Surviving Your Spouse’s Alcoholism: Boot Camp Basics

Prayer is the number 1 way to combat alcoholism. Photo by Ben WhiteIn my previous article about surviving your spouse’s alcoholism, I compared the struggle with alcoholism to an intense battle. It certainly is a battle on multiple levels: spiritual, physical, emotional. At first, I didn’t have a clue how to “fight” this battle. I needed basic training. I had to admit there was a problem before I could reach out for help. That’s a huge first step!

When I discovered Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, I felt elated. Now I could  find out how to fix my husband’s drinking problem. I looked at the people sitting around the table in the church fellowship hall. I knew they had the answers. When I poured out my pain, everyone listened with compassion. Then one older woman said, “I used to think if my husband stopped drinking, if only he would change, then our lives would be great. What I’ve learned is I can’t do anything about my husband. The only person I can help is myself!”

What? You’ve got to be kidding. You mean there’s nothing I can do to change Randy? And you can’t be serious that it’s partly my problem. My problem is him! If only he’d stop drinking, then our lives could be normal. I wanted to  blame Randy for everything that was wrong in our world. At that first Al-Anon meeting, I had no idea I had embarked on a boot camp of personal growth and discovery that ultimately changed my life.

Have you ever felt that way? You see your husband or wife as the problem. If only she would stop drinking, then you could be happy. It takes a lot of courage to evaluate our own behavior, the ways we’ve contributed to our problems. When we stop trying to control our spouse and stop playing into negative behaviors (such as arguing with someone who’s drunk and irrational), then the familiar, unhealthy cycle is interrupted. A counselor once told me alcoholism is like gears moving in sync with predictable behaviors. When the non-alcoholic spouse stops doing what is familiar, then the gears don’t move so well and may eventually come to a halt.

If any of this were easy, we’d figure it out quickly and then go on happily about our lives. Healing is a process and unlearning years of learned behaviors takes time and more time. But it’s so worth it! And sometimes, changing our behaviors can motivate our loved ones to want to change, also. There are no guarantees, but the good news is that we will change. We will be different if we go through the “recovery” boot camp.

I used to lament to a friend that I felt stuck. Nothing seemed to be changing in my life. I was worried that I’d be in the same place several years in the future. My wise friend said, “No, you won’t. As long as you’re taking steps toward growth and change, there’s no way you’ll be in the same place because you’re moving forward!”

Moving Forward

So how do we start the process?

  • Tell yourself the truth.  I found it impossibly difficult to finally say the words, “My husband is an alcoholic. Our marriage is in shambles. My life is a mess. And the most important words…I need help!”
  • Stop pretending. Yes, there’s an “elephant” in our homes wreaking havoc and destruction. We have to acknowledge that truth. I remember keeping a smile plastered on my face and telling people I was fine—when in reality, I felt broken. I barely kept myself afloat emotionally, physically and spiritually. It’s okay not to be fine.
  • Find supportive people. We have to be willing to take off our masks and trust a friend, a counselor, or a support group with our truth. Not everyone will understand, so it’s important to find people who are trustworthy of helping you carry your pain.
  • Believe in a Power greater than yourself. I came into Al-Anon believing in a Higher Power, Jesus Christ. The challenge for me was to deepen my faith. I admitted I couldn’t handle Randy’s alcoholism. I surrendered.

Surrender

In a battle, surrender is seen as a position of weakness. You call it quits, wave the white flag, and put yourself in the enemy’s hands. When we surrender in the battle that is alcoholism, we take a position of strength. We admit I can’t do it. But there is One who can. I will let Him. I have been relieved of trying to do it all, to make someone change, believing it’s my responsibility when it isn’t. Only God can change a person’s heart.

Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. -John 8:32.

Truth gives us the ability to walk into the light instead of staying forever hidden in the darkness. Truth brings freedom and relief. Some days it will feel like boot camp. I didn’t sign up for this. How come I have to do all this recovery stuff when he isn’t doing anything? That’s how I felt at times. The hope is that we are growing into the men and women God created us to be. We’re not stuck any longer.

How do we learn to respond differently? Prayer, practice and time. Three steps forward, two steps back. But always moving forward. Being open and teachable. Recognizing what we’re doing that isn’t working or helping us or our spouse get well.

Hope begins when I tell myself the truth.

 

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017)

A transparent, honest, humorous memoir that looks at the challenges of midlifeAging well is a topic I’m always interested in–and Jennifer Grant’s memoir about her forties is an  honest, transparent, and humorous look at midlife. She’s an excellent story-teller and I enjoyed hearing about her aging experiences–wearing what she thought were “cool” Elton John-like glasses–only to have her teenage daughter weigh in with her more- than- honest assessment. “You look old and weird in those glasses, Mom.”

The author poignantly describes the transitions we go through with our children. Would we want to go back to those sweet early years when they willingly place their little hands in ours when we cross the street, or get excited about something as simple as finger-painting?   Grant says no, she wants to look forward to who those children will become. She doesn’t want to get stuck looking back at those “good, old days”–even though letting go isn’t easy. It seems that one day our children are sweet and innocent and the next you’re looking at college applications with them. I can relate! Even though I’m well past the middle-age years Jennifer Grant writes about, I can still remember the ache I felt when I walked past my oldest son’s empty bedroom after he left for college. Yet this book offers hope of moving past these empty-nest feelings.

The author writes wisely about the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of aging and the changes we face throughout our lives–celebrations, sorrows, and joys. She concludes with the wisdom of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes: There is a time for everything.

I enjoyed this book, but I am disappointed by the author’s interpretation of the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25) in her book’s final chapter. As a Christian, I believe it’s important to consider the full counsel of Scripture when interpreting passages such as this one.

 

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Learning to Embrace Change

change-is-goodChange is something I’ve always resisted. From the time I was 13- years old and my dad announced we were moving from my small Midwestern hometown to a quaint “village” in Pennsylvania, to all the current changes, including retiring from my day job. Change is hard no matter what the circumstances. Even a positive change, such as retirement, can be challenging.

Twenty-one years ago, Randy and I decided to move from the Seattle area to the tiny town of Winthrop, Washington. I remember the combination of excitement and stark fear as we took on this new adventure. I also recall how hard it was to put the “for sale” sign outside our familiar home, the one where our sons had grown up. It was tough loading up all our belongings into that Ryder truck on a late November day. Then we drove across the mountains to an unfamiliar place where the only person we knew was a real estate agent. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve never regretted that decision. I had to let go of what was familiar in order to embrace what was new and ultimately best for us.

The perspective of hindsight is so interesting–and encourages me to welcome future changes. What I see as I look back through many years, is that most changes I’ve faced have impacted my life in a positive way.

It’s often hard to see at the time, though. At 13, I thought my world had come to an end when I left my dearest childhood friends. My dad had tried to point out the positive aspects of this move which I stubbornly refused to consider. In retrospect, Dad was right. Even though I loved Iowa, moving across the country gave me more vision for what might be out there in this big world.

When I married Randy and we began moving around the country–and the world–with the Air Force, Dad never lamented that he’d miss us and his grandchildren. He was always a cheerleader, saying how great it would be for us to explore the Far East and the other stateside places where we were stationed. “Now we have another new place to come visit,” he’d say with so much optimism I almost believed him.

Of course, there are changes that are anything but positive. Illnesses, job losses, and the loss of loved ones are beyond difficult. In the past decade, Randy and I have lost both his parents and my dad. And we’re all too aware of my mom’s aging–and ours as well!

I’m finally learning to accept that change is inevitable. Since that’s the case, why not embrace change instead of fighting it? I learned a long time ago  in Al-Anon that acceptance is the answer to most of my problems–especially those situations I can’t control.

So what does embracing change look like?

  • Look back, but don’t stare. Instead of wringing our hands about those “coulda/shoulda/woulda” experiences, we can consider what we would do differently, what we can learn from those situations. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move forward.
  • Be intentional about treasuring moments with loved ones. Losing someone we love will always be difficult. Instead of fearing what is inevitable with aging parents or other loved ones, by being intentional with our time, we will have an abundance of memories and gratitude for the ways this person has impacted our lives. A beloved physician who practiced in our town for several years, recently passed away from cancer at the age of 62. A friend wrote on her online memorial/tribute page how she had told Cynthia how sad she was to be losing her. Cynthia reassured her, “Yes, but just think of how lucky we were to have had this much time together.”  What an amazing perspective–and one I want to remember!
  • Remind yourself that change can be good! Sometimes when an unexpected change comes and knocks us off our feet, there’s ultimately something positive that can come from this experience. A job loss can lead to an unexpected opportunity, one you wouldn’t have considered before, or an injury that sidelines you for a while can give you perspective on the direction you’re headed with your life.

I’m all too aware as we embark on a new year, change can be expected and even welcomed. I’m telling myself, Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t get so settled into your comfortable routine that you miss new opportunities.

So when the trapeze of change swings in your direction, have courage to grab hold and then let go. It might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you!

What changes are you facing right now that seem scary?  Let me know…it will be a privilege to pray for you!