Marriage and the family, part II: alcoholism

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.

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11 Responses to Marriage and the family, part II: alcoholism

  1. Hattie says:

    “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.”
    Talk about victim blaming!
    My mother and all my aunts and uncles but one were alcoholics. All other family members were “enablers,” according to the psychiatric profession. That is, unless they were neglectful and uncaring about their alcoholic relatives!

  2. Dale Favier says:

    Last year I was reading some of James Herriot’s stuff from way back — must have been written when I was kid — and it was full of amusing anecdotes about getting being drunk under the table by a pressing host, driving over embankments, passing out. All good fun. Well told stories, of course, but from a different world: I can’t imagine someone using just that tone and adopting quite that jovial attitude today. The stuff regularly destroys people and relationships, and our culture seems to be gradually wrapping its mind around that fact.

    I had a brush with binge alcoholism in my thirties, pulled up, and haven’t drink at all for years now. I was years into having a serious problem before I realized it: and it really wasn’t until years after I stopped that I realized the extent of the problem. I was very lucky, I think. Drink wasn’t embedded in my social or my home life, so it was pretty easy for me to just plain stop.

    Glad to be done with that part of my life.

  3. Tabor says:

    There are many addictions, food, exercise, work, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. All are dangerous in excess. You can be an enabler if you are ignoring or hiding or making excuses for the addicted person. But once you stop doing that, you are no longer an enabler. I am sorry so much of your life was distracted by the weakness of others, but you seem to have found a perfect balance and understanding.

  4. e says:

    This resonates so strongly. ‘gave him no pain because he was indifferent to the pain he caused others.’ I am sorry to say that was my mother. She always liked a drink (or six). After my father died she jumped into the bottle, started drinking before breakfast and continued until she passed out. Next day the same.
    She had no interest in stopping. After a major stroke she spent 10 months in hospital. Alcohol free.
    The day she came home she rang the local supermarket and arranged delivery of a dozen bottles of wine. She did not live long after that (less than ten days) but I have no doubt that her alcohol consumption would have rocketed up to previous levels.

  5. Betty says:

    You have earned far more confidence than you seem to feel Anne. It is time to accept yourself. Get married again if it is in the cards – I expect you have paid the price for each one of them and i have no doubt you give (or have given) more than you receive which certainly makes you an enabler! Take care,

  6. Addiction -it comes in many forms. I’m married to a workaholic …
    And not just a person who loves his job … but someone who has his entire identity wrapped up in his job. Am I an enabler?

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    I am an alcoholic, sober for over a quarter of a century. I believe it is in every addict’s capacity to change if they want to. Most don’t want to, afraid of living life in a painful reality, their demons haunting them. I also believe it takes one alkie to understand another alkie. Therapists and shrinks and counsellors, unless addicts themselves, have a limited understanding of the addictive mind.
    Enablers (sometimes called co-dependents) do the addict no favours by covering for them, lying for them, etc. but are often sicker than the alkie themselves, having (usually) been brought up in an alcoholic home and knowing no different until the pain gets to be too much and they leave.
    You have had a wonderful life, Anne, and are a shining light as to how life can be when the demons are faced and slain.

  8. Jean says:

    Enabler is a horrible word, isn’t it? Most of us (not all of us) are doing our best, I think, and destructive or self-destructive behaviour comes from deep in the past and the subconscious. Society and even the best of individuals are so deeply messed up. I think your honesty and lucidity do you credit.

  9. rosie says:

    The world of touring musicians is known for the dangers that lurk, and I have lost many colleagues to drink and drugs. I think that there is a spectrum of behaviour ranging from complete out of control dependance to those who are able to take it or leave it. At various phases in my life, I have veered between one and the other! My partner likes to drink wine, as I do…we do live in france after all… but he is rather sweet when he has had one to many. If I had had the misfortune to pass my time with people who reacted violently to drink, my attitude would probably be very different. What an interesting life you have lead…and are still leading. Thank you for being so thought provoking

  10. Pauline says:

    My father was a happy drunk, my mother stopped after one glass, I can’t tolerate alcohol much at all and I stayed 15 years with an alcoholic before, like you, finally freeing myself of his abuse. Your account here is familiar – if you were an enabler then, you aren’t now. Best to let it go. You sound sane and balanced to me. And as long as you don’t mind having been married four times, I can’t see that it’s anyone else’s right to judge. You can’t undo those years. I like that you’re not trying.

  11. Darlene says:

    I doubt if there are many families who have not had experience with an addict of one sort or another. My Uncle was an alcoholic and I saw what it did to my family. He was not mean, but would walk in a snow storm to buy a bottle of wine with his last dollar instead of buying bus tokens. He was a musician, as is my son and daughter-in-law. My son drinks too many beers after dinner, but it never interferes with his life. But my daughter-in-law has been an alcoholic for many years and has had one wake up call after another. She burned a hole in her trachea from drinking vodka and had emergency surgery, has had several accidents driving when drunk, had to spend a night in jail after her 3rd DUI and has destroyed her marriage and her health drinking. She has been in re-hab twice to no avail. My son divorced her but has kept her in the home because no one else will take her. He has finally been persuaded to let her go. Life has become intolerable for him and good friends told him he doesn’t deserve to be so unhappy and stressed. Living with an alcoholic is no life and you were courageous to do so as long as you did.

    As for being an enabler; it’s hard to not cover for the drinker when you may be dependent on their pay check. I call that blaming the victim.

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