Being in a relationship is hard. Being an alcoholic is hard. Getting sober is really, really hard.
Charlie and I met at a bar in 1986 (that's how you did it before Tinder). I was sitting at the bar alone, writing poetry when he wandered over and we started chatting. He was a poet too and we hit it off.
A day or two later he called, leaving a message on my answering machine (again, back in the day and get off my lawn), and soon set up a lunch date. It was terrible. It turns out two drunks can't meet in the daytime. But we saw each other in the bars over the years, chatting occasionally as casual friends.
In November of 1992, several random events pushed us into each other’s arms again. He was almost stabbed in a mugging attempt and it changed his life perspective dramatically; he’d been considering suicide yet when confronted with death, he realized he didn’t want to die. The next day we bumped into each other on the street and had breakfast together. We found we didn’t want the breakfast to end and spent the whole day and evening together, ending the night with a massive make-out session (we didn’t go any further since he was married at the time to someone else). We fell hard.
It was clear we were made for each other and we were devastatingly in love.
A month later, Charlie left his wife and moved into his own place and we were finally able to be together. We spent the evenings at the bars and went home and spent hours in bed.
We barely held on to our jobs, even though he was a freelance editor and had a flexible schedule. As a veterinary technician, I didn't have that same flexibility and kept showing up to work late because we were too busy spending long mornings in bed enraptured with each other. We started hosting a weekly poetry series together and moved in together just six months later. We spent hours sitting around tables with our poet friends, drinking until dawn. Beer and whiskey were our go-tos. We knew our drinking was getting out of hand but as poets and writers this was a badge of honor rather than a problem.
Eventually, I started doing cocaine and heroin, and things got bad very quickly for me. (Charlie wasn't interested in drugs, thank God.) In just a few months, I got fired from the vet tech job; I was busted for stealing cash to support my habit. Then, on the darkest day of the year in 1995, I overdosed on intravenous cocaine and ended up in the ER. I had a twenty-minute major seizure and I stopped breathing. Charlie panicked, pacing in front of the house waiting for the paramedics. Luckily, I came around when the paramedics treated me, and they took me to the hospital.
I was lying on the hospital bed when he came into the room and said, "That's it. We're done. We have to get clean."
When we got home, we poured out all of our booze and broke all of the syringes and threw away the last of the drugs. I spent a day sleeping and then we sought help through recovery groups together.
Being in a relationship is hard. Being an alcoholic is hard. Getting sober is really, really hard. Getting sober together? It's almost impossible. Unlike couples that meet in sobriety, Charlie and I had no idea if we were compatible without booze. So much changed in those early days of recovery. I discovered I could no longer write poetry. He discovered his depression and anxiety were crippling. When we hung out with other recovering alcoholics, they shook their heads at us and warned that we might not make it if we were trying to do it together.
It turned out they were right. After about seven months of not drinking, we hit a turning point in our relationship.
Things were rough; we were both battling depression and struggling to remember why we were together. I wanted to drink desperately and even found myself considering suicide. It seemed like we would not only lose each other, but also our fledgling sobriety.
Luckily, we had good advisors from recovery in our life. They pushed us to stop being sober together. They told us to be partners in life, but not in recovery. While we could both obviously stay sober together, we needed to work on healing the damage we'd done to ourselves and others on our own. We had to walk our own paths and find our own way to living without alcohol.
With a dramatic flourish, we yanked our sobriety apart.
We developed friendships with other sober men and women. We found different hobbies, different meetings, and stopped feeling responsible for each other’s recovery. Today, nearly thirty years after we first met, we're still happily married. And more importantly, we're still happily sober. We are constantly surprised at how lucky we are.
Is it hard to live sober in a world that celebrates pretty much everything with alcohol? Not really. It turns out most people are far too self-involved to care what you're drinking (or not drinking, as the case may be). We both openly disclose our alcoholism if we need to or if we believe sharing that information will help someone. Neither or us feels any compulsion to drink at all any more.
Parenting as recovering alcoholics is tricky and we're still figuring it out.
We've been open with our daughter about our history, and she understands, although she had a brief period where she refused to go to any restaurant with a bar because she thought alcohol was "bad." We keep our comments simple but honest. As she gets older, I'm sure this will be more challenging.
It turns out the path to a successful relationship between recovering alcoholics is exactly the same as it is for any other couple. We had to be our own person. We had to mind our own business. We had to admit there's no one way to do things whether it’s cleaning the house, paying the bills, or parenting. We had to realize that arguments are normal and how to move past them. We had to trust one another, and we had to learn how to communicate effectively.
In fact, we might have an advantage over folks who haven't been through recovery. We've learned many tools (like how to set boundaries, ask for help, and know when to quit) that help maintain our mental and spiritual health in order to stay sober, and many of those tools can be used to maintain our marriage. But at the heart of everything, of course, is love – and we have that in spades.