Saturday, April 19, 2014

What if...

Guest post by Sandy James...

When you are married to an alcoholic it always – sooner or later but always – comes down to this one question: Why don't you leave?  Family and friends ask it of us; we ask it of ourselves.

Why don't you leave?

It is asked with such ease, as if the asker has absolutely n o knowledge or awareness as to the complexity of the question.

Why don't you leave?

Why don't you grab a cup of coffee?  Why don't you take down your Christmas lights?  Why don't you see that new movie?  Why don't you tear apart everything you thought your life was going to be when you took your marriage vows?  Why don't you rip the foundation of your children's lives right out from under them and set them up in a different home with a different school and different friends and even a different (i.e. lack of) financial security?  Why don't you leave this man who is the father of your children, who was pall bearer at  your father's funeral, who stood over you, his hands shaking with such fear he could barely work his phone, as you laid in the driveway hemorrhaging from a late-term miscarriage?

Why don't you “kick his ass” to the curb?

Alcoholism is viciously ugly.  It destroys its victims both physically and mentally.  It can be diabolically humiliating and there tends to be no in-betweens.  An alcoholic is either seeking treatment and sobriety or he is getting worse.  As I often say, there is no status quo for an alcoholic.
My husband's drinking and the accompanying behavior is manageable right now.  I have taught myself to avoid his traps, to not take the bait and to even be able to disarm him to some degree.  I don't feel like I am walking on egg shells as much as I feel I have gotten smarter about my own behavior and my reactions to his behavior.  This is not to say there aren't nights when his very presence creates a sickening tight knot in my stomach.  It's not to say I don't relish road trips with just me and the kids or I don't blissfully enjoy the nights he has to work late.  But, for the most part, the biggest issue for now with my husband's drinking and our marriage is all beneath-the-surface stuff.  Stuff no one else sees and only I feel.

Stuff like the lack of a true partner.  Stuff like no real support for me or any interest in who I am.  Stuff like never closing the kitchen cabinet doors or picking up after himself.  Stuff like being unable to communicate or even hear my efforts at communication.  Stuff like feeling lonely though not alone.  Stuff like resenting past actions and behaviors that he has never even acknowledged, much less apologized for. 

Stuff that could actually be a problem in a marriage that didn't even involve an alcoholic. 

So, what if...

What if my husband's behavior was not due to alcoholism?  What if his behavior was “just” who he had become over the years?  What if we had “just” drifted apart in that way that happens sometimes and no one person is really at fault?

What if I was simply unhappy with my husband; if the man I had wanted when I was 25 was no longer the man I want at 45?  Then would people ask with such ease, “why don't you leave?”  Would it seem completely reasonable to turn my back on my wedding vows, to disrupt my children's lives simply because marriage hadn't turned out to be what I expected or dreamed?

Of what if my husband was hit by a bus one morning as he crossed the street on his way to work?  In the blink of an eye the man he had been is gone, lost to a brain injury that would render him permanently disabled and functioning on the level of a 12 year old.

What if he got Parkinson's?  Or Lou Gehrig's disease?  What if my husband had a different mental illness?  One that is moving, albeit it slowly but still faster than addiction, out of the dark ages of condemnation and disdain.  What if he was bipolar or clinically depressed?  Could I kick his “lethargic ass” to the curb?

When a horrible tragedy befalls a husband, be it an accident or debilitating illness, his caretaker-wife becomes a saint, a woman revered for her commitment and dedication to her husband and family.  She is seen as an icon for all that a marriage vow is supposed to be.  There is sympathy.  Empathy.  Respect.  And no one suggests, whispers or even secretly wonders, as she weeps for the man her husband once was and her new role as caretaker to someone confined to a wheelchair with the mental capacity of a boy, “why don't you leave?”

And yet that seems to be the question on the tip of everyone's tongue where an alcoholic husband is concerned.  Of course the argument could be made that no one chooses to get Parkinson's or be hit by a bus whereas the alcoholic chooses to drink.  Yes;  and No.  It's not so much the alcoholic chooses to drink as he has a condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to choose not to drink.  I'm not absolving the alcoholic of personal responsibility and indeed, the debate goes round and round as to how much is in the alcoholic's control and how much is beyond it.  But regardless of the wiggly line between choice and disease, the bottom line is addiction is a perversely complicated mental illness that cannot simply be written off as a lack of personal responsibility.  And yet, as the wife of an alcoholic, people seem justified in “advising” me to “kick his ass to the curb,” as if alcoholism voids my marriage vows.  Like there, beside the sickness part is an asterisk; *except in cases of alcoholism.

I am not arguing for staying in an alcoholic marriage.  I am not arguing for leaving it.  What I am arguing against is the careless and cavalier manner in which people feel entitled to ask, “Why don't you leave?”  To me it conveys not just an ignorance about and lack of understanding for addiction but also a sense of moral and intellectual superiority.  As if us wives of alcoholics, us stupid, naive, dumb, gullible, ignorant wives, never considered the obvious. That clearly we are “weak” or we would have left our drunken husbands.  Or we must stay out of fear.  Or need because we could never support ourselves and our children.  Or we have our own mental instability.  Or we are “co-dependent,” subconsciously enjoying the dysfunction and drama of our alcoholic husbands.  The question isn't really, “Why don't you leave?”  The real question is “What's wrong with you?  Why do you stay?”  No one ever seems to realize that we are smart, strong, deeply caring women for whom the question “Why don't you leave” is not a static question but rather a fluid one that we are weighing and considering on a near-daily basis.

Here's why I stay right now:  because it's the better thing for my children.  If that sounds mercenary, then I am unapologetic.  People certainly believe a woman should leave her alcoholic husband if it's better for her children so why isn't it justifiable to stay if it's better for her children?  My children would not understand (nor are they supposed to) any ramblings on my part about being unseen or not heard or feeling lonely while not alone.  They couldn't fathom what I was saying if I rattled on about unfinished projects or dreams unsupported.  And they would look at me as if I had just sprouted a second head if I said we were leaving their home and father because he doesn't close the kitchen cabinet doors or pick up his laundry.

And, I am not ready to give up on my marriage, my family or my life.  It's hard -- very, very hard.  There are days when I think I can't possible do this, that I am failing myself and my children and that I just have to get out.  But then there are other days when I think, “I can do this.”  I can keep my family together, weather my husband's mental illness and provide my children with what they need.  I can be the wind, the sails, the ballast and the captain all together.  I can keep this boat afloat.

Other women stay for other reasons but no one should ever believe we stay out of weakness.  Or, that the reason we stay today is the same reason we may be staying tomorrow.  End stage alcoholics can't live alone.  What happens when you look up and 25 years have passed and your husband, who's drinking and behavior was once manageable, is now an end stage alcoholic who sleeps all day, pisses himself and spreads feces around the walls?  Because let's not mince words here; that is what end stage alcoholism can look like.

Now do you leave?  And when you can't because you are absolutely the only person on the face of this entire planet who will keep this wretchedly tragic and disgusting human being relatively safe, is it because you are weak?  Is it your own fault because you were too ignorant to leave “sooner?”

My mother and I once had a conversation about what if you were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Would you want to kill yourself?  We both concluded the problem would be that when you were still capable of making that sort of rational decision, you wouldn't yet want to.  That you would want to wring every last minute of healthy living out of your life before ending it.  But in waiting until you were sick enough to want to commit suicide you would paradoxically be too sick to make such a rational decision.


The question of “if” and “when” to leave an alcoholic husband can be kind of like that. In the early stages of the disease, it seems premature or even unnecessary.  And in the end, it can feel too late or morally impossible.

Sandy James is follower of this blog. She also has a blog where you can read more of her life as the wife of an alcoholic. You can find her at www.takingbackme.net.


14 comments:

Bev said...

Wow. I've been guilty of thinking this though I can't remember if I've ever said it out loud to anyone because I know the hurt that it can cause. My son is alcoholic, as well as struggling with drugs and I've had this said to me, countless times. Your enabling, your codependent, let him suffer the consequences of his actions, kick him out, it's his choice what he's doing and on and on. And it hurt. They had no idea of the choices I had made. Packing up his things and telling him that he couldn't keep doing what he's doing under our roof. That I loved him that I would always love him and that his Dad and I were there for him but what he was doing was tearing us all apart, that it was hurting his younger sister. But then years later taking him in because there was no where else for him to go. And then driving him to the 'mission' and saying enough is enough but he wouldn't get out of the car. Every day, every hour was a struggle, decisions to be made. Am I doing right, am I hurting him more than helping him? Early on I thought a wife can leave her husband, a husband can leave his wife...but a mother can't walk away from their child. But over the years I came to see things in a different light and through belonging to OARS and reading Linda's blog and blogs from others who were all in the same boat as myself, I could see that I was wrong.

Part of the problem I think is that so many people have not come to accept that addiction is a disease. They haven't thought it through because it hasn't affected them. Too many think of addiction as a choice or bad behavior.

You have explained it in such a way Sandy that I can't imagine anyone who reads this post come possibly ever say those words to anyone again. I wish everyone could read this, so they would understand why we don't leave. And that just like anyone else who is dealing with a devastating disease that we need the understanding and comfort of both friends and strangers. The last thing we need is to be questioned, why don't we just....

Anonymous said...

Om my gosh, this has my crying, this is MY LIFE.......i could hardly read it without sobbing...thank you for writing it lets me know i am not alone.........

Niecey said...

So very well said, Sandy!

ADDY said...

I could have written this post years ago, as these very thoughts went through my mind a hundred times or more. Alcoholism is a mental illness. You can either cope with living with it or not. I chose to cope to the bitter end and I am glad I did. If my husband had had cancer, I would not have abandoned him in his hour of need. I'm not saying I found it easy - it wasn't, but I now appreciate in hindsight that he was not deliberately being alcoholic to spite me, but he could not control it any more than some one can control their depression.

Syd said...

Because alcoholism is a family disease, I am wondering about the effects on the children. I grew up in a home where my dad drank. I don't know if he was an alcoholic, but I do know that I was affected by his drinking. In some cases, it isn't good for children to stay in an alcoholic home. I don't think one size fits all.

Thanks for sharing your story here. I am glad to have stayed with my wife through years of her alcoholism. But I also know that in the last year of her drinking, I was living in an untenable situation. She found recovery in AA. I am grateful for that. But I know that I won't live with active alcoholism again. It just takes too much of a toll.

afterthefire1964 said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. I have thought and done the same things and, indeed, reacted in the same way when my late husband was an alcoholic and I was struggling with whether to leave him and take my two boys elsewhere or stay. I got so sick and angry at the co-dependent label which is flung about so blithely without any real knowledge of what it means. Ultimately, my children and I made the decision to stay and we don't regret it.

One thing I might add is to seek professional help and advice if you feel it is warranted. I have posted about this and also write about my own personal thoughts and conflicts as a widow of an alcoholic in my blog afterthefire1964.blogspot.com. I have read Linda and Addy's blogs for years and they really helped me. There cannot be too many voices out there - they are very much needed as so many have to make these difficult decisions: make the best of two bad choices.

Ernie said...

It's always awesome to see another share like this..thx peace

Ernie said...

Great sharing it's always great to see blogs like this..peace

takingbackme.net said...

Thank you all and to Linda for allowing me to share my feelings. "Afterthefire" you are absolutely right; we can't have too many voices. We need all the voices because we are the only ones who stand a chance of defeating the beast of alcoholism.

Lise said...

This shows what a complicated issue this is and why alcoholism needs to be taken as seriously as any other disease. Thank you for writing this post! It helped me realize all the Catch-22s involved in staying vs leaving. Not easy!

The alcoholic in my life is fairly functional but has horrendous rage issues (a bully in everyone's face with loudness, deranged lectures and micro-managing) coupled with exceptionally illogical thinking and it is ever-present and day-long. He is a constant day-long sipper, not a gulper who passes out.

Anyway I didn't have a real choice: I had to walk away. I think he is probably mid-stage? And if he ends up end-stage, I have no idea whether the dangerous rage issues go away or just get worse? Does anyone know?

I knew an alcoholic during my teen years who shot up his house with guns on a regular basis when he was drinking (sometimes just missing his children as they slept in bed). Afterwards, he would be sobbing and holding his children, telling them how sorry he was, that he was out of his mind and would they forgive him. It was difficult to break up the family even then because of how remorseful he was, but it was still necessary.

I have generally known more abusive alcoholics than other kinds. Even in Alanon groups I attended it seems like the participants in those groups tended to be in relationships with alcoholics they had to leave because there was too much violence, anger and danger for them to stay.

But this post put me in touch with the fact that there are other kinds of alcoholics where the disease acts more like a disease than a person possessed.

Wife Goes On said...

I'm so thankful to read this - thank you for the share. Every day seems like it is full of decisions that most people don't even think of. Sometimes it is lonely. And thankfully there are still good days.
I guess that's why One Day at A Time really works.

Anonymous said...

It might be odd, but what if the alcoholic isn't abusive, but sweet in an extremely juvenile way? I wouldn't marry him, as he is in no condition to be a husband or a father, but I can be friends with him. He does sip alcohol all day long, but the fact of the matter is that the way he is actually has very little to do with alcohol, and he would probably be in this condition even if he'd never touched a drop. What he brings with him is a very durable and resilient sense of joy that follows him at all times. He has a hard life, true, but the way he can be distracted so readily from it is beautiful to see. He is playful, innocent, and without guile. I suspect he might be slightly mentally disabled. His guitar is his constant companion, and he will serenade me with it. I spend time with him, and take care of him. The look in his eyes when his feelings of love exceed his vocabulary and ability to express them is beautiful to see. I love him dearly, and I shall miss him when he's finally gone. I wonder how many of the women with abusive alcoholics are actually in situations where the alcoholism is actually the least of what's wrong, and which merely serves to compound what would have been a bad situation in any case?

Anonymous said...

Well said sandy. You have put into words what I have been feeling all these years. I have been married to an alcoholic husband for 11 years. He quit drinking and has been sober for almost a year and 8 months.
He has bipolar disorder too. We have been through so much . He used to be very abusive. When the situation gets really worse I find myself asking the same question....why can't I leave him?I know its because I find him to be so loving and caring when sober. It's also because he doesn't have anybody else to care for him.
I keep wondering is it because I'm weak? Is it because I'm afraid?
But then reading what you had written made me feel good about myself. I realized I'm stronger for wanting to stay.
After almost 20 months of being sober my husband asked me today if I would stop his medications because he wants to drink. And suddenly I felt I was back to where I started.
Trying desperately to talk him out of it. That's when I turned online for support and found your blog.
Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Well said sandy. You have put into words what I have been feeling all these years. I have been married to an alcoholic husband for 11 years. He quit drinking and has been sober for almost a year and 8 months.
He has bipolar disorder too. We have been through so much . He used to be very abusive. When the situation gets really worse I find myself asking the same question....why can't I leave him?I know its because I find him to be so loving and caring when sober. It's also because he doesn't have anybody else to care for him.
I keep wondering is it because I'm weak? Is it because I'm afraid?
But then reading what you had written made me feel good about myself. I realized I'm stronger for wanting to stay.
After almost 20 months of being sober my husband asked me today if I would stop his medications because he wants to drink. And suddenly I felt I was back to where I started.
Trying desperately to talk him out of it. That's when I turned online for support and found your blog.
Thank you for that.