I've been lying about my drinking. How do I live with the guilt?

My wife thinks I've been sober for the past seven years, but I've secretly been drinking.

By Cary Tennis
Published February 14, 2007 11:45AM (EST)


I'm a liar. A really bad one because I should know better, and I need help living with the past lies I've told.

I started a path of recovery from alcoholism about seven years ago. I managed to quit drinking. A lot of the psychological problems, I figured I'd have to work on them as I went along. My progress with those problems was hampered by the fact that, shortly after finishing treatment, I lost my job.

It was a "layoff," not necessarily caused by my drinking. It was the kind of professional job in which junior people are cycled through as if they were a mountain and the firm were a strip-mining operation. No one lasted more than five years, and I was not the exception. I was indirectly told to start looking. By indirectly told I mean, my boss didn't tell me; someone who impliedly spoke for the management said, "Don't you think you'd be happier somewhere else?" (I'd been asked to give someone else the same "warning" in almost identical language the year before. They asked me to do it because I was this person's "friend.") That's their way of giving warning. Unfortunately, I was preoccupied with treatment at the time. It was very difficult to juggle the job with treatment, let alone interviewing. Besides, the economy was not good. I ended up getting asked to resign when the unofficial deadline passed. (The "unofficial" warning deadline was a little over a year.)

My wife still thinks this was my fault. I don't because 1) work didn't even know about my alcohol problem (besides that, my boss was a cokehead -- no exaggeration), 2) getting rid of people after a time was just their way, and 3) my work couldn't have been that bad because a client offered me a job less than a year before I left. (Drinking was already a big problem when I got the offer. I didn't take it because I didn't want to move to the city the client was offering.)

Anyway, I went through a period of unemployment. We were OK because of my savings, but it was pretty bad. I basically just dug in. I didn't drink during this time. I filled my time waiting for the phone to ring by playing computer games and doing anything else I could to avoid thinking about my situation. My wife worked, as she always had.

Finally I got a good job, one I still have and enjoy. Here's the thing. For the past several years, I've been lying. I've been drinking on the sly -- during my business trips or hers.

I'm not asking for practical advice. I know she doesn't know, and I'm pretty sure she won't find out. I'm asking for a pardon. If I tell her, she will leave me, or at least there will be great drama. I can't handle any kind of drama.

I've reconnected with Alcoholics Anonymous. I've been going to meetings. I've returned to my sobriety for four months now. Everything is great, but the guilt is killing me. It's not just guilt but fear of being found out. I really don't think she'll find out, and if she does, I'll have to deal with it at the time.

The guilt is from not telling her. I know and subscribe to the AA way. I'll have to make amends because she has been hurt. I haven't been myself or been fully there for her since I've taken up drinking (and the inevitable lying).

My request to you is, how do I live with the guilt for however long it takes me to be able to tell her what I've done? (This is kind of funny. Being worried about telling her this and procrastinating are kind of the opposite of what I felt before I asked her to marry me.) I think it will take many months or more than a year.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Dear Liar,

You ask a very practical question: How do you live with the guilt until you are ready to tell your wife you've been drinking and lying about it all these years?

There are really two answers to this. One is that you live with the guilt by throwing yourself into the program that you have chosen to live by. You live with the guilt by working with others who have problems like yours, which takes your mind off yourself. You do what's required of you until your course of action is clear.

And the other is: You don't. You don't live with the guilt. You just tell her. In the intoxication of sudden reprieve from hellish addiction, with the preternatural confidence of a man granted a second chance, you just tell her.

I could tell you how to do it by the book, but I do not think that is the sole source of the answer. The answer must come from you.

It's a difficult choice. Ideally, since you say you are in the AA program, you will find the answer by following its suggested procedures. You must work through this difficult choice with grace and honesty and a mature regard for the feelings of others and the future of your relationship.

As you do so, remember this: Just as we often say that lack of sleep never killed anybody outright, I think it's safe to say that feelings of guilt never killed anybody either. It's just uncomfortable knowledge. We live with all sorts of uncomfortable knowledge.

So call upon those around you who are older and have similar experience. Ask them what they did and how it turned out. Use their stories to reflect upon your own. Look for the similarities in their stories, and seek to understand the lessons they learned.

Then make a decision.

You also say that you are asking for a pardon. I can grant you that pardon, in a way.

That is, if by asking for a pardon you are asking for forgiveness, I can suggest that you forgive yourself. Forgiving ourselves for what we have done in the past is necessary if we are to get over it and change. So while I do not arrogate to myself any supernatural power to grant absolution, I suggest that you yourself grant yourself a pardon.

It is possible that, being an alcoholic and thus somewhat unbalanced as a person, you have looked to your wife to be the moral center of your life, to set standards to which you must adhere and to be the moral arbiter of your behavior. When we grant such powers to others, we are then stuck when we find we must make difficult decisions on our own. So you seem to be transferring that power to me, conditionally, in this letter.

I in turn throw it back on you, and on your program. This is an opportunity for you to reclaim some of that power of judgment and discernment that you have given over to your wife.

I would like to make one related observation. Reading over your letter, I see that in the instances of adversity you recount, you tend to cast yourself as having been in the right. You state that your drinking could not have played a part in your firing. You say that what happened was par for the course in this particular organization. You say your wife blames you for what happened but you disagree, and you enumerate the reasons why.

I must say that to me it doesn't really matter who was in the right. All your insistence on being right indicates to me is that you may be unusually resistant to rigorously evaluating your own actions and behavior. And this in turn indicates that you may not be seeing yourself quite the way others see you. So in talking this out with trusted associates who have been through similar things, make a special effort to see where you yourself may have been in error.

It is only in finding our own errors that we can make much progress. There is not much we can do about the errors of others. We have little or no control over them. Our own errors, on the other hand, present a vast field for improvement.

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