When my husband and I were dating, we smoked cigarettes and drank booze. We were young, that’s what young people did. Thank God it didn’t take long for me to lose my taste for the cancer sticks. We drank socially, mostly on weekends, but I guess I do recall a bottle of wine here or there during the week. I remember seeing my husband actually drunk just one time during our early years. Over-drinking wasn’t an issue for either of us. I never saw any warning signs that alcohol would become a problem for him. And if I did, would I have still married him? Probably.
My husband started to drink more about seven years into our relationship. He began to use alcohol to deal with stress and anxiety, which were new for him. He wasn’t raised to be someone who copes, instead someone who pushes things down. And we all know what happens when we push things down and refuse to deal with them. They eventually come back up, and you never know what form they will take when they do. He wasn’t the guy who would drink too much at the party, or at dinner with our friends. He was a lone drinker and a functioning drinker. He never missed a day of work or an event he had committed to due to excessive drinking or hangovers. But he was secretly drinking. A lot. In the garage, at the corner bar or wherever I wasn’t. He came home drunk a few times a month at this point, and I was always ready to argue when he got home. He would try to leave, I would end up in tears begging him not to. I remember him chasing me around one night, out the front door of the house, and back through the side door like we were crazy people because I had taken his car keys. And another time when he came home drunk very late on St. Patrick’s Day. I started reprimanding him the minute he got in, and he burst into laughter and went right back out the door. I suffered this humiliation often, whenever I was stupid enough to confront his drunken behavior. The most embarrassing moment I remember is asking my then 70-something-year-old father to drive around with me to look for him one night because I was worried for my husband’s safety. I cried. I prayed. Our relationship was taking hit after hit, and I was losing respect for him with each one. When I was able to reach him during a sober moment, he was humbled and remorseful. He felt bad, apologizing profusely. But not quite bad enough. I know now, that he didn’t think his behavior was really problematic, since he was functioning most of the time.
What’s Wrong with Me?
I took all of his drinking personally. Why did he want to spend more of his time with and attention on the booze? Why wasn’t I enough for him? I hated that he wasn’t present in the relationship. He was constantly distracted by looking for opportunities to sneak away and drink. He was married to the escape that alcohol provided, not me. I was hugely embarrassed. I told no one. For years. He did try to abstain a few times at my insistence and was often successful for long periods. He figured if he could abstain, then he wasn’t an alcoholic. But then he would try to moderate, which would eventually turn back into overuse, then abuse. Because if you know anything about willpower, you know that it often eventually wears out. This roller coaster went on for years. I began to see it as a marriage problem because we were in continuous conflict. We sought out counseling and went to marriage retreats. We both felt strongly that at the end of the day, we still loved each other. But I knew the alcohol was where the root of our problems was lurking. He would agree with me, but then he would still try to hang on to it. He was addicted, and that’s how addiction works. You can’t completely say goodbye to whatever it is that’s got you. You want to be better, but still hold on to just a little piece….
Enough is Enough
Our son was about six years old when I had truly had enough. I gave my husband an ultimatum, take care of your health and responsibility to this family, or you can’t be a part of it. I was gambling on our marriage and willing to lose. I was done. This was not the life I had envisioned for myself or our son. I figured at six years old, he could handle a divorce much better than if he were older. I was completely prepared for my husband to give up on us and leave. I had spoken to an attorney, and I was getting ready for battle. I had recorded my husband drunk, so I could prove he was dangerous if I needed to. I remember exactly the physical experience of making that audio recording. My gut felt like a deep, dark, empty, hollow pit. My legs were weak. It’s so strange, loving someone so deeply, but at the same time preparing to leave them, and hurt them. But I was strong for my son. He deserved better. He wasn’t going to be put in harm’s way or spend another day in the middle of this decade-old conflict between his parents. This was not the example of marriage I wanted him to see.
As I said earlier, I believe my husband held on to the alcohol for so long because he never really believed he had a problem. And of course, he couldn’t see it because he was addicted. But he ultimately chose his family and his health. After my ultimatum, he found a counselor he really connected with, who confirmed, the drinking was the problem. He had to fix it if he wanted to have any chance at happiness. Through therapy, my husband uncovered many things about himself he hadn’t been aware of. And some of those things were what had led him to overdrinking. It was actually beautiful to see him work through all of it. And yes, with the help of his therapist, God and the Alcoholics Anonymous community, he finally got sober.
The Stories that Bind Us
Our journey fighting for our marriage through the stronghold of his addiction was a long, painful one. No, this is not the marriage I once dreamed of as a young girl. I don’t think anyone’s marriage is. Our marriage is marred and worn, like a pair of old leather shoes. But you know what? I am proud to put those shoes on now. They are comfortable, they have some miles on them. Their tattered appearance makes them original, kind of like art. They hug my feet. These shoes are old, they have a story, they represent our history. And that means something to me. I am so proud of my husband, his hard work, and his willingness to be open about his addiction. Our troubles are far from over. You never know what hell is lurking around the corner, and we’ve got a few miles to go yet. But we are stronger. We talk more, we understand each other better. We keep each other accountable as married people and parents. I know these shoes, and I’ll take them over anyone else’s, thank you.
You’re Not Alone
I recently met with a friend over coffee who told me of her recent marriage troubles. Alcohol is involved. At that point in our friendship, we hadn’t yet ventured into sharing the ugly stuff, so this took me by surprise. It would have been very easy for her to keep our conversation light and talk about just the good things going on in her life. But something moved her to be honest with me. I had thought this girl had it all together, a great family, a killer career, looks, talent, all of it! But just like me, she had a dirty little secret. Her husband drank and her marriage was shit. She too had a little one at home she was fighting for. Her husband had yet to admit he had a problem. They were stuck, and she was starting to move on emotionally without him. We talked about her sadness, her pain, the worry, the embarrassment, all of it. And then I told her my story. She was absolutely shocked. Like me, she had assumed that my life was perfect too, and that I had it all together. There were more than a few moments of silence while we absorbed the magnitude of sharing our experiences. We didn’t solve any problems that day. Our marriages were certainly no better or worse after our conversation. But the honesty with which we both decided to lead with that day brought us something very special. There is much comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggles, and that we have similar problems. We are all hurting, we are all carrying something. There is comfort in knowing the devil of addiction can be overcome. There is comfort in finding honest people, in a world where so many appear to have it all, but are actually dying inside. I’m so grateful she felt she could share her story with me that day. Our coffee date turned out to be a gift for us both. When you’re not afraid to put your story out there honestly, good things can happen.
Al-Anon is a mutual support group of peers who share their experience in applying the Al-Anon principles to problems related to the effects of a problem drinker in their lives. It is not group therapy and is not led by a counselor or therapist; This support network complements and supports professional treatment.