To The Spouse Of A Functional Alcoholic
My husband is pretty close to perfect, the ideal that I dreamed of since I was prancing around in my mother’s lacy nightgowns pretending they were my wedding dress. The kind of doting, wonderful daddy any kid would be lucky to have. The kind of man who tells you, with great sincerity, that you’re beautiful — and then lists the reasons why. A devoted employee and a hardworking provider.
He reminds me so much of Jack Pearson from This Is Us, a genuine guy with a genuinely good heart.
But, also like Jack Pearson, my husband is an alcoholic.
As some alcoholics do, he has sought help, and we’re going on two years with our new, less tumultuous lifestyle. And it’s wonderful. Finally. But he had to hit rock bottom to do it, and he dragged me down with him.
So if you’re in the same situation, married to an otherwise-wonderful man with a terrible problem, I’m talking to you. I’ve been you. I know what you’re enduring every day.
When he isn’t gone or hung over, things are good, though always slightly overshadowed by lingering resentment, like a foul odor you keep getting a faint whiff of no matter how well you think you’ve scrubbed. But those in-between times are just enough of a glimpse of the life you were promised, the life you vowed with all your heart to build with this man.
He’s sorry. You can tell he’s genuine when he says it even though he can’t explain the motives behind his behavior. Sometimes when he’s gone particularly off the rails, there are tears, though overall, he sheds far fewer than you do. Unless he does it in private, but you’d never know because most of the time he acts like it isn’t a problem.
Sometimes you’re amazed at how well he keeps it together on a daily basis, going off to his job like he’s fine despite the scent of alcohol oozing from his pores, always keeping up appearances. Sometimes you wonder if you’re overreacting, if he’s actually an alcoholic even without the shakes and the constant drunkenness, if maybe he isn’t just a heavy drinker and you’re wrong because how else could he function so well?
Then he comes home when the sun comes up, after you’ve called him repeatedly with no answer, a few hours before work starts, and you know you’re right. He may look like an average guy. He may not be physically or mentally abusive or falling-down shit-faced all the time, but he’s definitely an alcoholic. You can see it in his bloodshot eyes.
He’s your husband first and foremost though, the man you love. All you want from him is normalcy. All you want is boring. All you want are evenings at home, as a family, where you don’t feel like you have to bribe him with something enticing enough to keep him there. You want to be able to trust him when he says he’s just running to the store or the gas station or to work for a few minutes of overtime, for him to truly be gone a few minutes instead of a few hours, for him to not stop at a bar or a drunk friend’s house while he’s out. You want to know that when (and if) he comes home, there won’t be alcohol on his breath.
On one hand, you’re used to it, but you’re never really used to it — there’s no making peace with your circumstances when he’s gone out again. There’s no sleeping soundly and worry-free when he isn’t asleep next to you. There’s only dozing fitfully, checking the clock, checking your phone, making trips to the bathroom, glancing out the windows while you’re up. Hours come and go, and your stress-addled brain is racing through all the possible scenarios: Is he cheating on you? Has he caused an accident? Is he in the back of an ambulance, or being hauled off to jail for a DWI, or scraped off the pavement? Has he hurt someone else in an accident?
You peek in on the kids with a heavy heart, envious of their innocent and peaceful slumber, wondering for the millionth time why you’re here, whether you’re doing the right thing by staying. You wonder what you’re missing, what they’re missing, whether there’s something better out there or if it’s a classic case of the grass being greener in someone else’s yard.
Because when it’s good, it’s good. So good. But then there’s this. You could give up on it, on him, but you’d also be giving up on the wonderful times in between, the happy memories you’re building that almost make up for the rest. The ones that compel you to keep holding on.
It may be partly an illusion, but your kids don’t know it yet. Their family is their whole world, their daddy is the sun that it revolves around. So you stay, and pray that he can get his shit together, figure out how to fix this, before they’re old enough to realize the truth about how you’re the glue that holds this broken unit together. You worry that they’ll start to see that the father they idolize is not as perfect as they think he is.
Since you’re not sleeping, you Google things like, “My husband doesn’t come home at night” and “My husband is an alcoholic,” and you search endlessly for an electronic epiphany. But all you find are message boards, with a plea from someone like you and a bunch of trite answers from people who have never been in your shoes: “If it were my husband, I’d have left a long time ago.”
Really? Do they think you haven’t thought of that, over and over? Leaving sounds so easy. They don’t understand that it’s so much more complicated. You worry that if you leave, he’ll self-destruct, and you love him too much despite what he puts you through. You know that it’s a disease and that the things he does are a symptom, and you don’t want to give up on him because he’s sick.
I’m not writing this to tell you to leave. You don’t need yet another person advising you to pack up his shit; you’re tired of hearing it, which is why you rarely mention it to anyone unless you feel like you’ll break if you don’t. You don’t need someone to tell you you’re stupid for staying with him, because you wonder on a near-daily basis why you’re such a glutton for punishment. You don’t need anyone to say you’re enabling his behavior, because you know that too. You’re just as addicted as he is, only you’re addicted to his care, addicted to the intoxicating hope that he’ll get better and be the man you know he can be.
“Love yourself more than you love him,” they say, as though the phrase alone is enough to empower you. But he’s part of you, and you’re part of him, and to love yourself independently while letting him go feels impossible.
You just want someone to truly understand why you stay, despite everyone and everything telling you that you shouldn’t, that you’re a fool. To recognize that even though you’re broken, you’re so much stronger than anyone else could ever know. Strong enough to support a household when he doesn’t. Strong enough to keep going when he lets you down, to pick up the slack when he drops the ball. You stay up all night with your stomach in knots, then work through the next day like a champion to keep things as normal as possible for your family. No one can fully appreciate how much you shoulder, because ironically, you spend so much time making it look like things are easy. But I know you’re exhausted on a level that someone who’s simply “tired” could never comprehend.
I don’t need to tell you it’s not healthy, not ideal, that you have every right to leave. You know it in your bones; you’re reminded of it every time you ask yourself why you stay. But I’m not going to be like everybody else and tell you you’re wrong. I’m going to tell you that, even though sometimes you feel like an island, you’re not alone, and there are many of us who have lived — are living — the same truth; it’s just that we’re all pros at keeping it under wraps. And no amount of shaming from your family or friends is going to force you into a decision you aren’t ready to make. If you think it’s a battle worth fighting, then you keep fighting it until something gives, whether it’s the final splintering of your carefully guarded family unit, or he finally joins the fight against it and you’re on the same side.
Until then, don’t let anybody tell you that you aren’t strong — because they have no idea how much strength it takes to hold on until your hands bleed.
If you’re looking for support, Al-Anon offers non-religious in-person, online, and phone meetings designed to help people cope with family members who struggle with alcoholism. Find more information here.
You should never be in a position where you (or your family) feel unsafe or threatened by your spouse. If things have gone too far, this list at WomensHealth.gov will help you find domestic violence resources by state.
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