I Watched My Partner Sink Into Alcoholism, So I Started Baking — And It Saved Me

"I told myself I wouldn’t see him again unless it was to drive him to rehab, which I knew would never happen."
The author frosts her ultimate s'mores cake in her home kitchen.
The author frosts her ultimate s'mores cake in her home kitchen.
Greg McBoat

The night before he entered rehab, the souffle worked. This was a miracle on two counts: First, that I got a chocolate souffle to rise at an altitude of 5,800 feet, and second, that my partner was taking the steps to end his alcohol addiction. Only days before, I’d thought both were impossible.

I’m far from being a professional baker, but last year I wrote a cookbook called “50 Things to Bake Before You Die,” a collection of dessert recipes from incredible bakers like Christina Tosi, Joanne Chang and Duff Goldman.

A couple of months before that, in late 2020, my partner contracted COVID, and the effects weren’t going away. He’d become massively depressed, and he attempted to cope with his overwhelming feelings of sadness and hopelessness by drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol.

For a while, I was in denial. He wasn’t an alcoholic. He drank every day, which wasn’t that strange in 2020 ― many people I knew were drinking every day. He was just depressed. He was a COVID long-hauler. He was something easily fixable. His problem would leave as quickly as the COVID had come, and I would get my partner back.

But the depression and the drinking got worse. While he was still physically there, he wasn’t available to me anymore. He couldn’t see past himself to realize how deeply he was hurting me. Or, if he could see it, he couldn’t do anything to stop the drinking, which fueled the depression.

The man who’d mended my broken heart, who’d shown me that it was possible to love again following my painful divorce, who’d seamlessly bonded with my children ― that man was effectively gone, withdrawn to his apartment across town and the handle of vodka he’d go through each day.

The further he withdrew, the harder I baked. I had all these recipes to test: cakes that would collapse, puddings that wouldn’t set, pie crusts that crumbled at a touch. While he was breaking down, I was breaking down, too ― only my breakdowns involved sugar, flour and eggs. Collapsing cakes are easier to deal with than a collapsing relationship.

I kept up my denial, prolonging the inevitable breakup because I felt too weak to deal with the pain. But then the kids and I came home to him drunk on my couch at 2 p.m., and that was it. I could make excuses for his disrespect to me, but exposing my kids pushed me too far. I kicked him out for the last time, a long-overdue break in our pattern of him feeling better and controlling his drinking when around me, only to fall apart and into the vodka bottle when on his own.

I told myself I wouldn’t see him again unless it was to drive him to rehab, which I knew would never happen. I avoided both his calls and my kitchen, not doing much of anything besides mourning the loss of my once-good relationship.

Two recipes for the cookbook had especially eluded me. The first was a very intimidating bake, Courtney Rich’s ultimate s’mores cake, a recipe with so many components that it was a two-day process. The second was Rise’s chocolate souffle, notoriously challenging to begin with, made even more difficult by my high altitude in Colorado. I’d gone through a carton of eggs trying, and failing, to get my souffles to rise. I’d blamed the altitude and given up.

One day, I picked myself off the ground and decided to tackle that two-day s’mores cake, never imagining that my marshmallow filling would actually turn out, or that my chocolate cake would be absolute perfection. But it was.

I was shocked, and incredibly proud of myself. I felt like if I could bake that cake, I could do anything. The kids and I celebrated with the s’mores cake like it was a birthday; I’d finally found some joy and pride in my new reality of being single again.

Riding high on my s’mores cake success, I went back to the chocolate souffle recipe, determined to get at least one to rise above its ramekin rim and allow me to feel like I was getting something right in my life. I whisked my yolks, scalded the milk, beat the egg whites. I very gently folded the whites into the pastry cream, and I filled my sugar-coated ramekins three-quarters full. This time, somehow, they worked. They rose. My souffles inflated like little chocolate clouds, surging up what felt like the most important couple of inches of my life.

Greg McBoat

At the same time I accomplished that miracle, another one happened: My partner decided he’d had enough of feeling horrible, and he wanted to go to detox and rehab to get help. He wanted to get sober.

I was still angry at him for blowing apart my life, and sad about how debilitated he’d become. At the same time, I was so happy he’d decided to get help and end the drinking that amplified his depression. I was skeptical, but I agreed to be his emergency contact and to talk to his assigned psychiatrist. Maybe things would get better.

Still, so much trust was gone. I had a lot to think about while he was in treatment, and so I thought while I baked cookies-and-cream macarons, peeled strips of rhubarb for a cheesecake topper, and browned butter for peach cobbler. I contemplated our future over pans of fudgy salted-caramel brownies, and I wondered whether I had it in me to trust him again while torching glassy crusts onto creme brulees.

I got better at baking, and I got better at being alone. I participated in Zoom couples therapy, where I learned many things ― they were uncomfortable, but they were things I needed to learn. At the end of the six weeks, I was both excited and scared for my partner to leave rehab.

I still wasn’t fully committed to picking up where we’d left off, but I was willing to try. Regardless of what happened in our relationship, I could make a s’mores cake and a souffle. I’d figure it out.

It’s been hard, especially at first. Whenever I wasn’t around him, I got scared and anxious that he was drinking again. But instead of fighting those negative feelings, I accepted them as a necessary part of the process. Rebuilding trust involves fear and anxiety, and if I was opening myself up to the good possibilities, I knew I had to be ready for the bad ones, too.

To make things easier on me, he brought home alcohol saliva test strips, encouraging me to test him whenever I felt uneasy. He did another six months of outpatient rehab, and he continued therapy to unpack his past so we’d have a chance at a future.

It’s worked. Over the past nine months, he’s shown me that I can trust him more than ever. That he’s committed to staying sober and being the man my kids and I need him to be. He’s also given me a reason to keep baking past the recipe testing for the cookbook ― without the sugars in the alcohol, he’s become quite the sugar fiend, downing cookies, brownies and cakes as fast as I can bake them.

It feels like a miracle, how drastically our relationship has improved over these months since he sought help for his alcohol addiction. And this miracle is even sweeter than the chocolate souffle.

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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