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Married to a Chronic Relapser: The Wife's Story

My husband helped me get sober, then he went back to drinking, relentlessly. Today, I'm walking the fine line between staying sober and staying married.

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By Sadie Long

05/21/13

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I met my husband, Jimmy, at my very first AA meeting. I stumbled into the 14th Street Workshop, bloated and reeking of booze from the night before, in my pajamas. I hadn't showered in days, and I was wary of the people in the room. I didn't trust anyone.

Jimmy recognized that I was new (it wasn't hard to spot), and he put out his hand to shake mine, welcoming me and giving me a meeting list. I don't remember much about that first meeting, but Jimmy's kindness stayed with me.

A few days later, I was walking down 14th Street with a beer in a brown bag when I saw Jimmy in front of the Workshop. I tried to hide the beer, thinking he would be angry or disappointed with me. Instead, he told me not to be embarrassed, and welcomed me to come back to the meetings anytime I wanted.

This is not the man who showed me so much love and kindness. This is not the man I married. This is drug and alcohol-induced “Mr. Hyde.”

After being used and abused by so many sleazy men in bars, this kind man was a new animal to me. He radiated the philosophy of “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” He had no ulterior motive in being kind to me; he wasn't trying to get in my pants. He was simply another alcoholic offering his experience, strength and hope—no strings attached.

I made a commitment to go to the 12:30 Beginner's meeting at the Workshop every day. A group of us always went to the Little Poland diner to fellowship afterward. Jimmy always bought my lunch. He was the elder statesman of the group with about five years sober. I remember laughing with him one of those early days at the diner and realizing, This is the first time I've laughed this hard in years.

I noticed that Jimmy helped a lot of homeless guys get off the streets—bringing them into his home and cleaning them up, getting them into detoxes and rehabs. I asked him if I should be doing this. He smiled and said that we each find our niche in sobriety where we can be of service. This brand of 12-stepping worked for him because of his experience. In time, he told me, I would find ways my experience could benefit others.

As I struggled through early sobriety, I was angry and depressed, and suffered from severe mood swings from untreated bipolar disorder. I should say that Jimmy suffered from my mood swings too, because I could be combative. He put up with a lot of abuse, but seemed to understand that this was my process of getting clean. He saw something in me that was good, that I couldn't see in myself. He was very forgiving.

We had fun, too. On my birthday I mentioned to him that I had never seen snow on the beach. He came up with the idea of going to Coney Island to see the snow and go for an icy dip in the ocean. I remember how warm the sun felt on my skin after jumping in the freezing water for a couple of seconds. I felt myself coming back to life.

After a few relapses, I finally put the plug in the jug and managed to stay sober. A big part of the reason for that was Jimmy's support and absence of judgment.

Jimmy and I went through a lot together over the years. I was in and out of psych wards, and he was always the first to visit me. He had his demons, too, and I tried to be as supportive as he was. I moved to New Mexico, and later to Virginia. We always stayed in touch.

We always said that if neither of us were married when I hit 40 and he hit 50, we would get hitched. But God had other plans for us. While living in Virginia, I realized that I had fallen in love with him. I got up the courage to tell him, and to my surprise, the feeling was mutual.

It was a messy situation, because he had a new girlfriend. But it really felt—and still feels—like our union was meant to be.

And then he relapsed after a particularly bad fight with the ex-girlfriend. He called me in Virginia, drunk, telling me how much better Lou Reed sounded with a few beers in him. I was stunned. We had just celebrated his 12th anniversary. I never imagined he would drink.

I never imagined that I would drink, either, but a few weeks later, I relapsed myself. On Nyquil, of all things. It didn't take long for me to start drinking in earnest. One of Jimmy's sponsees relapsed around the same time. I'm not saying it was Jimmy's fault, but there did seem to be a domino effect. In looking back, I think maybe my co-dependent mind told me I had to drink to be with him.

In any case, we were both off to the races. I moved back to New York to live with him. He landed a plum job and we traveled, drinking top shelf booze and dabbling in cocaine. We moved into a beautiful apartment. He proposed to me in our local watering hole. It was a spur of the moment proposal, and he didn't have a ring yet. The bartender, our friend, fashioned a ring out of a paper clip. I still have it to this day. We milked that engagement for weeks, with people buying us drinks to celebrate.

A few months later we were holed up in that sumptuous apartment, shades drawn, on marathon cocaine binges, paranoid that our neighbors knew what was going on. At one point we were doing two to three 8-balls per binge, then recuperating for a couple of days, only to repeat it over and over again. My nose was permanently stuffed up, and I was bloated and looked terrible.

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