Was this you in This Is Us season premiere?

For those of us who have lived with an alcoholic, the storyline of Jack, the beloved father, and his wife, Rebecca, in This Is Us will be hauntingly familiar. In this scene when Jack confesses to Rebecca – “I’m drunk right now. I’ve been drunk for weeks” – she’s not just heartbroken, she’s shocked.

Have you ever been asked: ‘How long was he drinking? Didn’t you know?’ Yes, we eventually discover their secret, but at first we second guess our senses: I must be mistaken. It can’t be. My husband was a social drinker. How would I know when that first drink wasn’t social, but medicinal? How many of us know when the alcoholism began?  To this day, almost nine years after Robert’s death, I still try to pinpoint when he slipped from a Scotch with dinner, to sneaking in Scotch before breakfast. I’ve constructed timelines, and re-read a decade of day planners. My mind constantly rewinds snippets of yesteryear: the thud of his car trunk being closed in the dead of night; never being without his backpack; overdoing the mints and mouthwash. When did all the secrecy and deceit begin?

For those of you who don’t watch This Is Us, please watch this scene. It was validating for me, I wonder if it will be for others.  His wife hasn’t yet realized the enormity of it all; it’s a ‘drinking problem’ not alcoholism. “I know you’re not an alcoholic.” To which Jack replies: “You don’t know everything about me. I’m drunk right now. I have been drunk all day. I’ve been drunk for weeks. And I thought I had it under control like the first time, but I have a problem, Rebecca. And I’ve hidden it from you for a very long time. And I’ve hidden it from the kids. And I need to get a handle on it before I walk back into that house. I’m sorry, baby. I’m very embarrassed. And I am very sorry. I need to fix this, on my own.”

Rebecca takes Jack home, vowing, “If you have a problem, we will fix it together.” Most of us have learned it’s impossible to fix someone else’s problem. But I didn’t always know that. And Rebecca’s shock and innocence was validating as I recalled my own.

 

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Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.~Coco Chanel

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“Just wanted to say that was very brave and bold to say you didn’t miss Robert. I’m sure the first time you even thought that, you felt a pang of guilt.”

One of my dearest friends, who was also a very close friend of Robert’s, told me that after a girls get-together where we had been counseling a friend whose relationship had ended (though not in death).  As we were talking about moving on, not knowing what’s around the corner and how the best is yet to come, I heard myself say:  “I don’t miss Robert anymore.” It just came out. Naturally. Effortlessly. Truthfully. Perhaps because Robert was an alcoholic in our last years. Perhaps because I’m incredibly happy now. Maybe there’s more to it. But the unrelenting truth was…is… that I no longer miss my late husband. And yes, it feels awful to say that. Mean. Ugly. Heartless.

But I’m none of those things. What I am is the survivor of our marriage.  And the surviving spouse in a troubled marriage is sometimes left with, well…a less troubled life.  In the wake of the devastating reality of Robert’s death, came waves of peace and calm that I had not known for years.

As time went on, I became accustomed to the new normal.  Eventually, fresh hopes and dreams came to mind. No longer blotted with a failing marriage and an alcoholic mate, my future slowly began to unfold into a wonderful life, one I could scarcely have imagined just a few years ago. A life with a full-time partner not tethered to a scotch bottle.

And yet…guilt has its way with me.

The singer, Dave Grohl, talking about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s death, said, “Guilt is cancer. Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist. It’s a black wall. It’s a thief.”

While I don’t let guilt rob me of my happiness or disrupt my newfound calm, it’s always there. It’s like an eye floater, a tiny moving spot that appears in your field of vision, you glimpse a speck but can’t focus on it. It hovers. It might distract, but it doesn’t impede your vision.

Unfair, unjustifiable and yet seemingly unavoidable, survivor guilt finds its way into the widowed heart. Grief’s inevitable successor.

But eventually we stop grieving.  We stop surviving and start living. I want to be done with guilt.  And so I’m letting go and giving guilt the boot.

 

Dead Man’s Clothes

I moved some of my clothes into Robert’s dresser. As soon as I emptied out his drawers – and it took months to do so – but after I did it, there was this vacuum effect that sucked me in to the empty space and I was swept up in the intense satisfaction of spreading out and reorganizing my clothes. It felt great. And then I felt guilty for feeling great. It was as if my enthusiasm somehow communicated: ‘Yay, he’s dead, more space for me!’

My husband was a clotheshorse, he had two dressers to my one; he had a double-barred closet to my single rod of clothes. On vacations, the ticket agents at the airports would flag his suitcase with one of those big red “Heavy” tags (the Scarlet Letter of luggage), his zippers straining at the seams, while my duffel bag’s dimples hinted of roominess within. But now all the drawers and closets are mine. It took me seven months before I could go through his clothes. Even after all that time, there was the smell of Robert, the good and the bad: the scent of Ralph Lauren cologne, and a whiff of Scotch. Going through a dead man’s clothes is sad and creepy. Because the person is gone, you view each article of clothing differently: a suit jacket hanging unanimated and lifeless on the hanger, dormant sleeves with no arms or hands; trouser pants that won’t walk; faded jeans soft with wear, creased to fit the body that’s no longer there. There’s never a ‘good’ time to go through the deceased’s clothes. It’s different for everyone. What finally pushed you to do it?