By Sarah Blizzard Robinson
At age two, I toddle up to my mom’s elbow. She sits at the card table catty-corner from Dad. They’re playing their nightly card game. I stretch up on tiptoe. I see their drinks and reach for Mom’s. She holds the glass for me while I take a big gulp. When she tries to pull it away, I resist, tightly clutching the glass and begging for one more sip. She indulges me. She laughs when her bourbon doesn’t seem to faze me. When I shiver, she takes the glass away. I sleep soundly those nights . . .
. . . By age eleven, the strong fumes on my parents’ breath each evening prompt me to imagine their drinks taste a bit stronger than the thick cough syrup from which I’ve begun to take swigs before heading out to meet my friends. Prescription strength, it sits behind the aspirin and laxative in the powder room medicine cabinet. Drinking it warms me clear through.
. . . By fourteen, I take Scotch from my parents’ liquor cabinet, conceal it in a tightly lidded container, hide it in the deep, inside pocket of my winter parka and carry it to a friend’s party. A few gulps make me dizzy. I pour more. No one joins me, but I’m getting drunk. My friend’s older sister notices me slurring my words. Aware of what I’m doing, she takes me to their back porch, sits me down, and talks gently but firmly to me. She says I have to stop right then. For the time being, I do . . .
But the real stuff, the hard liquor in half-gallon jugs, takes up half the kitchen counter space on one end, alongside various shot glasses that never get rinsed out. Bottles never actually empty; they are simply replaced with sealed jugs every Friday when Mom makes her ritual run to the liquor store. Under the counter, in a cabinet, they store half-empty bottles of various brands of vodka, Scotch, and other elixirs they’re saving for guests. Hidden and unchecked, they’re like orphans waiting for a home .
. . . My sixteenth Christmas morning, I wake in my own vomit, but I’m too hungover to move. My hair’s matted and stuck to my pillowcase. I could have aspirated vomit and ended up asphyxiated. I smell terrible but am too sick to move. Mom stands at my bedroom door. She can smell me. “I hope you learned your lesson.” It’s a while before I get out of bed, shower, and strip the bed.
As my drinking progresses, alcohol poisoning becomes routine. I struggle out of bed, my head pounding as if a town hall clock is clanging inside my skull. I walk around in a daze. Moving makes me dizzy and nauseated. I vomit.
I begin a new ritual. I’m smart—I figure I’ll start taking two Excedrin tablets each evening before my first drink . . .
Fast forward, and my marriage of eight years is in real trouble.
Over the course of the previous few years, my husband and I had lost our first baby; only six months old, Amy had been born with severe problems. The very next year, my beloved brother who had been like my twin growing up, drowned at age 23. Several years after that, our eldest sister died from cirrhosis in her mid-fifties.
Now, January 1986, my husband has miraculously decided to get help for his drinking. He’s been away in a rehab program for two weeks. I start attending AlAnon like it’s my job.
Late one evening, a few days after I’d insisted he not come home until he completed his 30-plus days, Grant calls me. “I heard my story tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“A guy here . . . when he told his story . . . it could have been my own. Only he was a professional athlete, and lost everything because of his alcoholism: his career, his family, his money. His wife left him, but when he got straightened out she came back and now they both work a program.” My heart pounds inside my chest as I hear my husband’s emotions rising over the phone. “I’ve decided to stay. It’s not going to be easy, but I want to try now.”
A new friend in AlAnon decides to attend the Family Program, and I go along. Five and a half days of counseling and group sharing convinces me I belong here. The counselor asks me, “When Grant returns home, what are your expectations?” It’s a big, hard question, and it’s one that I need help answering.
Soon after, in counseling together with Grant, I say, “I’ve always heard marriage should be 50–50.”
My counselor smiles. She looks at Grant, then back at me. “It sounds to me like you two have a really good shot at success here. But what about each of you giving one hundred percent?” My heart opens to the possibilities. “Think of it like you’re on a set of parallel railroad tracks, side by side. At times, he’s going to be way out ahead of you. Other times, you’ll be in the lead. But you’ll always be side by side.”
My counselor also nails me on my own drinking history. The safe environment enables me to be brutally honest about everything. It’s recommended that I stay for twenty-eight days of treatment.
“I want to embrace this recovery thing, but our daughter has been without her dad for almost a month now. I’ll take your recommendation home with me, and—like Grant— I’ll attend AA meetings too.” That’s what I do. The Family Program certificate of graduation is a small banner I’m urged to display on our refrigerator. It reads, “You Are Important.”
Grant completes more than thirty days of rehab and flies home on Valentine’s Day, 1986. We become best friends again. After more than a month apart, we find we enjoy being sober lovers. We become more attentive parents.
In January 2019, by the grace of God, Grant and I will have celebrated thirty-three years of sobriety in addition to forty-one years married. There would be no marriage without our recovery. We’ve become adept at communicating without pointing fingers. We’ve kept our recovery journeys separate, watched our expectations of the other person, and learned to turn to our Twelve Steps sponsors. The most satisfying journey has been the one along parallel tracks.
Recovery is regaining what you once had. How long had it been since I felt like myself, knew who I was, or had an optimistic view of where I was headed? Not since I first began experimenting with alcohol at age fourteen. At twenty-six, I began trying to recapture some sense of my self-worth.
At first, in addition to attending AA discussion group meetings, I sat on metal folding chairs in church fellowship halls at speaker meetings, listening to one brave speaker after another. Week after week, I heard stories that astounded me—not just for the person’s dramatic descent into a completely unmanageable life but for the dramatic difference their recovery had made. They weren’t guilt-ridden. I heard freedom in their voices. I tried not to compare my story to theirs, but many had the same relationship I’d had with alcohol: one was too many, and twenty was never enough. It wasn’t until I actually heard a speaker say this, that I remembered my routine: I drank until the TV set above the bar got blurry. That was my end point.
I could even recall the testimony of a priest who came to speak to my high school when I was a freshman. We were all called into Central’s cafeteria for his talk. The short, slightly built man in his priest collar stood before us and introduced himself as a recovered alcoholic. It may have been his thick Irish accent, but when he said that, there were snickers all around. He continued and recounted some of his drinking history. As a typical fourteen-year-old, I wasn’t really paying very close attention to him, until he said, “The simplest definition of an alcoholic is a person who has problems as a result of their drinking.”
I fought the urge to make comparisons, lest I go the way of “terminal uniqueness.” And in telling my own story, I’ve learned to“give myself to this simple program” and to be honest with myself and others. I’ve learned what it means to truly forgive myself, and I’ve made progress in forgiving others.
At a critical juncture in my journey, I realized quite clearly that I could live and learn—or, I could learn and live.
The battle was over. A new perspective grabbed hold of me, and I went forward as if with blinders on, embracing the physical, emotional, and spiritual rewards of sobriety. I began to face the world on its own terms with new confidence. The journey continues.”
-Sarah Blizzard Robinson is an author, wife and mother. To purchase her memoir, “As A Result,” visit her website, www.sarahblizzard.com.