By Paula Ganzi Licata
Meeting someone for the first time since my husband’s death is difficult. There are two groups: those who know about Robert’s death but haven’t seen me, and those who have no idea. I choose my version of the news carefully to avoid questions. But what can you expect when a seemingly healthy man who just turned 50 dies suddenly?
“How are you doing?” my periodontist asks.
My emotions get the better of me and I can feel my face scrunch up ugly, tears seeping out of the corners of my eyes. But the tears are running up, toward my scalp, because I’m fully reclined in a dentist’s chair. I can’t manage words, so I shake my head up and down as if to communicate, “I’m O.K.,” the inability to say so making it obvious that I’m not.
If he’d asked how Robert died, I’d have faced a split-second decision: Do I acknowledge that Robert died of alcoholic hepatitis, or lie?
Alcoholism is a disease that keeps challenging loved ones after the alcoholic is gone. Surviving spouses don’t hesitate to talk of heart attacks, cancer deaths, car accidents. But other than suicide — and some might argue that alcoholism is a slow suicide — it’s a death laden with shame.
Response 1: My husband died of a kidney infection.
Response 2: My husband was a high-functioning alcoholic, which is a clinical-sounding way of saying no one knew he had Scotch before breakfast and urinated in the basement utility sink each night, too drunk to climb the stairs. His doctor estimated that Robert started drinking heavily only five or six years before his death. There was a sudden spiral, perhaps exacerbated by excessive amounts of Tylenol and unprescribed Xanax, in conjunction with a genetic predisposition. A perfect storm.
I tend to go with Response 1.
Shame is just one challenge for survivors of alcoholics. But it’s nothing compared with the guilt.
Could I have done more? Was I too harsh? Too easy? An enabler? Should I have kicked him out to scare him straight? Or driven him to an A.A. meeting every night? Should I have told more people? If I had left, would he have stopped drinking? Why did I stay? Hindsight is filled with “what if” scenarios, second-guessing every step of the past.
Bereavement counseling sessions are grouped by the particular loss (spouse, child, parent), some age-specific, in an effort to gain the support of others in similar situations. I was assigned to the Under 50 Widowed Group. But no member’s situation was similar to mine. Robert’s addiction caused chaos in our marriage, our happily-ever-after days got hijacked at the bar, revealing the ugly underbelly of our often admired marriage. The others in the group had been looking forward to their futures, whereas I worried about fresh troubles each day. While they felt the loss of a partner, I’d lost Robert long ago to a never-ending drink of Scotch. They saw their lives as bleak and empty; I’d found some peace and comfort.
Widowhood was overshadowed by memories of misery.
How did I become a widow? It began in our basement, where Robert holed up with his Dewar’s bottles. One night he fell asleep in his recliner watching TV, and eventually sleeping two floors apart became the norm. Initially, the basement was his home office, but it mutated into something dangerous and ugly — rock bottom. The Jekyll-and-Hyde personae were happily married college professor by day, passed-out drunk at night.
Transformed from wife to detective, I began kissing for the sake of sniffing, snooping for receipts to see how much liquor he bought and how often, discovering hidden trash bags full of empty bottles. The confrontations escalated, initiated by me. I was outraged by Robert’s denial and disregard; yet protective and heartbroken, wanting to save him from himself. In what I thought was the beginning of recovery, I accompanied a jaundiced Robert to his doctor where we were told his condition was reversible. He started an outpatient program, began seeing a psychologist specializing in addiction and attended only a few A.A. meetings, despite doctor’s orders that he go every day for the rest of his life.
I can’t say Robert “fell off the wagon,” as he never fully abstained. And I couldn’t force him into rehab: We lived in New York, where a person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem must voluntarily appear for treatment unless he presents an immediate threat to himself or others. The threat Robert presented wasn’t the kind they meant.
Six months later Robert was given a diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis and given a 90 percent chance of dying within two weeks. All my anger and frustration vanished, replaced with heart-wrenching devastation.
I changed doctors to a specialist who offered better odds and a steroid program; arranged to have A.A. reps visit and tell their survival stories; coordinated bedside therapy sessions. Family, friends and professionals all tried to keep Robert focused. But he was a terrible patient. Robert’s phobias made him demanding and uncooperative, refusing dialysis, treatment rooms with low lighting or hospital rooms on a high floor. I slept beside him in a recliner. “Don’t be long,” he’d call out whenever I left the room.
Nineteen days later we were at Robert’s deathbed.
Operating on surviving spouse autopilot, I tended to the details of death, my family and friends helping me with each task. The days of the wake had a partylike atmosphere — loud, crowded, unorganized. The day of the funeral had a sense of finality, an agenda to adhere to, a task to complete: bury Robert. Like a bride making her grand entrance, the widow follows the coffin from church vestibule to altar, all eyes upon her. The funeral felt like our wedding video rewinding, our life unraveling.
Robert left me with the cleanup. The squalor in the basement wasn’t a surprise, but the $64,000 of credit-card debt was. When it came to money, Robert lived as if he were dying.
Our marriage counselor and Robert’s therapist each explained to me the unrelenting and unwarranted blame and guilt associated with alcoholism. Those who don’t understand think they have all the answers (If I had known, I could have helped). Those who do understand still feel it’s their fault.
In the wake of Robert’s death, I began to process the past. What I’d come to accept — living separate lives with an alcoholic — was a wretched existence. Some surviving spouses are angry at God or at the cancer; I was angry at my husband. Hell hath no fury like a widow born.
Two years after Robert passed, I met someone.
“This is the relationship I’ve been looking for all my life,” Billy said.
I felt the same. And there it was again — guilt. Not for finding love, but for declaring that this love was better. How could 23 years with Robert pale in comparison to these four years with Billy? But they do. The scales tipped as surely as Robert’s last years of drunken selfishness, recklessness and verbal abuse obliterated our good years.
Not only am I happy, I’m honest, openly discussing his drinking. I needed to acknowledge Robert’s death in order to understand my life.
Robert didn’t survive alcoholism, but I did.