I have been married 4 times. I am a reasonably conventional person, and so I find this fact somewhat embarrassing. I often think it means something is wrong with me. People who stay married to the same person for a long long time seem moral, stable, regular, virtuous. People who have married often bring to mind the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or Newt Gingrich.
Perhaps the biggest problem I had in marriage was my inability to understand the way alcohol affects human behavior. Its effects are all around us all the time, whether one drinks or not. Two of my husbands were alcoholics. I knew Willis, my second husband, had a drinking problem before we were married, but I had only a dim understanding of the disease of alcoholism. I didn’t realize that Hugh, my third husband, was an alcoholic until we had been married for some time.
I was married to Willis for 10 years. I stayed too long, but his drinking finally drove me away. He was often violent and scary when he was drunk. I want to address the issue of domestic violence in another post. It figured in my own life and in my mother’s.
I was married to Hugh for 20 years. He was a peaceful drunk. A couple of vodka martinis put him to sleep, sometimes just after dinner, sometimes during dinner. His drinking was limited to evening hours (usually) until he retired from being a lawyer, when it came to govern everything he did. He was always courteous and loving to me, but life with an alcoholic is a lonely life.
I was well acquainted with alcohol abuse as a child; it seemed like a sort of inevitable part of the adult world. Neither my father nor my mother drank much but my mother’s second husband (who was a distinguished academic) did, and he was a mean drunk. I lived with my mother and step-father for 2 years just after they were married (I was 8 years old) and later when I first went to college. My step-father had a pattern in the evenings of drinking whiskey until about 11 o’clock, all the while playing hot jazz very loud on the record player. He said he needed to relax after work. At around 11 he ate dinner which my mother had kept warm in the oven for him. As the alcohol began to wear off he got irritable and then angry. My mother, my little sister and I would cower upstairs, where we retreated to keep the sound of jazz a distant, if relentless, beat, hoping he wouldn’t think up something to start a fight with my mother about; a fight that might end in blows.
So I should have learned early in life what alcohol can do. I didn’t and I think these may be some of the reasons. First, though I had a happy childhood — at heart I am a happy person — it was not an easy childhood. Part of how I coped was to ignore the bits that were difficult. I retreated into a private place mentally if things went badly. Besides mentally blocking out unpleasantness, I had a real place to escape. After 2 years of living with my mother and step-father I got embroiled in a terrible fight with him (I don’t fully recall it but I know about it) and I asked to be allowed to go back to live with my aunt and uncle. I had lived there while my father and mother were separated. It felt like a safe place. There was plenty of drinking in that house too but it was fun and at parties and there was no fighting. My uncle and aunt and their friends were educators and artists. They drank to a sort of genteel excess, sometimes they were silly, sometimes there was a bit of amorous hanky-panky, but there was never quarreling or openly disorderly behavior. Thus, you see, I had a mixed picture of drinking alcohol.
The first time I myself had an alcoholic drink was the summer after I graduated from high school. I was staying in Vermont with my mother and step-father, and almost every night I went square dancing with my boyfriend and a slightly older couple. One night there was nothing to drink but beer and I was thirsty and hot. So I had part of a beer. I didn’t like it much. Then I went to college at Northwestern University where my step-father was a professor. To conform there you had to drink. I wanted to belong, so I drank the least nasty tasting thing I could think of, bourbon and Coca-Cola. When I remember it now I wonder how I could have swallowed anything so revolting. Actually, I didn’t like it much even then. Drinking had no pleasure for me. Now I enjoy a glass or two of good wine with dinner, but for me there has always been a stopping point with drinking.
My own response to alcohol led me to believe that anyone could easily stop drinking. It’s still true that after a couple of drinks I don’t want any more, and if there is an attentive host who keeps filling my glass I remind myself not to consume it. It took me a long time to understand how difficult it is for someone who metabolizes alcohol in another way to stop drinking. Some people — alcoholics — want to drink more after a couple of drinks. In fact, they must have more; they must keep drinking. And when the time comes that, for whatever reason, they stop drinking, if they haven’t passed out they can become nasty and dangerous.
Of course, I don’t say that there are only two responses to drinking alcohol. I think that my own response probably is not the norm. I doubt that I could become an alcoholic because I don’t enjoy the physical effects of alcohol on my body. But I do think there is a continuum from my way of responding to that of an unreconstructable alcoholic (like 2 of my husbands.) There are people who can, with a lot of effort and motivation, give up drinking even though they crave the feeling it gives them. There are people who, under stress, can gradually get in the habit of drinking too much. There are people who occasionally drink too much, only to regret it the next day. There’s no one kind of abuse and no one solution to the problem of alcoholism: some people cannot be helped.
Alcoholism is, truly, a disease. There are treatments that work on some people. Mostly it’s a question of wanting to be helped; still, how deep the craving is surely must be a factor. l have had dealings with a lot of people who think they know everything about alcoholism (therapists, counselors, social workers, doctors) who believe if the alcoholic will just follow some prescribed set of rules, principles, and beliefs, that their drinking will be controlled. I have been told by many of these professionals that I am an “enabler”. It seems if you are an enabler all you can do is withdraw, and ultimately that is what I did. It had no effect on the drinking of either of the husbands that I supposedly was “enabling”. Both of them continued to drink until they died, which was long after I was out of their lives and had stopped enabling them.
Jerry and I have a few glasses of wine most evenings. For us wine time comes after our walk and before or with dinner (while we listen to the news on the radio — these days marveling over the Republican primary chain-saw massacre). Wine time is an important part of our day. It seems a normal, festive thing. I remember when I was a kid and my uncle’s sister Ruth, a jolly spinster who often lived with us, used to declare loudly at about 4:30, “It’s elbow bending time.” My uncle would most likely already be in the butler’s pantry rattling the cocktail shaker full of martinis.
As I write this I have had my evening wine with dinner. I don’t want any more and I am perfectly functional. I will have a bath and then Jerry and I will watch 2 lectures; one on oceanography and one on Dutch Art in the 17th century. Sometimes Jerry has a little more wine than I and I admonish him to go easy. He does. On the rare occasions that he has slightly overindulged he is sweet. He is extra affectionate and he laughs more than Finns are normally reputed to do.
So I won’t say that drinking alcoholic beverages is an absolute evil. Prohibition didn’t work. I don’t know what would work. Things like 12 step plans seem to work with some people, but with a drunk like Willis it had no appeal. He really didn’t want to stop drinking. Drinking made him feel powerful and gave him no pain because he was indifferent to the pain he caused others. Hugh wanted to stop drinking part of the time; he was always sorry for making others unhappy, but he was weak. The temptation of the moment was too strong. He was never convinced that he couldn’t stop at just one drink.
Perhaps medical science will come up with a magic potion to cure alcoholism. Or perhaps it won’t and there will always be drunks.