I like to say I came late to the alcoholism party, very late especially when you consider the long arm of addiction’s reach.
I met my husband when I was in my thirties. Up to that point, I had literally had no contact or interaction with alcoholics.
None, nada, zip, zilch.
Even looking back at my childhood, I couldn't tell that Uncle Jack was indeed an alcoholic and not just an asshole. When we were with extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, they all drank coffee. No joke! The biggest “controversy” was that my mother’s one cousin never filled the cup up to the “tippy top,” per my mother’s requirement.
So when I met my husband, even though I knew within the first hours of meeting him that both his parents had died of alcoholism and that he drinks excessively, I was not worried.
This was not denial. This was pure naiveté.
Prior to meeting me, my husband had quit smoking cold turkey. I sincerely believed that he would quit drinking, too. It didn't seem odd that a single guy in his 30s drank a bit “too much.” But now that we were in love, getting married, and going to start a family, why did he need to drink six, seven, eight or more beers a night?
Fifteen years later, here I am, writing a blog, trying to figure out if and how and when I am going to leave my marriage. Fifteen years isn’t long enough to get your head around the pure insanity of alcoholism – the hostile behavior, the extreme selfishness, and the gradual but drastic personality changes. What I couldn't process, for the longest time, was the gross contradiction of who my husband really was versus who he was becoming. It took time to make sense of it all. During this time, as my head and heart and soul slowly came to terms with what was happening to my husband, me, and my marriage, I will say three things served me best.
First: I realized that nothing would change if my husband just quit drinking.
This is what every neophyte spouse of an alcoholic initially believes. We spend many nights thinking “If only. If only." We get excited when there is a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon or a Christmas Eve where he doesn’t drink. We think, “Yes. Maybe. This could be the time…” But compulsive drinking is just one aspect of alcoholism.
In one serendipitous encounter, I “happened” to meet a woman who was a recovering alcoholic. I told her there were nights when I KNEW my husband had not been drinking and yet he was just as surly, moody and nasty as if he had been drinking.
“That’s a dry drunk,” she explained. She also explained the difference between a true sobriety and simply not drinking. At that moment, I was both fettered and freed. It simultaneously scared me yet liberated me to know that there was no point in pinning my hopes on that outcome.
Second: I went to - and quit - AL ANON.
For people uninitiated to the world of alcoholism, Alcoholics’ Anonymous and Al Anon seem to be the only game in town. When I first started admitting my husband’s problem to a select few individuals, universally I heard “go to Al Anon”. I went to Al Anon regularly for a year, starting in 2009.
In 2010, I began to taper off and by 2014 I no longer attended. I am grateful for what the program gave me: a way to be proactive.
Sitting in the first meeting, I remember finally feeling empowered. There was something I could do! I did not have to be an idle victim of my husband’s drinking. For me, however, Al Anon was a starting point, not a final destination. Al-Anon unfurled my wings but it was still up to me to fly with them.
Finally: I stopped expecting anything from my husband.
What we want from the alcoholic seems so basic, so easy. But it’s not that the alcoholic won’t give us what we need or want; they can’t. Basic communication. Basic interpersonal skills. Basic kindness and generosity, even in marriage, are beyond the alcoholic.
Of course it seems completely implausible at first. How can anyone – even an alcoholic – be incapable of the simplest acts of compassion or caring toward another human being, especially his wife? But the alcoholic is truly pathological in his selfishness. Early in our marriage, my husband came into the bedroom around 11pm – where I was already in bed – and informed me that I had left my car windows open. When I asked him if he would go close them for me – already surprised that I even had to ask – he said, no he was in his “boxers.” “Who’s going to see you?” I exclaimed but it fell on deaf ears. I got out of the (warm) bed, went outside and closed my windows. I remember thinking,
“What’s the point of marriage if it’s not to make the little things in life a bit easier?” But marriage to an alcoholic rarely makes anything easier – big or little.
And the sooner you can understand this, the sooner you begin to understand what it truly is to be dealing with an alcoholic.