My husband is sneaking drinks

He quit, but then he got the idea he could start again, and it's getting spooky

Published May 24, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband may be sliding back into alcoholism, and I'm trying not to panic. I think we would both say it's a very good marriage, with few disagreements and lots of laughter and mutual support, and the sex is ... fair. We both work 1.5 jobs, so we're tired. He's a kind and caring stepfather to my son, too.

There was a period in his life when he had decided to drink. Then, when he found he had gone too far, he stopped. That was all before I met him; for the seven years I've known him, he's been sober. He has never been bothered or tempted by my nightly glass of wine with dinner (anyway, he hates wine, and beer). We go to bars, and he orders a Coke. Over a year ago, I'd say, he read a discussion on a forum about some mixed drinks, and he thought they sounded interesting. So he bought some liquor, and some mixers, and started putting them together.

I thought, "That's fine: I have a drink at night, he has a drink at night." One night he actually got drunk, and he was hilarious! I laughed about it, even told some friends.

Then, sometimes, he'd get a little tipsy from the nightcap (other times, so would I). Then, at times, he would drink when I wasn't home yet. Still, it's very infrequent. If it were me -- never an alcoholic but a pretty impressive partier when I was single and childless -- I don't think anyone would worry that I was getting drunk once a quarter, right? Six or seven times in the past year he's gotten drunk. A few of those times he was tipsy by 6 p.m., including an evening when he was home with my son and my son's friend. The boys are 11 and don't need much supervision, but still. I told him in no way was it appropriate to be drinking when he's on child-minding duty, and he hasn't done it again. Another time, he was driving me and my son to a class, and I think he had been drinking. Drinking and driving his precious new car? I was getting worried at this point. I told him as much one night, but he was too drunk, and didn't remember it the next day. I reminded him. I told him I was scared, that I don't know what a return to alcoholism looks like or when I should start worrying, but making bad decisions about when to drink is certainly one sign. He still orders a Coke on the rare occasion we go to a bar.

Yesterday, we were gardening at a house we're preparing to sell. We moved to a rental that's just around the corner. Also around the corner is a 7-Eleven, so when he was finished and I was not, I asked him to get us sodas. He returned 15 minutes later with a soda for me ... and alcohol on his breath. He had stopped at the rental, and had a drink! Enough to be tipsy, or drunk (I'm not sure), at noon! I stormed back to the rental alone, and when he arrived I asked him if he thought that was OK, sneaking to get drunk at noon. He agreed with me, but maybe because I was furious and that's the only correct answer. Yet, over the year, it's still been just this handful of events, and he goes days without a drink.

I'm not only asking how to proceed, though I'd love some guidance on that. I'll be talking to him tonight, but I don't know if that will make things worse (will he drink because he feels bad for drinking?). I doubt he is able to articulate his reason for drinking again. And that's the deeper question, where I need help: the reason people drink. What I know scares me. They drink because life is too much. They drink to hide/numb their emotional pain. To "handle" what they think they can't handle. Right? So what does that say about me, and our lives together? What happened to "us" that he now sneaks drinks? I think about how much I love him. I think about the people who deeply love people who happen to be alcoholics. I think about a future of rehab, divorce, single parenthood. Should I even be going there?

Confused and Scared About His Drinking

Dear Confused and Scared,

Say you and I were sitting on a park bench talking -- and I kind of wish we were -- I'd say that his drinking is not about you. That's what I'd say first.

And I wish we were sitting on a bench talking because then I could ask you questions. I would ask if he's ever consulted any experts about drinking, or has he ever gone to AA. And is there alcoholism in his family, I'd ask that.

And then maybe we'd just sit there for a while.

And maybe there would be a kid skateboarding near where we're sitting and you'd say he reminds you of your 11-year-old, and I'd say I don't really know what it's like to have kids, and that would remind me that whenever I say that about not having kids I feel like I got away with something, like when I got a high number in the draft lottery back in 1971.

So, why do people drink? Well, you can talk to anybody who has ever had a thing with alcohol, and they can tell you what it was like for them, and there are many explanations in the literature of medicine and in the Big Book of AA. 

Sometimes for me it was like your not-drinking thing got switched off. Like you know how in suspense movies about art heists or something, where they have security cameras, and then the burglars snip the wires and put their own picture in? It's sort of like that happens with your brain, where you think you're looking at a normal picture, but the actual picture would be one of all devastation and chaos, but there's a nice picture of flowers there. That's the picture you see. You see a picture of nice flowers. Your brain's been short-circuited, like by burglars.

There are a million ways to say it but it's really simple. An alcoholic should not drink at all. He knows he can't drink normally, that's why he quit. And yet he sees this description of some mixed drinks, and it's like he's looking at some brochure, like for a cruise to Alaska, except it's a brochure for his colorful destruction, and he goes, gee, that looks interesting, I think I'll try that.

Like, gee, there's a brochure for hanging yourself, I think I'll try that.

The whole thing is so exasperating.

And maybe you'd be looking down at the ground now, shaking your head, thinking, Oh, God, now what have I got to look forward to. And I would just say, here's one thing that's true: It's not you.

I mean, how many times do we have to say it? Alcoholics drink. You could be the sexiest, most beautiful supermodel who is also a shiatsu masseuse and an expert in tantric sex. Eventually he'd want a drink. It wouldn't be enough. Nothing would ever be enough. Nothing will substitute for alcohol except a cure for alcoholism.

There's treatment centers, there's private counseling, there's rehabs, there's the 12-step groups. And then I guess there's the occasional miracle recovery out of the blue. But that is a very low-percentage strategy, to sit and wait for a miracle. Whereas you can actually make an appointment for alcoholism counseling.

And also, if we were sitting on a bench talking, I'd say that I'd be willing to come talk to him. And I would be. Because somebody who's felt that same thing can relate. Maybe where you live there is someone who would come talk to him about alcoholism and about quitting, free of charge.

With him, it might not take much. He knows the deal. He's had his little experiment, and it's getting to the bad part now. He should just nix the experiment and admit it. (But then, that's assuming he can make rational decisions about drinking, which he's already showed that he can't. Which is the annoying paradox of it, right?)

And then if we were really sitting on a bench talking, I'd say, Look, I gotta go. I gotta go to a meeting, or pick up my wife, or take the dog somewhere. But we're on the Internet. I don't even know what country you're in.

That's what bugs me about the Internet. It's so un-sitting-on-a-bench-like. And yet of course in another way we are at this moment in a simultaneous consciousness that does not depend on physical proximity.

Anyway. That's what I'd say. It's time for him to get some help. Now is a great time, before it gets worse.

Write your truth

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By Cary Tennis

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