enders tend to come to us less frequently now than they did earlier on.  

   God created marriage to represent his love for us. I think the most salient advice I can give from twelve years of marriage is the importance of forgiveness. It can be hardest to forgive those closest to us.  The constant rubbing on the wound keeps it fresh, and we are mindful to the pain and its cause.  But God calls us to forgive.  I love the story in Matthew about the man who begs God for forgiveness, and God pities him and forgives him; but the man in turn will not forgive the smaller debt of one of his servants.  Sometimes we are like that in marriage.  We know God’s forgiveness of us goes deeper than our sin, but we cannot extend that grace when we are wounded.  I’ve had some large opportunities to practice forgiveness, and I haven’t always been able to extend it with the grace that God extends it to me.  But I am learning, and that is what I love about being married to Nick.  We are not perfect; we are not who either of us expected to be, in ways both miraculous and disappointing.  But we are in love, and we choose forgiveness.  We choose perseverance. We choose each other, every day.   

Now is the Time

 

   It is morning.  We waken slowly, rubbing sleep from our eyes and shaking our heads, hoping to empty our minds of bad dreams, but the dreams do not go.  The dreams are the reality.  The morning has not outshone the night. The night keeps getting longer.  We feel the cold of the darkness and begin to wonder when the days will lengthen, bringing grace and love and peace.  I don’t know what there is left to say.  In the din of fighting over gun control, human rights, religion, would a whisper even be heard?  I leaf through my Bible, a source of comfort in a time of fear.  David writes so many of my feelings, like these:    

      “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;  at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned;  I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.  I thought about the former days,  the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night.   My heart meditated and my spirit asked: ‘Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?  Has his unfailing love vanished forever?  Has his promise failed for all time?  Has God forgotten to be merciful?  Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’  Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:  the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord;  yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.’ Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.”  (Psalm 77:1-15)

Nestled in between murders, wars, rapes, and unspeakable tragedies of the Old Testament, the Psalms remind me who God is.  In the midst of questions of divinity and humanity that meet in moments of despair, I know that God is still here.  We can ask those age-old questions: Has God forgotten to be merciful?  Does He see the pain in this world?  Does He care?  And in the answer, we can see the potential for redemption, in spite of the evilness that threatens to devour society.                          

But more important than me using this truth to quiet my own fears is the opportunity to give this truth to those who have never heard it.  How dark the night must feel without the knowledge of the Son.  Now is the time; not the time for religious rhetoric, pious nose-turning, interpretive infighting.  It is the time for the Redeemer.    I do not believe He created these moments.  I believe He watches and weeps as humanity tears itself asunder.  In His eyes,we are like self-willed toddlers or unruly teenagers, turning our own ways. Among us are those cloaked in evil, waiting for opportunity to spread violence and hate.  But God is Love.  And so many facing these tragic moments need Love.  We have the power to be Love on this earth.  We have the power to spread Love.  Now is the time.   

Why I’m Not Afraid

Call me naive.  You wouldn’t be the first.  But I’d rather be called naive than jaded.  I’d rather be content than despairing.  I’m not always optimistic.  Sometimes I am a painful realist, like when my kids use an upended bucket as a table by the side of our rural road to sell painted pop can tabs.  Or when my husband determines that mushroom farming will be a lucrative side business after talking to a local chef.  They are optimists, eternal dreamers and believers in the unlikely.  It is what I love most about my family.  That pop can tab sale made $8 thanks to generous neighbors I don’t even know by name.  So I suppose optimism pays off; I can see it sticking its tongue out in glorious triumph at my realism right now.  I can live with being a realist, as long as I have proof enough to encourage optimism when it is needed most.  What I can’t survive under is pessimism.  Life is hard.  Days are long, nights are dark, and sometimes it seems easiest to just sink into despairing hand-wringing. But I can’t.

I’ve had those moments.  Sometimes they were my moments: lying on the rough carpet of the local hospital waiting for word on my grandfather’s life; sitting on my couch watching for headlights signaling my husband’s safe return in the middle of the night; waiting to hear about health, or employment, words or numbers to wrap securely around me and remind me of hope.   Sometimes they were the moments of others: a random shooting just miles from my house that took innocent, unsuspecting lives; an accident that left someone maimed; senseless violence and shocking calamities that unleashed fears as yet unrecognized, gave voice to nameless worries in the subconscious.   At times, the pessimism rose up like flooding waters, compressing my breath and threatening to overtake me.

But the flood always retreats.  The painful moments wane into the mundane daily life and are eventually overshadowed by bright moments of mirth.  In my realism, I put my head down and forge through those dark moments.  I wrap myself into myself, protecting my small internal hope from the dangers that assail it, and I press on.  I can’t release myself to pessimism.  Why?

Oh, there are so many answers here.  Going to those dark places in moments of fear and anguish opens up all of the dark places I have been before.  It is a path that once taken, cannot be easily left, and I don’t want to revisit the forests of my prior desperations.  I like it better here, in the light of the open meadow; even as I recognize that the woods lie ahead, full of unknown dangers, I’m going to soak up the sun while I can.  I also no longer travel alone.  I lead a pack of unsuspecting travelers who take their cues from me.  They tread lightly, or run ahead, based on my determination of the wind.  I want them to be free to run, free to discover treasures along the way without sensing dangers that should not concern them.  I give them tools, guidelines for safety, but I don’t want to saddle them with worry that is beyond their tiny souls.

I can’t stray to pessimism because I know better. My soul trusts that there is goodness still in the world.  My faith believes that there is a Plan that guides my way.  Losing myself to doubt and despair calls into question all that I hold dear, and while I may question the moment, I don’t question the years.

But mostly, I can’t revert to darkness because I prefer the light.  Whether it comes in long summer days or dappled lightly through a leafy canopy, whether it is streaming through rain-soaked clouds or rising over morning hills, it is mine.  In the darkness, I can remember the warmth of it.  I can see the first tiny rays as they crest the horizon, and I anticipate the days ahead.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Use Me

My life is full of words. I read novels and stories and poems and student essays and devotionals and the Bible. Words upon words.  I love large words. Grandiose ways to say everyday truths. Little did I know that I would be completely changed by two words. Five letters. Utilitarian, boring words that have spoken into my life and transformed me.  The words: Use Me.

   It was the new year. The challenge put forth by my pastor was to pray for God to reveal a word for us for the upcoming year. I thought of many words. Big words. Important words. Pious words. None fit. I nested each one for a time in my heart, but none hatched. This went on. So long, in fact, that the challenge was no longer being mentioned at church. I had reached the dangerous precipice of forgetting to define my year.

   Then, in the momentary quiet on a drive to school, the word was spoken. It came upon me already feathered with fullness. In 34 years of knowing God, no word felt so clearly defined by Him for me. It was My Word…well, words. Use Me.

   I nestled it in. My word took up residence in my heart almost immediately. It was so much my own word, my own journey, that I have mentioned it only once until now, where I record it here as a reminder and an encouragement.

   I am an ordinary person. I live an ordinary, on many accounts boring, life. My life has outwardly hardly changed. I still spend my time balancing teaching and parenting, I still live- likely long term- right in my same community since birth. I still have the same long-standing faith. But my vision has changed. I am being made new. Where I used to focus inwardly, I am striving to see outward. Where I used to see people through my lens, I now see them through God’s. In some recent social situations where I would normally focus nervously on the impression I was making or my own ability to fit in, I felt suddenly very clearly comfortable focusing on others. The change made me available to see the needs in others’ lives. I began sending notes. Each week I would pray for God to clearly give me people to pray for, then I would write to those people notes of encouragement.  I felt like a new person. I felt God moving in and through me in small, but fresh ways.

  I have always struggled with hearing God’s voice. What does it sound like? Would I hear, or understand, His message? Was the whole idea of hearing God a supernatural ability that God gifted to only a special few, or used in the Old Testament but irrelevant today? After my word was spoken, suddenly it felt very comfortable to speak My Word to God and to hear His clear response. From the names He gave me to pray for, to small but specific tasks: weeding someone’s garden, gifting something needed to someone. Some of these were tasks I had done before, but never at God’s specific prompting.  I was asking, and God was answering. I was being used. It felt comfortably nourishing.

   I have been surrounded by spiritual giants all my life: generous, prayerful, selfless people who have served abroad, run ministries, fed the hungry and clothed the poor.  I have often felt ordinary, disconnected from my potential to share God’s grace and love and live in the fullness I have received. My Word has given me connection, a promise that I will be used. Every day, I find myself breathing those simple words: Use Me. And God is fulfilling that promise to me moment by moment.
But this beautiful treasure is contained in us—cracked pots made of earth and clay—so that the transcendent character of this power will be clearly seen as coming from God and not from us.  2 Corinthians 4:7