Saturday, April 10, 2010

For Those Who Have Lived With An Addict

A few days ago my brother sent me a short email, telling me that he had just gotten out of a posh rehab on a resort island and is doing "fine." He has been an alcoholic most of his adult life. He also admitted that he has been chronically depressed for a number of years, and was drinking to self-medicate. I have no doubt most of that email is true.

Except for the "doing fine."

A couple of weeks of rehab is just the beginning. He has many years of compulsive behavior to overcome, twisted and broken relationships to mend, and the necessity to squarely face the consequences of a lifetime of addiction. It's not an easy road.

Another family member, who belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous, has "twelfth stepped" my brother, but it is up to him to acknowledge that he has hit his bottom (if he has) and to get to as many meetings as possible to help him get through the crucial early days of recovery.

My brother also has to face his family, who have suffered from his disease. Many addicts or people who have never lived with addictions tend to forget the families, or even blame them for "driving" the addict to his habit or not being able to rescue him or her from their own actions and their consequences.

I was once married to an alcoholic who had become sober in AA. He hit his bottom when he realized that if he didn't stop drinking he would die. As far as I know, he is still relation to alcohol, that is.

I believed because of the years of sobriety behind him he would be a safe partner to commit my life and my welfare to. In all other respects we were compatible and in love. It was not until we were living together that I realized he abused prescription drugs.

He would often get high in the evening in order, he said, "to relax." Nobody else in the household could then rest. He would sometimes become manic, barking out demands to do things for him, like produce objects he had mislaid himself or repair damage he himself had done but denied any responsibility for. He would keep me running for hours sometimes, gripped with fear that he was having a heart attack or insulin reaction or other health crisis, or desperately searching for something he said he needed immediately. If I was reading or writing or using the computer he would often talk non-stop, rambling, not allowing me to think or concentrate or pay attention to anything else. And I, patsy that I was, would oblige, trying to listen and respond and complete my task at the same time, usually without good results.

Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, he would lie, semi-conscious, his breathing labored, barely conscious. I would sit there and watch over him, ready to call 911 in the event he lost consciousness, which he had done before.

When he was high I would try to drive him everywhere, afraid he would get in an accident or I would receive that dreaded phone call from the emergency room or police station. Sometimes he would insist on driving himself, but wanted me to come with him. In the beginning, before I learned how to stand up for myself better, I would go along, ever obliging, holding my breath on every curve or swerving of the car.

Sometimes, when I got up the courage to tell him I was angry about his behavior he would storm out of the house, going, I knew, to get something to get high. Then I would lie awake, worrying that he would kill himself either in buying the drugs or in the car. I was being punished by not being able to sleep. It was only later that I realized that he had been jonesing in the first place and my anger was only an excuse that allowed him to justify his addictive behavior to himself.

One time I worried so much that I called him on his cell phone. I asked him if he was alright and he said no. He had gone to the grocery store, purchased a bottle of cough syrup, and drunk the whole thing. That stuff will rot your brain; he had become confused, couldn't find his car, and was wandering around the parking lot.

I tried so hard to be the loving, supportive, helpful wife to him. The one he had never met until me. It was these good intentions that helped to turn me into the co-dependent I became.

I tried to be only understanding and kind, though I often felt frustration and anger, which then made me feel anxious and guilty. As far as my husband was concerned, he didn't want me to have any feelings about his addiction at all. Period.

It was Al-Anon, a program for the families, friends and/or co-workers of alcoholics, that proved to be a turning point in my life. Although my husband was not then an active member of AA, he was still what they call a "dry drunk" and therefore his alcoholism was still relevant to his life and mine. There are chapters of Narcotics Anonymous and Nar-Anon for the families of addicts, but none within many miles, so it was the Al-Anon fellowship that I turned to. Its twelve steps and emphasis on achieving personal serenity and equilibrium, no matter what others are doing around you, has saved the sanity and sometimes the lives of countless husbands and wives.

My husband was less than thrilled about my involvement with AA, as he perceived it as a way that I would learn how better to manipulate and control him, or else it would encourage me to leave him. It actually does the opposite. I cannot detail here my long journey in the program, but I do want to encourage those who are suffering as I did and reassure you that you can find solutions to your dilemma. I did, eventually, make the decision to divorce, and the program provided the strength and courage to do that, but that is by no means the most common result of the fellowship. It has also given thousands, maybe millions, the strength to persevere.

A second step I have taken in my journey has been psychotherapy. There I have confronted and learned to accept or change both my strengths and my shortcomings or short-sightedness. It has given me the tools to be more honest, more insightful and also more able to stand up for myself in my present relationship. I am learning that many difficulties can be at least negotiated, if not always perfectly resolved. I am learning to be more forthright and truthful and less likely to retreat to my former role of the always-helpful, always-in-control and always loving wife. I am learning that it sometimes take courage to admit I am angry or confused or at a loss, in short, that I am human. It also takes courage to accept that neither my husband nor I are, or ever will be, perfect.

I don't think anyone would actually be able to live with me if I were.

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