I met my husband when I was 20 years old. There was an instant attraction and within a month of meeting, we were living together and inseparable. We were both completely irresponsible, didn’t pay our bills, ran away when we got discovered and basically lived like a couple of naughty kids playing truant from life. I knew he liked to have a drink, but I had no idea what an alcoholic was. Like many people I thought they were the poor and destitute, sleeping on park benches. I thought he was just young, and I told myself that being drunk was ‘what men did’. It didn’t matter to me much then, he was so funny, wild and entertaining.
I turned 21 in November and for Christmas he made me a little engagement ring out of knitted string, and we agreed we would get married. The following May we had our little wedding in the local registry office. It was a gloomy affair really; he was desperately hungover during the whole thing. I pleaded with him not to drink the night before the wedding. I believe he meant it when he promised he wouldn’t, but when I saw him at the wedding, he was red eyed, nauseous and unsteady. After the ceremony he went straight to the bathroom and was sick. He ate nothing that day and we didn’t dance. Our wedding night was him sleeping it off and me feeling alone, but I forgave him.
By the summer, we had to move to another town because the landlord finally evicted us for not paying our rent. We both thought the whole thing a tremendous hoot. I found a little part time job and he went to art college. When money came in, we would celebrate. My idea of celebration was to eat a meal together or go to the cinema, but his idea was to go to the pub and spend all the money. I grew frustrated that he didn’t seem to be taking things as seriously as I was. I remember him telling me at the time that I had lost my talent for having fun. That’s when the arguments really started. I began to take money from him, he had a curfew which he ignored, and he spent more and more time at the pub after college. There were countless spoiled dinners. Each time he was late I would give myself targets – “if he’s not home by six I will call his mum in case he is there”, “if he’s not home by seven I will call the pub”. Then it became, “if he’s not home by eight I will call the hospital, and if he’s not home by nine I will call the police”. “If he’s not home by ten I will go to his sister’s house and beg her husband to take me to town to look for him, and if he’s not home by 11, he’s dead”. I experienced panic attacks almost daily.
For a while my only focus in life was whether he would come home on time, and whether he would be drunk. We fell behind in our bills again, that’s when someone from the local church took pity on us and told us we could rent the little caretakers’ house if we agreed to keep the church heated and cleaned during the week. The house had no hot water and only two coal fires, but it was cheap and pleasant enough. It took some upkeep and at first, we both put effort in but that didn’t last long. Each day he was sober in the morning, I would try to talk to him about it and impose yet another solution. There was the ‘only drink one can a night’ solution, or the ‘if you smell of drink you cannot come in the house’. ‘If you stop drinking, I will promise to lose weight’, or ‘let’s save all the drink money and then spend it on something brilliant’. There was the ‘I don’t mind if you drink, so long as you don’t make false promises or tell lies’, and the most short-lived of all was the, ‘for every drink you have, I will have one and then you’ll see what pain you are giving me and yourself’. I was sick before we were half way through. About once a week I would come up with a new strategy, and some lasted a few days, some a few hours, and some were never even attempted.
At 23 I was pregnant, and everything suddenly got a lot more serious. My physical and emotional health had begun to bear the brunt of the active alcoholism, and this showed in the early months. I was so sick, I was exhausted, I could neither eat nor drink and I had no energy to perform regular household tasks. I needed my husband now more than ever! At first my husband was proud and excited about the pregnancy. He shared his pride by taking everyone out for a drink and staying drunk for about two weeks. In that time, I was trying to look after myself, the house and the two cats we had. I didn’t have the energy to organise coal for the house or to get the shopping, so it was left undone. The house was cold and one day all we had to eat was a loaf of bread, some butter and jam – plus mugs of tea. It was all we had in the house.
For three months I was exhausted, and he was either planning a drink, having a drink or recovering from the effects of drink. After a while I called Al-Anon. I have no recollection of how I learned about it, I just know I picked up the phone to ask how I could stop him from drinking. I spoke to someone on the helpline and told them about my husband. I found myself defending him, saying that I was worried, but I was probably being silly because he didn’t drink every day and he sometimes went to the pub and only had soft drinks. The person on the other end of the phone asked me if I really believed that my husband went out and only had orange juice? This question hit me like a lightning bolt. I was faced with the awfulness of my denial, but I wasn’t ready for it. I hung up the phone and never called again for another twenty years.
When our first child was born, he disappeared for almost four days. When he came to collect me from the hospital, he was hungover. We arrived home and he slept for about two days. I managed the baby on my own. After a few months he went to university 200 miles from our home. The idea was to go there and find a place for me and our son to move into. When he left, I was completely bereft and panicked, convincing myself that he would die or be killed if I wasn’t there to save him. I had panic attacks each night when he didn’t keep to his agreement and phone me.
After two weeks, I moved out of the house and went to stay with him in his student room. I couldn’t tolerate being away from him. When we arrived, he was not entirely pleased – he had not missed us in the way I had missed him. In fact, I felt rather in-the-way. We planned to find a place, but I soon realised I was the only one who was looking. I saw that having a wife and a baby was cramping his style and he was itching to get out there with the other students and live the student life. My son and I had to move in with my parents until I found another place to live.
Communication with my husband became less and his home visits grew fewer. When he was around the house, he just wanted to be out. He would manufacture arguments so he could storm out. He would disappear, come back drunk and apologise, then do it all again the next day. He used up his student money and even though I was living with a baby and on welfare, I saved a few pounds to send to him. He didn’t send birthday cards to me or the baby and after one argument about it, where I accused him of using all his money on drink and never sending anything home, a packet arrived at the house. I felt shame for thinking badly of him when he was clearly sending a gift home. When I opened it, it was full of his hair. He had shaved his head and sent me the cuttings.
In the summer he was home before embarking on his final year, I became pregnant again. I knew it was a desperate attempt by me to salvage our relationship. After our second child was born things got even worse; he stopped calling and home visits became three times a year. There was a suspicion of another woman and by the time he came home for good, I gave him an ultimatum that he either got himself a job or he would have to leave. This had the opposite effect, he became apathetic, spent days just lying on the sofa playing computer games. When the children cried for his attention, he would put on ear phones and turn the volume up. It was so awful that I began to realise I was happier when he wasn’t there, so finally I asked him to leave. He did!
He made a lot of promises to the kids over the years, but none of them were fulfilled. When my children became adults, they went to visit him to build a relationship with him. I also made peace with him which was a great gift.
At 49, he died from a bleed to the brain after he fell during a drinking binge. The coroner said that had he not been an alcoholic, he would have survived that fall with just a mild concussion, but because his brain had physically shrunk due to the alcohol, he had no chance of recovery.
I finally found Al-Anon again after his death. I couldn’t understand why I was grieving so much for someone I had stopped loving all those years ago. I went to a meeting feeling like a fraud since he left years ago, but everyone was so welcoming and loving, that I knew I was in the right place. I always wondered how I had been attracted to an alcoholic and why I hadn’t been able to spot his problems much sooner. It was through meetings, reading the literature and working The Steps, that I realised although my parents didn’t drink, they had many if not all the characteristics of an alcoholic. They blamed everyone for their difficulties, they were dishonest, manipulative, fearful and totally egocentric. All characteristics that my husband had when he was drunk. When he died, I mourned the person he was before the alcohol completely took over.
After two and a half years attending Al-Anon meetings I am improving. I have begun detaching from responsibilities that are not mine. For almost thirty years I have carried the responsibility that it was my fault the children were not raised by a decent father. My children ended up having a good life, and that was thanks to me. It’s hard to feel comfortable with that, but it is necessary for me to let go of blame, both of him, and of myself.
I still have a lot of healing to do, but thanks to Al-Anon, I can do my healing in a loving fellowship.