Almost exactly six months after we buried my brother-in-law, I found a half-empty handle of vodka in my husband’s truck. I was confused and scared; I did not want to believe my husband had a drinking problem, yet I knew right away that he did.
Unfortunately, my husband’s substance abuse problem had gone undetected for more than a year because, as an alcoholic, he got pretty good at hiding it.
According to the NIAAA, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) affects an estimated 16 million people in the United States. An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Many people do not realize someone is struggling with substance abuse because they haven’t been able to clearly identify the signs.
The NIAAA states that “At-risk” or “heavy drinkers” typically consume 14 drinks per week (male) and seven per week (female). Pair that with signs such as:
- Drinking more then they intend to. Once they start drinking, do they have a hard time controlling their consumption and limiting their use?
- Drinking even though it makes them anxious, depressed, or adds to another health problem. Do they blackout when drinking?
- Drinking despite increasingly severe negative consequences, such as DUI and other legal troubles
- Drinking even though it has negative impacts on their job, school, and relationships
- When approached about a potential problem with alcohol, do they rationalize their behavior or blame others?
Sadly, I’ve watched two people close to me battle with addiction. My brother-in-law lost his life to alcohol addiction in 2016. Cause of death? Cirrhosis. And my husband? He was closet drinking at the same time we were watching his brother drink himself to death.
Presently, my husband is struggling to maintain his sobriety. Since we unearthed his secret addiction, he’s gone to in-patient rehab twice, outpatient rehab, and attends on-going EMDR therapy, traditional therapy, and AA meetings. His most recent relapse occurred approximately a month ago.
As the newly minted wife of an alcoholic, I’ve been on a rollercoaster of feelings.
Anger. Why did he lie to me?
Shame and denial. Why didn’t I realize there was a problem? How did I miss the signs? I can’t believe this is happening. Why is this happening to me?
Sad. I wish it wasn’t like this; why can’t he stop drinking? I hate watching him do this to himself.
Fear. Will my husband die like his brother?
During college, a good majority of the people I knew binge drank. While I have never been a big drinker (terrible acid reflux), I am pretty easy-going and conscious of the fact that many consider binge drinking a rite of passage in college. So I went with the flow and participated in my fair share of debauchery, but I was also relieved when I graduated, as I had hoped many of my friends would outgrow the “party stage.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a cocktail or two — but blackouts at 30 were something I planned to avoid.
I met my husband through a mutual friend at college and we dated on-and-off for more than 10 years prior to our wedding in 2015. He comes from a large family who has a party for every occasion, but I never thought he had a drinking problem. Heavy drinker? Sure. But as my husband and I got older, we drank less (or at least I was drinking less) and once it came to light that his brother was an alcoholic, my alcohol consumption became almost non-existent. However, that’s when my husband decided to drink more than ever — and start hiding it from everyone he loved.
I will be 32 this year and I’m watching our friends progress in their lives — almost all are married, buying homes, and having children. Then there’s me: angry at alcohol and sad about my current situation. I’ve thrown myself a pity party or two and am struggling with the fact that I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life.
But beyond the pity-parties, I have spent a lot of time searching within myself, defining personal boundaries, and attending many therapy sessions. It is safe to say that both my husband and I have individually experienced intense amounts of personal growth in 2017. In fact, my immediate family has told me multiple times that they have never seen more positive changes in me and that I’ve shown resilience.
Yet with all the change and growth, I still don’t know where the future takes me. When I first submitted this article to The Everygirl in December, I was in the midst of a mental and emotional battle of head versus heart on whether or not I could salvage my marriage. It’s now January and I’m in the process of filing for divorce.
If you’re an Everygirl who loves an addict, here’s what has helped me get through this very tumultuous experience.
It’s not your fault.
I saw this quote on Pinterest, but I’m sure it has origins in Al-Anon (a support group for family and friends of alcoholics): “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it, but I won’t condone it.”
That’s right. Someone else’s drinking problem has nothing to do with you. When you see somebody you love struggling with addiction, it’s hard not to take it personally, but you have to understand that the battle he is fighting is within himself.
Addiction and codependency often go hand-in-hand, and since discovering my husband is an alcoholic, I have learned a lot about the two. Thanks to my therapist, I’ve discovered that while I’m not a full-blown codependent, I do have some characteristics that I am addressing.
For example, I love to help people I care about, but I have learned the hard way that you cannot set yourself on fire to keep other people warm. You can ask your loved one to stop drinking, but you cannot force them to get help if they are not interested in getting help. And if they don’t want to get help — that doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate their behavior, especially if it is hurting you physically, mentally, or emotionally.
The big b. As soon as I realized my husband had a drinking problem, I defined my boundaries to help me navigate his addiction. My boundaries include not being around my husband when he’s drinking alcohol and not living with my husband if he’s drinking alcohol. He and and I both agreed upon these boundaries and I kept them; when my husband first relapsed this summer, I asked him to leave our home.
Since he has not been able to stay sober for any duration of time, he has not lived with me since that initial relapse. While extremely hard, my boundaries protect me from continually being put in what has already been a very unhealthy situation.
Make sure you work with a professional or support group to define your boundaries. Boundaries are a way to protect your sanity. Define them and stick to them.
Since my sister-in-law has experienced both the pain (and loss) that comes with loving an alcoholic, she is a huge support for me. Beyond my sister-in-law, my support system includes my parents, grandmother, a few close co-workers, and few of my close friends.
Let’s be honest, addiction isn’t something people openly discuss and it is still not something I bring up to those outside my immediate circle. But when I have opened up, so many people tell similar stories of a family member or friend who struggles with alcoholism or drug addiction. Hearing these anecdotes brings me relief, while reminding me that I’m not alone.
I have also relied on my therapist who has prior experience working with addicts. He has offered guidance during all the turbulent times and I’ve been grateful for his insights. His honesty about what to expect in both addiction and recovery is realistic, and he’s been a great sounding board. He calls me out on my shit and makes sure I live up to the boundaries and standards I’ve set for myself. I see a lot more therapy sessions in my foreseeable future.
Beyond therapy, there are other support groups available. As mentioned earlier, Al-Anon is a support group for loved ones of alcoholics. I have heard many wonderful things about the group, but have found that individual therapy works best for me. It doesn’t matter whether you attend support groups, group therapy, or individual counseling, just make sure you find a tribe who understands your experiences and is looking out for your best interest.
Even with boundaries and my support system, I still struggle to understand my husband, his addiction, and myself. I have spent countless hours Googling almost anything I can get my hands on about loving an alcoholic.
Some of my favorite searches include: “Can your marriage survive addiction?” and “Is there such thing as a happy ending living with an addict?” I stumbled across a Sober Recovery discussion thread where I read a comment that stuck. It said: “I don’t like the question — the question should be, in my mind, who am I that I chose to be with someone who uses drugs and alcohol, who disrespects me, my time and my contributions, and why am I trying so desperately to hold on to it?”
While I would never judge anyone’s decision to stay or leave a marriage riddled with addiction (as it is a very personal and difficult choice), that comment struck a chord with me. Every time I read that response, it angers me. It’s a trigger, and after thinking about it, I know why: I know my self-worth is more than being dragged into the throes of my husband’s active addiction. I love him, but I love myself more. And that’s why I know that we can no longer stay together.
By no means am I an authority on navigating a relationship with an alcoholic. Only you know what the right decision is for you, but please know that there are many people out there who are there for you, support you, and love you.
I’m one of them.