Friday, June 6, 2014

A family affair

My alcoholism didn't happen in a vacuum. Neither does my recovery. It's so painfully true that addiction is a sickness that affects the whole family. I feel fortunate that my children were young enough, and we were able to shield them enough, that I don't think they will have memories of my active alcoholism. My husband, Ashby, is another story. He suffered greatly. I sometimes think that it must be so much harder for the loved ones of an addict. As much as I was powerless and hopeless, I was at least privy to my secrets, and I had alcohol to numb the pain. Ashby never knew what he was walking into, and he was painfully aware that I was slipping away more and more each day. I remember a time about six months into my recovery when we were at a social function, and I saw a change in him. There was a lightness about him that I hadn't seen in years. Freedom. He wasn't worried about where I was or if I was going for another drink or how many I might have had before we got there. That's when I knew he was recovering too. I don't like to hear the stories he tells about the worst of my drinking, but I need to hear them. It's been part of the process of healing our relationship. It takes an amazing person to stick it out with an addict through the ugly descent to rock bottom, to get past all of the anger and resentment, and to really understand and support recovery. I believe Ashby understands addiction as well as a person who is not an addict can understand it. He made the effort to educate himself, read the literature, go to Al-Anon meetings, and even get therapy to deal with my problem long before I could admit the problem existed. He's never once used my addiction against me, and he has supported without question everything I've needed to do for my well-being in recovery. He also recognizes the limits of his understanding and has always encouraged me to cultivate relationships with others in recovery because he recognizes the importance of that as well. I think sometimes loved ones resent recovery as much as they resented the addiction because it becomes the new number one priority, and they feel short-changed yet again, but Ashby fully understands that if recovery does not come first, then everything else will suffer. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that level of support and understanding, and I appreciate it. I could never thank him enough for that. The amazing thing is, he would never expect me to. He would say, "It's just what we do." Ashby and I have always been a pretty good team – balancing and supporting each other in our careers, in parenting, in athletic pursuits – and recovery is no different. It has to be a team effort for us. We were all sick and suffering, and we've all worked hard to get well. As difficult as it is for me to read, I asked him to write about his experience in his own words . . . 


Not too long ago, Wendy suggested I write a post on her blog about what it is like to live with and love someone in recovery from an addiction to alcohol. I was immediately enthusiastic as there are few things in this world I enjoy more than talking about myself. I was also excited to be a part of Wendy’s blog because I know how important it is to her. So I started to think about what I would say and, for the first time, found myself at a loss for words. Wendy’s struggle with alcohol and her recovery from active addiction is so much a part of who I am, and who we are as a couple, that it's hard to know where or how to start.

Before I can talk about loving someone in recovery, I need to say a few words about loving someone who is an active addict. It's not fun. I watched alcohol slowly take away the woman I loved. Her addiction caused me to doubt everything. Was it just me, or did she really have a problem? How do I handle this? Do I yell and scream at her? Do I give her the cold shoulder? Do I ignore it and hope it gets better? How can someone so smart be so stupid? Is this my fault? How can she be so selfish?  Am I enabling her? Where’s my line in the sand? When will I have had enough? When will I finally leave? Why is this happening to us? Why can’t I have my best friend back? As her addiction worsened over the years, I asked myself all these questions and more a thousand times a day.

Her relationship with alcohol was always an issue, but it became more and more unmanageable with each passing year. I became convinced that she was an alcoholic long before she was able to admit it to herself and ask for help. While struggling with her ever worsening addiction, a friend gave me a copy of Courage to Change and sent me to an Al-Anon meeting. I went and listened and was angry. I couldn’t understand others who told me to let go of my anger. I thought I deserved to be angry. What I came to realize, to really and truly believe over time, was that alcoholism is a disease. My wife, the mother of my children and my best friend, was sick. I knew that unless something changed, she would die. She didn’t want to be sick any more than I wanted her to be, but she was.

I supported her every time she tried to quit. I took her to the emergency room and the doctor’s office when she had withdrawal symptoms. Each time I told myself this time would be different. It wasn’t. I went with her to outpatient treatment. I read the books, and I went to more meetings. I tried to understand the disease and to direct my frustration and resentment toward the disease and not the patient. 

I won’t discuss the details of those final weeks and months, but suffice it to say the bottom finally fell out, and she agreed to go away to rehab. I drove her there and left her in a strange hallway full of people we didn’t know. I saw the tears on her face and the fear in her eyes, and I turned and walked away. It was, without a doubt, the single most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It also turned out to be the best thing I have ever done. 

She threw herself into recovery with the same ferocity and drive that she does everything she sets her mind on doing. She stayed in treatment for 28 days. I visited on weekends, and we talked on the phone when we could. I took care of our two children and told them that mommy was sick and had to go away to get better. I assured them she would be back. Eventually, I brought her home and we began to rebuild our life together.


When she came home she seemed so fragile. This period of time was not easy for either of us. I had grown used to being a single dad, as I had taken on a lot of the responsibility around the house even before she left for treatment. Even when she'd been there going through the motions, she hadn't really been there, and while we never stopped loving each other, we hadn't liked each other for quite some time. In some ways her return to our life felt like an intrusion. I was conscious of this feeling and worked hard to be patient, to be supportive, and to have an open mind and heart. 

By this time I was a full believer that alcoholism is a disease, and I was behind her recovery 100%.  She attended 90 meetings in 90 days, and I was glad for her to do it. I had to pick up the slack at home while she was away, but it wasn’t a problem. After all, I'd just spent the last month as a single dad, so what was an hour here and there? It seemed like an obscenely small price to pay to have her back. She went to meetings and came home, and we talked about the meetings and her recovery. We talked and really listened to each other. We got to know each other again and learned to communicate honestly and to trust. 

As she got farther along in her recovery, I realized that all the anger, all the resentment, and the lack of trust had vanished. I was no longer afraid that the next drink was right around the corner or hidden in the linen closet. I’m not mad at her, and I don’t blame her any more than I would blame her if she had cancer. I believe that alcoholism is a physiological disease, not a moral one. Embracing that allowed me to come to terms and be at peace. The laughter came back. The trust came back. I realized that I have always loved and trusted Wendy. It was the disease that I hate and don’t trust. The disease doesn’t just infect the alcoholic. It also infects loved ones and family members. It breeds contempt and distrust and resentment. In order to be free, both the addict and the loved one have to recognize the effects of the disease for what they are. We often say that we have both been given the gift of perspective.  As if someone turned on a light in a previously pitch black room, we can now see all the obstacles around us and avoid them rather than repeatedly crashing headlong into them.

So now, three years later, she goes to meetings, and we juggle the schedule to make it work. I have a very simple rule by which I live: her recovery comes first. Period. It is the foundation on which our lives are built. If her recovery crumbles, everything else goes with it. If she needs to go to a meeting, then I want her to go to a meeting. Her absence for an hour or so is much better than a lifetime without her. 

Not only do I have my best friend back, I have a new and improved Wendy 2.0. I can't be mad, even after all we went through, because recovery has changed and improved our lives in ways we may not have ever experienced if addiction wasn't part of our story. Sure, we still have real life problems, and we get on each other’s nerves like all married couples do. But living with a spouse who is in recovery and has truly embraced recovery is a beautiful thing. She smiles easily and laughs more. She goes with the ebb and flow of life and is much more fun to be around. One of the many beautiful things about recovery is that it forces both the addict and the addict’s loved ones to be open, honest, and vulnerable. With these qualities come true personal growth and a deeper emotional connection.

Our journey through addiction and into recovery is not something that I would trade or change. It has brought us closer together and made us stronger. I’m humbled, inspired, and moved by what she has accomplished, and I’m grateful for it every single day. 

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