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

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