Disclaimer: I am not writing this to persuade anyone to make any of the choices I made- I wasn’t always right. I am not writing this to shame my husband- I celebrate his six years sobriety as evidence that alcohol does not always win. I am writing this because when I needed to hear someone’s story, there weren’t many available, especially not ones that looked like mine.
He was standing on an island, looking just like he did the day I married him, and I was on the shore, yelling across the water to him. But my voice was caught up in the wind and blown away. He was facing me, yet my message was so clearly not received. That was the nightmarish feeling of being married to a man suffering from alcoholism. And as the tides of the water between us rose, they threatened to wash the sand right out from under me.
I married my husband after dating him for many, many years. We met in high school, knew each other’s families, and fell in love that outlasted many difficult times. Nick was not a drinker in the traditional sense. He drank on his 21st birthday, but to my knowledge, hardly if ever drank before that point. We had a dry wedding. Neither of us hung out at bars in the beginning of our marriage. For all those reasons, I just didn’t see alcoholism becoming a tenant in my household. But it did. Nick will openly tell you his experience with alcoholism, but this really isn’t about him (sorry, honey). This is about me.
Alcohol crept into our lives little by little. A new job for Nick opened up a daily tradition of stopping at a restaurant nearby for a drink with coworkers. We didn’t have kids, so there was no rush to get home. New friends brought new opportunities to drink. I was raised in an alcohol-less family, and honestly, drinking never interested me much. I have had a couple drinks I have liked, but mostly ones that don’t taste like alcohol- I guess I’ll just take the cheap lemonade, then, thanks! Nick, on the other hand, loved beer, and we live in a city where craft beers are readily available and interesting. As a total tightwad myself, this became a big problem as his drinking grew- none of the cheap stuff for him!
When alcohol went from being just a drink for Nick to being an essential part of his day, it took me a while to sense the change. The wind shifted subtly, and I didn’t see the approaching storm. I knew when Nick started stashing six packs in the basement or garage that he was drinking more than I was comfortable with, but I also wasn’t sure where the line really should be. I am a fairly black and white person in some issues, so to me there was all or there was nothing, and I was cautiously uncomfortable as this middle ground widened.
As time went on, I mostly ignored the growing problem. Nick struggles with depression and some social anxiety, and alcohol brought him out of his shell at parties. At home, he would drink and then go to sleep. He wasn’t an angry drunk, and I certainly never felt threatened around him. At this point, my biggest issue was the loneliness of being a non-drinker married to a drinker. His after-work pit stops were stretching longer and longer until I ate a few meals a week alone. I became pregnant with our first daughter, which was an exciting, but isolating, time. Life went on in this manner through Maeve’s first year of life. I didn’t consider Nick an alcoholic, but I did feel the effects of alcohol taking hold of our life.
After one night of drinking, Nick became very emotional. He felt out of control of his drinking, although neither of us said the word ‘alcoholism’ then. He called my dad and a friend from church, who came over in the dark of night to pray with him. I thought maybe this would help him regain control. It did- for a while. But after a few months of self-imposed sobriety, he figured he had a good grasp on things, and he missed his craft beers, so he started drinking again, slowly at first, but then a quick drop back into the deep end. I knew we were in big trouble when Nick could not go a day without alcohol, and when, instead of just his beloved craft beer, he would mix vodka into drinks to hide the amount of alcohol he was consuming.
I stayed. I thought of leaving. I played a dozen different scenarios in my mind. A glimpse of Nick as I knew and loved him would rebuild hope. A sleepless night praying he would not drive home would shatter it.
But I stayed. And this is what I learned:
- Being the spouse of an alcoholic is lonely. I didn’t want to divulge his secret drinking because I was afraid he would be judged, this man I still loved, and I couldn’t quite explain the difference between his alcoholism and the hyped-up version we often see in the media. Between not talking about our reality and functioning without him on a fairly regular basis, I felt completely alone.
- Being the spouse of an alcoholic is exhausting. Many nights while Nick was away on business, I was awake worrying about when, and how, he would get back to his hotel, and what might happen in that time in between. I became an obsessive phone-dialer, hoping every 30 seconds that he might pick up.
- Alcoholism is a sign of deeper trouble. Nick liked beer, but he didn’t become an alcoholic because of a drink preference. His addictions come out of a struggle to control his own depressive thoughts and a physical and mental predisposition toward addiction. That made it both easier, and harder, for me to understand.
- Dealing with alcoholism made me someone else. I had always been, for the most part, carefree and easygoing. Now, between parenting babies and feeling like I needed to parent Nick, I became rigid, easily frustrated, and often overwhelmed.
- Alcohol became the enemy to me then, and it still is to this day. I can go out with friends and it does not bother me a bit if they drink alcohol. But sometimes, when I see a portrayal of alcohol as necessary for a good time, as making people incomparably happy, I want to scream the truth: Alcohol is dangerous. Most people don’t see that they have a problem until they are so deep into it that they can’t escape on their own.
- More people exist to help an alcoholic than to help his or her family. Nick had people in his life who came alongside him once he asked them to, holding him accountable, praying for him, calling him and sending him notes. Outside of the fact that I know beyond a doubt that my family was praying for me, no one asked me about me. It goes back to the point that being married to an alcoholic is lonely and exhausting. I would have loved someone to take my two young daughters at the time so I could leave my house that felt like a prison and breathe some fresh air. Or someone to just drop me a note of encouragement. Or someone to guide me to Al-Anon. But people don’t know what you need if you don’t ask, and I was too tired, and too proud, and too confused, to even know what help looked like in that moment.
- The Alcoholics Anonymous book is arguably one of the most important published works of our time. After Nick brought that book home from his first meeting the day he decided to quit, I picked it up numerous times. The stories made me feel less alone, more connected. The advice is simple, but profound. The successes written there gave me hope. I highly recommend that book to anyone who deals with, or has dealt with, an alcoholic on any level. It helped me better understand my husband and gave us words to put to our discussions.
- You will not change an alcoholic. Nothing you say, or do, no groveling, yelling, or forming ultimatums will stop him or her from drinking. Until Nick fully realized the extent of the problem for himself, there was no communicating it from my end. Talk about feeling helpless. The best you can do is be honest: with yourself, with your spouse, and with others. Don’t make excuses and don’t accept them.
- Substance abuse sticks around. Alcohol is just one substance. We live in a country where there are prescriptions for everything. We are well-versed in our own version of drug culture. Nick’s struggle with alcohol can, and has, manifested in other forms of substance abuse. He has to be vigilant about what he takes and how he treats it. The battle is ongoing. This makes me cautious about substances, too.
- There is hope. I am six years into Nick’s sobriety journey, and I can tell you, there is hope. Healing can be beautiful. The sunrise on the other side of our night is more breath-taking because I know what the darkness felt like. We both have grown in amazing ways. We communicate openly about things many married people don’t talk about. We have reached a power equilibrium where Nick and I make decisions together; alcohol and other substances do not control our world anymore.
- Forgiveness is hard. Deciding to forgive Nick was easy. Separating his behavior and choices from the disease of alcoholism was hard. Rebuilding trust was hard. It took time. Nick healed more quickly from the physical addiction than I did from the emotional toll of it. For a while, I became a crazy person. I wanted to know where he was every second and what he was doing; I wanted to know every detail of his alcoholism, thinking I could sift some sense into it. Over time, God took those compulsions from me, and I was able to forgive wholly. I cannot be trite about this part: it takes time and effort and supernatural help to forgive, but without that entire forgiveness, our marriage would not have been healed.
- In case this is not clear in any of my points above, I love my husband. I loved him through the fire, through the ashes, and in the green regrowth of our lives. His healing is a testament to God’s faithfulness. He is a different, more whole version of himself now than he was even before his drinking began.
If you are reading this, and you are some semblance of Nick, or some semblance of me, I hope that you find truth in something written here. I wrote this for you and I wrote this for the me I was, desperate and helpless. God can rewrite your story, and you can not even imagine the ending He might pen for you.
“Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”