There have been quite a few comments on my first post, I'm Married to A Functioning Alcoholic, to me and to others regarding the decision of whether to stay or go. So though I have several other posts waiting to be edited and published, and as I consider this myself, I thought I should address the issue of staying vs. leaving.
Oh, the stories I have heard in Al Anon. I have heard stories of heartache, triumph, abuse, recovery, catastrophes and miracles.
I have friends who left their actively-drinking husbands, I have friends whose actively-drinking husbands left them. I have friends whose husbands got into recovery and their marriage was saved (though as marriages do, they still have their challenges), and friends whose husbands got into recovery and decided to walk away. Husbands who stopped drinking but were never sober (abstinence is different than sobriety). Husbands who were never unfaithful, some that were. Husbands who were never physically abusive, but emotionally abusive. Husbands who were never abusive but were controlling or distant. Husbands who sleep in and have a mostly-functioning job but can't make it to work on time or husbands who are totally on it, make it to work and never skip a day like the Corporate Superhero they may think themselves to be. The list of the trade-offs and comparisons goes on, and on, and on...
A dear program friend of mine, for example - her husband actually talks to her about his drinking. He talks to her ABOUT his DRINKING! He admits to her that he has a problem, though he's not at the point where he can do something about the drinking as the main issue. And sometimes I think - why can't my husband talk to me about his drinking? (Never thought I'd be jealous of something like that). Why can't he at least recognize it's a problem to me?
What makes some spouses "get it"? What makes some of them hit some kind of bottom, get sober, and get into recovery? What's the "secret"? I'm not sure there is one but I wish I knew - first of all I'd be, like, a bazillionaire (you all would get blog-follower discounts, just FYI) but also for my own marriage's sake. But I don't know it.
I think it is truly amazing, and such a great surprise, that we have a growing community of support here on my humble little blog. It is completely unexpected but great to know that we are out there, and we are not alone. Though we all share the common experience of being in relationships or marriages to an alcoholic, circumstances can be different. Also, you are not me. I am not you. I see how many people are struggling with whether to stay or leave, and subsequent comments with advice on whether to do so or not. I also see comments urging me to leave my husband, and others suggest I need to honor my sacred wedding vows and be here for better or worse, in sickness (hello) or in health. But my goal here is to share my experience and also to provide insight, information and tools for you to understand alcoholism and assist you in making whatever decision you feel is right for you - whether that is to stay or leave. And though many people may tell you what they think they should do, no one knows what you want to do, what you should do or how to do it better than you.
One of the main traits of people like some of us? We know it all. Phew, lemme tell ya, we sure know how to be right and how to tell you how you're wrong. If you did things my way, you see, it would be easier, you would be happier.
And maybe sometimes we are right about some things. Maybe even what you should do regarding your marriage. But a lot of us ignore one simple contribution to our marriages and relationships - ourselves. Us. We think the alcoholic has the disease, they're the one who is wrong, they're the one who needs treatment. They're the crazy ones, not us.
But we have a disease too. I would venture to say that most of us if not close to all of us are codependent. Whether we've stayed with our significant others or stayed a while and left eventually, there is a reason we were with them, a reason we "chose" them. And until I fix that about myself, the cycle only continues. How many people have I heard about who marry one alcoholic after another? Both in recovery and out. Sure, it's easy to say we're just victims of circumstance, but pretty soon it's clear what the common denominator is - me.
It is not our fault, but once we become aware of our own challenges and traits it is up to us to take care of ourselves, and stop worrying about fixing our alcoholic spouse.
"You need to get him some help", I've heard people say, to me and to others.
That is incorrect. My husband is an adult, and his sobriety and recovery is his responsibility and his property. My recovery is my responsibility. For those of you who think it is your responsibility to to fix your husband or try to get him to see the light, smack some sense into him - that is the crux of the disease of codependency. I understand that we love them, we want what's best for them. But enmeshment (the engulfment of codependent relationships) can push us to put our alcoholic's needs above our own. Because if we didn't take care of them and tell them what was healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong, they won't ever know, because they just don't get it, right?
Thinking this way, though, means that we still don't get it. Everyone has the freedom to make their own decisions. I'm not in control of my husbands drinking or disease or decision to become sober anymore than he's in control of how long I walk our dogs at night, or how much gelato I portion myself.
Some of us aren't in Al Anon, and that's totally fine. Some of us are, and still tell people what they should do. But all I can do here is provide you with my experience and say, "Here's how it was for me then, here's how it is for me now. Here's how it could be if I stay, here's how it could be if I left." I don't know you, and I certainly won't tell you what to do. I can't judge you for making a decision I don't like (oh how judgmental I can be!). Also, as much as I would like to be for my own sake, unfortunately I'm not psychic - I can't tell you exactly how it will be for you if you stay with your alcoholic spouse (whether they'll cheat on you or lose their job or you'll end up divorced) or if you leave your alcoholic spouse (whether they'll stay in active drinking or hit bottom).
Sure, there are specific commonalities to relationships with alcoholics, but they're not guarantees - if they were then some of the people I know need to get their money back. It seems most of the almost-guarantees are the more general feelings of distance, trust issues, intimacy concerns, etc. But I'm certainly not an expert.
For those of you just discovering that your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse is an alcoholic, and are wondering what you could be in for, I would urge you to learn more about the disease. Whether it's research online, visiting a recovery or rehabilitation center and speaking to a counselor, or visiting Al Anon or open AA meetings, knowing how the disease works will help you no matter what decision you end up making. I know for me, I was so baffled by why my husband behaved the way he did - it just didn't make any sense. But thanks to open AA meetings I've learned that alcoholism is a "cunning, baffling and powerful" disease.
"Alcoholics aren't bad people, they're sick people" - that's what we learn from recovery centers and in Al Anon.
It has helped me to remember that my husband is a person, first and foremost, and a person whom I love who has a disease, and that I can separate him from it. It has helped to relieve my guilt of feeling that I kept doing something wrong to upset him, to make him angry or sad or anxious, that this was somehow my fault. It has made me more compassionate for him, even though his behavior is at times completely unacceptable. It has helped me to be internally shielded from his attempts at blaming me for his drinking, for seeing through what the disease throws at me. It has also helped me in almost every other aspect of my life, every other relationship.
Has it made me invincible, completely protected from anything he may say or do to me? No. After all, I'm human. But I cannot tell you how much it has helped. Even if I do decide to leave, all of these things will assist me in the end. If I continue to stay, they will help me be near him without feeling his anger, and help me to continue my life without my focus completely on him.
The reason I started this blog was because there didn't seem to be a lot out there for people like me, who are married to an alcoholic who can hold down a successful job, doesn't miss work, hasn't been arrested and doesn't suffer the normal consequences alcoholism usually bestows upon the afflicted. I thought it could help maybe just one person to recognize what was going on in their own marriage; that this indeed is a problem even though their spouse seems to "function". I think most of us know it's a problem, we just didn't really know how to explain how it was a problem. It's a problem that we see because of proximity. And when the disease is that close, sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.
Would I have married my husband had I known he was an alcoholic? Most of the unacceptable behaviors were there at that point, just not as progressed or to the frequency they are now. I personally am not sure it would have made a difference having a word for what was going on, but it's hard to say, as I still struggle with the feelings that "maybe things could change if..." Maybe it would have depended on how much I was able to really understand what alcoholism is.
I do know that with the stonewalling that is going on right now (similar but not identical to earlier this year) that has again cropped up against me after an argument but without any rational reason, I am not happy. And even when things are calm, without stonewalling and everything is "normal", there is not a lot of talking, reaching out, or affection for a lot of the time. It is probably the isolation of the disease displaying itself even to me, but it is as if my husband keeps himself to himself, and I in turn sometimes keep myself to myself. Yes, we go on nice trips and he does sweet things for me here and there, because deep down I have to think he is a good person who is kind, generous and thoughtful - but those times become farther and farther apart.
The progression of the disease is invisible, but the force remains all the same. It feels as though my husband is on the ocean, slipping away from me, and I am on the shore watching, helpless, because though I could and want to call out to him he cannot hear me where he is; and in his struggle he cannot call out at all, and is unable to row himself back. So we watch each other from the growing divide, over the bounding waves, silent.
I have my concerns of what I feel I may need to do. But I'm not ready. I don't know when I will be, and even despite the turmoil of the last week, the feeling that something hasn't happened yet that is supposed to, hasn't come. My husband himself said a few days ago, during an argument, "If it's so bad then why don't you just leave?" What I could have said, and what I've been thinking about since then is, "Is that my only option here?"
To say it isn't easy being married to an alcoholic - high-functioning or not - is an understatement. Things were not always this way. And left untreated, I only have evidence to suggest that things will continue to progressively get worse, and I could be looking back to now thinking "Oh, when he used to bring me roses and then become upset and ignore me. But at least he brought me roses." Here's your flowers, enjoy your weekend without me.
Please remember that even while you learn about alcoholism to take care of yourself. If I spent half the time on my business that I do discussing my husband's latest behaviors with my program and non-program friends I could have a lot more work done. It's up to me to take my hands, pick up my focus and direct it to where it belongs. I don't mean put my head in the sand, but acknowledge what is going on around me, accept it, and act on my own behalf - not his. The more we leave their disease to them, the more they are forced to look at themselves and we are forced to look at ourselves and OUR disease. Our energies are free to be put toward our passions, our kids, the responsibilities of life.
I'll be posting soon on the "Do" of "Learn the facts about alcoholism", which makes a nice follow-up to this post. Until then I hope you all keep your mind where your feet are, and do something special for yourself today, no matter how small or trivial it may seem.