Sunday, January 3, 2010

(Not So) Wonderful Tonight

Reposted from last year

It's time to go home now and I've got an aching head
So I give her the car keys and she helps me to bed
And then I tell her, as I turn out the light,
I say, "My darling, you were wonderful tonight.
Oh my darling, you were wonderful tonight."

Eric Clapton, "Wonderful Tonight"

I recently finished reading Eric Clapton's autobiography, simply titled Clapton, and it awoke all kinds of mixed feelings inside me, especially the song "Wonderful Tonight."

I've always loved "Wonderful," with its quiet, sweet sound . It's a pretty song and when I close my eyes I picture all kinds of dark blue shadows, images of a beautiful woman, with long blonde hair, being admired by her lover as they get ready for a party.

The last verse of the song has always bothered me, however. I suppose one could surmise that the singer--Clapton himself or just a narrator--simply had a headache and she took him home and helped him to bed. I never could see it that way, though. I always pictured him drunk, stumbling out of the party, her arm around his waist as she firmly leads him to the car. I get the feeling this is something she does on a fairly regular basis, and they've developed a routine: he lays in bed, slurring his "my darling, you were wonderful tonight" as she struggles to pull off his shoes and put a blanket over him.

After finishing Clapton's book, I realize that unfortunately my interpretation of the song was fairly accurate. He painted a brutally honest picture of himself as both a heroin addict and later, an alcoholic. Now with over 20 years sobriety under his belt, he is able to better understand how he let his addictions rule his life, and he acknowledged that his drug abuse and alcoholism deeply affected and sometimes destroyed the people he loved around him.

This was a difficult read for me. His descriptions of life as an alcoholic hit me hard and I recognized a lot of his behaviors--hiding bottles and bottles of liquor from his wife, denying he had a problem, trying to convince himself and everyone around him that he didn't need to quit completely, he could handle one or two a day, sleeping all day, disappearing on benders for days at a time--I recognized this all too well, because for several years I lived with an addict.

When cleaning I'd discover dozens--dozens!--of empty bottles hidden around the apartment. He would drink at work. He would go into work drunk. He came home drunk. He reeked of liquor, all the time. He'd claim he never really got drunk because he was never hungover. But you have to take a respite from drinking in order to experience the hangover, and that was something he rarely if ever did. Some days he slurred his words so much you couldn't decipher what he was saying, but he'd still claim to be sober.

Regarding the demise of his own marriage, Clapton wrote "however much I might have thought I loved Pattie at the time, the truth is that the only thing that I couldn't live without was alcohol. This really made my need or ability to commit to anything, even marriage, pretty inconsequential."

I've found this to also be true within my relationship. I asked. I begged. I ultimated. I finally determined, one night last year, that I would never win with him. The love of his life was, is and will continue to be booze. I believe even the other women, the drugs, the gambling--they don't even compete with the Almighty Vodka.

Clapton continued, "I had never learned to look honestly at myself. In fact, in order to protect my drinking, it was important not to do that.." He then went on to explain that when you're an alcoholic, you always see yourself as the victim. An alcoholic will never take responsibility for his or her actions. It's only when they take an honest look in the mirror that they begin the journey from alcoholic to recovering alcoholic.

For years, I labeled myself as an "enabler." As he informed me whenever we argued about his drinking, I was the one that drove him to it. "You believe in me too much," he explained, "It's too much pressure." Sometimes I was told, "You've never had tragedy in your life. You couldn't understand." Other times I was informed, "I don't drink too much. You just don't drink enough. You're too uptight."

I don't know why I stayed as long as I did. I haven't talked about it much because in all honestly, I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed I couldn't stop him, ashamed I couldn't keep it under control. I felt like a failure. No one else's husband or boyfriend was like that--it must be me. I'm ashamed I stayed as long as I did, because I never wanted to be that kind of person.

I always thought I would be above that kind of situation--you know, when you watch a show where a woman's getting abused and you think, "That would never happen to me. I would never allow it."

Well, I did. It's just harder to realize you've become that woman when you're in the middle of it.

No one made me stay. I don't ever recall a gun pointing to my head, nor do I recall putting a bottle in his hand, and yet somehow we both blamed me.

I actually told myself, "Well he's not a mean drunk." As a matter of fact, he reminded me very much of the singer in "Wonderful Tonight." Somehow in the time we were together I was forced into the caretaker position, and he grew to resent me for it.

And looking back, he was a mean drunk. Just not in the way I usually would picture a mean drunk. He was never violent with me. I'd like to think if he had been, I would've packed up and left immediately. He was more of a neglectful and inconsiderate alcoholic. When he forgot my birthday I called a friend crying, explaining "He didn't remember it was my birthday." That's when he walked in the room and said, "I knew it was your birthday. I just didn't want to get you anything."

When I left for work one morning I put on a new shirt I'd just gotten, a rare occasion as he no longer contributed his paychecks to our household expenses, and when I asked how it looked on me he replied, "Honestly? You don't look good at all." Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I went on a business trip for a week, I called him the day I was coming back home, upset that he never called me while I was gone. He said, "I'm sorry, I just didn't really miss you."

I don't know why I stayed as long as I did. I suppose I became so consumed in trying to juggle work, school and keeping him sober, I somehow let go of myself.

I know I wasn't lost completely. As it was so beautifully put in the book Eat Pray Love, I too found a moment of strength in myself and let go:
"Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend."

Clapton's story affected me profoundly. When I talk with people I downplay the role alcohol played in the collapse of my marriage, because I was ashamed. Because even now, alone in my room at night, I blame myself. And I'm so tired of blaming myself.

Alcoholism is a disease. Regardless, it is not my fault, or his parents' fault, or life or circumstance or work that puts that bottle in his hand. It's ultimately his choice, and there is nothing I could or can say or do to change that. He is and will continue to be an alcoholic until he can look at himself honestly and take responsibility for himself.

I've thought about this for awhile now and decided to go ahead and post it. While this is his addiction, it affected me profoundly in all aspects of my life. It's my story too and I choose to share it. Maybe someday he'll read this and it will make him see. Maybe by freeing myself it will save his life too.

But that's his choice, not mine.


Lou said...

Wow Jenny, it was brave of you to put this into words and publish it. He was a mean drunk, perhaps not violent but still mean, thank goodness you got out.

jspuma said...

I can understand why you stayed Jen. I was with my HS sweetheart from 17 to 23 and she was almost perfectly normal in the beginning. As her drinking progressed from bad to worse to scary, I kept holding onto the old times and there was still some of her left to see. Eventually it became too much though. Was his drinking not a problem before you got married?

I liked the part when Clapton played an entire show while laying down on stage. And I'm amazed he stayed sober after his son died. what a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

You're a strong girl, Jen. Thanks for sharing that part of your life with us.

Mike and Jen

becomingkate said...

I relate to so much of what you've written. After my beautiful, 35 year old husband died of alcoholism, I was dx'd with anorexia. Apparently the hunger was penance, for me not being able to save his life.
Seven years after his death, I still cry for the unfairness of it all. I consider alcoholism a mental illness. I go back and forth with the shame and the stigma of staying in such a situation.
Unfortunately, I feel that my Fibro is a direct result of many years of extremely stressful conditions and I'll probably pay for years to come.
I truly admire you for walking away, knowing how hard it would have been.

Flinthart said...

"I had never learned to look honestly at myself. In fact, in order to protect my drinking, it was important not to do that.."

That's an amazing quote. It suggests to me that most people have something akin to alcoholism -- a part of their personality which they don't want to admit and cannot acknowledge, for fear of having to let it go.

I need to think about this one for a while.

Miche said...

Be gentle with yourself Jen. If you had a friend who had been through what you have been through, you would treat her with loving kindness and understanding. You are worthy of the same attention and love.

Anonymous said...

I am always inspired by stories of people who give up the booze and are then actually brave enough to take a long hard look at the long shadow they've cast and hold themselves accountable for their own behaviour.

And I'm inspired even more by the stories of women who leave them and save themselves.

And Jen, this man was very big on Passive Aggression.
Lots of alcoholics are.

If you want to sharpen up your tools at spotting emotional abuse there's some very good books on the subject that look at it by Beverly Engel. She's got a website somewhere.
Overt abuse is easy to spot, its the covert emotional abuse that leaves you confused and with your self esteem in tatters.
Its the slow acid rain of their conversation that wears you down in the end.


jennicki said...

Lou: Thank you!

Puma: It's awful seeing someone fall apart like that.

It's amazing Clapton stayed sober after his boy died. That is really a testament to his strength.

Mike and Jen: Thank you--I love you guys!

kate: I admire you for your strength. You have been through so much!

Flinthart: It is a good quote, isn't it? Thought-provoking, obviously.

Miche: Welcome and thank you!

Quokka: Thank you. I know you understand.