As I write this, I’ve flourished without drinking for nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days. In that time I’ve run eight marathons, and I’ve lost over three stone in weight. I’ve become politically active and I’ve rebuilt my relationship with my family. I will allow myself to feel some self-satisfaction at all this. I’m only human.
But I mention these just because they are mere trifles compared to the thing from which I derive more comfort than anything else: I have been married to Helen for nearly eleven years. Yes, I derive comfort, but also a significant and separate sense of accomplishment.
A respected friend recently commented that he couldn’t see any distinction between what I’ve been calling sobriety and what he sees as simply growing up. I agree with him. My growing up has enabled and itself been further enabled by my removing alcohol, but they practically amount to the same thing.
I’m usually an introvert, often a loner, and seldom a partner or a joiner-in. As soon as it was financially viable I lived alone, and in my entire bachelor working life, I spent fewer than six months living in multiple occupation. I never countenanced living with a romantic partner, and in any case tenancy agreements were seldom short enough to serve those mayfly dalliances.
After Helen and I had been partners for a few years, she came to meet me for lunch near work one day. By the end of the al fresco meal, we had somehow agreed that we’d cohabit as soon as possible, and marry as well. I’d never partaken in such a momentous undertaking.
It felt completely right yet also paralysingly scary.
When I lived alone I was described several times as “selfish”, a barb that stuck and wounded. What I think I was sensitive about was that by staying in my own space I was failing to develop the ability to share anything – not just space - with other people. As an Aspie I find most other people quite hard work most of the time. Even if you are someone I like, I will need to take you in small doses and go away and recharge by myself even if we’ve had the most convivial of encounters. My home was a refuge. If I let anyone else into it, it would be on my own terms.
Marriage has involved deliberately giving up that autonomy. I think it’s the most courageous change I’ve ever made. And deliberately letting go and trusting someone else is undoubtedly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done.
When we started to share a home I was excited and happy that a new phase was beginning, but also felt that this was optimistic, a long shot. There was a significant chance it might not work. There were sparks, teething problems, and (to finally settle on an appropriate rehousing metaphor), snagging issues to resolve. All because of me, I stress. I’m the hermit crab, and Helen’s the mother hen. But we muddled through it, married in May 2004, and having yoked our fortunes started to find adversity less sharp when shared.
I threw a spanner in the works in January 2005 by suddenly, unexpectedly and unilaterally ceasing drinking. We immediately stopped being a couple who both drank and instead became one containing an alcoholic in recovery. Helen’s birthday a few days later was not one of the most conspicuously carefree she’d had, as I struggled to feign jollity and learned how to do that thing where you put your hand over the wine glass in a restaurant. Mineral water flowed freely, but conversation did not. I felt, undoubtedly that I was doing the right thing for my own wellbeing, and by extension ours, but it felt sinister that by owning up to having a real, grown-up proper problem, I had pathologised the condition, and formally declared to Helen that her husband was damaged goods.
And in the longer term, what then? My alcohol intake had moved from lots to zero and therefore nearer to Helen’s modest consumption, but the difference between some and none is an infinite ratio. We would settle down to a new dynamic equilibrium, but would it be one which preserved our established intimacy?
In some ways, we had to repeat the process of moving in together, and broker a new set of bargains and interfaces.
We’ve healed together. I’ve thrown away my crutch and we proceed as though in a three-legged race now, and I think I would fall over without her. Modest husbands sometimes say “I don’t know what she sees in me”. This husband thinks “What can she possibly have seen in me then?”, so hard is it to reconcile the way were with the way we are now.
Against my pessimistic self’s expectations, we are still, after nearly fifteen years, a couple. We’re still together because we’ve acknowledged that the grown-up thing to do is to let go. To let go of comforts, of preferences, of habits, of superstitions. These attachments inhibit growth and change.
I now accept that change happens, and that it might not be the change that I would initiate if I weren’t part of this couple.
That doesn’t scare me any more.