Alcoholism, Sobriety, and Marriage
My husband and I had never spent more than a couple weeks physically together before he moved halfway across the world to be with, and marry, me.
That’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. We met when we were both young and I was visiting a friend in Trinidad. Through the magic of Myspace, MSN Messenger, and, eventually, Facebook, we kept in touch for 11 years before it officially became a “thing.”
But still, we didn’t really know each other the way you’re traditionally meant to before you go and marry a person.
But that’s what we did.
At first, we were having the time of our lives. New country (for both of us), new people new adventures. And booze. So. Much. Booze.
It was great.
Until it wasn’t.
He didn’t have a job and was struggling to find one because the country where we live is a bit tricky for job-seeking male spouses. So while I taught local girls during the day, he stayed home and tried to figure out what to do with himself.
When I got home. We drank.
And boy could we drink.
Everybody’s Workin’ For The Weekend
I don’t want to think about the small mortgage we pissed away on alcohol and cigarettes. In this country, getting wasted is a staple of Western expat life and we were eager participants.
We gladly paid upwards to $100 USD per person for 4-5 hours of unlimited drinks and buffets. There are people who do this every weekend, sometimes more. They offer absurdly named “Night Brunches” for those who want to keep the party going.
Oh, and the Ladies’ Nights. They’re everywhere. If you’re a woman, you can drink for free pretty much any night of the week if you want. And we did! Of course, we still had to pay for my husband’s drinks, but that’s the rub.
Lure them in with free drinks for ladies and then let the men come to pay the heavily inflated full price for a pint of beer.
The culture here breeds excess.
There were nights that started innocently enough with happy hour and a few appetizers. Nothing wrong with a little post-work unwind, right?
But the “fuck it” switch would flip as “after work” turned into evening. The music got a little louder. The vibe, much looser.
The waiter loops back. “You want another drink?”
Yah, fuck it.
Before you know it, you’re $300 in the hole and pretending to know the words to “Rocky Road To Dublin” with your fellow Irish party goers.
Those were irresponsible days, but they were fun. We traveled. Stayed in fancy hotels. Paid exorbitant prices for the same food you can get at half the price back in the States.
Neither of us had a fiscally responsible bone in our bodies.
Sure, the hangovers sucked and made working life increasingly difficult, but it seemed like a small price to pay for grabbing life by the horns.
Because in those days, that was the metric. What was the wreckage? How close to the edge did you get?
But then it stopped being fun.
The weight started to pile on – on my body, my bank account, and my spirit. I’d been flirting with alcoholism long before I moved abroad. So I knew it was there, waiting for me.
In the first few months, the novelty of a new country and life was enough to keep my drinking a mostly social endeavor, albeit a reckless one.
But that changed quickly.
The culture shock, strains of a new marriage, being so far removed from family and familiarity, and the job… oh my God, the job.
It was the most emotionally challenging thing I’d ever taken on and it sucked the life out of me.
So I drank.
I’d open the door to our apartment, throw off my abaya, and head straight for the balcony. Maybe my husband would already be out there smoking a cigarette.
I need a drink. I’ve had such a bad day.
I’d have to chug half a bottle of hard cider and chain smoke 2 or 3 cigarettes before I could feel like a person again. Someone who’s stress levels weren’t spiked by chaos, culture clashes, and kamikaze drivers. A person who could breathe.
And he was right there with me.
We drank and chain smoked in our respective lawn chairs. By the third or fourth drink, we’d settle into a rhythm. Not talking. Just drinking and smoking. Scrolling mindlessly on our phones.
After a few hours, we’d think about ordering dinner. I rarely had the energy to cook. Repeat.
Things got worse…
I began to care less and less.
Eventually, I was wearing the equivalent of pajamas underneath my abaya to work, piling unwashed hair on top of my head in a messy bun. Those after work drinks stretched later into the night.
I ate when I had to, sometimes drinking until 11 or 12 at night. My husband would hang in there for a few hours, but would opt to give his lungs and liver a break, and go inside to watch TV on the couch – like a normal person.
Not me, though.
I stayed on that balcony. Sipping. Scrolling. Smoking. Eventually, he found a social life and joined a rugby team. Branched out a bit.
I did the opposite. I stayed on the balcony.
And the longer I stayed, the more I lost my grip on everything. I was so miserable. And I made the people around me just as miserable.
My drinking became more reclusive. My husband had his own battles which are not mine to tell. But we fell into an unstable place.
He became both my support system and my target. I wonder what that must’ve been like for him. What that chaos did to his well being. But he’s not the type to talk about those things.
I became hard to live with. Some days, my drinking meant I chilled out. Other days, I got mean and picked fights.
My husband would go out with his rugby buddies and I’d stay home. I’d start drinking around 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. By the time anyone wanted to go out, I was too sloppy or unmotivated to clean up and go somewhere.
So naturally, people stopped inviting me places. I’d flaked on them too many times. And yet, not being asked mattered. Not having close friends mattered. I was lonely, but I also wanted to be left alone to drink however I wanted to drink.
There was no way to win.
I began to resent my husband. Here I was busting my ass every day working an impossible job while he stayed home, and he was out there living his best life, making friends while I got fat and miserable on the balcony.
Of course none of that last bit was his fault, but good luck telling me that.
Every day, I would wake up with a hangover, hit the snooze button for 30 or 40 minutes, dreaming of ways to get out of work. My commute was always the beginning of my stress. Sharing the highway with drivers from a bazillion different countries all over the world during rush hour will test even the most zen individuals.
I was the opposite.
Every day was a big, stressful mess.
After surviving 45 minutes of near misses, potential fender benders, and wannabe F1 drivers barreling in and out of slow-moving lanes and up the shoulder, I arrived to hallways filled with screaming children. The screaming would continue until the bell rang for dismissal.
Classrooms were stuffed with 36 students, the majority of whom did not understand much beyond basic, conversational English – if that. And I struggled to make heads or tails of Arabic.
There were days when minutes felt like hours. Discipline was challenging for 1,000 different reasons and none of us could quite get it right. Quiet spaces came at a premium. After a year of this, I began to get panic attacks.
The stress ate me up and my husband bore the brunt of that.
But we survived.
A lot of relationships don’t. Addiction is the third most-cited reason for divorce in the United States. Had I not gotten sober, we likely would’ve gone that way as well.
Even though he drank with me, my husband wasn’t (and isn’t) an alcoholic. He didn’t need to drink, like I did. It’s just something we did.
My husband watched as I cycled through anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
He didn’t try to step in and guide my recovery. It was foreign territory to him, too. But he listened and he tried to meet me where I was at. If I needed him to not drink in front of me, then he would.
If I needed him to stay home to be with me because I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest and I might have an attack, he would.
He didn’t know how to support me, which is what made his support so helpful. I had to be honest about what I needed, and he did his best to provide it. Neither of us pretended to know the right way forward.
But that was the direction we needed to go. Or I wouldn’t make it.
Doing our best…
We did this tightrope walk through two extended stretches of sobriety and two big relapses. If he was disappointed in me, he didn’t show it.
He helped me through it, sometimes by just being a physical presence. Someone to sit next to on the couch when I was numb and out of things to say.
In some ways, recovery was harder on our marriage.
When your marriage gets strained because of drinking, there’s an obvious bad guy to point to: the alcohol. Drinking becomes a proxy for everything else.
Oh, I said that thing because I was drinking. I reacted that way because I was drinking. We haven’t done XYZ because of drinking. We’re broke because of drinking.
But what do you do when the alcohol goes away and the problems remain? Who (or what) do you blame, then?
I don’t think my husband and I ever really knew each other until I got sober. So we had that part to work through. My pregnancy added an additional challenge to the recovery process.
I got sober and pregnant at roughly the same time. That’s a massive emotional landscape to navigate and neither of us knew what to expect.
There were times I wasn’t sure we’d make it.
My husband had to learn to grow up and I had to learn to be emotionally self-sufficient. Neither came naturally to us.
But recovery means you have to take responsibility for your life. And because I’d been drinking heavily for so long, it meant I, too, had a lot of growing up to do.
If your marriage was strained at all when you drank it will likely be strained in recovery. Maybe even more so.
Recovery cracks you open.
Drinking alcoholically means a backlog of real-life, adult problems builds up. Arguing with your spouse, getting shit-faced and venting to your friends, then waking up the next day pretending it didn’t happen is no longer an option.
A marriage in recovery means volunteering to go through that backlog together. It’s not optional. Some people, frankly, don’t have the stomach for it.
(And that’s okay/understandable.)
But I think if you have realistic expectations going into it, that you can survive anything.
What recovery is like on a marriage…
Yes, there are going to be some difficult conversations, fights, and emotions you don’t know how to tactfully articulate. There are things you’ll get miserably wrong and words you’ll want to take back.
But that’s true of life whether you try to drink it away or not.
Staying married after sobriety means resetting priorities, learning how to communicate in healthy ways, and getting on the same page. That takes work. And sometimes that work makes you want to drink again.
Because you’re not going to be the same person you were when you drank. You’re going to change.
Realizing that your compatibility with someone was largely predicated on drinking together can be a gut punch. My husband and I had to get to know each other all over again. My drinking self was down for a good party and talking shit on someone’s patio.
I’ll hang out for a minute, but then I’m going to bed.
Once we became parents, we had to get to know each other in a totally different way. And on and on it goes, these little evolutions.
There’s not one definitive outcome to this process.
Sometimes people discover who they really are in recovery and grow apart. Others find the burden is too heavy and decide to end their relationships. And some people grow closer.
Sobriety means you’re as equipped as you can be to manage any outcome that comes your way. I don’t know of a single relationship problem that was solved by drinking. Or any problem for that matter.
But I think if you’re both committed to one another, keep an honest perspective, get support or counseling, and do what you can to make this “new normal” work for everyone, then you’ll get where you’re meant to be.
Hopefully together. Most certainly improved.
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