Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.
This week: If you’re living with an alcoholic who seems to function just fine everywhere but at home, you’re not alone. Have your own questions? Email [email protected]
Dear Scary Mommy,
It’s truly obvious at this point that my husband of 7 years is a functioning alcoholic. Because he still gets up and goes to work regularly, and comes home (most nights), it’s not obvious to anyone other than me. He can even pace himself at family gatherings, and then polish off the rest of his allotment once we get home. He’s a good man, and a great dad, and I love him so much, but I am EXHAUSTED. The nights that he doesn’t come home, he typically passes out in his car somewhere, which is better than driving drunk, but I stay up sick with worry. The sun comes up, and I have to jump into mom mode, then head to work, and the cycle starts all over again. He knows he has a problem, but he’s embarrassed (or scared) to get help. The other night, he stumbled into our bedroom, laid down and then ended up throwing up all over me and our toddler. He doesn’t remember doing this because he passed out immediately after. That was the last straw. I want to support him and stand by him, but only if he gets help. Where do I go from here?
First of all, I know you. I was you. I could have written this letter myself a few years ago, so I’m not coming at this answer from a place of detachment, because I feel this one deep in my soul. And I want to say how sorry I am that you’re in this predicament, because it’s a lonely place to be.
Why is it lonely, for anyone who might not understand? Because you don’t tell anyone how bad it actually is. You sweep it under the rug and put on a happy face for not only the public, but your own friends and family, so that your alcoholic is not “outed,” since he seems to function just fine everywhere else. Besides, you know that everyone’s well-meaning (though not necessarily empathetic) advice would always be the same: leave him. But, damn it, he is so much more than his addiction — and the relationship you know, the one that exists when he’s not drinking, is worth saving. You don’t want people to get a bad impression of him — or of you, for putting up with it — and so you try your hardest to maintain the facade of normalcy. But that comes at a big cost to you, and it isn’t fair.
Even if he’s managing to keep all the proverbial balls in the air right now, he’s gonna drop one eventually; if he keeps it up, something is going to suffer, whether it’s his job or his relationships or his health. The good news is, since you said he knows he has a problem, that means he isn’t denying it. That’s one hurdle already cleared.
Wait until a time when you’re not arguing (and he’s not drunk), and have a conversation with him. Tell him in no uncertain terms that this has to stop, and that you’re willing to help him in any way he needs, but only if he’s willing to do the work to fix the problem. You don’t have to issue an ultimatum, but let him know that he is at risk of losing things that are important to him unless he addresses the problem. And let him know it’s timely – like, something he needs to do now — because if you give him time to sit on the fence, he will.
The easiest way to begin treatment might be to get an appointment with your regular family doctor, since that may hold less of an emotional stigma to him than making an appointment with a rehab facility or an addiction specialist. Many people suffering from alcohol use disorder are ashamed and afraid of judgment, so simply making a doctor’s appointment could be a “soft” first step. The doctor will be able to test him for depleted levels of crucial vitamins (because alcohol can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb them) and perform tests to check liver function — but beyond that, suggest next steps and resources. A doctor’s advice may also be more well-received than yours; even if you’ve been telling your husband the exact same things, sometimes it takes a professional opinion to get them to listen. And once he’s seen the doctor, he may be more comfortable with the next steps.
Alternately, he may be more receptive to seeing a counselor, who will also be able to refer him to a different program if necessary (some patients may need to be referred to a rehabilitation program that includes a medical detox).
Exploring these options and resources in advance, and laying them out in front of your husband when you have “the talk,” will eliminate many of the excuses he might make for not getting help — and lessen the overwhelm of trying to figure out where and how to do it. By setting him up with the tools he needs for success, you’re sending the message that you’re there to support him, but he needs to take the next steps and show you that he’s willing. The Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a great resource to find counselors and treatment programs via their confidential Treatment Services Locator.
It doesn’t end with him though; you need to get help too. There are likely patterns within yourself that you’re going to need to change as he changes, habits — like covering up for him — that you’re going to have to break. It can take some time to unlearn the behaviors that you’ve probably adopted as a coping mechanism, but you’re not doing him any favors by continuing to enable him, and it’s up to you to break that cycle of codependency. Counseling or an online Al-Anon group can help.
Try as you might (and I know you’ve tried), you cannot fix an alcoholic spouse, but you can point one in the right direction. And in the meantime, you can get the help you need for yourself — so that no matter what the outcome, whether he gets help and you live happily ever after, or he refuses and you decide you can’t do it any more, you’ll be equipped with the emotional strength to come out stronger on the other side.