When Michael Greenwell married wife Meree on 1 September, 1973, he was 25 years old. Though they had known each other for six years, Meree was unaware that Michael was on the way to becoming an alcoholic.
After having his first drink at 14, he was drinking regularly by 18. By 21, life revolved around his dependence on alcohol.
Having travelled overseas and working and drinking his way around Europe, he was ready to settle down. He came back and proposed to Meree only to call off the engagement soon after.
“I couldn’t handle the pressure. I thought I was too young, so I broke it off,” he says.
They both dated, and considered marrying other people, but reunited one evening after a long talk and a bottle of wine.
“I looked at Meree and she was beautiful; she had beautiful hands,” he recalls.
“She was a quiet, sincere person, and she had this faith. And I had none. And I wanted what she had.”
They were married six weeks later.
While Meree was aware of Michael’s tendency to drink, “in those days, everyone was the same”, she says.
“For Michael, life revolved around partying and having fun, as it is with so many young people everywhere. He came from a very good family and was someone with great ambition and an optimistic outlook.”
But while others around them gave up partying as marriage, mortgages, and children came along, Michael kept drinking.
“We got married and we had responsibilities, and that is when I began to see a difference in Michael,” she says.
While Michael struggled under the weight of these responsibilities, he sought solace in drinking. And, not having been raised Catholic, he did not necessarily view marriage as a commitment for life.
“I said to Meree, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just get a divorce.’
“She was shocked, and she explained that marriage was a sacrament, but I didn’t understand that.”
It was in Alcoholics Anonymous that Michael learnt to take ownership for his own actions, and is now unflinching in bearing responsibility of his booze-fuelled behaviour during their early years of marriage.
He recalls mornings that he would awake alone on a sodden mattress and would climb out the bedroom window rather than face Meree, who had spent the night on the lounge.
“Here’s a young lady, 23, pregnant with her first child, and I’m treating her like this.
“She thought I would have grown out of it, but our relationship got worse after we got married because she saw the full reality of it.”
Michael’s drinking resulted in the loss of his real estate licence and eventually unemployment.
“Life was totally unmanageable. I couldn’t work. I was unemployable. And I was a derelict in my own home. Our marriage was just barely holding together. It was a mess.”
Finances became strained as Michael lost 13 jobs in two years. Bills went unpaid. The power was cut off.
At that point, in order for life to improve, Meree realised she had to allow Michael to face the consequences of his actions.
“As an alcoholic you tend to blame those that you love, the people around you, and I certainly blamed her,” he says.
He admits to “dragging her down with me” until he hit rock bottom.
“I was lying on a cane couch at the back of our house, with my dog. I looked up and thought, ‘If there is a God – and I didn’t think there was – then I need help and I need help now, because I’m dying’. And I genuinely thought I was dying.’
“I rang my brother, and said, ‘Dave, I need help’. And he took me to a meeting that night.”
It was 24 February, 1977.
“After about half an hour the chairman asked me to speak. I got up and said, ‘My name is Michael and I’m an alcoholic’ and I burst into tears. And everyone clapped. A lady came and sat next to me and said, ‘Mike, you just keep coming back; you’ll be alright.’”
After two years of meetings, Michael was sober, but did not feel he had done the necessary work to change and improve as a person. Then he found himself drawn to the faith.
He became Catholic in 1980 when his third daughter was baptised, after getting to know a priest and a nun through AA.
“I thought priests were holier than thou. I couldn’t accept it. Then I went into a meeting and I saw a man with a collar telling my story.”
It was in AA that Michael came to believe in a power greater than himself, and identified that power as God.
Faith “is the centre of our being”, he says. His story of recovery is “Christ-centred, it’s God-centred – it has to be”.
Having endured a loved one’s decline into alcoholism, Meree is concerned about a growing binge drinking culture in Australia.
“These days a lot of kids are drinking, and we’re going to face some big problems in the future with the consequences of that.”
A need for “instant gratification” and “always looking for the next best thing” has become toxic for marriage, she says.
“I think that’s why a lot of marriages fail, because it’s no longer easy.
“Marriage is giving of yourself to the other person.”
She is also appalled at Australia’s $4 billion wedding industry, which shifts the focus away from marriage and preparation for the union.
More than 30 years after conquering the greatest challenge of their marriage, Michael and Meree give talks to engaged newly married couples
“The reason that we want to give these talks … is that it is very powerful when someone is prepared to give their soul,” Michael says.
Regardless of how much time passes, the emotions are never far below the surface for Meree, from the hurt that tainted their early marriage to gratitude for Michael’s recovery.
“We’ve had a wonderful life; we’ve got a great family,” she says.
“If we can come through what we came through, anything is possible.”
Meree clung to her faith during the dark times, and learnt a lesson she is determined to share with other couples of faith.
“When we marry we have this expectation that this person will fulfil us, but that is not fair as only God can do that,” she said.
“So after the disappointment of feeling unloved I went on a retreat and came to the realisation that God is my father and he loves me unconditionally, then I was able to give that unconditional love to Mike, with that healing began to take place.”
Meree has the greatest respect for those who continue to honour the sacrament in the face of adversity.
She credits her faith, and devotion to the sacraments, with the survival of their marriage, but knows not all stories have a happy outcome.
“In those cases, those people draw great strength from the sacraments, and it is incumbent on the Christian community to support them.”
She knew her marriage was forever, she says.
“I remember Michael’s father, who wasn’t a Catholic, said to me, ‘Well, why did you stay?’ I said, ‘Because it’s a sacrament. Marriage in the Catholic faith is forever.’
“I understand that more today than I did back then.”