1. Do you worry about how much a loved one drinks?
On my second date with Robert, we bonded on addiction. Him, two years sober; me, a refugee from anorexia. Both of us, better humans for our trips to hell and back.
Our friends said we were the same person, just different genders.
We were expats in Budapest. I went with him to AA meetings near Ferenc körút. In his shares he always said how freeing sobriety was. To live in a city soaked with booze and not crave it; to have the wherewithal to travel. His sobriety came first, he said: It was a higher priority than our relationship, his photography, his work at the Hungarian art glass store. “If I drink again, I’ll lose you,” he’d tell me. “And—I’ll die.” He was fucking solid. I never worried. Not once.
- Do you blame a loved one’s drinking on external forces?
I know we’re not supposed to. I learned that in AA.
But I could blame: The global economic collapse. The loss of his job at the art glass store. The emotional quicksand he sunk into, which confined him to bed at strange hours. Deniban, the antipsychotic his shrink prescribed off-label for depression. The severe migraines—an apparent side effect of Deniban—that left him blind, crawling, and puking on the floor of our Víziváros flat.
The beginning of my own pulling away, into the refuge of work and writing.
And more: All the weed we smoked in Amsterdam. The non-alcoholic beer that turned out to be .05% alcohol. The Big Book thumpers who caused a schism in the English-language AA meeting, so he stopped going. Our attempt to get legal in Hungary, which failed so dramatically we had the Immigration Police on our tail, knocking on friends’ doors looking for us, threatening deportation.
Our rocky re-entry to the States, to his hometown.
Also this: I know from anorexia that addiction talks to you. From inside your brain.
- Are holidays and gatherings spoiled because of drinking?
The migraines were still fucking scary; almost like strokes. If they hit when he was driving, he could hardly manage pulling over. A douchebag of a naturopath told Robert to quit the Deniban cold turkey. Which he did, two days before Christmas.
I went to Denver for the holidays; Robert stayed behind to work at his new job as a printer in a fine art photography lab. The day after Christmas, he sounded despondent on the phone. I asked his best friend Paul to check on him. Paul found Robert drunk to the point of seeing his own image in the mirror as a purple cow wearing a crown of roses. Paul stayed the night. Robert made a pass at him, which Paul laughed off.
Seven years of sobriety. Down the fucking drain like the bottles I poured out when I returned. Feverish, he bit two glass thermometers clean through. Rivulets of mercury springing into perfect spheres, lost in the fibers of the carpet.
He went back on the Deniban, back off the sauce.
- Have you ever gone out to look for the drinker yourself, or telephoned around to find them?
One bitter evening in February I set off on foot to find him. He was just down the hill, passed out in our car. Valuable client prints in there and the hatchback wide open. Battery dead.
Another debilitating migraine, and I couldn’t get him on his feet. I went home to call Geico and make hot tea so Robert wouldn’t go hypothermic. On the way back I found him halfway up the hill, kneeling on the ice and retching, a bloody gash open on his forehead. Our neighbor carried Robert like a baby into our bed. Asked me if he’d been drinking.
“Oh no. He’s been sober seven years. Well. Except for one slip the day after Christmas.”
The neighbor gave me a knowing stare.
- Do you search for hidden bottles?
The first bottle, I found under the passenger seat of our car later that night. A fifth of Absolut.
The second, I saw him smuggle into the bathroom cupboard by way of his backpack. Smirnoff. I shamed him for buying the cheap stuff.
After that, hell yeah, I started searching.
- Do you drink with the drinker so you can monitor their intake?
We never shared a drink together even after he went out. It was a secret thing for him. But after the slip on the ice, when he was going through the DTs at home, he asked me to give him a swig off the Absolut so he wouldn’t withdraw too fast. Then he told me to pour out the rest. I poured it into the bathtub.
That one swig was the only time I ever saw him drink.
- Do you secretly try to smell the drinker’s breath?
Rotting oranges. Sweet and acrid. It correlated with the migraines. When the dim lightbulb above my head finally turned on, I realized that the migraines had been an alibi for some time.
- Do you try to have a rational conversation with your loved one when they are drinking?
When Robert drank he sometimes anguished that he might be gay. I said, “Go to Pegasus right now and pick up a guy. Give yourself that experience.” I meant that. It was a reason why he drank, I thought—fear of his true sexuality, which includes men.
But we’re not supposed to come up with reasons why. I learned that in Al-Anon.
- How did you cope with the drinking?
Hypervigilance. Workaholism. Rigidity. Learning to take calm, deliberate action to the rhythm of a pounding heart. Learning to be the competent one, the one in control.
I thought I had learned how to be less in control. After escaping the self-made prison of anorexia, I had taught myself how to be more easygoing—not only around food and my body, but in my relationships with others and the world. But as Robert began spinning out, I tried to reign in the chaos. I found him health insurance and a psychiatrist and a therapist and an outpatient detox program and an inpatient rehab program that he didn’t want to go to. I met his new sponsor, strategized with his AA friends, ran interference with his family. You could say I relapsed along with him.
I coped in other ways, too. Fantasizing about women. Flirting with women. Bringing home a woman I met at Pegasus. This happened during my three-month break from Robert. She was from Hungary, the countryside. She left before I woke up.
And: Praying on my knees like my sponsor told me. Sleeping upside-down on our bed so I wouldn’t have to smell the rotting oranges. Taking Vicodin at 3 a.m.
Checking out. I checked out. I didn’t admit that, though, even to myself.
I wanted very badly to cry. But I couldn’t—until months after I left.
- Why did you stay?
On our second date, Robert described himself as “high on sobriety.” I believed he could get back to that place. I still believe he could.
Also, inertia. We’d been through three international moves in five years. I didn’t have it in me to move again so soon. Divide our furniture, separate our sister cats.
- “High on sobriety.” That sounds like an addiction in itself.
I don’t think so. It was a spiritual high, a connection to Grace. He had stared down Death and won—but not by himself.
Maybe he was a little manic in those early days. So was I. Love does that.
- What was the drinker like before he went out?
He had a certain elegance about him, balanced with large doses of irreverence. He saw more detail in landscapes, heard more nuance in words, and spoke in a way that made you also see and hear differently.
He spent money like he had it, on others and himself. He indulged in designer coffees and chocolates since he couldn’t indulge in drink. He lived by cash register honesty, by doing the next right thing.
Everyone in town liked him, but they didn’t necessarily remember his name. His close friends loved him more than he loved himself. He was often preoccupied with this lack of love for himself.
We totally saw, totally got each other. More than anyone else, I understood what he was doing in his art—the handmade artifact, the happy accident, the axis of clarity within the blur. More than anyone else, he understood my most raw and vulnerable writing. Stories that had scared off lovers before him, Robert urged me to read out loud, to publish.
For Valentine’s Day, he would make me something wooden, something cut with his jigsaw and hinged in the middle. A heart, a butterfly, laminated with one of his photographs. I kept these gifts in my lingerie drawer until too recently.
Shortly after Easter one year, I worried I might be pregnant. As I was sitting on the toilet peeing on the stick, Robert got down on his knees on the bathroom rug. He presented to me a ring he’d fashioned from the foil of a chocolate egg. He said, Whether we’re having a baby or we’re not having a baby. Marry me. I cried and said Okay. Yes. I will. He cried too and we hugged before we had the courage to look at the stick.
There was only one pink stripe. I wasn’t pregnant. That was the answer we both wanted. And—we were getting married.
- Why didn’t you get married?
We did upgrade my engagement ring from Easter egg foil to 22 karat gold. We designed it together, starting from a wide Byzantine setting with tiny gold baubles along the edges. We added a round, conflict-free diamond encircled by more tiny gold baubles. And two rubies bordered in gold because ruby is my color, he always said.
- Was the drinker ever fun when he was drinking?
The time we streaked around our house to celebrate the spring equinox. Naked except for the shoes we needed in the snow. The time we bribed the cats with sardines and dressed them up in birthday hats. The time in the ER when I entertained him with aerial photos of phallic land art; we giggled our heads off.
- What was the drinker’s record blood alcohol level?
.49. In the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. The ER docs were impressed he could live through that. There were no rooms available, so he lay on a cot in the hallway for five hours, an IV of electrolytes and Valium stuck in his arm. Whispering that he didn’t want to live, that we should let him go.
The doctors dismissed my urgent questions about the migraines. They ignored my pleas that he be admitted. They did, however, treat the chemical burn that Robert had sustained in the darkroom two weeks before. He had spilled full-strength stop bath onto his ankle—and kept his wet sock on for hours, further embedding the chemistry inside the layers of skin. The nurses debrided the wound and dressed it. With the vodka and Valium on board, he hardly winced.
- Which weapons did you hide from the drinker?
At the urging of all our therapists, I hid our knives, belts, ropes, and pills. But I couldn’t keep him away from his weapon of choice.
- Did you ever blow into the drinker’s interlock device to avoid a failed reading?
That’s a leading question.
- Did you ever make threats, such as, “If you don’t stop drinking, I’ll leave you”?
They are threats only if you don’t follow through. I did follow through, twice. The first time, he moved out for three months. He got dry, so I invited him back.
The second time was a year and a half after his first slip. I found him face down in the planter outside the exclusive grocery store where his dad and stepmom shop. Seeing him there, arms around the base of the tree, talking to it. I felt my consciousness leave my body. Rise above me, above him, above the cars in the parking lot. I felt it cross the threshold. The point of no return.
- Why did you bail the drinker out of jail?
Well. I did it with his sister’s money. I thought it would be okay if I gave my time but not my money.
It was a few months after I’d moved out. A Friday afternoon, and he was starting a good job on Monday. So whether he kept that job or not—was up to me to decide.
His sister pulled strings to set up a bank account in our town. Just before closing I retrieved the five thousand dollars in cash. Stacks of cash, like in the movies. I paid at the police station, drove out to the county jail.
On the ride back to Robert’s place, which used to be my place. That acrid sweetness overpowering. Robert told me he’d left the oven on because he was cooking lamb chops. He’d also left all the water faucets on because the pipes had frozen. He’d gone out for a quick beer run. Seen the flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
I still don’t know why the house wasn’t both flooded and on fire.
- Do you ever see the drinker around town?
Occasionally he turns up at the café where I write. I am friendly to him then. We talk for like an hour every time. He tells me about his newest job; he asks about the cats (I ended up with them both). We still laugh at the same things. Things no one else gets. When we pass each other driving, we give a friendly beep. And I think, how fucked up life is, that someone was once your soulmate and your life partner and what you’re left with is friendly beeps at intersections.
- Why do you still wear your engagement ring?
I earned that ring. I wear it on the other hand. I get flack for that from lovers, but it’s just a beautiful ring.
- What are you drinking now?
If you must know, Colkegan whiskey. In a crystal shot glass from his store in Budapest.
- You still love him. Don’t you?
I have to stop with these questions. I’m sorry.
Wonderful piece. I opened the link fully ready to skim and was riveted. Thank you.
So gorgeous, Kristen!
Heart-wrenching and exactly as complex as it needs to be. Love and addiction, never simple. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.