A recovering alcoholic, he could drink again, right? And she wasn’t about to give up her glass of wine with dinner, was she? And their relationship wasn’t really deteriorating as quickly as it seemed, was it? Just in time, a lightbulb went on in NATALIE WHITE’s marriage.
LAST SUMMER MY HUSBAND and I got into an argument about changing a lightbulb. When I couldn’t unscrew it, I asked him to try. Within seconds he was swearing in frustration. The only hope, he said, was to rip the fixture out of the ceiling. I begged him to stop and let me call a handyman.
Soon the bulb was in the trash, the fixture was dangling on snapped wires, and we were shouting at each other with naked hatred.
Luckily, I had an appointment with our marriage counselor scheduled in 15 minutes.
HANK AND I MET IN 1998, JUST BEFORE our 40th birthdays, and we fell in love like teenagers. We were magic, we were on fire, and though we lived thousands of miles apart, we were soon engaged. I told my two sons the plan at a Baskin-Robbins the night before Halloween. We went home and carved a pumpkin with the image of a diamond ring.
Though Hand and I had much in common — age, East Coast backgrounds, single parenthood — there were differences. I loved the Grateful Dead. He loved the Romones. I loved food. He loved philosophy. But all the ways in which we diverged seemed unimportant, or better yet, refreshing and balancing.
For example, I learned the night we met that my blue-eyed college professor was a recovering alcoholic, nine years sober. Great, I thought. My first husband had died of AIDS and drug addiction in 1994, and being involved with someone who had resolved these issues was appealing.
Though I liked to drink, and though I’d never fallen into addiction’s clasp, part of me was ready to quit. Ever the chameleon girlfriend, I quit cold turkey and started going by myself to AA meetings, which Hank had not attended regularly in years.
BY THE TIME OUR DAUGHTER WAS born in June 2000, we were definitely in the second phase of marriage, where yo resettle into the person you were premerger and the other person has to learn to live with it.
My sobriety had ended with the century, which I toasted with Champagne. I kept wine in the house, had a glass while fixing dinner, a glass with friends. If Hank was bothered, it was not because he worried about himself — at least he never said so — but because he worried about what I might do if I lost my inhibitions.
With lifelong issues about trust, Hank had been trying to change me so that he would feel safe. Often we fought bitterly about things I had done long before we met, and anything from wearing a low-cut shirt to drinking a few glasses of wine seemed to him like steps on the road to betrayal. We began seeing the marriage counselor; Hank started taking anti-depressants to help with his compulsive thought patterns.
In the summer of 2004, a friend at a fancy Champagne company invited us to a party she was having in Italy. The trip would include a few other couples with whom we’d wine and dine and tour Florence. While I thought that four luxurious days with these lovely people would be an ecstatic release from the burdens of home and family, Hank seemed dubious about spending time with me in what seemed to him a dangerous situation. We began to argue, and one day, on a beautiful hike in the Pocono Mountains, he told me that my drinking was destroying our marriage.
"What are you tlaking about?" I cried. "Are you out of your mind?"
"If you had to choose between me and alcohol," he asked, "what would you choose?"
"I would choose to have you trust me," I said.
To him, I had just said I would choose alcohol.
OUR HOTEL ROOM HAD FRENCH doors that opened onto a balcony over the Arno River, golden by day, silver at evening. Everywhere we went, we went by limo, and every time we came back to our room, there were gifts on the bed. I never figured out what I had done to deserve this treatment, but I drank it in like any princess who’s long been exiled to rural Pennsylvania.
On the third day, the group went to visit a Chianti vineyard in the Tuscan hills. We were taken under the wing of a beautiful Italian woman who showed us around her estate, crisscrossed by ancient Roman roads, then took us on a tour of a cellars and introduced her winemaker.
At lunch Hank and I were seated at different tables. I was slipping my fork into the yielding flesh of a zucchini flower when I saw him lift a glass of Chianti to his lips.
"Oh, shit," I said out loud.
But for the remainder of the trip, Hank partook with the rest of us and I saw a side of him I’d never seen before. He was relaxed, gregarious, even a little flirtatious. At the big party, held in two rococo palazzi, Champagne flowed in icy rivers. There’s a photo of him taken late in the evening with a James Bond leer on his face; his hair and bow tie are askew.
"Look," I exclaimed when I saw it, "it’s next month’s cover of Relapse monthly. The headline could be ALCOHOL SAVED MY MARRIAGE!"
I loved this joke. I showed the picture and told the story repeatedly, rejoicing that the tension between us was defused. And when I told him he should probably leave drinking behind in Italy, and couldn’t we just take these few days as our little gift from God and go back to the way things were, he said he’d think about it.
AFTER A FEW WEEKS OF TEETOTALING, Hank showed up after work with a small bottle of gin and said he was going to drink it to celebrate his birthday the next day.
I was horrified. "Only alcoholics drink a bottle of gin by themselves on their birthdays," I told him. "Regular people have a cocktail or two with friends." When I burst into tears, he handed over the bottle.
Two weeks later, he brought home a six-pack of beer. He said he agreed to my plan of avoiding hard liquor. There was definitely a tone of not taking no for an answer. So he had a couple of beers, I had a glass of wine, and things seemed good.
One of my best friends has close to 20 years in AA, and Hank’s drinking became the focus of our conversations during our weekly jog. She was extremely doubtful that moderation would be possible, but as the months went by and no disaster occurred, she began to withdraw her judgement. And, as she told me later, to wonder if this meant she could drink a little, too.
In response to these thoughts, she redoubled her focus on AA. Meanwhile, I went home to have a drink with my husband, who was such a lightweight, it seemed, that he often slurred his words after just a couple of beers.
ALMOST A YEAR WENT BY; I PERFECTED my happy story of how alcohol saved my marriage. Then one night, we met two couples for drinks and dinner. At the last spot we stopped, our friend Lou looked disaffected. When I went over and perched on his knees to ask what was wrong, he said he was just tired. Soon after, we all went home.
A few days later, Hank let me know that he was upset about my sitting on Lou’s lap. This was exactly the kind of behavior he had always worried about — drunk, flirty, out of line — and now I had proved he was right. Oh my God, I thought, we’re back to where we started.
"This is so wrong and ridiculous, and if we start talking about it, we’ll only make it real," I wrote him in an e-mail. But, of course, we did start talking about it.
Then things began to get strange. There was a minor car accident during which Hank behaved badly. The next week, he picked an out-of-the-blue, slanderous fight about money. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was looking at classified ads for apartments in the town where he works. Finally, on the Fourth of July at my mother’s house, he went off the deep end. An evening of odd behavior culminated in his cursing at me within hearing of my family, even giving me a shove. In the morning, he remembered little of this but was racked with humiliation once I told him.
And still, when my best friend suggested that he could be drinking more than I realized, I said, "Oh, Hank would never do that."
An hour later, when I asked him, he said actually, yes. He would, and he had.
OVER THE NEXT FWE DAYS, HANK confessed that he had never, since that first six-pack, believed that he would be a moderate drinker. That very day or soon after, he had bought a pint of vodka to drink secretly, and he had done so a fwe times a week ever since. He knew damn well he was a alcoholic; he was only waiting for me to find out.
My sense of betrayal — and horrible deja vu, as I had been through scenes so much like this with my first husband — was devastating. I knew so much about being married to an addict. The good part: It’s a disease, it’s not about you. The bad part: It’s a disease, it’s not about you. When I finally stopped crying, I went into a phase of numb disconnection. I kept thinking of myself telling the stupid story of his amazing ability to drink, and his letting me rattle on.
I had bought a lie, bought it eagerly, because I wanted a husband who could share my pleasures, and I had ignored any hints that my reality was a sham.
After his secret came out, Hank stopped drinking again and went back to AA. We ignored each other for the rest of the summer, and reached the cold, weird place past anger. Ot so it seemed, until the day I could not unscrew the lightbulb.
Since our counselor had forbidden us to come to appointments together, Hank told me to go. "I don’t want to go," I screamed, and ran out the door and went anyway.
WHEN I GOT BACK, I SAW THE BULB had been changed; the fixture was stuck to the ceiling with some sort of black glue. Hank was standing by the coffeepot. He asked me what had happened in our session.
"I told her that this is so hard, and it’s making me miserable, and half the time I hate you," I said. "So she asked me if I want to leave, and I said no. No matter how awful it is, I’m going to stay forever."
Hank gave me a look. "That’s what I’ve been telling her, too," he said.
We stared at each other for a moment, and then we had to laugh.
As awful as it sounds, there was something that freed us in that moment. I think it was the sound of commitment, the promise of undying love beneath the frustration.
Part of the reason we’re together is that we both have thorny relationships with alcohol that are reflected in the other person’s struggle, yet we can’t resolve them the same way. He cannot drink, and I will not stop. Refusing to be controlled by his fear, I am probably always going to seem a little scary to him. But he has lost the moral high ground from which he once judged me so harshly, and I have renounced the desperate need for approval that made me pander to it. Now, to go on, we have to accept that parts of the jigsaw puzzle will never fit snugly together.
When the last speck of fairy dust is gone, and you are married to exactly the person you married and not any fantasy of your own, you find out whether you have what it takes to make it through a few more decades of togetherness. It takes commitment, it takes forgiveness, it takes resignation and compromise, but with all of this, you still have to feel tenderness. The person you see in those eyes that meet yours across the pillow, or the dining room table, or over the head of the child whose hands you hold — if that person still touches something wordless in you, you can imagine that there are still good parts left, still surprises in the story.
You can only find out what happens when you believe in love if you believe in love. We choose to believe.
~ 《O – The OPRAH Magazine》, April 2006