I’m not much of a drinker. As a matter of fact, two bevvies in and I’m eyeing up the nearest chandelier to impress the world with my prowess in pole dancing. To say that I’m a light weight would be an understatement and I just don’t get much joy out of the whole process…the ridiculous decision-making, the rowdiness and the less than delightful hangovers don’t speak a whole lot of joy to me! So, I don’t really have an understanding of people’s penchant for alcohol. I do, however, have a very personal understanding of what it is like to live with somebody who does.
A friend recently shared with me her feelings of guilt and shame that come with being married to somebody who is addicted to alcohol and the pain of dealing with a divorce because she just couldn’t get him to a place of healing. I’m not one to be shouting my story from the rooftop when it comes to my marriage, but as I’m also not a huge fan of allowing guilt to run or ruin my life, I shared my story with her so that she understood that she wasn’t alone.
Alcoholism is all-consuming, not just for the person who can’t make the next hour without a swig of something, but for everybody living through it with them. It crushes your soul, beats down your self-esteem and teaches you how to get through life walking on eggshells. Most of the time, you can navigate the minefield, but every once in a while, an egg cracks, further pushing you into your retreat.
Now, my ex-husband is not an evil man. He didn’t start out in life thinking that he was one day going to be addicted to anything with a 6% alcohol content or better. In fact, he is ridiculously creative, brilliant at problem-solving engineering-related tasks and has a laugh that infects an entire room, so much so that people will be in complete guffaw-mode, often without knowing why they are laughing. He’s a good man, and he is an alcoholic.
His penchant for beverages began innocently enough. As a sales manager by profession, he spent a great deal of time wining and dining potential and current clients, and he excelled at his job. Then, as the years went on, and his passion for the sport of sailing grew, he added weekends and racing nights to his list of opportunities to imbibe in one, two or ten drinks. At first, I would laugh it off. Then, I became annoyed as the frequency of his ‘lit’ state went from once in a blue moon to once a month to once a week. At some point, the fabric of our lives grew to understand this to be a daily part of our existence.
Other than the excess of breath mints that were always a tell-tale sign that he’d put back a few, over time, his temperament began to change as well. Instead of his usual laughter, he now flew off the handle easily, and I found myself watching him for cues as to his mood so that I could whisk the kids away if need be. I later learned, courtesy of Al-Anon and other therapy sessions, that these outbursts were in response to his need for alcohol, something that he wouldn’t enjoy in my presence because that would prove that I was right and that he needed help. These outbursts also masked his guilt and his shame, because if he could deflect responsibility, then he didn’t have to own his choices. Instead, he would sit in his chair, zoning out to mindless movies on his computer until we went to bed, at which time he would pound back his beer…or his scotch…or his rye…basically anything liquid with an alcohol content above 5% within arm’s reach. Then, he would hide the evidence in the weirdest of places…behind books in my daughters’ shelves, in their toy box, in ceiling tiles and tire wells, crawl spaces and toolboxes. And most of the time, he was too drunk to remember that he’d done it.
With an increase in his anger came less engagement with his family. Once an invested soccer Dad who never missed an event, he began putting his social life ahead of his children, almost exclusively. His sailing became his focus, not because he stopped loving his children, but because these were other opportunities to share in a drink with fellow sailors, people who didn’t judge him for his need to ‘socialize’. And without judgment, there is less shame.
As he withdrew more and more, his lapses in judgment also increased. And with each lapse in judgment, I found myself withdrawing from him and in doing so, began living a fairly separate life with my children, despite the fact that we lived under the same roof. Shielding my daughters then became my priority.
Now, he wasn’t ever a slap or punch-happy kind of drunk, although he had zero patience for life in general when sober. Yet, I found myself calling him before he was scheduled to pick up one of the girls. If I felt that he was enunciating his words, I knew that he had been indulging at work. So, I would make an excuse to get that child myself so that she wouldn’t have to witness ‘Drunk Dad’ and he wouldn’t make the decision to get behind the wheel in an intoxicated state. Other times, I would change plans so that we wouldn’t be in a situation where he was going to be exposed to alcohol. I would also go out to a social gathering while he was at work, leaving the festivities with the girls long before he was expected to arrive so that we wouldn’t have to live through his drunkenness in a public place.
As his drinking increased and his lack of judgement went out the window, I found myself taking on even more of the parenting role so that I was wearing both hats at all times. At some point in my marriage, I was too nervous to leave the girls alone with him because I couldn’t trust him to keep them safe. And so, while my detachment grew, he continued to drink and I continued to tiptoe through life…until I stopped being afraid of the what-ifs and took stock of where our lives were headed. When his decisions became not only reckless but dangerous, I filed for divorce. It was gut-wrenching for my daughters, and the hardest and best decision that I’ve ever made in my 26 years of marriage.
Living with an alcoholic changes you. My desire to protect and shield my children was also an attempt to mask the shame of being married to a drunk. In my wildest nightmares, this is not how I expected my life to turn out. But I’ve learned that alcoholism isn’t simply an issue for the drinkers in life. It also shatters the hopes and dreams, the trust and the respect of the people who surround them. Walking away from the eggshells that I had been tripping over gave me a sense of peace and freedom that I hadn’t experienced in over 20 years. At the same time, it gave my girls space to breathe.
What I’ve learned through all this is that his alcoholism wasn’t because of me, in spite of me or as a result of me. I now know that this was his journey and his fight alone and despite all our best efforts, he would only be free of his addiction if and when he was ready to do the work. But as this is no longer my concern or my ‘fight’ to fight, I don’t know if he is there yet. Today, however, I am loving life, free of eggshells and any other minefield that got in the way of my happiness.
So, to my friend, know that you are not alone. I’ve said this to you before…his alcoholism isn’t because of you or something that you said or didn’t do. You’ve done all that you can and now he needs to do the work to get to a better place in his life. So, walk tall, pick up the pieces of your life and start living. You’ve earned it and you are worth it!
As for myself, I think I’ll keep my beverage intake to one an outing…it’s better for everybody!