Do you read advice columns? I do every day.
The Washington Post runs a daily column by Carolyn Hax that I read while eating breakfast. As I crunch away on my Special K Chocolaty Delight cereal, the game I play is to compare my off-the-cuff response with Carolyn’s. Mine: a knee-jerk reaction to a seemingly obvious problem that almost always involves confronting one’s mother-in-law. Carolyn, on the other hand, offers a well-researched and thought-out response that gets to the root of the issue and often recommends therapy. It’s easy to see why nobody asked me to write an advice column.
Clustered around Carolyn’s column are three or four additional advice columns. People in DC must need a lot of advice. A letter to Ask Amy caught my eye: My wife stopped drinking and then stopped going out.
A man calling himself “Sober Husband” describes his wife of 40 years social drinking growing more and more out of control until one night he filmed her antics and sent her the video. He dumped all of the alcohol they had in the house and neither has had a drink since. The problem now is, although she doesn’t mind not drinking, she no longer feels comfortable in social situations and has become more and more introverted.
Alcohol was her social lubricant. Alcohol is what allowed her to get past her social anxiety and self-esteem issues. Now she either doesn’t attend events at all, or sometimes we leave early because she is so unhappy. How do I get her to see that she can still enjoy these events without using alcohol as a crutch?
Finally, a letter I can truly answer.
This question could have been asked by my wife Susan. In fact, maybe it was. My nights of embarrassing drunkenness ended in the nineties, but that didn’t make my 2016 sobriety assault any easier. I’m just like Sober Husband’s drunk wife. As a drinker, I was funny and confident and charismatic. My circle of friends was massive. I loved going out, crashing parties, meeting new people in bars.
But as I gained control, things got difficult. The less I drank, the less comfortable I felt in social situations. Not surprisingly, no alcohol equals no comfort. In unstructured gatherings I’m simply awkward. I can’t wait to bail, if I show up at all.
To describe Drunk Wife’s quitting cold-turkey, Amy uses the phrase “white-knuckle her way through recovery.” I can’t think of a better description. I often felt like I was hanging off a cliff, holding on for dear life. During the white-knuckle phase, I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to socialize. All my energy went into not drinking. By the time I got through the painful years, I didn’t have any friends left. I learned that without alcohol, I didn’t know how to socialize. Now, the only place I feel safe is on my couch.
Amy simultaneously nailed and also whiffed her response. Amy and Sober Husband call drinking a crutch. It’s not, it’s a mask. It’s a way for Drunk Wife to hide herself from the world. Without her mask, she’s exposed. If she can’t be drunk, she’ll hide at home.
Amy appropriately encourages professional help to address the unresolved addiction draw, suggests therapy and spending time with others in recovery. But if Drunk Wife is anything like me, addiction isn’t the primary concern, maybe not even the problem. It’s a symptom. Addiction is a distant second to the dis-ease she feels socializing without alcohol. Drunk Wife will get through her white-knuckles just like I did. Like me, she may even begin to enjoy being a nondrinker, but until she fixes her social anxiety, she’s going to stay home.
Sober Husband finishes his question with “How do I get her to see that she can still enjoy these events without using alcohol as a crutch?” Sorry, she can’t. It’s not how she’s made. The last time she was confident socializing without alcohol was over forty years ago, if even then. It’s wonderful that the husband got sober in solidarity with his wife, but I’m sorry to say, if he wants to really spend time with her, he better get used to staying at home.
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Some wordplay I wrote in 2018 while still struggling with the most basic elements of sobriety:
The lubricant of my relationships.
Reduces the friction of forced communication.
Unsticks the cogs for flowing conversation.
The machinery grinds to a halt.
Previously Published on jefftcann.com and is republished on Medium.
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