‘Tell me if he’s an alcoholic. There’s no way I would ever be with an alcoholic.’
I stopped by my dad, Danny’s, restaurant, L’acajou, on my way home from the last day at my job. I had celebrated all day long at work…margaritas at my going-away lunch, beers on the way back to the office with friends, and a joint in the stairwell. By the end of the day I was trashed and plodded my way carefully up Sixth Avenue to get home. I decided to drop by to say hi to Danny and ended up sitting at the bar next to Will, the daytime chef who was having his end-of-shift drink. Will was cool—black jeans, black button-down shirt, black boots, a real downtown bar guy. Aloof. And heartbreakingly cute. And older than me by nearly a decade. He smoked Kools, he was always with one lit cigarette nearby.
I’d had a silent crush on Will for years, and emboldened by the substances running through me, I started talking to him. To my surprise he started talking back, and asked me out. I worried my hand was shaking as I wrote my phone number on the inside of a matchbook.
Two weeks into the relationship, Will took me to a college graduation party for his ex-girlfriend. Turns out she was younger than I was. He’d started seeing her when she was underage, causing a scandal.
We both had a lot to drink, and by the time we got back to my apartment and crawled into my loft bed, fueled by seeing him interact with his ex, I was determined to consummate what we had going on. I thought it would help me keep him.
I did. We did. I convinced him. I woke in the morning to find he was gone. There was no note. Nothing. I dragged myself to work and called around looking for him. I couldn’t believe what had happened…I’d slept with a guy, someone I knew, and he’d crawled away before I woke up.
I found Will later that day and confronted him. He had no excuse, no reason. ‘I just had to go,’ he said.
‘Let’s get together tonight.’ I answered. With that, I dove in deeper.
Will drank…a lot. Most of our dates involved ‘bar tours,’ or moving from bar to bar in a neighborhood or throughout the city. We’d be up all hours of the night, drinking and partying, scoring cocaine, and I’d rise early in the morning to get to work. Or we’d hang out at my apartment, quietly cooking dinner and watching TV, until Will needed to run out for a pack of cigarettes at the corner bodega. Thirty minutes later I’d realize he was gone far too long for one pack of cigarettes, and I’d either start racing through the bars in the neighborhood, looking for him, or pacing nonstop up and down our tiny living room, desperate for him to come back. ‘Where were you?’ I’d yell when he returned, or, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d demand upon finding him at a bar nearby.
‘I just stopped in for a drink and got talking,’ he always answered. ‘No big deal.’
It was a big deal to me. Everything became a big deal to me. Will’s love affair with alcohol split my self-esteem down the middle and left me gasping for sanity and air. Besides, he was mean, at least to me.
Will was a nasty drunk. He called me dumb even though I had a degree from Cornell and he hadn’t finished college; he saw himself as an intellectual while I was too pedestrian. He told me, ‘You’re fat,’ while being fully aware of my anorexia. Although I had a stable, nine-to-five job with a balance in my bank account and he was paid in cash and had only five dollars to his name at the end of each week, he insisted I was the incompetent one.
I had found someone to point out for me, again and again, all which was ‘wrong’ with me. All I’d known was wrong with me for years. I was driven, albeit unconsciously, to prove my worth, to win back the love of my parents, to not be abandoned again, and to make up for my shame at deserting the Messiah. With my ceaseless quest for perfection and Will’s need to insult and degrade me, we were a lethal, combustible combination.
We fought constantly, though I’m not sure what we argued about. Maybe his drinking, although he swore it was my problem and not his. Maybe the fact I got mad when he didn’t come home. All I know is my life was filled with yelling or crying. I heard his relationship with his ex-girlfriend had been violent; she’d come after him. I did the same. I hit him—only twice—but it scared me.
And yet it also somehow kept me wanting more. And more. I clung to Will, desperate to make him love me, make me whole. Even when he slept with someone else, a waitress from L’acajou, while I was away for a weekend, I begged him, ‘Please don’t leave me.’ I was in love with him, or I thought I was, and I longed for him to feel the same.
We would break up and get back together. And break up. And get back together. When things were good, or we were pretending they were, Will would propose. But only if he was drunk. ‘Lisa, marry me,’ he’d beg over a Scotch, late at night at the neighborhood bar.
‘Ask me when you’re sober,’ I’d say.
Finally, he asked me while sober. We were sitting at a Chinese restaurant on Columbus Avenue, just down from his apartment. As the bill came and I went to pay (I almost always was the one who paid), he proposed again. ‘You’re amazing, Lisa. Marry me.’
He hadn’t had even one beer with dinner. Without much hesitation, I said yes.
‘What?’ he asked, as if surprised to hear the response he claimed to have wanted. ‘Really?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered, almost sure I was giving the right answer and completely sure I wanted to sound like I was giving the right answer. ‘Yes, I’ll marry you.’
As if on cue, my relationship with Will went from bad to worse. He moved to working nights, and his drinking increased exponentially. He’d get off at eleven, and it would be hours before he showed up at my apartment. He almost always showed up belligerent and drunk.
Then my cousin, Bobby, took me to lunch and asked me a few pointed questions. As I answered him and described my life; the fights, the craziness, the nights Will didn’t come home, how I was starting to slip at work, the insults Will threw at me, Bobby had one thing to say.
‘Go to the support group I told you about, Lisa,’ I glanced up from my sushi. ‘Why should I go there? What will it do?’ ‘It’s for people who are involved with alcoholics,’ he answered. I would never be with an alcoholic. I went back to my lunch.
Four months later, Will asked if I wanted to get an apartment with him. We found an unbelievable little one-bedroom on the Upper West Side, with a fireplace and a huge balcony. Basically every New Yorker’s dream and the beginning of our next nightmare.
Will’s younger sister came to town to visit him and his older sister. The two of them were at our apartment for dinner, and as soon as Will ran to the store for one last ingredient, they pounced on me.
‘Lisa,’ Molly, his older sister, began. ‘We’re so glad you’re with Will.’ ‘Yes,’ Sharon, his younger sister, agreed. ‘So, so glad.’ ‘But Lisa,’ Molly continued. Both of them stared at me. ‘Lisa, you have to help him,’ Sharon started again. ‘He’s an alcoholic.’
I thought of Bobby’s comments about the support group and considered the sisters’ insistence I help Will, and sober him up. I reflected more on the insanity of my life—the drunken fights, the insults, the crying, the nights he didn’t come home. I decided to give the group a try.
In New York City support group meetings are plentiful and almost always in churches. The next Wednesday night I found myself in a church on the corner of Eighty-Sixth Street and Amsterdam Avenue, my heart beating and my mind full of reasons to leave. This felt like an irreversible step, a step I didn’t want to take. Like I was somehow declaring Will an alcoholic and myself pathetic.
The meeting was in a small, jam-packed room. Nearly twenty people sat on chairs—about a dozen folding metal ones jammed in around numerous soft armchairs. Other people perched on windowsills or stood leaning against the walls.
I glanced around. Everyone seemed normal. They started to talk, and I sank deeper into my seat, hoping no one would recognize me. My mind echoed with one main refrain: ‘Tell me if he’s an alcoholic.’
I wanted the rule book, the guidelines, the checklist which would make this clear to me. There’s no way I would ever be with an alcoholic. No way I would ever stumble that far down. Just tell me how to know. I didn’t realize my dad drank and drugged practically every day, his father had been in AA for the last five years of his life, and his mother had been addicted to various prescription drugs over the years. Not to mention how I had grown up in a religious cult. I would come to learn there were numerous reasons why I would end up with an alcoholic.
The question was, would I stay with him?
One night, by mistake, I went to a meeting specifically for adult children of alcoholics. I listened in horror as someone read the list of characteristics: we are frightened by anger and any personal criticism; we judge ourselves harshly and have low self-esteem, we get guilt feelings if we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others. They went on and on. Virtually all of them rang true. Frozen in my chair, feeling the freedom of understanding and the terror of realization hit me, I began to silently cry. Still, it was weeks before I could open my mouth at a meeting.
Will’s drinking was increasing, or it was increasingly bothering me. Our new apartment was on the fourth floor of a gorgeous brownstone on West Ninetieth Street. The nights he worked I’d lie in bed listening for the building door to open and close, four flights down, and footsteps on the stairs, my body rigid as I tried to relax and sleep, my mind racing. He was coming home later and later, and I was more and more incapable of handling it.
Finally hearing the sounds I was waiting for, I’d feign sleep. Will would creep into the apartment, slip into our bedroom, and, ‘wake’ me so we could talk. Night after night, he needed to discuss our future.
I had postponed our wedding. I hated parts of our relationship. I hated his chosen drinks—the Scotch that oozed from his pores, the red wine that stained his teeth, and most of all, the martinis that made him cruel. I hated his delusions; with enough alcohol in him, he would tell me he was God. Or God’s chosen one.
Sitting in the support-group meetings, listening to people share their experiences with alcoholics, I heard never to engage with an active drunk. ‘Talking to an alcoholic is like trying to blow out a light bulb,’ they would say. I tried to detach from Will and the situation. But when he argued with me at one or two o’clock in the morning, engaging seemed to be my only option. I’d self-righteously harangue him about the drinking, the coming home late, and the not coming home at all, blaming him for all the wrongs in our relationship. I’d cry—I cried a lot—and get up the next morning to go to work.
I now had a job in advertising which mattered to me, and, for the first time, I was finding myself unable to function. Up to this point, no matter what I’d done I’d been able to look good on the outside. I had excelled at school, always had friends, and had managed to succeed at work. Now, things were falling apart. Still, I kept on as if everything was okay.
Until I started going numb. Literally. Over a period of days, I felt like I was losing strength in one side of my body. I freaked and went to the doctor, certain she would tell me not to worry and send me on my way.
She didn’t. She tested my arm strength, having me squeeze her fingers with each hand, one at a time. She checked my leg strength, having me push up with my knees as she pushed hard against them. She instructed me to stay in the waiting room until further notice. Sitting there for over an hour, alone with my thoughts, my mind raced. Why won’t she let me leave? What is going on? I had been certain this whole thing was in my head and had gone to the doctor for confirmation. Whenever I got sick, my dad called me a hypochondriac.
My doctor, however, didn’t think I was making this up. She kept me under observation and, late in the afternoon, sent me across town to a neurologist, who told me they were afraid I’d had a stroke. I was only twenty-four, but I was on the pill, so it was possible.
They couldn’t explain the failing of half my body any other way. The neurologist ordered as many tests as he could but didn’t find anything conclusive. Telling me to take it easy, he scheduled me for an MRI a few days later and sent me home to rest.
I spent most of the time in bed, trying not to be consumed with fear. My brother and my friends from work visited. Will was barely around. My mother sent me a book to keep me busy: Jill Ireland’s Life Wish, the story of her battle with cancer. Lying in bed reading, thinking I, too, had a life wish, my mind kept jumping to the worst possible outcomes. What if I really did have a stroke? What if something is wrong?
I remembered the times I had done coke—too much coke—with Will. He had a love of the drug, and while my own cravings for it had not returned, I went along. Even with the hours I spent in church basements complaining of his alcohol and drug use, I did lines with Will to keep us closer. The last few times we’d done coke, on his birthday and then on New Year’s Eve, I’d snorted so much I went to bed feeling my heart hammering in my chest, afraid I would die. I was terrified the coke had affected my brain and caused a stroke.
It turned out my fears were unfounded. The MRI results were negative, and the doctors concluded I had some sort of viral infection in my nervous system. I was okay, but I was also aware my body was desperate to get my attention, it was trying to tell me something I needed to hear. I could not go on like this. The obsession, the lack of sleep, the verbal abuse—were taking their toll.
Things with Will got tougher. Our fights worsened, and I became more and more lost. Still, I was determined to go through with my marriage, reasoning my way through (and into) it. I can do this. I can marry him and be okay. I know how to detach and take care of myself. I’ll be fine.
Only I wasn’t fine. I attended as many support-group meetings as possible and cried my way through most of them. I recounted my stories of his cruel treatment: how he wouldn’t let me sleep, how he never came home, how he insulted me whenever he could.
I was at a lunchtime meeting at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I’d found refuge many a time in one of the small rooms. I again shared my story of life with Will, then sat and listened, sniffling and gathering up my strength to head back to work.
When the meeting ended, a man approached me. ‘I heard what you said and wanted to share one thing with you.’ He paused. ‘There are no victims, only volunteers.’ He gave me a hug, turned, and walked away.
Somehow, I heard what he said. I really heard it. I’m not sure why or how, but something kicked in—my steel rod backbone, by guardian angel(s)—and it became apparent I had options. While I could spend the rest of my life with Will and survive, it wasn’t my only choice. I didn’t have to stay with him to prove I was tough enough. I had allowed myself, once again, to be influenced and controlled by something, but I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to be a strong warrior. I didn’t have to withstand everything. I was only twenty-four. I could opt out.
I decided to leave Will.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lisa Kohn. This is an excerpt from her book To the moon and back: a childhood under the influence. Lisa was raised caught between a religious cult (the Unification Church or “Moonies”) with her mom and a life of “sex, drugs and squalor” in New York City’s East Village in the 1970s with her dad. Today Lisa is a writer, teacher, and public speaker who owns a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm (Chatsworth Consulting) and who works to bring to others the tools, mind-shifts, and practices she’s found that have helped her heal from her crazy childhood, as well as the hope and forgiveness she’s been blessed to let into her life.
Read more inspiring stories of living with an alcoholic here:
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