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May 27, 2011

Living with an Alcoholic

by Val Reynolds
The effects of alcoholism affects family and friends

The effects of alcoholism affects family and friends

Alcoholism is an addiction and whether you suffer from the effects of alcohol yourself, or alcohol dependence, or you are living with an alcoholic, who is your husband or wife, or partner, your life can become a living hell 

The stress of living with alcoholics affects your close and extended family, friends and work colleagues Children are particularly badly stressed by parental behaviour  It takes time to learn how to live with an alcoholic Symptoms of alcoholism include irrational, unpredictable, erratic behaviour gradually becoming the norm

Wendy – not her real name – wrote this painful account of the years she spent living with an alcoholic husband

When your life falls apart, it isn’t always sudden

When you look back you realise that the process has been playing itself out over years, maybe decades, but the demands and familiar routines of daily life have blinded us to the subtle little changes. Few people who’ve been through it can say with certainty “Yes, that was when it all began”. And this is how it can happen that the brilliant, loving young man who was your best friend, constant companion and husband for years can become a bitter, self-obsessed alcoholic under your eyes, without your realising what’s going on until it’s far too late

My husband and I met at school, and married straight after he graduated from Cambridge, aged 21 and 19. He went on to complete a PhD, then took a job in the City – probably a mistake which was to determine the course of the rest of his life. His great passion was for History, but the lure of huge salaries and bonuses was irresistible to a young man who’d been brought up in a household where money was always very tight. Very naïve, neither of us appreciated that similarly huge pressures go along with huge salaries, nor did we know what harm is done when someone turns their back on something they love

Forced by lack of money to abandon my own degree so as to support Michael through his PhD, I took a low grade job in the Civil Service, but progressed up the career ladder there until we decided that it was now or never time to start a family. There was never any question in those days about whose job would be sacrificed to the care of the children

Glass of white wineCity life took over. By now working in merchant banking, notorious for its dramas and deadlines, Michael was swept up in the whole culture, where working days always included long lunches with wine and brandy and rarely finished before 7.00 in the evening. He was seldom home early in the evening and as the children got older it became the norm for me to be the sole parent at school events, parents’ evenings, etc. Gradually I came to welcome this, as it was much easier to cope with these events alone than with an unpredictable husband still reeking of wine and with an uncertain temper. This sparked frequent rows when I urged him to rethink his city career for the sake of the family, but the inevitable response was to attack me for enjoying the perks that came with his job. I began to dread his return from work

No doubt onlookers thought we had an idyllic life – large house in an affluent area, new cars, holiday house – but real life was a constant struggle to maintain normality as Michael’s drinking habits became more intrusive. Then his brilliant career came to an abrupt halt with a totally unexpected redundancy. Though he quickly found another job, it lasted less than two years. Unable to cope with the gradual loss of his professional identity, he must then have begun to resort to drinking secretly as he tried desperately to make a living from a variety of different enterprises, working from home

By then I was trying to get into the job market, but I was hampered by my lack of qualifications and by the lifestyle we’d built around us. Michael, who still maintained his public ‘persona’, resisted strongly any attempts to change the way we lived. Loans were negotiated to keep us afloat. By now his state of mind was clearly becoming unstable, and I was terrified of disturbing it even further by questioning his capabilities. I found part-time work to fit around school hours – a bit of money coming in but nothing compared with the huge monthly demands of mortgage, heating, etc

Though he was clearly drinking to some extent at home, he never appeared drunk but was becoming a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde character. In the morning he was the Michael I’d known all my life, caring and rational. By lunchtime he was usually asleep, and when woken was hostile and abusive. Frequently he got into his car and disappeared for hours. Any hopes of asking him to take over responsibility for the children’s transport were clearly doomed as his mood swings and ability to drive worsened. When eventually persuaded to seek medical help, depression was diagnosed and Prozac prescribed

From then on the slide downhill to total chaos and nightmare was unstoppable. Fits, terrifying hallucinations when I and the children feared for our safety as well as his own, loss of our family home which had sheltered us for 21 years, and then loss of his driving licence which drove him further into despair. By then the doctors recognised alcoholism as being the main problem, but Michael paid only lip service to their attempts to help him. His hostility towards me deepened – presumably because I was still just about functioning normally as I struggled to hold the family together – and he played no part in the life of the family, sleeping most of the day, waking only to eat and to seek targets for his tongue. Frequently at our wits end, it was easy to see how easily such situations progress to violence. Friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t take over financial control, but how? He was still a rational person when he spoke to banks and solicitors; no one could remove from him his legal rights, his credit cards, without absolute proof that he was incapable of acting for himself. House, bank account, everything was in joint names. Everyone was powerless to help me

Over a year later, in complete desperation, I asked for a separation in the hope that it would drive him to try to sort himself out, but instead it drove him further into depression, for which his family never forgave me. Eighteen months later he died, alone

This was supposed to be an account of how I became a therapist, but I think and hope it will have served a better purpose if it helps others to understand the appalling difficulties faced by huge numbers of families worldwide. When I look back, it’s the fear and the loneliness that I remember. I can only imagine Michael’s thoughts

Author’s identity withheld. Readers’ communications will be passed on via the editor.

We found some websites offering support:

NHS Support
Support for Families and Friends

Val Reynolds Brown, Editor

Two readers responded to Wendy’s article:

Your article Living with Alcoholism sent shivers up my spine. I could relate to it so well.  My late husband was sadly an alcoholic, and life was a living hell, I was so relieved there were no children involved.  However, when he died in January 2003 I felt so confused, as part of me felt a huge burden lifting and part of me grieved for the person I had loved.  It has taken me almost nine years to overcome this emotional turmoil.  Thank you for In Balance Magazine. B S.

Thank you for writing that sad story.  My daughter’s partner is an alcoholic and she and he and their lovely one year old daughter want to move in with me.  I have a good post code near good schools.  They want me to build a two storey extension. I spent a lot of time working in a voluntary capacity with alcoholics, drug addicts and homeless people and enjoyed everything I did, but I didn’t want to bring one home. In 1971 I brought a drug addict home for Christmas. It was very hard work and I am not sure who it helped. Having good memories is a wonderful thing. You are your poor children. The great god money lured him on. And the peer group pressure.  What a pity he didn’t dry out. I will not have an alcoholic living here. Good luck with your hard won freedom. I wish you happiness and joy. VF

A reader with an alcoholic husband of 11 years wrote in asking for help. Here is the advice received from the author of the article:

The only organisation I can recommend is called Al-Anon, and it’s the sister organisation to Alcoholics Anonymous. Their helpline number is 020 7403 0888 and should be open till 10pm at night. Email enquiries to enquiries@al-anonuk.org.uk

Al-Anon operates via regular meetings run by the relatives of alcoholics, and basically it works by reassuring people that they’re not on their own, and sharing experiences. It doesn’t sound like much but if you’re desperate, it helps just to know there’s somewhere you can go and get it all off your chest, knowing that everyone will understand. Also, other people in similar situations often come up with suggestions for coping with day to day problems. I think your reader should definitely give it a try, preferably a few tries as it takes a while to get used to the set-up and relax.

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