Why I Stayed: a Widow of an Alcoholic Reflects
Published in Next Avenue on March 11, 2019
When the subject is addiction, there are no easy answers
If there’s a universal symbol for loved ones of alcoholics, I’m not aware of it. But I offer the perfect image: clasped hands tied at the wrists.
My husband was a “high-functioning alcoholic,” a misnomer evoking a sense of accomplishment; a more accurate term would be “low-visibility.” Until a few years ago, when I began writing about surviving an addict, many people in our life didn’t know Robert was an alcoholic. Once I finally came clean about my husband’s addiction, family, friends and colleagues reached out to comfort, sympathize, empathize.
There have also been questions, the most common: ‘Why did you stay?’
At first, I didn’t realize there was a problem. Robert was a social drinker. But a morning whiff of Scotch sparked suspicion. Hidden empties, endless excuses and increasing withdrawal confirmed my fears. Discovery prompted confrontations, triggering denial and igniting a nasty war within our marriage. Holed up alone in the basement with his Scotch bottles, Robert became argumentative, critical and mean-spirited.
According to The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence 17.6 million people suffer from alcohol abuse. Al-Anon estimates that each alcoholic affects the lives of at least four people.
So Why Stay?
I loved Robert. Not all 23 years together were tainted by alcoholism. I couldn’t turn my back on a lifetime, and a life partner. And I wasn’t in physical danger. Robert was never violent.
Guilt held sway over me, despite health professionals’ counseling. Tough love is a bitter pill to swallow. I worried that my husband — left alone — would fall down the stairs, leave a pot on the stove, accidentally kill himself.
Yet by helping him, was I crossing one of countless indistinguishable lines that presented themselves every day? Finding him a therapist who specialized in addiction. Printing the schedule of AA meetings. Cleaning up his messes.
Conflict is inescapable. I’m an enabler if I drive him to an AA meeting and a bad partner if I leave him to pursue his favorite pastime — wallowing in the basement watching TV and drinking.
Luckily, I had a wonderful support system; not just the few who I’d confided in about Robert’s alcoholism, but my network of family and friends unaware of my situation.
I was determined to find the joy in each day despite my husband’s alcoholism. I refused to let his drinking define me. I’d eked out a life for myself—around his drinking. It was as if Robert’s alcoholism was an aggressive tumor and my life the adjacent healthy tissue, moving and reshaping to accommodate the tumor’s growth.
A Daunting Task
Divorce was on my mind. A few of the friends who knew about Robert’s drinking were worried about my welfare, suggesting that it might be time to leave. Listening at Al-Anon meetings and reading strangers’ stories online reinforced the idea that life without an alcoholic would be better.
But when Robert’s condition suddenly spiraled and he was hospitalized, I abandoned any thoughts of leaving and concentrated on his recovery.
I found a specialist championing a promising steroid program and to address my husband’s anxiety and depression, scheduled bedside therapy sessions and arranged for visits from AA members who had been given Robert’s diagnosis — and survived. “Wes,” one of the two who came to Robert’s bedside, had an easygoing manner in stark contrast to the tale he told of loss, pain and degradation.
“I was where you are now,” he said, pointing to Robert in his bed. “I was there, and I made it out.”
It’s a daunting task selling hope at a deathbed.
As the men described their decimated lives — losing jobs, family, friends; waking up on the street, in jail, in ERs — I recalled a visit with Robert’s doctor months earlier.
He’d said to Robert: “I’m amazed she’s still here,” gesturing to me. “At this point,” referring to Robert’s alcoholism, “most spouses have already left.”
A sense of pride had washed over me. Here was a health professional marveling at my loyalty and devotion toward my husband. Most have already left — but not me. I felt strong, benevolent, altruistic. But my sense of righteousness was brief. Most. What do all the others know that I don’t?
Surviving an Alcoholic
Then death intervened, caused by alcoholic hepatitis, rendering the decision to stay or leave unnecessary.
My heart aches for those who can’t remember life before it was hijacked at the bar. They’re hoping things will change, praying for recovery, looking for answers.
When I started blogging about surviving an alcoholic, the response was overwhelming. “You told my story!” continues to be a frequent comment from those living secret lives in silence and shame, as well as those whose hell is behind them.
Hopefully sharing my story helps others feel less alone, but it also shocked and disappointed certain friends and family members.
There are no easy answers. Sound off or keep silent? Help or refrain? Stay or leave? Many people in difficult relationships ask themselves, Why do I stay? But when addiction is in the mix, deciding whether to stay put or walk out is impossible.
12 Responses to “Why I Stayed: a Widow of an Alcoholic Reflects”
My husband’s family — two siblings and parents—were all alcoholics as was he, always denying he was anything but a social drinker. Two and a half years ago he was hospitalized for a blood clot that could have killed him, but he survived and decided he was going to stop drinking. And he did. Hasn’t touched alcohol for two and a half years. He lost around 20 pounds, feels good and has no regrets. His sister died of lung cancer last November 2021 — they were all smokers, too— and he is the only survivor. His brother died of a heart condition, also a smoker and drinker, 6 years ago. He really wanted to stop drinking and he did. Amazing! I’m very proud of him.
My husband passed away in February of 2021 – we were married almost 37 years. While I knew things were bad, I was shocked when a day before it happened, that he was actually dying. John always was a heavy drinker – even when I met him at 21 years old, but it was never a problem. He went on to get his bachelors and masters degrees, have two rewarding careers – the second as a teacher in which he excelled. His behavior itself was becoming worse and worse – paranoid and nasty and argumentative to everyone (which I now believe may have been an undiagnosed and untreated behavior problem from childhood – his family refuses to tell me anything). He caused a lot of bad blood with family & friends, but of course, it was NEVER his fault. But, his drinking still wasn’t affecting his functioning in his job until 5 years ago, when piece by piece, he started having health issues – I watched as his health slowly crumbled until in the last 6 months, he was incapable of doing anything but drinking and I could never have dreamed how severe it got. He ended up being arrested for DUI, and fired from his job. It wasn’t until a month and a half before he died (I didn’t realize he was dying because he wouldn’t allow the doctors to tell me anything), that I finally decided to tell him I wanted a divorce. He never saw that coming and he was devastated. He moved in with his sister and made several efforts to kill himself. In the end, he kind of/sort of did. One of his health problems was problems standing – his legs would start to shake and he’d fall – I witnessed him falling in our home numerous times. What I didn’t know was that it was happening at school as well. Unbeknownst to anyone, shortly before I told him to leave, he was having slow brain bleeds from falling and hitting his head and his liver was so bad, his clotting mechanism was barely working. Now that I know this was happening, it explains a whole lot of things that I was yelling at him for being drunk. Anyway – Valentines Day night, he fell at his sisters house for the last time and lunged his head into the wall (his alcohol BAC was .401). She said she knew it was bad – really bad – and called an ambulance. By the time they got him to the hospital ER, he was already in a coma and never woke again. Surgery was performed, but the surgeon point blank told me he would not make it and despite their efforts, the bleeding into his brain would not stop – he was on a ventilator as well. He went into cardiac arrest a day and a half later. It was a shock to my system – I was suddenly a widow. I could never have dreamed this as to how a once very happy and fulfilling marriage could end up this way and I think I was in shock for the first 6 months. I know I will never know what exactly was going on – he had so many secrets. At first, I was frantically trying to learn as much as I could, but am slowly letting go.
I am now a Widow of a 47 yr marriage to a functional alcoholic who only 8 yes ago became sober by a intervention I put toghter than he was helped , but I don’t think he enjoyed sober living also look sad dad &down …. was hospilized needing a double bypass abs never recovered and passed on in April … I try to remember the beginning of my marriage when things were better but too many hard working thru a tough marriage … now what to do as a new window .. afraid to go out and meet same kind of person …..
My husband passed away on Easter from cirrohus. He battled depression and binge drinking for 5 years. He tried everything to stop but his demons were greater, he just turned 42. I miss him. I wish I could have helped more.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Hilary. It’s heartbreaking to lose your partner. As for your guilt, you will probably find that most surviving spouses of alcoholics feel that they could have helped more. I know I did. But the only one who can save the alcoholic from alcoholism, is the alcoholic. The professionals (my husband’s doctor, my therapist, his therapist) tried to convince me that there was nothing more I could have done. In time, I was able to see that. It took years to truly believe it. When you’re ready, you might want to look for support at Al-Anon and bereavement groups (though if they’re not specific to alcoholism, it might not be as helpful). Be good to yourself, you’ve been through a devastating time. Keep connected with family and friends.
Wishing you comfort and peace.
I feel like I could have written that. I’m so sorry for your loss. My husband passed away 4.27.18 from cirrhosis, as well. He was 44 and also had a “short” history of being a big drinker. As I just passed the one year anniversary i have slowly come to the acceptance that nothing i may have done would have mattered. 6 days before Q died he received his one month chip from AA. I question the truth to that but today it doesn’t matter. His disease was bigger than him. I am finding peace on occasion he is no longer suffering and that I need to take care of myself in order to take care of our son.
It’s a tough road but take it day by day and cut yourself a lot of slack. ❤️
Thank you for replying. As I watched John suffer with his depression and anxiety which he compensated with drinking, it just broke my heart seeing such a sweet guy in pain. He would always try for help and new treatments but deep down the drinking really took over him. His family blames me even though his dad had cirrohus and is a liver transplant survivor. You are very lucky to have your son, we tried but had a miscarriage a few years ago which didn’t help his mental health. He really was a wonderful husband and it was very shocking to me how the alcohol destroyed him. Trying to just get through each day. Nice to talk to someone who has been through this because people look at me like I am crazy when I try to explain.
I really appreciate your blog and the comments. I spent 30 years married to my alcoholic. Longest sobriety he ever had was 5 years in a row. Best five years of our lives, yet he could never seem to achieve that again. It will be a year next week since my husband–who’s BAC was .25, laid down on the railroad tracks. He was passed out and coroner said he died instantly. He is at peace at last. Steve was a fantastic Papa and step dad to my kids. We never referred to him as “step”. My children and grandchildren all miss him. It was recommended that I go to Al-Anon again but it just brings up too many horrible memories. Can’t even imagine living all of that again. My heart breaks for addicts but only they can get the help they need. I, also, did much enabling. And driving an alcoholic to a meeting………that doesn’t work either. He always found a way to drink no matter what. Thank you so much for writing what you do; I know we can all relate.
Thank you for sharing, as well. My condolences to you and your children, I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you and your family find comfort and support in each other. You’re right, many do not understand the ugly underbelly of life with an alcoholic.
Wishing you peace and strength, hope and joy!
All the best,
This post is everything! 100,000% everything!
I am 44 days out from the one year anniversary of my 44 year old husband’s death due to alcoholic cirrohsis. His drinking went up and down but only the last 3-5 years were pretty bad. Never violent but could be mean if he wasn’t passed out by 7. Our 12 year old witnessed the drinking and worried constantly about his father. He would leave notes “daddy, please remember mommy and I love you and want you to be healthy.” The nail in the coffin, so to speak, was my husband losing his job for drinking at work and showing up to an important airport commission meeting drunk! He was put on leave and could only return after a successful stint in rehab and sober…..that was March 1, 2018. He entered out patient rehab on 3/19….day by day looking worse and worse….yet insisting he wasn’t drinking. I went as far as contacting his counslor and she even admitted his levels reflected drinking but yet my husband saying he had burbuon steak tips or there was whiskey on the Easter ham let it slide. …… fast forward a month and he was medivaced to Boston b/c of a hole in his intestine, a pretty much non functioning liver and air in his abdomen. Surgery only had barely a 10% chance of Q making it off the table alive….anger doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt. Never did I think this would be our story or the outcome. I truly thought he’d end up in an inpatient rehab for possibly months and afterwards we’d live the life we wanted……
The “why’s” of staying are not possible to explain to those outside of this “club.” So much easier said then done. We, too, discussed divorce and in looking back had we separated I know he’d have headed home to mama or died getting there……the thought of my once vibrant, loving, handsome AF husband dying alone keeps me awake at night! I am grateful today for forgiveness and being able, with our son, to hold my husband’s hands as he took his last breath at home surrounded by love. If he only understood he was loved and not broken.
Did I enable? Yup! Did I try to keep myself and our son busy and happy? Yup. Did I lose my shit on what felt like a daily basis about the drinking? Totally! In the end we loved each other fiercely and through the bad and good we fought the stupid stuff. But also in the end….addiction won. Charlie and I lost-left to pick up the pieces and keep our beloved Q’s memory alive and we will do it daily!
Thank you for your truth and ability to share your story. I go back and forth as to whether I should, or could, share mine.
Wishing you peace and strength!
I’m so sorry for your loss and what you and your son have had to endure. I hope you both find peace and comfort. Be good to yourself, be good to each other. Try not to let guilt have its way with you. Stay healthy. Let friends and family comfort you. Seek professional guidance if you feel you and your son need it – there’s no such thing as too much help. You both deserve to be happy.
Thanks so much for sharing here.
Wishing you peace and strength, hope and joy!
All the best,
Thank you for sharing . As a survivor left after the death of my husband of 30 years, father of our four children and I stuck with him through 30 days in the hospital and then his passing….many do not understand why. You’re story sums it up-thank you. -Mary