Battling the Dry Drunk Demons

The challenge of loving someone who got sober but never went through recovery

Debbie LaChusa
Black Bear
5 min readJan 21, 2023

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Serenity Prayer Plaque (photo by author)

It happened again. Like it always does. With words. Cold, defensive, attacking.

Once again it’s not about anything big or important. It never is. Simple conversations turn into explosive arguments that activate the painful pit in my stomach. The most infuriating part? He never understands what the fight is really about. He’s like a small child that way.

Self-medicating from an early age, he never learned how to process emotions. Instead he hid, pacifying himself with liquor.

It’s haunted our otherwise happy marriage, all 41 years of it.

I return home from our walk — and the argument — and head downstairs to remove the extra layer of clothing I’d donned to protect myself from the bitter cold. We walk the dogs every morning despite the temperature, because flexibility is not his strong suit. But no amount of layers could protect me from his frigid words. Words that penetrate so deep they cut to my core, and stir up that all too familiar pain. Pain that’s always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to be activated by another one of these stupid arguments.

As I sit on the wooden bench at the foot of my bed, pulling off my extra layer of pants, my gaze lands on the stone plaque sitting on the dresser. It’s been there since June — not quite five months.

“The Serenity Prayer” etched in black cursive on a piece of beige speckled granite that looks remarkably like the countertops we had installed in our newly remodeled kitchen.

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can

And wisdom to know the difference

The prayer made its home in Dad’s den until the day he died. For close to 50 years it sat atop the oak bookcase with glass doors, to the right of Dad’s desk. The same bookcase that housed Dad’s favorite books and a handful of family photos, some framed, some simply propped up inside.

I saw the prayer many times over the past year, during my frequent trips home to see Dad as he was dying. In June, I spent two difficult weeks staying in Mom and Dad’s house — with them no longer living there — first waiting for Dad to die, then waiting on funeral arrangements.

I saw the little granite plaque every time I passed Dad’s den. The door wide open, Dad’s chair empty, his desk still cluttered with papers as if he had just stepped away.

When it came time to return home, I knew the prayer was coming with me.

Maybe because I was touched Dad kept it all those years. Perhaps because “The Serenity Prayer” is the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra and I’ve been married for 41 years to an alcoholic. One who quit drinking 37 years ago, but never went through recovery.

We were so young when he got sober, we thought he’d won the battle.

We didn’t realize it was only the beginning of the fight. A recurring theme of anger and misappropriated emotions became a constant undercurrent in our relationship.

Sometimes years would go by in between bouts, but the murk was always there, lingering beneath the surface, waiting for something to trigger its ugly reappearance.

After four decades retracing these familiar yet unwelcome steps, this latest fight became the proverbial last straw. Or perhaps it was Dad’s death, a not so subtle reminder of how short life is. Or maybe, I had finally hit the wall after so many years.

As I pondered how to bring it up (again) without invoking defensiveness, or inciting an argument, the phrase dry drunk popped into my head. I vaguely recall a friend using these exact words to describe the recurring outbursts, some 25 years ago.

I sat down at my computer and typed them into Google. What I read described him to a T.

It’s not him. It’s the disease.

I feel hopeful. We can fix this.

Counseling. A.A. Twelve steps. Recovery.

He never did any of that.

But my hope quickly fades.

I’ve suggested getting help before and it has never landed on receptive ears. Still, I know I have to try again.

Despite what it may sound like, we have a good marriage. He’s my best friend. My soul mate. I’ve never wanted to give up on him, or us. He’s a really good guy, with a big heart that’s been hijacked by those damn dry drunk demons.

I see how frustrated he is. How much he wants to banish the monsters derailing his — our — otherwise happy life.

Maybe, just maybe, he’ll listen this time.

I plant the seed and wait.

About a month later, a friend who happens to be in recovery, comes to visit. She wants to attend an A.A. meeting while in town, and he decides to go with her.

This first timid step awakens something inside him. Something I haven’t seen in 41 years. An openness. A willingness to take on this fight, in the hope it will eliminate all the others.

The friend leaves. He attends another meeting, this time on his own. And then another. He finds a men’s group. He gets a sponsor.

At 63-years-old, 37 years after taking his last drink, he is finally working on recovery. He’s bumping into challenges with every step, but he’s committed. And, he’s making progress.

The fights have given way to conversations, sometimes still heated, but at least now they’re productive. He’s identifying his triggers and learning to recognize, and talk about, the emotions he’s always pushed down.

A new chapter is opening up for us both. We’re learning a new dance and working on leaving the dysfunctional one behind.

When I bought “The Serenity Prayer” plaque for Dad I had no idea what it truly meant. I certainly could not have seen the foreshadowing role it would play in my life. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, wandering up and down the drug store aisles with my allowance money jingling in my pocket, eagerly looking for something to get Dad for his birthday.

For reasons I do not recall, I chose the plaque. Other than the heather blue Tommy Bahama-style shirt I gave him one year for his birthday, and that he wore until the very end, I don’t recall any other gifts I gave Dad over the past 50 years.

The 5" x 7” granite plaque, with its inspirational prayer, propped up on its silver easel, stands alone in my memory.

Now it stands in front of me on my bedroom dresser.

As I sit here, still fuming from our latest argument, trying to be patient with the man I love, who is finally getting help and making amends, I welcome the comfort the prayer provides.

I silently vow to sit on this little wooden bench at the foot of my bed, and take in the power of this prayer, each and every day. I ask for the strength to carry on and weather these stupid fights when they happen — which they inevitably will — as my husband embarks on his healing journey and I embark on mine.

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Debbie LaChusa
Black Bear

I've blogged for years, and written and published four nonfiction books. Now I'm studying memoir and practicing the craft of creative nonfiction.