Tag Archives: empathy

It’s 8:00 AM On A Saturday Morning

It’s around 8:00 AM on a typical Saturday morning, and I’m driving to a meeting. I jump on the I-80 Eastbound just outside of Waukee, Iowa and head for West Des Moines. It’s become one of my favorite times of week since I moved out here two months ago. At this time of day and week, there’s rarely anyone on this stretch of interstate, and I can let my G37XS do what it was designed to do–jump up to 80 before we even exit the on-ramp and make a rapid but graceful ascent to triple digits … at least for a mile or two before I reach the outskirts of the metro. At my age and sober, hitting triple digits on an open stretch of interstate, even briefly, is the thrill-meter-equivalent of a three-day bender on a yacht in the Caribbean with people who like to party the way I once did—In Excess.***

But maybe that’s not such a good idea this particular Saturday morning. It’s the first truly crisp and clear Saturday morning we’ve had this year, the kind of brisk but pleasant morning that heralds the approach of spring and makes you truly grateful you are sober and alive and fully awake and aware this early on a Saturday. It is so clear and so crisp and also so sunny, I’m lucky enough to glimpse a flash of sunlight as it reflects the chrome of an otherwise inconspicuous Iowa State Trooper patrol car up ahead and long before my G hits triple digits.

The trooper is stationary, and as I approach, I notice a second vehicle a few car lengths in front of his. I’m initially surprised to see that both the trooper and the driver of the car are standing on the shoulder of the road. A moment later it hits me: This is not a routine traffic stop. This is a field sobriety test, as evidenced by the posture of the poor woman attempting to walk a straight line–arms outstretched and seesawing like a 747 trying to touch down in a 40 mph crosswind.

It’s 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning in Middle America, and the whole scene is so incongruous, so “not right” for this time of day on this deserted stretch of interstate that I have to slow down and stare. Of course she’s seesawing. She’s in high heels … and a black skirt and a black and white check blazer and a white blouse.  I would guess her in her 40’s or 50’s at a glance, and, if it were any given weekday morning, I would have guessed her to be on her way in to work. But as I pass by and glance back in my rearview mirror, my somewhat rusty but never completely dormant alcoholic mind kicks in and clarifies everything.  Most likely this poor woman is not on her way to work but still dressed in the clothes she wore to work … yesterday. Most likely she is on her way home from a Friday night “happy hour” that didn’t end soon enough or ended in a place that isn’t her own and where I’m guessing she didn’t have access to a toothbrush or a “smarter” pair of shoes–bad break if you’re getting pulled over for speeding or driving suspiciously at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Once the pair melts into the horizon of my rearview mirror, my first thought is, “Thank God it’s not me.”

But within minutes of passing the trooper and Ms. Anonymous, memories of my own experience under similar circumstances and as a much younger man come rushing back. First and foremost, there is that moment of panic the instant you realize the flashing red lights are meant for you. If you are at all cognizant, you glance quickly around the front seat of the car as you pull to the shoulder and pray there’s no evidence of your more-than-evident-to-everyone-but-you intoxication. And then there’s the rehearsal in your head. “Hi, Officer, was I over the speed limit? I didn’t realize … blah, blah, blah.” (If you are drunk and driving you don’t realize you are probably being pulled over because you’ve over-indulged any number of telltale indicators you didn’t go home after the second cocktail–weaving within your own lane, driving with your lights off, driving 10 mph above or below the speed limit, and on and on.) Once the officer doesn’t smile or say good morning and hits you with the stoic, “License and registration, please,” you begin to sense this isn’t likely to go well and begin to pray you were driving faster than you recall and hope to “get off” with a speeding ticket. Once he comes back to the car, and you hear those fateful words, “Step out of the car,” you don’t know it, but he’s very confident he has you dead to rights. I’ve never heard of a field sobriety test that resulted in an officer of the law saying, “Gee, Sir, your balance is better than a gymnasts,” or “Why, Mam, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such an impeccable recitation of the English alphabet.” (Hopefully you don’t make the mistake of asking the officer if you can “sing” the alphabet rather than say it because you’re having trouble getting passed the letter “Q” or “R” even though you’re a graduate student in the English department of a major university–wink, nostalgic chuckle here. This makes your lawyer’s job especially difficult if the officer is tape-recording or videotaping your roadside chat.)

There’s nothing funny about a DUI unless you’ve put a few 24-hours between yourself and your last drink. The first conviction is the worst, to be sure. Being cuffed and pushed down into the back seat of a patrol car is never fun (no matter how many times you’ve experienced the downward plunge and faced the cage between you and the front seat), but it is especially demoralizing the first time. Suddenly, your I-don’t-care-what-people-think-of-me cocksure swagger transmogrifies to “How am I going to face my … fill in the blank: Mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, daughter, son, neighbor, boss?” Whether you are “knowingly” alcoholic, a defiant “I-work-hard-so-I-play-hard” drinker, or just someone who worries about how much and how often you drink, a sudden gush of fear that now everyone will know you’re drinking is out of control may occupy your mind on the way to the police station. Or, in the saddest of cases, you may be the one sitting in the back seat thinking, “Screw it, I don’t care what they say about my blood alcohol level, there’s no way I was over the limit, and the world just has it in for me.” Whatever the case, whether your default emotion is utter panic or deviant denial, you know that everyone in your world is about to get a new perspective on the issue of YOU and ALCOHOL, and you may very well need to plan a “geographical revision” of your current biography if you’re unwilling to change your current lifestyle.

I’ve been trained since Day One never to judge other people’s drinking, that it is never my place to label anyone but myself alcoholic. But it also doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that “normal” drinkers are almost never subjected to a field sobriety test at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning wearing yesterday’s work clothes. When I arrived at my own meeting that morning, and there was a moment of silence for the still-suffering alcoholic, my heart truly went out to the Ms. Anonymous I saw on the interstate only minutes before. She would surely lose her license and probably have to jump through a number of hoops to get it back. Most of us know if she is truly alcoholic, returning her license one day will be the metaphorical equivalent of releasing a kamikaze pilot from a POW camp, returning him to his plane, and asking him to promise to fly straight home and never dream of dive-bombing the enemy ever again. Just not in his DNA. What the law can’t do, what her family can’t do, what no period of untreated abstinence can do is “tell her story” the way another addict or alcoholic can. My hope for her then and now is that she be forced to go somewhere and talk to other people who’s eyes were opened by the same experience, who might help her be grateful her behavior didn’t seriously injure others, and who might teach her to find the courage to share that experience with others like herself and maybe one day find both the humor and the humanity in it.

***For the record, I never once partied on a yacht in the Caribbean with anyone, but I fantasized about it plenty from my couch in the living room while watching the latest episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.




Tough to Love

I can’t imagine too many things more difficult than loving an alcoholic–except maybe loving an alcoholic who has acknowledged his problem but isn’t yet ready to do anything about it. At least, that’s what I tell my non-alcoholic friends when they suddenly find themselves faced with friends, family members, or partners who are clearly destroying themselves with booze.

I have had more than a few non-alcoholic friends tell me in recent years they finally realize the problem in a relationship with either a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, or lover is deeply rooted in alcohol abuse. Their descriptions of their alcoholics, and the issues they face are uncannily targeted and similar.

These poor souls almost always begin with a description of what a good, kind, hardworking, and “otherwise loving person” their alcoholic is. I place “otherwise loving person” (OLP) in quotation marks because my first question to the unsuspecting non-alcoholic friend is, “And how often is he ‘otherwise’ these days?” My family served up the same kind of alibi for me long after alcohol’s deleterious effect on my life was painfully apparent. “He’s really a kind and loving boy,” they’d say. “He just needs to learn to drink more responsibly.” Or, at least responsibly enough to stay in a marriage or at a job and out of jails, hospitals, and institutions.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) says, “No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows.” True enough. But have you ever noticed the lengths to which our loved ones will go (and often for a rather extended period of time) to help us deny we are damaged goods (i.e. bodily and mentally different from our fellows, or, more bluntly stated, ALCOHOLIC)?

It is usually at this point—early in our discussions—that my non-alcoholic friends try to make excuses for their OLP’s increasingly demonic behavior. “She just went through a really yucky divorce.” (More than 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet 50% of the adult population is not alcoholic.) Or, “He’s having financial difficulties.” (Really? Who isn’t?) Or, “She’s under a lot of stress at work.” (Many would say she’s lucky to have a job!) Or, how about the one I latched onto for nearly 10 years after the fact: “He just lost his father. It’s been hard on him.”

When my friends’ excuses for their OLP become too much to bear, I find a spare Big Book and point them to the passage that says, “Job or no job—wife or no wife—we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God. Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” (98)
Once we’re passed the rationalizations and excuses, the brutal truths are usually quick to surface. My friends acknowledge that, whatever the cause of the excess, their relationship with their OLP will never improve and may very well end if he or she doesn’t stop drinking completely. By the time they’re desperate enough to talk to me about the problem, they usually know in their hearts their OLP’s condition is hopeless. They know instinctually they love someone who will never drink normally again. It just takes them a little while to admit it out loud. Sadly, they also begin to share descriptions of their OLP’s Jekyll-N-Hyde-like behavior. Deeply remorseful every morning-after, their OLP quickly becomes defensive (if not abusive) at the first suggestion they actually do something about the problem (like enter treatment, or God forbid, go to an AA meeting). Or worse, their OLP turns the tables and becomes accusatory, suggesting my non-alcoholic friend and his or her role in the OLP’s life are the very reason they drink so frequently and excessively.

Possibly the saddest part of every encounter I have with friends who don’t understand alcoholism is their willingness to entertain the idea that they are to blame for their OLP’s drinking problem. “Maybe if I acted differently when he promises to stop, he’d be more successful.” If they only knew how absurd that notion is (and if they get help, one day they will know), they might understand why I have the audacity to laugh when I hear them try to blame themselves for outcomes over which we are all powerless. But more often than not in these situations, laughter is scarce, so I reach again for my spare Big Book and point them this time to the chapter titled More About Alcoholism. “Please,” I tell them, “Keep this copy. The first one-hundred-and-sixty-four pages might help you … a lot.”

Until recently, my point of view in these discussions has almost always been that of recovering alcoholic sharing his experience, strength, and hope about the future. I dodge, respectfully, most requests for advice or direction. That is the job of professionals, I tell my friends, or the job of potential comrades at an Al-Anon meeting should they choose to “go there.” Generally, I try to be honest about how formidable, but also how wonderful, it can be to trudge the road of happy destiny if only their OLP can find a way to hop on the path.

That’s usually my tune. But a few weeks ago, when I was contacted by a colleague’s sister—whom I’ve never met and who was struggling with her partner’s alcoholism—I found myself saying, “I know how you feel,” almost as often as I said, “This is what he’s up to.” At some point in our email exchange, I suddenly realized that I’ve spent a good portion of my life on both sides of the fence. From my father to various women I’ve loved to friends who have walked in and back out of the doors of recovery to a life of active use and abuse, I’ve had my fair share of OLPs. And, yes, even with all I know about my own condition, I’ve still found it possible to say things like, “Well, she’s drinking again, but I’ve never really seen her drunk.” Or, “He may drink too much at times, but he certainly isn’t as bad as I was at his age.” Or, best of all, “Maybe she came to AA at a bad time in her life, but now she’s able to handle it.”

And then it really hit me … the reason we make excuses, the very simple reason none of us wants anyone to be bodily or mentally different from their fellows: None of us wants to believe that any substance, alcohol or otherwise, could mean more to someone we love than we do. And maybe the admission is even more painful for those of us who once lived years and years of our lives knowing full well that nothing—and certainly nothing human—could mean more to us than alcohol once we’d taken the first drink.

Empathy: A Necessary Ingredient

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

A friend recently told me that I lack empathy. She also hinted that, since I am male, the problem might be endemic, if not incurable. In the old days, and certainly during my drinking days, such a comment would have prompted me to become defensive at best, abusive at my worst.

Not so today. Today, the comment simply prompted me to take stock.

I’ve spent most of my adult life writing, editing, studying, and teaching the English language, so the word “empathy” isn’t foreign to me. At the outset, however, I struggled to understand how my actions communicated a lack of empathy. So, like any good high school student asked to understand an abstraction, I clicked over to Dictionary.com and re-read the definition of the word empathy: “The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Concerning the matter at hand—the particulars of which really and truly are not relevant here—I was guilty as charged. As a 50-something American male born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, there was no way in hell I was going to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of a 40-something American female. She was absolutely right; I didn’t get it. So, I promptly went to work making amends.  After numerous text messages, two hours Christmas shopping, and a promise to cook dinner on Saturday night, the air between us was—if not clear— at least less cloudy. We both agreed, in the end, it was not difficult to understand why I am twice divorced and living alone.

I can joke about the matter now, but at the time, the criticism hit particularly hard. Not because it so accurately characterizes my long-term inability to live well with others, but rather because empathy is the very word I associate with the people I admire most in sobriety: Men like my sponsor and his cronies, men who—whatever character defects they may still endure and find it necessary to work on—never, ever fail to have empathy for the still suffering alcoholic.

And by still suffering, I don’t necessarily mean those alcoholics who have not yet found a path to recovery. More often than not, I mean those alcoholics who suffer before our very eyes. In many cases, the still suffering alcoholics are those who come in and out of meetings on a consistently irregular basis and never manage to embrace the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at their feet. They are close at hand, yet very far away.

These are the people for whom I cannot fail to have empathy—as distinct from shallow pity or even sympathy. I can’t help but feel their pain because I have had their experience and know what a horrible and frustrating journey they’re on. For the first seven years that I came around the tables, I was just as likely to leave a meeting and drink as I was to go home and call my sponsor or read the Big Book. Surrender simply wasn’t in the cards, though I’d already endured a healthy dose of desperation.

Alcoholics slip away from sobriety long before they have a slip. The warning signs of an alcoholic’s imminent departure from the fellowship are all too easy to identify and equally easy to ignore or rationalize away. In my early attempts at sobriety, whenever I felt the need to change my regular meeting schedule, to ditch or upgrade my sponsor, to read anything rather than read the Big Book, or to find fault with the steps, I was clearly headed for a relapse. This pattern played itself out the same way at nearly 3 years of sobriety as it did at 3 weeks. I simply decided I could not surrender my liberty to drink no matter how good my life had become and no matter how much I loved the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In recent months, I’ve watched more than a handful of people gradually fade away from the program only to drink and then return to meetings, drink and return, drink and return, and drink and return yet again, just as I had done so many years ago. In the even sadder cases, I’ve spoken to those alcoholics who leave the program to drink and report back how wonderful their lives are despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—evidence so overwhelming they don’t even need a forest or its trees.

It troubles me most, however, when I hear those who are fortunate enough to stay sober boldly judge those who have left. “He wasn’t working a program anyway,” some say, or, “She found her new higher power—a boyfriend who tells her she isn’t alcoholic because he’s a drunk himself.” I’ve heard more; I’ve heard worse. What I don’t hear often enough is, “I pray they make it back. So many don’t.”  I know from my own experience that it was only a matter of one or two drunks before I began longing for the experience, strength, and hope of those I’d left behind in the program. I also know that it was foolish pride and fear of judgment that kept me from coming back sooner than I did. Luckily when pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization destroyed me, I was welcomed back unconditionally by those whose empathy for the still suffering alcoholic never wavers … and the naysayers wisely kept their distance.

Every year around my sobriety birthday my sponsor and I meet for dinner to assess the year gone by and to map out goals for the year to come. Almost every year, he reminds me that the longer we stay sober, the narrower the path becomes and that no matter how secure we may feel, we’re still alcoholics with alcoholic minds that are always plotting ways to escape Alcoholics Anonymous. Without a spiritual defense and a daily reprieve, I’m just as likely to leave the path and drink as I am to stay on it. Passing judgment on, or failing to have empathy for, the still suffering alcoholic isn’t likely to fortify my spiritual defense.

I’ve been around long enough to know there isn’t much I can do for an alcoholic who chooses to leave Alcoholics Anonymous and do what we do best and most naturally—which is to drink and to drink with a passion. The risk for newcomers is particularly high at this time of year when so many of us would like to believe once more that we are not mentally or physically different from our fellows, that things surely will be different this time. And for a time, probably a short time, things might be different. But if they are alcoholics of my type, they’ll quickly experience the progressive reality of our disease, and things will ultimately get much worse. I only hope that if and when they return, I can be there to greet them with empathy and neither ignore my own past nor close the door on it.

Acceptance, Surrender, and Renewal

Me with My Ex-tended Family at Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, August 3, 2011. Adults from L to R: Me, my friend and my daughter

My divorce has been final for well over a year now (since 7/9/10), and it’s been more than 2 1/2 years since I first launched this blog. If there is one simple truth I’ve learned over the past 30 or so months, it is this: acceptance is a matter of the mind, surrender a matter of the heart.

I’ve actually found it relatively easy to accept certain realities as they’ve presented themselves since April of ’09. I didn’t freak when my then wife of 6 1/2 years and the mother of my kids said she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore. I’d been there … more than once … I got it: People fall out of love. (Reality check for all who think they’ve got a lock on their spouses: You’ve got a firmer grip on the wind, my friend.) Having been fickle in love myself, I was able, mentally, to accept my wife’s twist of fate, although the thought of our kids having to go through a divorce twisted my guts into a million tiny knots. And, when the time came, when she finally said she was going to actually file, I was able to accept fairly readily what I’d suspected all along: That there was a Him, though she continued to vehemently deny it. Thanks to Facebook, I later verified pretty easily that The Him showed up oh-so-coincidentally at about the same time as the papers. Bitter? Maybe a tinge, but it was all pretty transparent and quintessentially predictable. Few go through a divorce without that little bit of added support on the side we tell ourselves we need and so well deserve. And, on the first of July 2010, when she finally moved out, it came as no surprise that it was The Him’s house that she moved into. All of this, intellectually, I was able to accept.

What threw me for a loop, what wasn’t so easy to accept and what my heart wouldn’t surrender, was that my kids would now have a new male influence in their lives. Sadly, the fact that my Ex had a Him in her life almost came as a relief; someone else would be looking after the mother of my kids in my absence (how 1950’s of me). But the fact that they, my by then 7-year-old daughter and 4- year-old son, might be influenced by someone other than me was torturous.

The torture began, ironically, with the fact that my kids liked The Him and The Him liked my kids. Intellectually, I could accept that this was, indeed, a good thing for all concerned. But at a more gut, or should I say primal, level, I’d have rather gnaw on the veins in Him’s neck like a rabid wolf than surrender to a new normal that included someone other than me winning the hearts and minds of my children—however much or little.

Luckily, The Him turned out to be a good guy from the very beginning. In fact, within weeks of the divorce, The Him contacted me on Facebook in a boldly standup fashion and suggested we meet so he’d have the chance to become something other than “the other guy” (The Him) in my mind. This won my respect instantly and less than a month after the ink was dry on the decree, I invited The Him to my house, along with my Ex, for my son’s 5th birthday party. That day he became a guy named Jason, who had two daughters of his own, and somewhere down the line, my Ex became Meg again. Over the course of the next year, we (Meg, Jason, me, my kids, and his kids) would share a number of holidays and birthdays together in the spirit of showing our kids everything was OK, and that life could be conducted in relative normalcy even if our circumstances weren’t those of the normal majority–whoever and wherever they are.

And that spirit, the spirit of putting the kids well-being before all else ALWAYS, is what made the picture at the top of this post and, for me, the ultimate surrender possible. At some point in the past year it became painfully apparent to me that no one was likely to do greater harm to my children than me if I didn’t get over myself. Today, every time my jealousy rears its ugly head, every time I want to take a stand of some selfish sort and proclaim myself king of the parental jungle, I simply ask myself: What will harm the children less or benefit them more, me making my point or me shutting up and surrendering my self-serving emotions to a greater good? Nine out of ten times, my ego doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And I’m happy to say, nine out of ten times, I’m able to take the high road and either catch myself and shut up or correct myself and make amends as soon after I’ve said or done something stupid as humanly possible.

The Boys Upon Arrival at Oceans of Fun in Kansas City: Adam, Jason, Me, and Tom.

Consequently, one afternoon this summer, shortly before my son’s 6th birthday, Meg and Jason and I were actually able to sit down in my kitchen and plan a trip to Kansas City we all agreed would be great fun for the kids. When my friend and Grace’s godfather, Tom, discovered the trip included a Royal’s baseball game and a day at Ocean’s of Fun, he asked if he could join us. So, on the 2nd of August, Tom and Jason and I and the kids piled into a van and drove to Kansas City to watch the last place Royals get drubbed by the last place Orioles. The next day, on the 3rd of August, Meg drove down and joined us for the afternoon at Oceans of Fun and dinner that night on the Country Club Plaza.

All the kids, big and small, with Meg behind the camera: Adam, Claudia, Jason, Me, Grace, Tom, Carter.

The Clan at Dinner that night on The Plaza: Jason, Claudia, Meg, Adam, Grace, Me, Carter, Tom.

The supreme irony: Nine years earlier, on the 3rd of August 2002, Tom had stood up with Meg and me as one of my groomsmen in our wedding, which had been followed by a brief honeymoon right there on that very Plaza in KC, and not once during our trip this summer did any of us realize that day at Oceans of Fun actually marked the anniversary (our ninth) that wasn’t—a sure sign to me a few days later that we’d all achieved an unspoken sense of closure and renewal.


Grace and I at Winstead

Grace, Claudia, Tom shakin


Grace and Adam at their first Major League baseball game.

Tom and the girls; it was 107 degrees farenheit at game time (7:05 pm).



Tom and the kids, out in left field ... as usual.

The kids and I on the Lazy River, where we belong.

Moment of Clarity #2: True Love

In true love, there are no victors and no victims—only the genuine pursuit of time well spent.

In Absence of Intimacy

In Absence of Intimacy

Years ago, as a graduate student in the Writing Workshop at the University of Arizona, I was advised to “get some emotional distance” on a subject before writing about it. Emotional distance, as I understood the phrase, meant putting some time between yourself and the events you were writing about, especially if you were writing narrative. Blogging is antithetical to this maxim. Blogs demand frequency and immediacy. And true to the form, I’ve characterized this blog as a place where I hope to prompt discussion about what it takes, here and now, day-by-day, to live a truly sober life.

So, in the spirit of blogging and the mission of RealtimeRecovery, I’m going to take on a subject I wouldn’t normally write about unless I were more “emotionally distant” from it. That subject is intimacy—or, more accurately, the truly devastating effect the absence of intimacy can have on a relationship.

Since beginning the blog, I’ve been as open and honest as possible about my own marriage, without going into gory detail. Bottom line: On Valentine’s Day ’09, my wife of (now) seven years informed me she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore. I’m not the first male in mankind to face this situation and certainly won’t be the last. The important thing in the context of this blog is to understand how to live a sober life, 24 hours at a time, faced with this revelation.

Really, there is no “good” time to talk about lack of intimacy in a relationship. It’s like trying to have a high-spirited and positive discussion about terminal cancer. In the end, the outcome isn’t likely an outcome anyone wants, no matter what they tell themselves to keep their spirits up along the way. 
And, like a cancer left untreated, the absence of intimacy will grow, consume, and ultimately destroy the host relationship, whether that relationship is a marriage, a friendship, or the forced affiliation of family ties.

So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about the absence of intimacy? First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking “just” about sex. But, it is my experience that when a relationship suddenly takes a turn for the worse (whether it’s because one partner doesn’t know if they’re “in love” anymore, or because one partner has “cheated” on the other, or because one partner has somehow abused the other, or because one partner has plainly and simply checked out of the relationship after too many years), no matter the cause, physical intimacy is usually the first type of intimacy to either slowly or very suddenly disappear.

To some, this may not seem like such a big deal. But to many men, and to many recovering men with whom I’ve spoken about the topic, it’s a very big deal. It’s a big deal because, however shallow this makes us, the absence of sex in a marriage or partnership flat-out spells REJECTION. For many of us, the fastest and clearest way to say “I don’t love you anymore” is to lose interest in having sex with us. By no means am I asserting that this is true for everyone under all circumstances. I’m merely saying that for many recovering alcoholic men, the absence of physical intimacy is the first sign that they’re not good enough, a failure not only at love but probably everything else as well … it is, plain and simple, the first sign they’re on their way out the door.

The absence of sexual intimacy also makes it more difficult to engage in other simpler, but possibly much more important, forms of physical intimacy.  Hugging, kissing each other good-bye in the morning or good night before going to sleep, holding hands, you name it, all of these become increasingly difficult to do. The longer the absence persists, the more difficult it becomes to be in each others physical proximity for fear of touching each other, even by accident. Watch how two people who share a bed and bathroom act around each other, and I’ll bet you can tell within minutes whether their relationship does or does not include an active sex life.

Even when physical intimacy is on the wane, or gone, many people can sustain a strong and lasting relationship by nurturing emotional intimacy. By emotional intimacy I mean the ability to be empathetic—or, put more simply, the ability to genuinely “give a shit” about your partner and what’s going on with them. In my case, this is what keeps me hanging on. In the absence of all else, I truly do care about what my wife is going through, partly because she’s my wife and my friend, and partly because she’s the mother of my children, and their “complete” well-being depends as much on her well-being as it does on mine. I empathize also because I’ve gone through what I think she’s going through—that point in your early 30’s when you suddenly feel as though everything fun and glamorous in life is about to pass you by if you don’t act fast. That very ethos cost me my first marriage, and in an ironic fashion, may cost me this one as well. But again, I can’t help but empathize. I’ve been there. I’ve also been in relationships that didn’t pan out, that led me to believe, rightly or wrongly, that I didn’t love and never would love the other person. Again, I empathize. I know what it’s like, whether I like it or not. I also regret, in my own cases, having acted too rashly, leaving my first marriage abruptly and later frivolously ending really good relationships that had far more depth than mere fleeting romance and temporary excitement could have ever provided. But again, I was young and shortsighted, and, as an actively practicing alcoholic, far too immature emotionally to appreciate what I had. I was thrill seeking while my partners were seeking meaningful relationships. Describe for me last time you had a meaningful relationship with a practicing alcoholic, and I’ll quickly and quite easily chart for you all the ways in which you have serious issues around DENIAL.

But again, for many men, myself included, being empathetic and emotionally available isn’t always easy in the absence of physical intimacy. Again, for many (not all, but many) men, the absence of physical intimacy spells REJECTION, and for any man with a decent size ego, this inevitably leads to deep and lingering resentment. In the long run, it’s hard to continue to “give a shit” about someone you recurrently resent. Eventually, it becomes hard to even like them, let alone love or care about them.

Once things get to this point (the point at which my first marriage crumbled), the last form of intimacy to fall is psychological intimacy—that very simple ability to communicate about and agree upon things that matter above and beyond the relationship itself. Whether the issue involves the kids, parents, friends, politics, religion, finances, it becomes next to impossible to discuss any issue rationally and civilly. When resentment and physical distance are running the show it becomes extremely difficult to want to agree with the other person about anything—even when you know they’re right. At this point, DOOM always feels as though it’s right around the corner—and left untreated, it usually is.

So I’m curious. Have others experienced some or all of the “absences” I’ve described at some point in a relationship? Do you advocate certain solutions or abject surrender? I have what I think are potential solutions—my own and those I’ve read about and gathered elsewhere—but I’m much more curious to know other people’s experience because, if I know one thing for sure, my own experience is hardly unique.