By Fran Simone
Alcoholism, widely recognized as a wasteland that sucks addicts and their loved ones dry, is a disease that fosters fear, diminishes dignity, and compromises love. Left untreated, alcoholism destroys families and lives. I was one of its causalities.
Seventeen years ago on Christmas Day, my husband committed suicide. Terry was forty eight years old. During our twenty years together, his disease progressed from early to middle to late stages. Once when I got on his case about drinking, he pointed out, “ I’m an alcoholic, but I’m more than an alcoholic.” He hated the label “alcoholic” with its image of winos clutching pints of cheap whiskey 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 Cowboy fan who eventually succumbed to this cunning disease that plagued other members of his family.
Terry inhabited two parallel universes: his hidden self and his public self. Like light which is made of wave and particle, Terry 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.” I loved Terry but loathed his addiction. He loved me but succumbed to his demons.
Ensnared in an alcoholic marriage, we couldn’t break free. Terry struggled to control his drinking; I struggled to control him. I yelled, threatened, blamed, withdrew, excused, manipulated, analyzed, minimized, lied and denied. Nothing worked, but that didn’t stop me. My God suit fit perfectly; I wasn’t about to disrobe.
In Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism, 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. My life, like that of other combat veterans, became unmanageable. But I wouldn’t acknowledge it. Instead, Terry and I settled into a pattern of containing the disease. This served us well because Terry was a binge drinker with long, dry spells between episodes. He was never mean, nasty, or violent. When drunk, he simply "wasn’t there." Immobile, like a corpse. Once I asked, “Why do you drink when it causes such heartache?” “Oblivion,” he responded. “I like the oblivion.” We each tried different strategies to cope with his addiction. Eventually, Terry went into treatment but relapsed quickly. I attended a few twelve-step meetings, but I wasn’t ready to embrace recovery. We just continued on in our co-dependent lives.
A few years after my husband died, I discovered that my son had become addicted to drugs. Once again, I slipped into my God suit (which still fit perfectly) and went about trying to fix my son. I minimized, rationalized, enabled. Addiction craves enabling, like plants need water. When Matt ran out of cash, I replenished it. When he bounced a check, I covered it. When he stole money, I ignored it. When he didn’t contact me for a week or two, I searched the seedy part of town, where the junkies and prostitutes, hung out. I snooped around homeless shelters and free soup kitchens. My heart raced whenever the phone rang in the middle of the night.
Finally, I was in so much pain that I decided to attend a twelve-step meeting for loved ones. At first I was turned off by some of the slogans. “Easy does it.” “Keep it simple.” “One day at a time.” They seemed too easy, too trite. Addiction is cunning and complicated. How could someone keep it simple in the midst of such chaos? But one slogan, “Listen and learn,” appealed to me. During those initial meetings, I didn’t say much. Instead I listened and I learned tools to help deal with my son’s addiction. I learned about the “three Cs”: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. That wisdom helps counteract co-dependent behaviors. It became my mantra, and I always share it with newcomers. .
Eventually, the steps, slogans, and other program tools gave me the courage to let go. One evening I received a call in the middle of the night. My son landed in the hospital. I panicked, tossed on some clothes, fled to the emergency room, and found him bruised and bloody. The ER doctor decided to keep him in the hospital overnight. The next morning, he was discharged to my care. Faced with another crisis, I didn’t know what to do. Months before I had kicked my son out of the house because he was using drugs. Now I had to decide whether or not to take him back home to heal or turn him loose to fend for himself. Could I abandon my only son? Or should I rescue him again? No mother should have to face such a decision. I knew that if he returned home, we’d resume our addict/co-dependent dance. After talking to my sponsor, reading program literature, and praying for the strength to see me through this crisis, I decided to let him go. It was the most difficult decision of my life. The following morning, I packed a duffel bag with clean clothes and toiletries, picked my son up from the hospital, drove him to the local homeless shelter, and gave him twenty dollars. “I love you and will be there for you ONLY if you decide to get help.” He left without saying a word to me. I cried as I drove away. Years later he did seek help. Today he is in recovery. I am not recommending my decision to let go. I am only sharing my own experience that worked for me.
Writing about my journey with my husband and son has been emotionally challenging. As a combat veteran, I have tried to circumvent the mine fields of wallowing in self-pity, attributing blame, passing judgment, offering platitudes, and taking myself too seriously. I want to provide insight and offer hope to family members and friends who love alcoholics and addicts. Although the particulars of my narrative are unique, the theme is universal: battle weary veterans can survive and recover.
Fran Simone is the author of Dark Wine Waters: A Husband of a Thousand Joys and Sorrows which will be published by Central Recovery Press in July 2014. She is a former professor emeritus at Marshall University in South Charleston, WV.