Stuff I Have Done to Try to Stop my Alcoholic Husband from Drinking, Not Ordered for Chronology or Efficacy

I’ve taken all his clothes, the T-shirts and work shirts and pants and boxer briefs and belts and shoes and sweatshirts and blazers and ballcaps of all kinds and thrown them in big suitcases, and I’ve rolled them to the driveway. I have only done this a few times and only after our kids are in bed for the night. When he comes shuffling home from wherever he has been, a happy hour or a friend’s house, the suitcases stand under the garage light like a set of tombstones. He rolls the luggage back inside and gradually, over the next several days, he reshelves and re-hangs everything, the way you do when you’ve come back from a trip. Or I do it. The truth is, I do a lot of the reshelving.

I quit drinking. I have not had a drop in six years. I did this so I could ensure our kids had one steady parent, and because the drinking was making me increasingly sick, but also because I thought it would demonstrate to him how stopping was possible, even for a big drinker. Which I was. I mean, at the time I got together with my husband, I was drinking often and hard. So hard I don’t remember long stretches and today it haunts me like I was bedeviled in my own body. There’s a lot I don’t remember. I know we drank together for years, in bars and at home, at the homes of friends. My husband was funny as hell and so good looking; sometimes it was unnerving. The first night we ever slept together was a cocktail blur. The night we conceived our first child, I was soupy on Cape Codders. But I quit. And I took up distance running, which seemed virtuous and certainly would have been impossible with my old drinking schedule, not to mention dangerous! I thought all the miles I accrued would be inspiring to him. They are not. Or not in the way I had hoped.

I have cleaned the house, even though I think of myself as a naturally slovenly person. At some point, early on in our relationship, before marriage or kids—we are talking like twenty years ago—he told me he was agitated by clutter, and told me how his mother was an extremely fastidious person, like a plastic-over-her-carpet person, who made the sort of home where you actually could eat off the floor if you felt like it, and how that was calming to him. The first time I visited his mom’s house, I saw how this was true. So I cleaned so well for so many years that I converted into a cleaning person, a sweeping frenzy person, a bleached oven, vacuum on the couch person. I have done this for years and years, trying to smooth his mind, not because he asked me to but because I thought it was a sly way to dissolve his urge to drink. It disturbs me that I clean so much and makes me feel like I’ve been domesticated by this marriage like some sort of sad dog, and that makes me want to light the whole house on fire.

I have said some pretty mean stuff. Not the meanest possible stuff, but sometimes awfully close. Some nights when he comes stumbling in, I make digs about his maturity in an effort to shame him into sobriety. I say, “What other dads do you know who don’t come home after work to see their kids or tell anyone where they are?” He says plenty of dads. I have no way to disprove him since he knows more dads than I do. I know these digs are not effective (I know none of these measures are really effective), but they remain part of a vast, varied arsenal in my campaign to save our life. Sometimes, because losing them is his greatest fear, I remind him that the kids are almost teenagers and they’re about to know he’s a drunk, and then what? Even though I know kids are wiser than is good for them and they picked up on the unrest long ago.

I have suggested he talk to a therapist. He is forty-three and he has been drinking for twenty-five years as a means of self-soothing. His only means since he was a nervous child who pulled his own hair out of his head. I told him I learned the name for that. It’s Trichotillomania and other people have it too. Plenty of other people. Usually people with anxiety disorders. People get help for all kinds of things. These days when he’s stressed and no drinks are around, he plucks out the hairs of his eyebrows.

I have said sweet things like, “I love you and I am in this with you. I’m not going anywhere.” This is hard for me to say because it feels like signing my life away. But when I can muster these words, I think a door opens in his mind, some little light sparks. I know that if he felt like he could quit he would. I do know it. But he’s just buried, buried by how impossible it feels. And he doesn’t try. More and more when I say, “I love you,” it hitches in my throat a little. A little labor to utter.

I have not said anything. For days, sometimes. And when he speaks to me, I look toward a place over his shoulder, like I’m trying to discern a distant sound. I walk around him like he is a ghost or I am a ghost.

I have said, “I think I’m so stressed that it’s killing me,” hoping this will scare him sober. I say that I was listening to a podcast about resiliency, where they tested resiliency in mice and they put the mice in a beaker of water where the mice can swim to the edge but the lip is too high for them to get a purchase. This is called the despair test. It’s to see how long the mice will tread water until they resign. When they resign, they do a sort of dead-man’s float. Like they float with their little noses above the surface, not drowning but also not trying. I feel like he probably won’t understand that I am the mouse. I am the mouse! Swimming to every edge of this beaker trying to get a goddamn purchase.

Sometimes, when he’s been in a pattern of not coming home after work and not checking in for a pretty good while, I have threatened to call and/or email his parents. This sounds ridiculous. Like a junior high school principal. Just ridiculous.

Okay, I have called his parents. His mother will usually answer, and she will be kind, though I suspect she is thinking about what condition I created to incite my husband’s drunkenness. It’s hard for a mother, I guess, to see their child for who they are. His dad will thank me for the heads up. Affably. He will say, “Good talking to you, Mary!” And I will think back at him: My soul feels like a sad little raisin. I will say, “Okay, bye.”

I have withheld sex. This is usually in the immediate wake of his drinking, though it’s meant to latch a lesson in his psyche, a causality I hope will become sort of Pavlovian: This treat you want comes when you are sober/the treat you want is unavailable when you are drunk. Frustrating! One time when I was on the phone with his mom, in one of my desperate attempts to get help from someone who knew him and maybe could persuade him, she asked me whether I was being affectionate enough with him. I heard a lot when she said that: marriage is long and sometimes we forget to touch each other; men function best on a steady diet of sex, offered unremittingly, conducted eagerly. Had I considered how a lack of affection factored in the decision he made to stop most nights at the bar on his way home? I didn’t say to her, “Your son smells like IPA and sometimes urine and I don’t want him near me like that,” even though it was true, because it was too mean to say to a person’s mom, even for me.

I have called my own parents. My dad will usually give my husband a call. They will talk and my dad will tell him that alcoholism can destroy a marriage. He will remind my husband about how my mom’s drinking destroyed their marriage.

(My mom won’t call my husband, but she will come over to my house and help me do whatever needs doing with the kids and when I say how I’m sad she’ll look at me for a long time and understand how it is. She got left, mostly because of her drinking, and she believes booze is a real wrecking ball because it ruined her. She will say, “Seems like he’s not done drinking, huh?” And I’ll say, “Seems like it.” She will say she’s sorry I am suffering and I know she is. She’s sorry for how everything has gone down: her late recovery and what drinking took from her until then, how I ended up with a drunk, how it’s impossible to know what would ruin me worse, leaving or staying.)

I have, in the supportive ambit of couples counseling, argued that, aside from my own sadness about it, alcoholism is also an objective ill. A health concern. (It’s important to look reasonable in therapy so the therapist thinks you’re the sane one and will be on your side.) But he responds, verbally and nonverbally, that he feels his problem isn’t a logistical issue, since he maintains a good job in biotech. He has occasionally argued that happy hours are a necessary part of work in the corporate world, which I could not possibly understand since I work from a home office. He says that networking is as much a part of the job as emailing or lab experiments. Does he believe this? I think he does. He also argues that he is a very good dad. This is true. To date, it is true.

I have tried many different ways of explaining to him how I am sad. I say things like, “If you are drunk, I am alone when you are with me.” He scoffs. He says this defies logic and the laws of physics. He looks down at his body and spreads his arms and says, “I am right here.”

I have cried. Oh boy, have I. If he’s getting toward the end of a bender, sometimes he will look a little crestfallen if he sees my face crumple, because he is bodily tired and regretful at the edges. But if he’s in the middle of a streak (of say, weeks of drinking every day without plans to come up for air), he mostly looks annoyed and impatient to be anywhere else. Okay, specifically at a bar.

I have made pacts with him. In the run-up to the 2008 election, we started to get hopeful that Obama would be elected president. This development was beyond what we had expected for our lifetimes and we both saw it as a shift in the world, like the earth was rotating out of a bad shadow. So I suggested the superstitious contract, that neither of us would take a drink until election day, whether Obama won or lost. Delighted on election night, we drank champagne and I toasted the new president and privately I toasted how it was possible! That my husband could decide not to drink when he wanted to and carry out that decision by dint of will alone. A couple weeks later I learned that he had been drinking the whole time, from the start of the pact until the election night. And on and on.

I have tried very hard to believe in Jesus Christ (in a salvation sense) so that I could pray to Him and He might plausibly intervene. I’ve felt that there’s no way I would get any help from God if my prayers were disingenuous or transactional or flimsy, so I have really tried to feel God, and if I had a sort of glowing feeling sometimes (which might have been caffeine but who am I to say?) I would seize that moment and pray speedily to Jesus to help my husband stop drinking because of how it was tearing me up. I told my husband that I was doing this, which I think was jarring to him at first (a win!) and he maybe even felt superstitious for a while after that when he went for drinks. But not superstitious enough, I guess. Anyway, I know Jesus wasn’t really meant to flex like my own private mafia.

Speaking of superstition, I have tried to convince my husband that I am a witch. Not like an evil witch (a characterization that would not probably have required too much persuading), but like a person full of frightful, mysterious magic. I have appeared at bars where he was drinking or houses where he passed out. I will sometimes text him from home, asking whether it’s a great idea to be drinking at lunch when he has to go back to the lab. I used to achieve these things because I had the Find my iPhone feature to locate him. But I don’t need to use it anymore. I turned the feature off. I know where he is and where he will go just about as well as I know my own plans. His map runs through my mind like a bold scribble. So. I guess I did it. I am a witch now.

I have gone to the TV room where he is sometimes slumped and propped his head up on a pillow. I have filled his favorite big cup with electrolytes, for when he wakes up. And when he does wake up, I say please. Please, you gotta stop. This is begging and I’m not above it.

I have printed divorce forms from the courthouse website and splayed them on our bedroom dresser. Eventually, maybe after a couple days, I’ll notice the pages have disappeared and I’ll find them in the recycling. This is a way he asks me not to leave him.

I have said to him, “Remember last fall when you didn’t drink for a few months in a row? That was like heaven. Like, I loved you more than when I met you. We had so much fun, I think. At night we watched TV, smushed together on the couch. You’d get all your crackers and cheeses out and stack them into little towers before you ate them, and we’d agree that Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy was the funniest character ever. You would text me from the grocery store and ask if I wanted a dessert and I would say yes, and you’d say what kind and I can never decide so you would bring me home like three different kinds of ice cream and I would eat a little out of each pint. I’d make fun of the Muppet voice you used to talk to our bad little dog, whom you adore, and you’d blush and laugh (so dang handsome) and you’d keep talking to him that way, just to make me laugh too. We lay in bed at night doing the Wordle side by side and when we turned off the light you would curl your body around me and we’d both get too warm that way but we’d never un-spoon.” And this was all true, not blowing smoke.

Mary Birnbaum‘s work has appeared in The Week, Tahoma Literary Review, Hunger Mountain, and is forthcoming in Potomac Review. She received the Disquiet Nonfiction Fellowship for a piece published in NinthLetter and the Nonfiction Prize at Crazyhorse (now Swamp Pink) for a piece later listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays of 2020. She’s been a finalist for nonfiction prizes at Chattahoochee Review, and for the Conger Beasley Jr. Award at New Letters and a semi-finalist at River Teeth. She is former editor of Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial CNF Prize and was blog editor and contributor to that journal. She resides in Vista, California, with her husband and two daughters and one good dog and one disrespectful dog. Mary is a closed captioner, by trade.

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