Sponsored in Part V: You Can’t Have Your Sobriety Cake and Eat It Too
I ate my husband’s sobriety cake. Mason was two years sober two years as I stood over the kitchen counter late at night while everyone else was asleep, digging a warm spoon into the Vons supermarket carrot cake with orange cream cheese frosting and garnished with a sprinkling of walnuts that he’d taken home from his Monday night meeting. I wanted to believe this had a deeper meaning––I was taking an active role in Mason’s sobriety, I was part of the journey, I was destroying all evidence of our tortured past––but likely all it meant was that I needed to stop eating so much crap and haul my muffin top and fat Jewish ass to a yoga class. It seemed a very Bridget Jones moment, except I was at least a decade too late because a) Mason looked nothing like either Colin Firth or Hugh Grant, and b) Renée Zellweger, the actress who played her, was currently about the size of a Q-tip.
I brought it up at a meeting a few days later and afterwards a woman––I completely forget her name because I spaced out during introductions––stopped me on the way out and said that it must meaning something, this whole sobriety-cake-eating thing.
“You’ve played a huge role in your husband’s recovery,” she said. “You’re eating your fair portion, acknowledging the progress you’ve made in helping make it all happen––”
“But the thing is,” I cut in, “is that I don’t even like carrot cake. Normally, I would never eat it.”
“But there was no other cake option.” She raised her brow to punctuate just how well she understood.
“I actually looked at the cake and wished that it were another kind of cake,” I nodded. “Cheesecake or apple pie.”
“You get the cake you get,” she said. “You get the husband that you get.”
“So what are you saying––the cake is supposed to be Mason?”
“So I was eating my husband?”
“You were eating what the cake represents.”
“It represents two years of sobriety.”
“For him. But what does it represent to you?”
I appreciated that Forgot-Her-Name was ascribing such lofty poetic meaning to a moment that likely boiled down to your standard marital-kid-career-financial stress-induced dysthymic consumption of bad carbs, but it really did sound like a beautiful idea, this cake an emblem of all that had transpired the past two years––the good, the bad, the progress, the imperfection. What did it represent to me, this Great Cake Metaphor of 2011?
And why was the cake fully intact anyway? I wondered. Why hadn’t anybody in the meeting had a piece (perhaps there were several sobriety cakes in rotation?)? Why hadn’t Mason had a piece? Was he not fully committed to his sobriety?
I thought about this as I licked orange frosting off my finger. Again and again and again.
By the time Mason awoke the next morning, there was nothing left.
And then it dawned on me. In a few weeks it would be my second birthday in Al-Anon.
Two years. Still no sponsor.
Most of the Al-Anon meetings I went to didn’t give out birthday cakes––except the gay ones, because I think they were generally more into desserts––but even if they did I’d feel like a canard taking one.
In two years Mason had had two sponsors––the first one didn’t have a car, making it difficult to get together; this one not only drove but biked triathlons to raise money for sober living houses––took commitments in each of his weekly meetings (coffee person, secretary), and had amassed a giant knot of sobriety chips (30 days, 90 days, six months, one year, two years, Keep Coming Back), tangled together in a silver candy dish someone gave us as wedding present.
Me? I was chip-less. Sponsor-less. Hopeless. Just plain less.
I didn’t need a cake. I needed my head examined.
Today’s theme of the day: I secretly wish my spouse would die.
(And I’m not talking about me.)
Roberta got the ball rolling, agonizing over the depressing, rather disconcerting news she’d learned about her terminally ill husband the day before.
“I thought he was dying, but now it looks like he might live,” she glumly related. “I wasn’t prepared for that. I was planning on him dying so I could move on with my life and move in with the man that I’ve been seeing with whom I’ve fallen madly in love.”
She wept loudly into her hands.
“I know this sounds terrible, but I don’t love him, haven’t loved him for a very long time,” she announced, shaking her head in shame and embarrassment. “He’s an alcoholic, and he’ll always be an alcoholic, even if he’s sober. I thought the cancer would make things better, thought it would make me love him, but it didn’t. Instead, I fell more and more out of love with him. And when we found out he was going to die, he clung to me, begged me to stay, and I did. But only because I thought he was going to die! I was already gone in my head and now he’s not going anywhere, and I’m stuck. He’s going to live, he’s in remission, and it’s a miracle, a horrible disastrous miracle. He’s going to live and suddenly all I want to do is die.”
The already quiet room fell to an even deeper hush. Nobody rubbed her back or leaned forward to offer her a Kleenex. Who was this woman that wished her husband dead? Not that she wished him dead––we’d all suffered such moments of cutting despair––but aloud and in a crowd of people? I felt comparatively normal. And that’s just wrong.
At last, Roberta’s allotted three minutes––an interminably long period––were finally over. Relief sprouted like springtime in the room. But a button had already been pushed, a dark shift in the air, and within seconds, infuriated, irritated, hopeless and helpless spouses, partners and other assorted prisoners of love and relationships, raised their hands, eager to lay bare their creepy confessions.
It was a sinister day for shares.
Masha was from Latvia. Riga, at the mouth of the River Daugava. (I have no idea if this part is even true, but doesn’t it sound romantic?) She wore a short jean skirt and aqua eye shadow and basketball sneakers with rubber heels. She was staying with her husband because she couldn’t afford to leave, and every time she threatened to move out he threatened to sue for sole custody of their two teenage children, both of whom already resented her simply for being the object of their father’s harsh criticism.
“I’m lost,” she whimpered. “I’m lost. I’m so lost. So lost. I wish that he would just disappear. ”
And then Luanne, whose husband hadn’t worked a job in a decade, and Kris, whose boyfriend was going on year four of partial employment, and Stacy, whose philandering ex-husband put a block on her checking account. Mason, going on year six of part-time work as a waiter. And then Jolene, who had an impossible time communicating with her wife Margene about pretty much everything. Last week it was about the electric bill, the week before about their kid’s winter break from school. This week it was something about cat food––generic vs. veterinarian recommended.
“I have to keep telling myself,” she said, twisting her ruby-encrusted wedding band around her ring finger. “Just for today I’m married. Just for today.”
Chances are, if you’re sitting in an Al-Anon meeting, you’re likely to find a good mix of husbands and wives not wearing their wedding bands. I didn’t wear my mine, but not because I had any intention of leaving Mason––Just For Today––but because I was allergic to it. So now we had a cake metaphor and a white gold metaphor (it was the nickel alloy) and did they have anything to do with one another? I thought about saving up for another ring but we could never really afford it, and even if we could it was like why make the investment if I wasn’t sure I was going to stay (Just for today on a different day)?
But there was one major difference between me and all the other miserable, ring-less, married people:
They all had sponsors. And I was the Hamlet of Al-Anon, waiting for someone with whom to lock eyes, someone to cross the room and beg to be my sponsor. Oh, please let me sponsor you! But that’s not the way Al-Anon works. That was never going to happen. And even if it did, I’d likely be completely weirded out by that person’s willingness.
Besides, and I think about this pretty much every time I sit down to write, I was likely going to Al-Anon hell for talking about any of this when it should be completely confidential. How could I possibly explain to my would-be sponsor that by him agreeing to sponsor me he risked me writing about him––as anonymously as I could manage––for the purposes of me working through my anger and resentment and fear and insecurity and loneliness in the form of a column about Al-Anon?
I already needed to make amends to my sponsor and I hadn’t even met him yet.
Oh, but why couldn’t I just ask someone? Why couldn’t I ask a whole bunch of people? Why couldn’t I post my profile pic up on SponsorMe.com and field offers from EasyDoesIt819 and PinkCloud1976 and Progress_Perfection@Al-Anon.com? Where was my Bravo reality show Al-Anon matchmaker host?
Sadness burrowed a hole in my heart. I felt isolated, alone and adrift, like the lone white iris in my favorite Van Gogh painting. Like California if it ever cracked apart form the contiguous United States. I couldn’t talk to these people. I could listen, I could entertain them in a large group, but when it came to a private audience with one or two of them, I froze, faltered, I said things I didn’t even mean. Everything came out wrong. Even my shares weren’t really shares. Inspired, rich, amusing, well thought out in advance, smooth delivery, but not entirely me, not entirely honest.
Why was this all so difficult?
There was only one person that I could talk to, freely and without anxiety, and he was gone now, forever.
I missed my ex-shrink more than anything else in the world.
This has nothing to do with cakes, or symbols.
A few days before Mason’s second birthday in Al-Anon––or maybe it was after, my life ticks by in moments lately, not days––he threatened to drink again.
“I’m leaving,” I said over the phone. I was driving (I shouldn’t have even been on the phone). “I’m moving out. You can see the kids whenever you want––”
“Why?” He asked, as though we’d never before addressed the topic.
“Because nothing is getting better.”
“Things won’t ever get better if you leave.”
“All we do is fight, we never have any money, you never hold me, you’re angry all the time, you ignore me whenever I try to talk to you––”
“I’ll talk to you.”
“You’re hyper-critical of everything that I do, even when it’s you that’s at fault for something––”
“I’m sorry. I’ll change.”
“You say that but you never mean it.”
“Please don’t leave.”
“Maybe we need a change of energy. Maybe if we live apart we can actually be happy.”
“You’re not happy.”
“I’m going to get drunk.”
“Don’t do that. That’s not fair. ”
“I’m heading to a bar.”
“It’s not my fault if you drink.”
“I’m done with being sober.”
“If you want to manipulate me, that’s your own doing, not mine.”
“I just poured myself a drink.”
“It’s not my fault if you drink.”
“First I’m getting drunk. Then I’m going to go kill myself.”
Mason hung up. It took me demon dialing him fourteen times––fourteen times, which might as well have been forever––before he finally picked up.
It’s not my fault if you drink.
It wasn’t my fault. I know this because that’s what they tell you––in rehab, in meetings, in all the Al-Anon literature. But how did this knowledge serve me day to day?
It wasn’t my fault when Mason stayed out all night, flopping on a co-worker’s downtown couch because he was too drunk to drive home, it wasn’t my fault that he got stopped by the cops after leaving Rosh Hashanah services early to score pills from his drug dealer down the street, wasn’t my fault that he vomited in the bushes outside a Hollywood club after offering to buy a recovering alcoholic celebrity a Red Bull at a party I’d gotten us invited to before we had kids.
Somehow it all felt like my fault.
Nobody tells you that when you marry an alcoholic you will become personally responsible for your spouse’s sobriety. They don’t tell you this because, in fact, it’s not true. Your spouse is powerless over alcohol. You are powerless over alcohol. You didn’t cause it, they tell you, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it. Alcohol always wins. If you want to lash out at anybody it should be The Disease, disguised all pretty in a pink glass bottle with sweeping calligraphic font and tiny lettering on the back label that says PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.
But an addict will say that it is your fault. If you leave me then I’ll drink. If you make one wrong move then that will be my excuse to throw away my two years of hard-fought sobriety, like loose change that I struggled day after day to collect off the street, and sit down at a seedy, dimly-lit bar where nobody knows my name, order a vodka on the rocks and down it with equal parts gusto and despair.
It will all be your fault.
Once, after hearing my share, a woman, Alexandra, with long shiny hair as mellifluous as her name, came up to me during break. With a few kind introductory words, she handed me a thin maroon and white pamphlet entitled Alcoholism, a merry-go-round named Denial. That pamphlet has since found a home in my wallet, and I carry it with me everywhere.
It begins: “Alcoholism is a tragic three-act play in which there are four main characters.”
And one of them is drunk.
But it’s not your fault.
You have to keep telling yourself.
It’s not your fault.