Most of us know someone who drinks too much. Our society romanticises and celebrates those who can drink others under the table. We don’t like the street drunk or those caught in a never-ending cycle of social welfare but we do have a blind spot for what is called the functioning alcoholic. Our movies and popular culture, it seems, almost worship them and their antics, and our big businesses and governments profit from the proceeds of their excesses.
But who is there at 3 o’clock in the morning witnessing shouted nonsensical slurred instructions down a phone line.
– “Come and get me!!!”
– “Where are you?”
– “I am sitting on a park bench.”
– “I don’t know!”
– “Can you get a taxi?”
– “No. I can’t see one.”
– “How can I come and get you if you don’t know where you are?”
– “I’m sitting on a bench. I lost my bag and coat.”
– “What bench? What can you see around you? Describe it to me.”
– “Are you coming to get me or what???”
– “You’ve got to help me here… is there a street nearby?”
– “F**k you then!!!”
Clunk, she drops the phone, ending the call. Only to ring four more times between 3 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. for further circular exchanges and you’ve got to be able to function at work that day by 8 a.m. and you have already spent most of the night worrying.
You’ve got a good mind to leave her in the park for the rest of the night. But it’s downtown in a big city and the temperature has dropped way down and you knew that she was heading for a part of the city that has an underbelly that is sinister. You can’t call the police – “Hi, my partner is very drunk on a park bench somewhere. Can you help me find her?!!” So your mind races at a thousand miles per second through all the possibilities. She’s not safe from the weather, from sexual or physical harm or from the side effects of far too much alcohol far too often. And there is nothing that you can do, no one you can call.
Fortunately with the last call she identifies a landmark that locates her and you set off to get her. If you have children you wake them and pile them into the car because you know that you can’t leave them at home and you know that you can’t phone anyone at that hour of the day to mind them. Besides, if you did that then you’d be blowing the sham that your life has become out of the water and your partner’s addiction and behaviour would become front page news in your immediate world, and the shame of that is not something that you have even the slightest idea of how to deal with. Then there would be the prospect that she might lose her job if her employer were to get wind of her addiction, and that would take you down a financial road too hard to contemplate.
So you bury the anger and despair and once again go and fetch her from the bowels of the night and the clutches of the demon that has removed any traces of the gorgeous woman you were once thrilled to have made your partner for life. Your feeling of hopeless desperation increases with every kilometre travelled, and you cement another brick in the wall that has become the prison in which you both live.
As it is for thousands of families, couples and friends, this is just another groundhog day. Just another day of being pulled further down, by someone you love, into the ugly vortex that is alcohol addiction. And you are powerless to stop the slide. You feel invisible, humiliated, hostile, angry and manipulated, just to name a few of the emotions that are buried deep inside you because mainly you now feel numb.
You’ve tried everything. You’ve taken advice from all the listed services and then some. Still it goes on. Yes, there are days or even weeks where the drinking has stopped and the person you love has returned full of remorse, apologies and shame, but they seem far away on a night like this. On a night like this you find that you too go through a change by turning into a hard-edged angry impatient rescuer/life saver/enabler. It claws at your throat. It takes insurmountable amounts of energy, and you can feel yourself aging by the day.
There was a time when you believed her and in fact, ridiculous as it is, you still catch yourself falling for the heartfelt lines asking for forgiveness and promising change. Now, though, you know that you are on a hiding to none and there feels like no way out. The thing that breaks your heart the most is that the glimmer of hope that kept you going, telling you that there was still a chance, has all but been extinguished. Where to now, now that the hope has gone?
You’ve run out of words to describe how you feel about what has happened to your little family, your adored partner, your cherished son/daughter/parent and yourself. Your world. Added to that, no one else seems to care. All the healthcare agencies have gone past their physical/financial capacity to help yonks ago. Either they will have no ability to help for months or the help that is there is too little or not helping. It’s gut wrenching. You also now know that even if you had access to the best care in the world it would come to nothing if your loved one doesn’t/can’t stick to the programme.
You want to scream, not necessarily at anyone. But you want someone to notice how hard and life-shattering your world has become. You want to tell the movers and shakers and law makers how enraged you are every time you see an advertisement for alcohol. They are everywhere, appearing every hour of the day and night. There is no escape. You want to scream at the duality, the hypocrisy of governments and big business and their management of alcohol addiction whilst the treasury rubs its hands together over the truly massive revenue raised by preying on those like your loved one. There is nothing that they will seemingly not do if there is the promise of a profit at the end. You want to scream because the cost of that profit is tied up with your loved one’s life and the wellbeing of you and your family. It seems so unfair – you don’t see glorious enticing ads for heroin or ice or cannabis on every street corner or on the back of every bus.
You are also totally frustrated by the duality and the hypocrisy of the culture that you see around you that romanticises and celebrates alcohol and then ignores the heartbreaking consequences. But not you and tens of thousands of families across this country every hour of every day. This is your world, your reality, and you are constantly reminded of it and never more than at the big festive occasions that are sprinkled throughout the year when you once again brace yourself and your family as the world becomes awash with alcohol.
You are caught by circumstances beyond your control and you work hard at containing your ever growing resentment to protect the others in your care. You’re trapped as you feel a responsibility for this person’s life which is totally ironic because she seems to have scant regard for it, or for that matter, your life or that of her children and other loved ones. You moved passed devastated a while ago when you realised that the pull of alcohol trumped anything you or your family had to offer. Now your primary feelings hover around being inadequate, lonely, despondent, empty and very directionless. This is not what you signed up for when you said yes to this relationship. Some days you really want out – to pack your bags and run away as fast as you can. Distressingly, most days now you wish for an intervention, for her, by alien abduction or in your worst moments, her death or something that will take her out of your life, out of the family home. Forever. That she will become someone else’s responsibility.
Your heart breaks because you’ve read all the literature and come to your own conclusions about what being a functioning alcoholic is or isn’t and there are still no answers. Just the emptiness and the dread of what each day will bring as you both play out a well-ordered set of rules that ensure that the boat isn’t rocked, that the illusion of your normal family is kept intact. One of your biggest fears is that one day it will come to a crashing halt.
It’s not just the grand scenes that are hard to deal with…it’s the endless grind of the everyday drinking, too. Not always enough to slur the words but enough to take the edge off reality, to annul the intimate link you once had. It’s all become so hollow and you now find yourself just going through the motions of a relationship without any tangible signs of deep connection. You grieve that and you grieve the loss of your own life, where did it go? It has slipped away over the years and you have forgotten the last time you were asked anything about what was important to you or when you last had any fun, without being guarded or hyper-alert. Over time you have ended up with the responsibility for everything.
It is truly like a bad dream where all the control is in someone else’s hands and you find yourself in the never-ending corridor with doors that you can’t open and side passages that are dark and creepy. Will it ever end?
What can you do when you are not the problem? How can you change the course of this when everything you have tried up to this point has come to no good?
It is impossible to give a blanket answer to such questions as each situation is unique. However, one thing is for sure – wrestling with this on your own is gut-wrenching and exhausting. You’ve heard of the saying that a “problem shared is a problem halved”. Well, that might not be totally the case here but talking about what’s happening for you will share your internal load. It will help you to gain some sort of objectivity, which is impossible to do when you are neck deep in something. It puts someone in your corner whom you can turn to and use as a sounding-board. Service organisations that are centred on addictions also run groups for those directly affected by the addictive behaviour of a loved one. There is great comfort in knowing that you are not alone but the hard part is finding the courage to put your hand up to say “I think I might need help, too”. Rest assured that there are thousands of people like you and there is absolutely no shame in stepping forward. Functioning alcoholics, like most addicts, are a crazy mixture of manipulation, hopelessness, resourcefulness, selfishness, inadequacy, resentment, anger, desperation, insecurity, anxiety and confusion, amongst other things, and their need to be in control is an overwhelming behavioural necessity. They are very complex and challenging people, and getting together with others with similar stories can be of enormous relief. Often the thought of reaching out for help brings up feelings of disloyalty, perhaps even that of being a traitor, as you feel like you will be spilling the beans on your loved one.
But what about you? Your life counts, too! What about your family? You all have needs and a claim to live a peaceful ordered life. This isn’t the privilege of just one member of a family or partnership, and challenging it armed with help and knowledge doesn’t have to necessarily mean the end of it; it can just signal a new way, a more equitable way of being together, of living as a family.
Contact me or your local health care agencies or a counsellor near you for support tailored to the significant others of alcoholics. You do not have to do this alone.
WholeHearted You Counselling Busselton
0478 628 288 for individual counselling.
I do offer Skype sessions as well.