Detach, Survive, Thrive In My Marriage To An Alcoholic
By Linda J Riley
The world of the non-alcoholic in the midst of alcoholic insanity is difficult. Many succumb to the insanity and become part of the disease itself, and others die from stress-related illnesses. But it is possible to survive. Once the non-alcoholic has learned the survival techniques, the next step would be thriving in spite of it all. It can be done. I am proof that it is possible.
One day I watched in horror as my husband, Riley, stood in the middle of the living room and spewed a stream of urine onto the carpet. Things had gotten bad, but I never imagined they would get that bad.
After getting his clothes changed and running the carpet shampooer, I listened to the ramblings of a man who did not live in reality. He related to me how I had destroyed our marriage and that he never really loved me anyway. He went on and on and I tried to block out the sound of his voice. But the words managed to reach my brain and, once he had passed out, I ran outside in tears. I paced the driveway and called my best friend for comfort.
A week later, I discovered pools of blood in the bathroom and managed to get him to the emergency room. I was told he would not survive and I prepared for his end. It broke my heart to hear my daughter weeping over the anticipated loss of her father.
But, something happened… he was “out of the woods” and on his way to physical recovery. Before I could take a deep breath, he was admitted to a nursing home where he could regain his strength. He would be just fine. Upon his release he went to the nearest liquor store and bought two large bottles of vodka.
This was not the first time this scenario had played out. He had been to rehab 13 times and this was his third near-death detox experience.
While he was in the nursing home, I made some decisions and came to some realizations. The man that lived with me was not my husband. My husband died many years before this last detox. I looked at him and knew my husband was gone. Once I understood that fact, I felt free to grieve my loss. It was my first true step toward detachment, survival and then thriving in the midst of chaos.
The only way to survive the insanity of being a non-alcoholic person immersed in the life of an alcoholic, is to detach from the alcoholic. To detach means to separate, either mentally, physically or both, from the person causing pain. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
We learn from childhood that being a “good” person means helping others. To be a good spouse we are taught to put our beloved above all else. The concept is everywhere. We see it in the movies, on TV, read about it in books, and hear sermons – all based on the importance of loyalty, love and commitment. We even vow to it in the presence of God, family and friends on our wedding day when we say “‘til death do us part”. All of that doesn’t serve the spouse of an alcoholic because they must adhere to a different set of standards.
In order for a non-alcoholic spouse to survive, he/she must “unlearn” all those things we learn as we grow up. We must realize that there is a point at which the vows have been fulfilled even when the spouse is still breathing. We must understand that being a good person doesn’t mean forgetting about personal needs and boundaries. Self-preservation must become the foremost concern, and it doesn’t indicate failure.
Choices are a huge part of this step. The non-alcoholic must look at the options and understand there are really only two choices – Go or Stay.
I remember standing at the counter of our little hamburger shack in my hometown. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. My big brother was next to me. When it was my turn, I asked “What flavors do you have?” The answer was Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, Butter Pecan, Rocky Road and Orange Sherbet. As we walked away… me with my Orange Sherbet and he with his Rocky Road, my brother asked me, “Why do you always ask that question? You always get the same flavor.” My answer was very matter of fact. “I just want to be sure of my options.”
In order to make the choice between Going and Staying, you must first know all the facts about your options. Just like the little girl at the hamburger shack, if you have a decision to make – be informed about what is available to you. Also be informed of the possible outcome of that decision.
In my opinion, if there are small children in the house, the only logical option is the “Going” one. There has been a long-standing argument between the theories of “nature” or “nurture”. We don’t know if children raised in the presence of alcoholism are doomed to become alcoholics. We also don’t know if the children who are removed from the alcoholic household at a very early age will NOT become alcoholics. I have (had) two children – both were raised in the same household by the same biological parents. My son died as a result of alcoholism while my daughter has never had issues with alcohol.
For children, I believe any risk is too much risk. Children deserve every opportunity to become the healthiest adults possible. It is our obligation as parents. Without a doubt, an alcoholic household is not a healthy atmosphere for children. If I had to do it over, I would have left much sooner than I did.
Going does several positive things. The family is removed from the insanity created by the alcoholic. They may now pick and choose when to be in the presence of the alcoholic. The physical distance can generate some objectivity as to when it is appropriate for the children to have visitation by the alcoholic. Now that the non-alcoholic has detached physically, they become freer to detach emotionally.
Another benefit is that the alcoholic must now fend for him/herself. They just might decide the insanity is not as preferable as the presence of the family. The alcoholic may seek help from other sources such as AA or a rehab center. However, this should not be the reason for the non-alcoholic’s decision to go. The motivation for Going must be purely for the sake of the non-alcoholics in the household. Any attempt at using the Going as a means of getting the alcoholic to quit drinking is futile. If the alcoholic quits drinking as a result of the family separation, it’s just a welcomed side benefit and nothing more.
Lao Tzu has been known to say, “When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.” The non-alcoholic must let go of the person (him/herself) who has been infected by the alcoholic lifestyle – which focuses on trying to get the alcoholic sober. To let go of that purpose allows the non-alcoholic to heal and blossom into someone with a happier, more purposeful life.
If rehab happens – great… but it doesn’t mean the non-alcoholic can simply resume the relationship. An alcoholic can relapse many times over again. If an alcoholic chooses sobriety, they must focus on achieving and maintaining their sobriety while everything else takes a back seat. The alcoholic detaches from the family and “marries” AA. Reconciliation is possible for the couple. Amends can be made. However, the marriage will be different and the spouse may often feel as though they are the “Other Other,” rather than the “Significant Other”.
Even Going has its pitfalls. Non-alcoholics are a very caring, loving, giving group of individuals. If you Go and move on to another relationship, you may have a tendency to repeat the cycle and find yourself caretaking someone new. It doesn’t happen intentionally, but it happens. Even non-alcoholics are susceptible to relapse. So even if you Go, continue to learn all the red flags and be brave enough to see them for what they are.
Whether you Go or Stay, the non-alcoholic must take an inventory of her/himself. This isn’t a list of faults, but rather a re-introduction to oneself. What are your interests, likes, dislikes and what brings you joy when you rise in the morning? Rediscover what you want from life and then go for it. If you want to be a photographer – start taking pictures. If you want to go back to school – take a class. Realize that you have a life outside the insanity circle and cultivate that life.
Staying is the most difficult option. To be able to survive this option, the non-alcoholic must absolutely know the facts about alcoholism and what to expect along the way. Education is the key to survival.
The best place to start is in Alanon where there will be support by people who are in exactly the same circumstance. Listening to their stories will help the non-alcoholic see what may lie ahead. Nothing is more eye-opening than the truth. You will absolutely need a friend who accepts you unconditionally. This friend should be willing to listen to all your outrageous thoughts as the alcoholic slips deeper into his hole and creates immeasurable chaos. No one will understand you more than someone who is going through the same difficulties.
Learn everything about the biological dysfunctions of an alcoholic body. Learn the names of the associated diseases like Cirrhosis, Hepatitis, Delirium Tremors, Hepatic Encephalopathy, Esophageal Varices, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, and Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy. Find out everything you can about these diseases. Learn about liver transplantation – most alcoholics do not qualify. Know what blood tests to ask for when taking your alcoholic to the physician. Learn how to use the blood test results to determine the Child-Pugh Score which is a good indicator of life expectancy. Search the internet and gather any and all information available. There is no such thing as too much knowledge.
Now that the research has been done and the horror stories have been heard, the non-alcoholic is in a position to make an informed decision. If the decision is to Stay, detachment will be their lifesaver. Without it, the very real chance exists that the non-alcoholic may reach death far before the alcoholic.
How or why do I do it? Riley and I were separated for 15 years before he came back to my home. He was near death. His roommates could not, and would not, take care of him and did not want him in their house. My daughter wanted Riley to come live with her. I am still legally Riley’s wife and my priority above all else is my children. I would not allow my daughter’s life to become encased in all that alcoholic hazy crazy nonsense. Unlike her brother, she had managed to dodge the alcohol bullet. I would not allow her to now become the target. Riley is my responsibility and I took him back.
The beginning days were painful as I have described earlier in this article. When I woke up to the fact that this man was not who I remembered him to be, I was able to grieve for the man who was no longer alive. I went to a grief counselor who was also a specialist in addictions. I cried. I called my best friend. I ate gallons of Häagen-Dazs. And I emerged on the other side as a strong, determined and detached woman. Riley is still in my home, but my husband is gone.
Surviving is good. Knowing I had survived was such an accomplishment. But I needed something else. I knew I was a natural caretaker and I thrive in helping others. I had done it from childhood when I helped take care of my ailing grandmother. I needed a purpose that was not just to take care of Riley and keep him alive. There had to be something I could do to help others gain this freedom I had achieved.
I started writing. I wrote constantly–letters, essays and rantings that never left my computer desktop. Then finally, I found the blog-o-sphere that allowed me to reach other non-alcoholics just like me. I started getting e-mails. People were telling me how much they appreciated knowing they were not alone. I finally had a purpose.
There was a snowball effect. The blog lead to sharing my story on other websites. The websites lead to planning an event to celebrate recovery. In turn, the event led to the formation of the Brian Riley Foundation which will provide support, education and referrals for families of alcoholics. All of that has led me to writing a book and in turn fulfilling my desire to take care of others. As in the Lao Tzu quote–I have become what I might be.
I never thought–on that day of Riley peeing on the carpet–that I would live long enough to completely protect my daughter from his insanity. I truly thought I would die before him from sheer exhaustion. But, I learned detachment, I learned what to expect, I found myself again, I learned what I needed to know. And most importantly, I learned how to help others who are living my life. I never thought I would be grateful for having taken on this task. But I am. My survival through the journey within the alcohol craziness created a means for me to thrive.
And I’m joyful for the journey. I’m now looking forward to retiring so I can devote more time to planning events focusing on the families of alcoholics. I can’t wait to provide support for people who are working their way through the craziness.
The truth is… my life is so much more fun, and I have so much more to look forward to, now that I’ve learned to thrive.
Linda J Riely Bio:
I’m a 62 year old woman living in rural North Carolina. I have worked as a reporter, administrative manager and real estate title examiner. I hope to retire and become a full-time author and recovery event promoter. I have a daughter, grandson and two great-grandchildren. In 2008, my son died of an alcohol related illness at 41 years of age. I have been married for 45 years and he has been an alcoholic for most of that time.
Visit my Blog. This blog is about what I have found to be true during the experience of surviving my husband’s alcoholism. I understand that no two drunks are the same and that my experience may not be the same as anyone else. I will only attest to what has transpired over the lifetime of the alcoholic that is directly affecting me.
I hope you can take from these writings knowledge that may be hard to get in any other fashion. I will write about little known truths and what you can expect from the medical community as well as family and friends. I will come out and say what no one wants to hear or admit. What I write here will be bare-naked honesty.
In AA, there is a saying – “Take what you want and leave the rest.” Such is the case of this blog.