‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ ~ Leo Tolstoy
Many of us grow up around adults who enjoy drinking. My dad did; his drink of choice was whisky with Guinness his weekend treat. I, too, enjoyed a drink or two when I was younger. When I met Neil, it was no secret that he enjoyed his drink. He’d go to the pub or to the local British Legion club, but he never came back wasted. It never impacted on our family life.
After about 10 years of marriage, we did separate for a while but that wasn’t to do with his drinking; for reasons known only to him, he seemed to be distancing himself from us. Weirdly, we saw more of him during those couple of months apart than we did when he was in the same house as us.
Then my dad passed, I went back to Malaysia for the funeral and Neil came home to look after the boys. Whatever the ‘problem’ was, it was never sorted and we carried on with family life. But I think those couple of months apart had had enough of an effect on him because things were better after that. For a while.
People have asked me when it was that his drinking got worse. To be honest, I don’t know. I had ‘stuff’ going on, mainly worrying about my mum, looking after the boys, and starting home-edding. Neil himself was worrying about his mum whose health was gradually failing. He was never one to talk about his feelings… I don’t know if that was the cause of him drinking more. I do know when I noticed, beyond a doubt, that his drinking was a problem – in 2007 when I caught him drinking in the morning. That was also the year his mum passed. Coincidence?
So, what’s it like, living with an alcoholic spouse? It’s frustrating and upsetting; it makes you angry; you find yourself becoming someone you barely recognise as you threaten, cajole, bribe, try anything to make them stop. You snap at the children then apologise, reassuring them that it wasn’t anything to do with them, all the while hoping they believe you. You end up constantly hitting your head against the brick wall called ‘alcoholism’.
I tried talking to him about it; he didn’t see that it was a problem. I did the ‘usual’ of chucking the drink down the sink; he just bought more. We went for counselling; he told the counsellor what he thought the guy wanted to hear...
There were times I wondered if I was making a big deal out of nothing because he was a functioning alcoholic. He did shift work and didn’t drink when he went to work and while he was at work. But, at home, he’d take himself out to the garage to smoke and drink, or he’d go to the club. He gradually stopped engaging with the boys and me. But, in public, he was still charming and chatty and we still appeared to be a ‘happy family’.
One thing I realised then – even though people say how terrible it must be, living with an alcoholic, not many seem to grasp the reality. The few people I tried to talk to about it, people I thought I was close to at the time, either made it out to be “not so bad because he only drinks beer not hard liquor like my friend’s husband” or made some inane comment like “he just needs a hobby and he’ll be fine”. Both those gems left me speechless!
Know this: it doesn’t matter what the drink of choice is – it could be whisky, beer, lager, wine or even cider – when it's out of control, the effect is all the same. A very unhappy life, not only for the alcoholic but also for those who love and care for them.
I could have left at any time so why did I stay? In a word, hope. Hope that he would see sense and stop. Hope that there was still a chance for us to return to being the happy family we once were. Hope…
(Neil was never a violent alcoholic; that is why I haven’t spoken about it. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to live with one. But, if you do, please seek help or reach out to someone who can get that help for you.)