Dear Abby’s response to a loved one who just ended a relationship with an alcoholic:
“Alcoholics are like everybody else: sometimes amazing, loving, smart, charming, funny and compelling. Unfortunately, the fallout from addiction can be tremendous for loved ones. It is a depleting, depressing, and lonely life to be with someone long-term who engages in such dangerous behavior.”
Approximately 22 million Americans struggle daily with addition to drugs and alcohol. Another 100 million family members and friends share their pain. James Graham writes that there are two great human resources on alcoholism: recovering alcoholics who have had front-line experience and combat veterans who have been exposed to the active drinking of a loved one for long periods of time. I am a combat veteran whose husband lost his battle with alcoholism.
On Christmas Day, 1996, my husband, Terry, committed suicide. He was only forty-seven years old. Although he admitted he was an alcoholic, he hated the label with its image of street drunks clutching pints of rotgut liquor beside dumpsters in dark alleys. My husband was more than a lush, a drunk, a barfly. He was a gifted lawyer, loving son, proud stepdad, loyal friend, supportive husband, and rabid Dallas Cowboys fan who eventually succumbed to this cunning disease. He was never mean, nasty, or violent. When drunk, he simply wasn’t there. He was immobile, like a corpse. Once I asked, “Why do you drink when it causes such heartache?” “Oblivion,” he responded. “I like the oblivion.”
Terry inhabited a parallel universe: his hidden self and his public self. Like light which consists of wave and particle, my husband was both things at once—a baffling paradox. Shortly after he died, I composed a poem to “my husband of a thousand joys and sorrows.” For every sad episode associated with alcohol, there was an equally joyful time when Terry was sober. We careened between the highs and lows of our roller coaster marriage. Looking back, I recognize my part in this risky journey. I thrived on the melodrama. That may have been why I didn’t embrace my own recovery.
Years passed. Terry progressed from the middle to the late stage of the disease. At one point, he attended a one-month residential treatment program. At a weekend event for family and friends, I was first introduced to the twelve-step philosophy. It made sense, but I didn’t follow through when I returned home. I believed that I could fix my husband. Shortly after treatment, Terry relapsed. For the remaining years we resumed our life of managing the disease until his tragic death.
Jump shift to several years later, when I learned that my adult son was addicted to drugs. Once again, I climbed on the roller coaster and redoubled my efforts to fix my son. I wasn’t about to lose him, too. Nothing worked, but that didn’t stop me. Finally, after several tsunamis, I was depleted, depressed, and drowning in fear and hopelessness. A friend invited me to a twelve-step meeting, where I discovered that I wasn’t alone. My situation wasn’t unique. In fact, my struggles and challenges were the same as everyone else in that room. We were all combat veterans trying to handle our loved one’s disease as best we could. How do we learn to give up control? To keep our spoon in our own bowls? To walk on our side of the street? To mind our own business? To live a healthy and happy life? And hardest of all, to detach with love. Early on in my recovery, I was introduced to the three C's about addiction: I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it. Over the years, these C's have become my “go to” mantra whenever I relapse into co-dependent behaviors. .
In addition to participating in a twelve-step program, I sought help from a gifted therapist who reinforced the wisdom of the three C's. Subsequently, I’ve added three more C's: courage, compassion and community. Recently I attended a workshop where the leader asked, “What is the strength you already possess which you can draw upon to create the life you want for yourself?” I jumped up and replied, “courage.”
It takes courage to break the silence and walk into a therapist’s office or attend a twelve-step meeting for the first time. I recall my apprehension, self-consciousness, and tears. It takes courage to seek a sponsor (What if she says, “no”) and begin to work the steps, including facing my character defects.
With the help of both my sponsor and therapist, I’ve been able to develop compassion for myself and my loved one. I’ve acknowledged addiction as a disease. I’ve work hard to not beat myself up for the many mistakes I made when I tried (in vain) to fix my husband and my son. I’ve often heard that, “When you know better, you do better.” Even though I know better, I still revert to old behavior patterns. That’s when compassion helps me to not get too down on myself.
When coming apart, it helps coming together with others experiencing the negative effects of my loved one’s behavior. In this community we help one another heal our bruises and release our burdens. We reach out to celebrate our triumphs, admit our failures, express our sorrows, overcome our fears, and share our gratitude. Here I heard, “All you have to do is to be willing.” Willing to show up and contribute, willing to listen and learn, and willing to laugh and cry. We embrace the C's and move on with our lives despite the fallout from addiction.
If the twelve-step philosophy does not appeal to you, there are alternative methods to help.