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The Old Has Gone…The New Has Come

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by Deb Kalmbach

“Randy,” I called to my husband over Christmas music. “Are you ready to crank out the pasta?”

Randy and I always looked forward to our traditional lasagna dinner on Christmas Eve with our sons, Chris and Jeremy.

I peered into the living room to see what was keeping him. My heart froze. Randy sat on the couch, trance-like, watching a basketball game while sipping a drink.

No, not on Christmas Eve, I screamed inwardly.

Randy had stayed sober for short periods of time, but then he slipped back into old, familiar patterns. After two inpatient alcohol treatment programs, his ongoing relapses were a crushing disappointment.

Just then, Chris and Jeremy walked in carrying armloads of packages.

“Dinner smells great,” Chris said, his voice trailing off.

We all knew the signs: the slurred speech, the empty stare, the smell of alcohol. Even as young adults, their dad’s drinking deeply affected them.

I felt like I was suffocating. Usually Randy pulled himself together, but it didn’t happen on that Christmas Eve more than a decade ago. He drank vodka all evening while I finished holiday preparations on autopilot. None of us felt like eating lasagna or celebrating.

Toll of Addiction
That’s how it is with addiction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dependency on alcohol or prescription drugs, blowing the whole paycheck at the casino, or clicking on the pornographic Web site. The result is always the same: devastation and heartache for everyone.

So how do we cope as we helplessly watch our loved ones continue the agonizing downward spiral? Finding healing and hope is almost as challenging as recovery is for the addicted person. Just as they are affected spiritually, emotionally, and physically, the same can be true for family members.

I became obsessed trying to fix and control Randy. I rifled through our garbage cans looking for beer cans or bottles to prove he had been drinking. He vowed he hadn’t, and I wondered if I were going crazy. I fought the compulsion to search for Randy in bars late at night, determined to make him stop drinking. I lay awake at night contemplating worst-case scenarios. The exhausting emotional roller coaster distracted me from a deeper relationship with the Lord, my true source of comfort and peace.

Telling the Truth
I found it impossibly difficult to say the words, “my husband is an alcoholic.” His drinking had started innocently enough during high school. At college, weekend parties provided ample supplies of alcoholic beverages. Later, when Randy joined the military, drinking with the guys after work became routine. As time went on, Randy’s drinking escalated. Under the influence of alcohol, he changed from the gentle, caring man I knew, to an angry, unpredictable stranger.

In order to cope, I became a master of pretending. “Everything’s fine,” I assured my friends at a Bible study I attended. “Randy is stressed out with his job.” The smile I forced caused my jaws to ache.

I tried to outrun my pain by keeping insanely busy. I volunteered for PTA projects and served as chairman of several committees at church. I felt like a runner competing in an endless marathon. Finally, it became more painful to pretend than to face reality.

A moment of truth came one January night when I fell on an icy sidewalk, fracturing my kneecap. My schedule screeched to a halt. While I recuperated during the following weeks, I had a front row seat to observe our marriage. I admitted the painful truth: My husband is an alcoholic. Our marriage is in shambles. I am miserable. And the most important truth—I need help.

One of the first steps we can take is to admit our own need for support. The problems related to addiction are too big to handle alone. Ask the Lord for discernment in seeking help, whether it is from a caring friend or compassionate counselor. Ask others for recommendations for counselors and support groups.

It took humility and surrendering my “I’ve-got- it- all- together” attitude before I started attending Al-Anon (a support group for families and friends of someone who has a drinking problem) and also a Christ-centered support group at church. Within these circles, I found it was O.K. to be real. I stopped pretending. I no longer felt alone.

Truth has the power to set us free. Reading the Bible, God’s ultimate word of truth, cuts through lies and gives us real freedom, beyond any teeth-gritting self-determination to change our loved ones.

Trusting God
The knee injury I sustained kept me sidelined much longer than I expected. Multiple knee surgeries and lots of couch time forced me to think about my response to Randy and our marital problems.

One day a friend drove me to a counseling appointment. I hobbled to the car on crutches. We maneuvered to get me into the back seat of her compact car, my leg propped up on the console.

“I hate this,” I told my friend, in tears with physical pain, but more because of my raw emotions.

“I know, Deb.” She patted my cast. “I guess we have to believe God will use this in some way for good.”

I had my doubts, but I knew the bottom line. I had to trust God, not only with healing my knee, but most of all, with Randy. I couldn’t be there to prevent him from stopping at liquor stores on his way home from work or from drinking and driving. I realized any control I thought I had was an illusion.

I had heard the words “let go—let God” numerous times at support groups. Knowing that and actually doing it was like taking a leap from one side of the Grand Canyon, expecting to land on the other. Impossible.

“I can’t let go. I’m too afraid,” I wrote in my journal one day. What would happen to Randy and our marriage if I stopped trying to help him– if I really let go? The possible repercussions terrified me. Randy could become the stereotype alcoholic—the one sleeping under a bridge. I couldn’t bear the thought.

Then it occurred to me. Since when had God given me the sole responsibility for my husband? I had mistakenly taken on this role. Fear had paralyzed my ability to trust God and to believe He had good plans for our lives.

“Letting go” is rooted in faith. Surrendering our loved ones means trusting God enough to believe that the One who created them loves them more than we could even imagine. Letting go feels risky, but it is the path to finding acceptance and peace in uncertain circumstances.

Transforming Power
The day Randy found out he had lost his job and 13-year career as an air traffic controller, dawned as gray as our spirits. It wasn’t a surprise. His employer had already given him several opportunities for treatment. They simply couldn’t take any more chances.
We sat in our living room that day with our friend Jim from Alcoholics Anonymous.

“How could I allow this to happen?” Randy’s voice broke with anguish.

The three of us knelt, holding hands and praying for God’s mercy and grace to face this devastating loss. If the situation hadn’t been so depressing, I would have felt encouraged by seeing my husband on his knees in prayer.

For years I had prayed relentlessly for Randy to become a Christian. Only a few months earlier, my prayers had finally been answered. Randy had responded to an invitation to accept Christ while we spent a weekend at a Young Life camp.

He stood unashamed to acknowledge his decision. The fact that he admitted he was powerless over his struggle with addiction marked a significant victory that led to ultimate freedom from alcoholism.

“Deb, I’m so tired of fighting this,” Randy had confided during the weekend. “I’m afraid of what will happen if I can’t stop drinking.”

We held each other and wept at the promise of hope we shared–not an instant transformation, but a huge step toward healing.

Believing the Lord is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever imagine is another step toward wholeness. It doesn’t mean ignoring reality, but it does mean there is plenty of hope. 2 Corinthians 5:17 promises: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Celebrating New Life
When Randy lost his career, we both felt like giving up. But as we prayed that day with our friend, compassion filled my heart, replacing the anger and resentment I typically felt. I saw Randy as a man and a child of God who had been broken and defeated by addiction. I wasn’t sure how we could put the broken pieces of our marriage back together, but we both agreed to try.

It takes a long time to unravel the complexities of addiction and to rebuild trust in a relationship. Time and willingness to stumble a few steps forward, then some backwards. Our interim pastor and his wife offered to counsel with us. “I think we can help you if you’re both willing,” he suggested.

I felt reluctant. “We’ve already been through lots of programs, counseling, treatment centers. Nothing has made a difference.”

“Deb, please don’t give up on me,” Randy begged. “I want to be your husband.”

I had heard it all before. How could I risk being disappointed and hurt again? Yet could I ignore this chance to start over one more time?

We decided to meet with our counselors after the worship service each week during that summer. We had homework.

“What is it about each other that you truly appreciate?” We were asked. “Bring your lists next week.”

We remembered the good times, wept over the heartbreaking experiences of our marriage, and grieved all we had lost. We yelled, told the truth about how we felt, and forgave each other for our sins.

Randy seemed to have made a lasting breakthrough to sobriety. But understandably, I felt skeptical and frightened.

On a golden fall morning more than eight years ago, we renewed our wedding vows. Friends and family packed the church we attend. Chris and Jeremy stood with us as our “best men.” The icing on our “wedding cake” told our story. Amazing Grace. And it is.

After nearly thirty-seven years of marriage, we still don’t have the perfect relationship. Not even close. Recently, we both “lost it” after a long day. We came home from work anticipating a quiet evening. Then one of our dogs got sick all over the carpet.
“O.K., I’ve had it,” I shouted at Randy and the dogs. I proceeded to unload my frustrations. He dished his back at me, and then walked out, slamming the door behind him.
After a couple of hours, an old fear crept in. What if he drinks? It had been years, but I wanted to go out and look for him. Instead, I prayed and breathed in God’s peace. Randy returned sober.

“Let’s talk,” I suggested, completely relieved. “I am sorry. Please forgive me.”

“I’m sorry, too, Deb. I know we’re both tired and frustrated.”

The next morning, I sat snuggled in my bathrobe, giving thanks for the miracle of growth in our marriage.

Randy interrupted my thoughts when he came in. “How about a mocha?” He smiled and held out the steaming mug. We both burst out laughing at ourselves. Only God’s transforming power could have changed us.

The old life is gone. The new life? Priceless.

©2007 Deb Kalmbach. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bio:
Deb Kalmbach is an author, speaker, and encourager. Married for more than 30 years to an alcoholic husband, she isn’t just theorizing when she gives hope and practical solutions to those who struggle with difficult relationships. Deb is the co-author of Because I Said Forever: Embracing Hope in a Not-So-Perfect Marriage and the author of a book for children, Corey’s Dad Drinks Too Much. She has contributed to a number of books including Divine Stories of the Yahweh Sisterhood and New Women’s Devotional Bible. Deb makes her home with her husband Randy in Washington state. Grown sons Chris and Jeremy live in the Seattle area.