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Searching for Happiness on the Wagon

April 23, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

Sobriety was not working out the way Gordon Bruning expected.

When he stopped drinking four years ago, he expected to find paradise just around the corner.

Instead, large problems developed, and the corner turned out to have as many detours as a maze.

Bruning, 41, a West Los Angeles psychotherapist, noticed after he became sober that he would be angry if his car didn't run perfectly, if his job as a marriage and family counselor went worse than expected or if his girlfriend acted contrary to his wishes.

"And I started scratching my head and saying, wait a minute, what is all this stuff I'm going through? Basically it didn't fit," he said. "I'm supposed to be feeling good."

Recovery Neglected

He started to investigate his feelings and decided that scholars had devoted a great deal of attention to alcoholism and treatment but very little to recovery.

He began counseling recovering alcoholics and, because he was involved in a Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California, interviewed nine recovering alcoholics and their spouses for a now-completed doctoral thesis.

From these sources, Bruning learned he wasn't alone. What happens in recovery, he found, is that couples who work hard adjusting to sobriety find great happiness. But it takes time.

Most couples begin changing patterns of relating only after a year of sobriety, he said, and significant adjustments take place only after two years.

Bruning said in an interview that an alcoholic and a spouse require three years to build a new relationship because the living patterns they developed during alcoholism change. There is fear and anxiety about what the new situation will bring.

Felt Like a Baby

Bruning recalled that when he became sober he felt like a baby. So many of his actions had been connected to drinking that he didn't know how to respond without alcohol. He had to learn a new way of life.

"I would go into a restaurant and I didn't know how to act because I was sober," he said. Similarly, one of his clients went to a baseball game and left in the middle innings because he didn't know how to behave, Bruning recalled.

While alcoholics are anxious about new situations, they also battle guilt and anger. But their most difficult problem is readjusting to domestic responsibilities, Bruning said.

Alcoholics who surrendered family responsibilities while drinking and who tried to regain them when sober met strong resistance from mistrustful spouses.

"The spouses had been let down so many times in the past that they were resistant to putting themselves in a situation where this would happen again," Bruning said.

The second most difficult area for couples, Bruning said, was sexual interaction. Men who became sober often felt too angry, guilty or despondent to be interested in their wives. When they were, they frequently performed poorly.

Many alcoholics also knew how to be sexual only when they were high. Trying to relate sexually while sober was terrifying.

When men could relate, women often rejected their advances. "Anger over previous disappointments and fear of intimacy with their husbands" often resulted in diminished sex drive, Bruning said.

Bruning said he and his girlfriend experienced all the problems cited in his thesis. After five years of heavy drinking, he started his recovery four years ago on Independence Day.

He had been pursuing a doctoral degree with minimal progress for many years. "I'd start writing a paper for a class and I'd say, 'I'm going to have a couple of drinks,' " he recalled.

"So I'd have a couple of drinks, and I'd lose my fear of writing, but I couldn't stop at two, and I'd have three or four. And suddenly I'd say, 'I'll continue this tomorrow.' And it never happened."

On July 3, 1981, he consumed enormous amounts of wine and beer at a hillside Palm Desert condominium. He said he was preparing to go into town for more alcohol when he became obnoxious and berated a man at pool side for no reason.

When his girlfriend walked away with disgust in her eyes, Bruning decided he couldn't stand himself and had to control his drinking.

He called friends, who told him he was an alcoholic, and he spent the next day, July 4, in the arms of his girlfriend crying. He was scared. "I felt like I would never laugh again," he recalled. "I would never have fun again. And I did not honestly know if I could make it.

" . . . The fact that I did so much with alcohol--you take that (alcohol) away all of a sudden and life seems awfully bleak."

" . . . I consider myself a very bright individual," he said. "Certainly capable of handling a lot of things in my life. And for me, to be reduced to less than one year of age by feeling things I'd never felt, by the thought of doing things I'd never done, is just incredible."

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