When I was five years old, my mother gave my father an ultimatum–either quit drinking and smoking or she was gone. Whether she would have actually followed through, I’ll never know, but my father believed her, and on his own, quit drinking and smoking at the same time, but in reality, all that changed was the absence of alcohol; the family dynamic I grew up in was still present. Years later when I met my first wife, she told me that both of her parents were alcoholics and that they had several years of sobriety in A.A.
I thought that if I could just do or say the right thing, earn more money, be a better husband or father, or better something, my wife would be happy.
She also told me that she used to go to A.A. While she didn’t attend anymore, and she had a copy of the A.A. “Big Book” that I might be interested in reading. I did read, and thought that it had some good stuff in it for those people –alcoholics.
I can see now that I fell for my wife because she felt like home to me. Instinctively, I knew the dance what my part was in it–the Long-Suffering Heroic Martyr and Rescuer. I was working as a psychiatric nursing technician. I finished my degree in psychology, and discovered that it qualified me for the same job that I already had but nothing else. Because I had a family to support, I enlisted in the military and became a Navy Hospital Corpsman.
Over the next several years, I had a front-row seat to observe the progressive nature of this ugly disease in my own home. I became progressively more unhappy, uncomfortable, and guilty because I could not fix whatever was wrong. I thought that if I could just do or say something, earn more money, be a better husband or father, or better something, my wife would be happy. Then I thought that I would deserve to be happy.
Then, one day we went to visit my parents-in-law, who by that time had well established recovery programs of their own. That meant that if we visited, we would go with them to their A.A. meetings. Fortunately, that night; it was an open meeting, so I went along. And at the end of the meeting, when they were handing out sobriety chips, and they asked if anyone wanted one. I totally astonished when my wife got up, announced that she was an alcoholic and wanted to get sober.
I had all the information, I had all the education and training. I had all the personal experience. The only possible way that could have been a surprise to me was that I did not want to know my wife was an alcoholic. I sometimes wish that when I tell my story, I could say that I recognized what was wrong, sought help, and that led my wife to her own sobriety. But the truth is that between the the two of us, I was the less sane one, and she was the one who correctly identified the problem at the heart of our family’s unhappiness and dysfunction.
However, once the truth was handed to me in an undeniable way, I went to Al-Anon to learn what I was going to need to do to keep my wife sober because I thought that it was my responsibility. The very next night there was an Al-Anon meeting at the same place, so I went. I quickly noticed that I was the only man there. Everyone was sitting around a table, so I couldn’t even sit in the back of the room and hide. The people there welcomed me, asked no questions, and went right on with their meeting. Then they started telling me their stories.
Even as in deep in denial as I was at that point, I began to see that I had no idea how bad things could get in a family dealing with alcoholism. Despite all of the challenges they were dealing with, the women there were smiling and laughing.
At that point in my life, I had a hard time mustering even a small smile. I think the mystery of how they were able to do that was why I kept coming back once we returned home. However my main problem was still my own ego, I had learned growing up that it was more important to look good than to be good, so if I was going to to do this Al-Anon thing, I thought that I would need to become “Mr. Al-Anon” as quickly as possible so they wouldn’t kick me out.
Recovery continues to work for me on a daily basis, making my life a lot simpler and more fun.
Very quickly I learned to “talk the talk”, to quote Al-Anon literature, and even cite page numbers. I had people come up to me after meetings and tell me that what I had said had been really helpful to them, and I’m glad that was true.
Unfortunately, the one person who wasn’t listening to what I said was me. It took another two years to recognize that one of the two people in our marriage had a real commitment to recovery and working the Steps and it wasn’t me. I could foresee that if that continued, my wife would likely feel the need to choose between sobriety and marriage, and I knew what that choice would be. So, I began to make a token search for my first Sponsor. There were still no men in my group that stayed for more than a few meetings, so although not usually recommended, I asked a woman to sponsor me. I figured that I would ask the busiest sponsor in the program. I reasoned that she would be so busy, she would say no, and I would be off the hook. But the answer was yes. And her first question to me was, “What Step are you on?” I admitted that I hadn’t started any steps, and her response was, “Welcome to Step One.” And that was the beginning of real recovery work for me.
My first wife died several years later–sober. But that’s her victory not mine. Mine is that recovery continues to work for me on a daily basis, making my life a lot simpler, and more fun, even after all of these years. I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever be able to float serenely through life with no challenges, I’m still 30 seconds from crazy at any given point. But recovery has given me those incredible 30 seconds in which I can decide how I want to respond to whatever is in front of me, and more and more, I make healthier choices. As long as that continues to work for me, I’ll “Keep Coming Back”. written by Brad J.
Reprinted with permission of Al-Anon Family Groups, December 2019