Raising a family in the shadow of alcoholism

A turbulent love story from both points of view

19 Feb 2020 | 04:11

'He was loving even as he withdrew'

I started drinking at 14. My parents didn’t touch the stuff, but had a stocked liquor cabinet from parties where doctors and their wives brought gifts of alcohol in boxes with big red bows. At 15, I experimented with Scotch for breakfast. One day I came home and discovered all the alcohol was gone. I thought my parents were too busy fighting with each other and hashing out their divorce to notice — turns out I was wrong.

It wasn’t until after college that I developed a deeper appreciation of alcohol. Good food and good cocktails were abundant in Manhattan as were cheap eats and cheap booze. It felt like I could have it all. I spent my days working and trying to figure out what I wanted to be doing with my life. It was comforting to apply myself to the art of getting in at the cool bars, drinking all night, then stumbling back to my or someone else’s apartment for more partying. I’ve heard that 10,000 hours of practice can create mastery. Everyone was drinking but I fancied myself an expert, able to drink a lot and not miss a beat at work or elsewhere.

I met my first husband over margaritas at Tortilla Flats in the West Village. During the seven years between first meeting and getting married I drank hard and often. It was noteworthy, commented on in fact, that I could hold my liquor, drink with the big boys. I was proud and uneasy. A move from Manhattan to Fort Greene fulfilled my need for change but didn’t quell a growing sense of purposelessness in my days and I threw myself deeper into my yoga practice, where I met P., who was teaching at a studio near my apartment. His classes were unusual. He talked about politics and death, about his mother who had died within months of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, about wearing her clothes still – nine months after she’d died. I was studying the Tibetan Book of the Dead, exploring the possibility of doing "grief work" in the space where I didn’t feel a need to shy away, where it was familiar and where I thought I might find purpose and meaning.

P. was both vague and explicit in his teaching style, awash in mystery and vulnerability, unapologetically himself. He existed outside the confines of the world I moved in, but I sensed in him self-recrimination and shame. I wanted to tell him he was a good man because that’s what I saw. He seemed to have nothing figured out except the wits and wisdom to lay it bare and raw. It defied logic and decorum and good manners and rules and I felt like I loved him almost immediately.

One morning after class, he stood on the corner trying to hail a cab. I offered him a ride and as we drove from Fort Greene to Williamsburg I told him I was getting married, that I was unsure of whether I believed in that construct, but that was the flow of the river and I was moving with it.

P. had been sober for 10 years, and was dabbling with drinking again when I met him. I noticed that he wouldn’t even finish one glass of wine. I thought of him as a good example of someone who was able to take a problem and turn it, water into wine as it were. He was surrounded by people who were making things – art, films, music. It was a community and it was different from what I had known, looked more like what I wanted. I trusted my instincts and the decisions that led me to that point. I wanted a new life, not just a shift. I knew it would be seismic. I wanted to be clear headed for all that was coming. I stopped drinking.

I counted my sobriety – days, then weeks, months, a break with alcohol and with my old life. I spent more and more time at P.'s place, which I’ll call the Farm. I began to wake with a desire to leap out of bed, days full of writing music, singing, making fires and letting time stretch. I felt committed to a vision of a different type of existence even as I held on to my old one, and the dualities started to look more distinct. I worked in a steadily corporate world, consulting in the financial services industry but marched with Occupy Wall Street, meditated in Zuccotti Park, and was teaching yoga in Brooklyn. I couldn’t objectively name it a double life, but I was pulled between two worlds and was feeling less capable of existing in the in-between.

Old unsettled feelings returned. I couldn’t tell if I was getting clearer as I disentangled from alcohol. I had a want in me that was growing... One day I recalled myself as a girl, in the woods, rubbing sticks together, unaware that the sparks would take this long to catch. Another day I wondered if I might be a star that burns real hot but just burns out, never shines. The confidence swing was familiar, but P. had a knack for quietly cheering people on towards doing the things he thought they might be turning away from. We began working on a community center project together. In hindsight we overlooked what was lacking in each other as business partners so that we could spend more time together.

One night I had a visceral awareness that I wanted to have a child with P. There was no logic to it. I was close to the inner workings of his life, saw the good and the bad – the creative and boundless, the lack of clarity, dysfunction, chaos. What followed felt unstoppable, as we stumbled forward.

In rapid succession I was divorced, living full time at the Farm, miscarrying a first child, then pregnant again. P. started drinking more. It felt different, the drinking. Six packs of beer appeared more regularly – he never had drunk beer before. We welcomed our first child, born at home by the fire as the moon rose over our farm. Our life evolved. The farmhouse shifted from creative nexus for artists and seekers to a family home. It was quiet but not peaceful – tension and stress were everywhere and unnamed. My pattern was to feel uneasy and move towards the conflict. P. withdrew. I yelled. P. withdrew. I wept. P. withdrew. Beer turned to tequila to mezcal. It was everywhere, unquantifiable how much was being drunk because there were so many bottles. I threw myself back into my work, traveling to the city and leaning into extraordinary people who cared for our child when I couldn’t. P. was an incredible father, despite the drinking. He was loving to me even as he withdrew. I started drinking again. Years went by and one summer day P. stopped drinking.

I spent years trying to limit exposure – not wanting to put on display what I believed was just a facet of our existence, afraid that the “tarnished” side would reveal a flaw that devalued the whole thing. P. is sober, but his sobriety hasn’t brought a reprieve from our struggle. I’m often resentful, navigating my own impatience, anger, disappointment, sadness.

We each sought support in our own groups where anonymity and connection merged fluidly. In the meetings I often talk, but seldom about how alcohol plays out in my own life. I’ve been taking responsibility for my choices, getting comfortable with the messiness of my life, our life, looking at the ways I contribute to a dis-ease that can so easily pervade our day to day.

P. counted two years of sobriety on the day that we moved from the farmhouse to Kingston, further upstate. A few months later we welcomed our second child. We’ve been finding ourselves again, giving ourselves a reprieve from feeling like we’re failing at being a family, at creating a simple life for ourselves. We’re taking one day at a time, again and again, as much as we can. - By A.M.

‘I am so sorry this darkness came in the midst of us having a child’

P. was sober from 2000-2008 and now again since last summer. He is still involved in A.A. and is also now dealing with what seems like depression and an anxiety disorder, seeing psychiatrists and trying different medications. He shared this letter he wrote to his partner as part of the twelve-step work he's doing with his sponsor.

Dear A.,
As you know I have been wanting very badly to be well and to be a strong, loving part of our family. Recovery has opened that door for me and I have done my best since then to take the necessary steps to start and continue the process of healing and awakening. It has been a very difficult and confusing process so far. My body and mind have been immensely warped by the barrage of alcohol and other chemicals necessary to keep up with my increasing tolerance and decreasing quality of life. This has been multiplied by the layers of insanity necessary to justify and rationalize this incredibly destructive behavior.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had the last ten months to regain some of my strength and clarity. I have had the luxury of this time largely due to your ability and willingness to take care of all of the necessary things that make a family function. You have worked very hard at your job, managed our schedules, paid all of the bills, made the major decisions about our finances, put [our son] to bed almost every night, comforting him almost every morning, etc., etc... I know it was very confusing early on for me to be attending two meetings a day and for my mental state to seem to be deteriorating even further and my emotional state to become even more unpredictable. You were very patient, supportive and understanding, and thankfully some of this has subsided — now in retrospect, clearly a common situation for early sobriety. Some of that dis-ease is still with me today, and I can see more and more how much it affects me and our family and, as we have discussed, I am open to any and all necessary solutions.

Based on my past experience and the experience of so many people whose stories I have heard in A.A., one of the major sources of freedom from these afflictions is the taking, practicing and living of the twelve steps. This is why I am writing, this is an attempt to formalize, continue and broaden the scope of my effort to make right whatever I can for the damage done. It is also an effort to further understand harms that I may not be fully aware of, to give you an opportunity to explain to me what was experienced and felt. I hope to offer to you an understanding, open heart and mind. Much of the damage, loneliness and loss of trust I believe has been a result of my extreme withholding. Some of it was out of anger, some jealousy, some out of a deep fear of what my inner truth might be saying if I was willing and able to feel it. Some of it came as a result of past trauma, some from the paranoia that accompanies substance abuse, some from my fear of rejection which was so viciously paired with my extreme overdependence.

It is apparent that in light of silence, someone who is trying to have a critical conversation will at times think the worst, or at least have to consider the worst in lieu of any evidence to the contrary. So I am deeply sorry for the countless times when I lacked the clarity, courage and/or willingness to be open and responsive to you. This thing of overdependence is a category of harm unto itself. I have taken advantage of the opportunity to be unaccountable to the rest of the world, almost and at times entirely. This has resulted in you having to stay at a job that you may have decided to take a break from or at least you could have enjoyed more of its benefit for yourself instead of having to be the only breadwinner. I am committed to reengaging in my career, or in a new one, if such a change makes sense for us. In almost all of my dealings with you and the world I have been extremely fearful, selfish, self-centered and dishonest in my omissions. I have also placed the blame for all of these things and even for my drinking on you, and I am extremely sorry for that. It was not true and extremely manipulative. I have been so consumed with an obsession of self that I have had no ability to see you, to empathize with you. I am sorry for the loneliness and fear that I have caused.

And I am so sorry that this darkness came in the midst of us having a child. Parenting is the most joyful and exciting time of life, but it is also the most challenging and terrifying part of life, and for much of that I have left you alone to deal with it, which I imagine feels like a fundamental betrayal. I can’t go back and fix that, but I believe I can act differently going forward. I believe that I have made a great deal of progress in this department, but I know that there is so much more I will be able to do as I continue to find more strength, clarity and serenity. I also vow to do a better job in hearing what your needs are and what the needs of our family are and do a better job of following through on those specific needs. I also plan in time to be attuned in a way that allows me to intuitively know what is needed and what will be needed. I also commit to you to follow through with the rest of the suggested program of A.A. To continue with the rest of the steps, to develop a consistent and open relationship with a sponsor and trusted friends. I vow to you to be a source of love, joy, friendship and inspiration. I thank you, so profoundly, for seeing and believing in me from the first time we met through these years despite so much evidence that might lead one to disbelieve and give up hope for goodness.
Love, P.M.

Parenting is the most joyful and exciting time of life, but it is also the most challenging and terrifying part of life and for much of that I have left you alone to deal with it, which I imagine feels like a fundamental betrayal.