When writer Britni de la Cretaz decided to quit drinking in order to save her relationship, she also saved herself. Here, she reveals how she had to learn to walk the straight and narrow before she could walk the aisle.
My boyfriend, Ben, and I were due to leave for a camping trip in New Hampshire one Saturday, a trip during which he was planning to propose. I knew this because I'd overheard him talking on the phone with my mother about his plans, and I'd caught a glimpse of him showing my friend the ring. We'd met a year before when I walked into the bar he owned. Like a good alcoholic, I latched on to the guy with the booze immediately, and we spent much of our early relationship drinking together.
But even without the partying, he was always someone I wanted to be around—kind and generous, sensitive and sweet. We were also a good balance for each other: me, laid-back, and him, a detail-oriented worrier. I was excited by the idea of marrying him. And I was psyched about the wedding part, not because I'd always dreamed about the dress or the first dance but because of the party. I loved a party. In fact, in my fantasies, the only wedding detail I'd ever envisioned was getting drunk on bubbly at the reception. That's what you do at weddings, after all. In retrospect, I see that this may have been a sign that I had some serious issues with alcohol.
But even without the partying, he was always someone I wanted to be around—kind and generous, sensitive and sweet. We were also a good balance for each other: me, laid-back, and him, a detail-oriented worrier. I was excited by the idea of marrying him.
The night before our camping trip, as I was getting ready to have a few friends over, Ben asked one thing of me: Could I please not get drunk that night? I promised I wouldn't; I was just going to have a glass or two of sangria, and who gets drunk on sangria? A few hours later, having spent the evening inside packing for our trip, he came out to our back porch to find me sloshed, as I usually was once I got going. He asked me to leave the apartment that night, and I did, assuming it would blow over—like that time I got wasted the night before I was supposed to pick him up from a hiking trip and then spent the entire drive back pulling over every 20 minutes to puke. Or when I snuck out after he'd gone to sleep so I could continue to party with friends and worried him to death. But the next morning when I called him from my best friend's couch, he told me the trip was off. "I can't do this anymore," he said. "You have a problem. You need to get help."
I disagreed. I was just doing what all twenty-somethings do: going to bars with friends, drinking wine and watching movies on the couch, ordering beer flights at fancy restaurants. Of course, I usually closed those bars down, wine and movies at home meant three or four bottles just for me, and the fancy restaurants were just an excuse to get many fancy drinks. Plus, as my boyfriend pointed out, most twenty-somethings hadn't been fired from jobs because they struggled to get out of bed with a hangover at least three times a week.
Though I wasn't convinced I needed help, I knew that I wanted to be with Ben. So I agreed to go to rehab for two weeks, telling myself that I'd just take some time away, dry up, and let him cool off. Those two weeks at a 12-step retreat in the mountains stretched into four months. Then, instead of moving back into our apartment, I decided to spend six months living in a sober house. Somewhere along the way, I realized I did have a serious problem and that, wedding or not, one glass of champagne would never again be possible for me.
During those six months, Ben and I took time to get to know each other again. We saw each other twice a week at most, went on dates, and had long conversations. And we made mistakes. It was easy to fall back into old relationship patterns. But now, when he pointed out that I'd failed to do the dishes as promised, instead of getting defensive and storming out to hit the bar, I apologized and followed through on my commitment. Beyond their value in recovery, it turns out, the 12 steps were pretty good principles for a healthy relationship too.
Ten months after moving out, I moved back into our little apartment as a sober woman. One month after that, we finally took that trip to New Hampshire, where, on a crisp fall day, on the banks of a lake surrounded by autumn leaves in fiery reds, oranges, and yellows, he said the words every girl waits her whole life to hear: "Do you wanna see something cool?" In his hand was a small box holding his great-grandmother's ring — a round center-cut diamond surrounded by emeralds.
We agreed that our wedding would be small, just 30 friends and family members. We'd hold it at our favorite restaurant six months later. And among all the wedding-planning questions that came at us fast and furious was what role alcohol would play. We wouldn't be drinking (while I was away, he got sober too, for his own reasons), but we wanted our guests who don't struggle with booze to be able to let loose and have fun, so we chose to have an open bar. My bachelorette consisted of a few friends helping me DIY decorations and drinking flavored seltzer water. (It was way more fun than it sounds.) The drunk ones stayed away; an added benefit of getting sober is that you learn who your true friends are and who are (were) just drinking buddies.
I initially went to rehab to save my relationship. My husband is the best guy I've ever met: He goes out of his way to take care of me when I'm sick (even when it's been self-inflicted) and takes pride in cooking me food he knows I love. I wanted to be half the partner to him that he was (and is) to me. But something else happened when I was away: I ended up saving myself. I realized that to be a great us, I had to be a great me first. That meant taking time to figure out how to be a person who doesn't drink. It meant learning how to be honest, reliable, and compassionate — three things I'd never been in any relationship before. In the past, I'd lie about what time I'd be home or how much I'd had to drink. I'd make plans and then cancel them at the last minute because I was too hungover or because something more fun sounding came along. And I was so concerned with my own selfish wants that I never stopped to consider his feelings. When I was able to be the kind of person that I could be proud of, I was also able to be the kind of partner that he deserved. I agreed to sit down with him and talk about our finances after I returned from treatment, and I'd never been willing to do that before. He looked at me and said, "You really have changed. Thank you."
I realized that to be a great us, I had to be a great me first. That meant taking time to figure out how to be a person who doesn't drink.
On the morning of the wedding, the hotel delivered a complimentary bottle of champagne to my room. It was as if the universe was testing me, offering up what I'd always thought I wanted on a literal silver platter. But instead of popping the cork and pouring myself a glass, I took a picture of the bottle as evidence of just how far I'd come. Then, without a second thought, I passed it off to my best friend and my mom to enjoy while we all got ready. That image of myself as a radiant bride with a bubbly flute in my hand was gone.
Instead, I was a bride who walked down the aisle in a rainbow dress and leopard-print coat to Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and ate tons of delicious hors d'oeuvres. In my glass was sparkling apple cider, and never for a second did I feel like anything was missing.
It was a day of pure joy, of a kind of fun I previously only thought possible with a little (or a lot) of liquor coursing through my veins. My vows included a riff on a line from Casablanca: "Of all the gin joints in the world, I'm so glad I walked into yours." It was a nod to how we met but also to how much had changed as we both stood under the chuppah, the best versions of ourselves that we could be, both as individuals and as partners.