Surviving Your Spouse’s Alcoholism: Finding Life at the End of the Bottle

Cunning…baffling… powerful..The bright side of alcoholism is recovery!. Alcoholics Anonymous uses those words to describe alcoholism. It’s true. I’ve never felt more confused and powerless than when dealing with my husband Randy’s alcoholism. It’s an intense battle—one most of us are ill-equipped to fight. The harder you try to get someone to stop drinking and change their behavior, the more futile your efforts.

During the worst of Randy’s drinking, I had a recurring nightmare. Randy and I were prisoners behind enemy lines in a war-zone. The scene that kept repeating was one in which I had escaped and was trying desperately to pull him to safety. I couldn’t do it. Each time I had to run for my life, leaving him trapped in the line of fire.

That’s an apt metaphor. If your husband or wife has a drinking problem, you’ll understand. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to get through to them.

Why can’t he stop drinking? It seemed easy for me. I could put down a drink after a few sips, and never want more. For Randy, it was impossible to say no to the next drink–even with serious consequences on the line. At first I  thought it was my fault. If only I were the perfect wife, amazingly sexy and beautiful, then Randy would rush home after work to be with me. Wrong! There’s no way to compete with an addiction.

When I finally found Al-Anon, a support group for families and friends of alcoholics, I learned about the 3 C’s.

  1. I didn’t Cause Randy’s alcoholism.  Nothing I did or didn’t do made a difference in him becoming addicted to alcohol.
  2. I couldn’t Control it. I didn’t have any power to keep him from taking another drink.
  3. I could Contribute, though. I could act in ways that perpetuated the unhealthy patterns. Or I could learn some new ways to respond that could possibly help Randy want to get sober. Most of all, these new changes helped me.

Before Al-Anon, I didn’t have any recovery tools. All I could do was obsess on fixing and controlling Randy. I nagged and lectured and scolded. To no avail. I threatened to leave if he didn’t change. Maybe you’ve done the same.

Randy promised to stop drinking. I wanted desperately to believe him. We twirled round and round with the familiar dance. Nothing changed. I retreated into magical thinking, pretending everything was okay. Our problems aren’t that bad, really. Randy said he could stop drinking anytime. He promised to quit tomorrow. Tomorrow never came.

In the meantime, I became the “alcohol police.” I checked liquor bottles in the kitchen cupboard, measuring how much was there, how much Randy had drank the night before. I even checked the garbage cans to see if he was secretly drinking outside and then tossing the evidence. Talk about crazy behavior!

I placed inspirational books in strategic places around the house and refrigerator magnets with Bible verses on the fridge. I just knew when saw those verses, he would be inspired to change. I envisioned the scene…Randy would see the light and drop to his knees in gratitude for my help. Deb, I’m so sorry for not seeing this sooner. Thank you for helping me. I’ll never drink again. Then we would live happily ever after.

Reality Check

You know only too well, that never happens. Spouses are rarely the ones who talk their alcoholic partners into seeking sobriety.

After several years, I began to consider that Randy could be an alcoholic. I quickly countered with denial.  No way!  I rationalized. Drinking seemed normal, or so I thought. I looked the other way and pretended everything was fine. If we look at reality, then we’ll be required to do something. That seems so hard, so scary.

Fear looms with its icy fingers threatening to suffocate us. The what-ifs take over our thoughts: what if he has an accident on the way home from the bar; what if she loses her job; what if he kills someone in a car accident… scenarios play ad nauseam in our thoughts. It’s exhausting living on this emotional roller coaster—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I felt alone—even though I had caring friends. I didn’t want to burden them. Besides, what could they do? What I didn’t realize is that you can’t face this battle alone. You can’t be an army of one and expect to survive.

Never Alone

The good news is you are not alone. Others who have been where you are can assure you there is hope! Not merely to survive, but to thrive. You can come out on the other side more whole, more authentically yourself, than you ever thought possible. Addiction has taken a toll, but it doesn’t have to win this battle. There is light and life at the end of the bottle. It takes iron determination to get there, to not give up when things get tough.

You can move forward with your life—no matter what is happening around you. You are not an army of one. You are part of an army of thousands upon thousands who have been where you and I have been and they’ve found a better way to live. As a Christian, I believe we’re serving One who is all-powerful, the God of my understanding, Jesus Christ. A Bible verse says, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) Not simply a few things, but all things. We will have whatever we need, whatever it takes to fight this battle and find healing and hope for ourselves. Maybe in the process, our loved ones will also desire to fight with everything they’ve got to defeat their addiction.

Hope begins when I believe all things are possible with God.

If your spouse has a drinking problem, I have the greatest compassion for both of you. Please let me know how I can pray for you. 

*This is the first in a series of articles about how to cope with your spouse’s alcoholism.

 

To receive peace, you must change your grasping, controlling stance to one of openness and trust. The only thing you can grasp without damaging your soul is My hand. -Sarah Young

Jesus Calling (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004)

Letting Go: A Refresher Course

This post seems like deja vu. I’ve written about my “little” brother several times. Yesterday was his birthday. I called him to tell him I was thinking about him. His mental confusion seemed more pronounced. He admitted to using meth “so he could have some fun on his birthday.” Calling him is difficult. It brings his dire circumstances into focus. Somehow it’s easier when you don’t have to deal with someone up close and personal.

My brother has been homeless for many years. He’s addicted to alcohol and meth. Whether he had mental illness and self-treated with substances or has brain damage because of his drug use, doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s heart-wrenching and frustrating because there isn’t anything we as a family can do to help him. He’s reluctant to sign up for the now-mandatory health insurance. His pride gets in the way. Because he’s so emotionally volatile, he has difficulty working, so he doesn’t have any regular income.

After talking with him, I realized I need a refresher course in letting go. The “Letting Go” poem I received at one of the treatment centers my husband Randy went to is a good reminder.

Here are a few thoughts I had as I worked through letting go (once again) of my brother.

  •  To “let go” does not mean to stop caring, it means I can’t do it for someone else.

         I will always love my brother. I can’t make him want to make healthy choices, though.

  • To “let go” is not to cut myself off, it’s the realization I can’t control another. 

        I can reach out to my brother without any expectations or demands that he change. 

  • To “let go” is not to fix, but to be supportive. 

       I was able to talk with him without offering advice.

  • To “let go” is not to judge, but to allow another to be a human being.

      I didn’t scold him for doing drugs.

  • To “let go” is not to be in the middle arranging the outcomes, but to allow others to affect their own destinies.  

       I will never stop praying for my brother. I am powerless, but there is One who has all power. I pray  for him to find God in his life.                  

  •  To “let go” is to fear less, and love more.

What have you learned about “letting go?” How is this making a difference in your relationships? 

Raise the White Flag!

I called my homeless brother yesterday. I only wanted to say that I love him. He couldn’t hear that. He thought I was trying to intervene, judging him. He told me his life is miserable, the party’s over–not that there ever was a party, I thought. I tried to interject hope into his hopeless comments.

You don’t have to do this alone, I said. But he couldn’t hear me in his deafness to allow anyone to help him. I’m going to recover on my own, he insisted. I don’t need anyone to help me.

My heart aches for him. I’ve walked this road before with my husband, Randy, as he struggled to find freedom from his addiction to alcohol. And as I struggled to let go, to finally admit there wasn’t anything I could do to fix or change him. 

It’s funny how we think we have the power to help someone else choose life over an addiction or other destructive behaviors. Fear got in the way of my ability to surrender my husband. I believed I had the power to decide for him. I thought if I let go of Randy, he would die. That’s a scary place to put ourselves in–and rather presumptuous. Do I really think I have that kind of power? Hm…I don’t think so. I am thankful there is One who has all power–and that one isn’t me!

Surrender!

There comes a time when we need to raise the white flag. We not only surrender our loved ones, but we also surrender ourselves to the Lord. We let go so God can work in our lives and theirs. We let go so we can be free from the anxiety that is destroying us. By surrendering, we choose a way that brings life to us–and possibly to our loved ones as well.

There are no pretenses or illusions about any noble efforts to save someone you love. This is rock-bottom where the rubber sole meets the road. You admit that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. You don’t have what it takes to motivate another person  to change their behavior. Only God can do that. Finally you give your impossible situation to God.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they describe surrender in three steps:

  1. I can’t do it.
  2. God can.
  3. I will let Him.

There’s something powerful about recognizing we can’t do what needs to be done in our own strength. This might sound depressing. If we can’t do anything…who can? Ah…that’s the very place God wants us to be. He doesn’t need us, really. He has access to infinite resources. Sometimes the most we can do is simply get out of the way. We intentionally let go of our loved ones. This doesn’t mean we abandon them or stop loving them. Instead, we lovingly entrust them to Jesus. He loves them more than we can imagine. What better place for them to be! The Lord knows every detail about them. He even knows every hair on their heads. He loves them with an everlasting love. Our love pales in comparison.

Author Jan Johnson says it well: 

Letting go is both too simple and too difficult. It looks like weakness instead of strength, like losing instead of gaining, and it is. As we relinquish control and admit weaknesses, we remember who we are and why we’re here…This need to control is rooted in fear, but I need to do the thing that is rooted in faith–surrender.  

Once again, I find myself in a place of letting go. This time I know it’s the very best for me and for the brother I love so dearly. 

Is there a situation in your life where you need to surrender?

 

In God’s Care

Last Sunday I had nursery duty at our church. I always enjoy taking my turn, because I remember how challenging it was trying to keep wriggling toddlers still for the duration of the service. Moms and dads really deserve a break on Sunday mornings. How much easier it is to throw in the towel and stay home rather than getting everyone dressed, fed, and out the door–an exhausting and nerve-wracking experience for many of us moms. I recall arriving at church feeling way-less-than spiritual after using my outdoor voice to communicate with our sons during the ten-minute drive to church.

Since I now attend a small church, we usually have only one or two toddlers in our nursery on a Sunday morning. I put out a bucket of crayons, every color of the rainbow and more, so they can color their weekly Sunday school pictures. Then we read stories–Bob the Builder is a favorite, and eat snacks, usually Cheerios or Goldfish crackers. But this past Sunday, the usual crew had graduated to the preschool group, so I just had one infant to care for. I spent the entire hour cuddling baby Brandon. He snuggled into the curve of my neck, making sweet cooing sounds. His silky hair and soft skin still had that fresh newborn fragrance.

As I held him, I couldn’t help but think of our own grown sons who once spent Sunday mornings being held by faithful nursery workers. I thought of the promise of holding grandchildren some day and the privilege of sowing love and other Christian virtues into their lives. I remembered being 10-years-old and holding my newborn baby brother with my mom’s watchful guidance.

Babies bring a sense of wonder, tiny packages of life-time potential. I prayed for baby Brandon, entrusted to my care for an hour on a Sunday morning. For only a few short years, our children are in our care, subject to our influence. Then they become more independent, venturing off on their own to after-school events or to a friend’s house to play. Soon they’re applying for drivers licenses, colleges, and jobs in far away places. Finally, we simply have to entrust them to God’s care and pray that He will guide them in making wise life choices.

There’s a time when we realize we no longer have control, a time to let go and let God work in their lives. I pray that God will do what I don’t have the power to do in my sons’ lives, or in my homeless baby brother’s life, or for our precious nursery babies.  Dear Lord, please bless them and keep them always in Your care.

Are you struggling to let go of someone you love? 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCOTT

Today is my baby brother’s birthday. I say baby lightly because Scott turns 48 today. But as his sister, ten years his senior, I’ll always have that special little brother place in my heart for him.
I vividly remember the spring morning when Scott came into the world. In 1961, visiting privileges at our small Midwest hospital’s maternity ward were limited to adults. So my older brother and I and my younger brother stood below the second floor window and watched with awe as Dad proudly held up the small, blanketed bundle for us to see.

When Dad and Mom brought this tiny baby home to live with us, we were enthralled by the new addition to our family. This was a dream come true for me– my own baby brother to help care for. I learned to change diapers, take him for walks in the baby buggy, and feed him oatmeal and mashed bananas, making sure more of the mash got into his mouth than on his face and clothes.

Scott was adorable. His bright brown eyes sparkled with a bit of mischief and he smiled readily when we cooed or tickled him. He delighted us with his child-like wonder and curiosity about everything.

Time has a way of slipping by at almost lightning speed. I married Randy, my high school sweetheart, (who also shares Scott’s birthday) when I was nineteen, and we moved several hundred miles away. Of course there were vacations and homecomings when we spent time together, but our ten year age difference made it more difficult to stay in touch. When Scott had his tenth birthday, Randy and I had our own baby. When he entered his teens, I lived halfway around the world where Randy was stationed on Okinawa with the Air Force.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, and the questions gnaw at my parents and us siblings as we look back. Scott chose a path all too common for many adolescents. He bucked our parents’ authority and experimented with alcohol and drugs. Somehow you think, this too shall pass. He’ll find his way. He’s still so young. A lot of guys his age are doing this.

But years pass and choices inevitably bring consequences. Heartbreaking ones. Repeated drug use damages the brain and renders a person disabled, unable to earn a living. Homelessness results and my parents and I and other siblings have agonized over how to help. Could we have done something different? Was there an undetected mental illness? If only we had tried harder to find help or not tried so hard to force Scott to get help. The possibilities are endless and exhausting to consider.

One by one we’ve come to the conclusion that we must let go. None of us has the power to change Scott. As I’ve learned through my own painful experience in dealing with a loved one’s addiction, that though I can’t make someone desire to change, God can. I will step out of the way and allow him to do what is necessary.

Letting go doesn’t mean we stop loving Scott with callous indifference to his circumstances. Instead, letting go is rooted in faith. Surrendering my precious brother means trusting God enough to believe that the One who created him loves him more than I could even imagine. Letting go feels risky, but it is the path to finding acceptance and peace in uncertain circumstances.

On this beautiful May morning with lilacs bursting into bloom and our native balsam root “sunflowers” dotting the green hillsides, I pause to thank God for the gift of life for Scott. Even though I’m not able to call him and tell him, I pray that the Lord, our mighty God, will whisper his love to Scott more profoundly than I ever could.