Stage One – Holding it Together (Barely)

Nothing about my life has turned out the way that I had planned.  Not my marriage.  Or motherhood.  Or me.  I am learning that this is actually the best part.

My ex-husband has been an alcoholic for his entire adult life.  I was a significant part of that life for 12 years.  In that time, I finished law school.  We bought a house.  We got married.  We had marvelous adventures.  We made a baby. We also faced great challenges.  At times– especially the stressful times–our lives revolved around my husband’s alcoholism and untreated mental illness.

Neil is a (mostly) functional alcoholic.  He was never the guy who went to the bar every day or even every week.  He never missed work or disrupted parties or got into fights.  He has worked at the same company for over a decade and was promoted to middle management.  He “shows up” every day.  At least at work.  At home, his participation varied considerably depending on his level of stress and how much he was drinking.

On the outside, he is kind, a bit introverted, and funny.  On the inside, he is suffering.

Throughout our relationship, his severe anxiety led to significant anxiety and panic attacks.  At work, his manager (a close friend) would mention in passing that the company was not performing well that year.  He would become convinced that he was going to be laid off and it would consume him (and then me) for days.  At first, I would try to talk him off the ledge.  To rationalize with him about his paranoia.  It didn’t work.  When he would walk in the door from work, I could smell the alcohol on his breath from across the room.  He would blame my strong sense of smell and tell me that he had had one beer with lunch.  He would say that he must metabolize alcohol differently than I.  I believed him.  And he would drink.  And I didn’t know.

We loved to entertain.  While I was in the kitchen cooking, Neil would often be ravaged by an anxiety attack.  He would start feverishly cleaning the house, become overwhelmed, and sometimes drink three or four drinks before our guests arrived.  And I didn’t know.  At the end of the night, he would always be drunk.  Sometimes to the point of black out.  Sometimes passed out on the couch.  Or he would come to bed.  I would try to lay in the crook of his arm like always.  The smell would be overpowering and I would end up at the far side of the bed.  Or he would say something so out of character.  Something critical of me (about the food, or the way I was dressed).  Or he would try to be intimate.  The next morning, I would ask him about the drinking and I would get “it was party, we were celebrating” as a response.  Never an acknowledgment.  Never an apology.

He would drink at functions after work.  Then he would turn off his cell phone, so my calls would go straight to voicemail.  When he came home, sometimes as late as one or two in the morning, the heavy smell of alcohol would take over.  He would assure me that he had had “1 or 2 beers.”  And I didn’t know.

I should say that I didn’t know until I did.  Every once in a while, usually when I was out-of-town visiting family or staying late at work, Neil would drink heavily.  This almost always led to a drunken call from him wherever I was at the time (usually somewhere far enough away that I couldn’t really “help” the situation.)   He would say unforgivable things to me.  Things I still cannot put in writing.  It was always the same.  I would come home, we would talk after he was sober, and he would confess that his drinking was far worse than I previously knew.

Where was I in all of this?  I was working hard at building my career.  I was doing all of our financial and household planning.  I was keeping things together.  Barely.

I was also hiding my husband’s illness from everyone including our friends and family.  I was making excuses for why we had to cancel dinner plans or attendance at gatherings at the last minute.  I was the designated driver, always.  I never had more than one drink if I was driving.  The one time we drove separately to a party, I ended up sitting with him in his car until 3:00 am feeding him Gatorade and trying to sober him up because he refused to go inside and ask our close friends if they would let us leave his car over night.  We started almost exclusively hosting parties at our house.  So there was no driving.

I also tried to cure his alcoholism.  I would give him ultimatums to try and force him into sobriety.  So many ultimatums:

1) “You have to quit drinking.”  And he would.  He would quit for a month at a time to show me that he didn’t have a problem.  And then he would start right back up again where he left off.   Two days after we got engaged, he drank to black out while we were out at a bar celebrating.  I had to get help carrying him to the car.  He slept on the bathroom floor that night.  During our engagement, he blacked out while I was on a weekend trip visiting a girlfriend to look at bridesmaid dresses.  He called me and, as always during a blackout, he was a different, very angry person.  I told him the next morning over the phone that he had to quit drinking or I would not marry him.  He quit drinking for 6 months.  He started drinking again the week before our wedding.  Because, as he put it, what would people think if he didn’t toast at the wedding?

2) “You have to go to counseling.”  And he would, for a session or two.  There was always an excuse.  The insurance didn’t cover it.  The counselor was too “hippy.”  After our engagement episode, he agreed to go to a counselor the next week.  He stopped going after one session.  He told me that the counselor had declared it was a “one-time thing” and he was not an alcoholic.

3) “You have to talk to your doctor.”  And he did.  Or he claimed that he did.  He even told me that his doctor had done a liver function test and he passed with flying colors.  (I had been concerned about whether his liver was ok as “normal” people do not smell of alcohol at 6:00 p.m. when they have had one beer at lunch.)

4) “You need to take meds for your anxiety.”  This one would really set him off.  He would launch into a rant about the evil “Drug Industrial Complex.”  About how no one in his family was ever weak enough to need medication for mental health.  About how he was fine.

And so on.  And in the end, it didn’t help.  None of it helped.  He would always cope with his anxiety by drinking. Especially after our daughter was born.


Photo Credit Me

I have always wanted children.  I was one of those girls who had a list of favorite baby names that she kept from childhood in a journal.  I fantasized about having a daughter who I could teach about the Universe.  A tiny version of myself.  (This will be the subject of a later post, but I have certainly learned to be careful of what you wish for.)

Neil took some convincing about having a baby.  A lot of convincing.  He was worried about money.  Constantly.  I assured him that couples all around the world had kids on far less money than the solid upper middle class salaries we enjoyed.  I showed him spreadsheets and financial plans.  Then, he was worried about adding children to the staggering population of the earth.  I tried to assure him that adding one more person was not going to break the food chain.  Looking back, I realize that his anxiety was out of control.  I put my blinders up.  I lived in a state of denial.

I also honestly thought that, if we had a baby, he would become more responsible.  If I wasn’t enough to make him want to stay sober, maybe a baby would make him want to change, to quit drinking, to get help for his anxiety, to be well.

Getting pregnant became my mission.  I had a very difficult time getting pregnant.  After a year off hormonal birth control, I wasn’t ovulating.  Not at all.  My OB suggested that I give up alcohol and caffeine as an initial step.  So I did.  For several months.  I asked my husband if he would join me in not drinking.  His response: it was not his problem that I couldn’t conceive.  I was devastated.  But I put those blinders up.

I finally got pregnant (more about that journey in a later post).

Photo Credit Me

After our daughter was born, things became so much worse.  The stress at home led my husband to return to work only two days after we came home from the hospital. This was after his boss graciously told him that he could take off whatever time he needed.  Whenever I would ask him for help, he would make the excuse that he couldn’t afford to take time off.  He would say that he could lose his job if he did.  I could only convince him to take one day off during my entire five-month maternity leave.  He started working overtime.  He also started smelling of alcohol when he came home.  If I asked why his breath smelled, just as in the past, he would say that he “had a beer with lunch” or simply that I was “imagining things.”

Photo Credit Me

In those dark days of early motherhood, I sank into a deep, postpartum depression (more on this topic in a later post).  I begged my husband to call my doctor.  He refused, saying that there was nothing wrong with me.  Having a baby is hard, he would say.  You’ll get used to it.  One Saturday morning, I sat crying in my car in the garage for over an hour while my husband and baby both slept.  I finally called the doctor.  I started therapy.  It was life-changing.  I got better.  I went back to work.  I found a routine.

Our daughter’s first Christmas Eve, we had plans to go to a friend’s house for dinner.  I got off from work early and called Neil to tell him that I was picking our daughter up from daycare early.  When he picked up the phone, I knew instantly by his slurred speech that he was drunk.  Very drunk.  He was at a work holiday party.  He refused to wait for me to pick him up or to call a cab.  I had to race him to my daughter’s daycare to keep him from picking her up while drunk.  She was seven months old.  I rang my friend to tell her that we wouldn’t make it to dinner because my daughter was sick.  The next week, I told my therapist about the episode.  She told me frankly that my husband was an alcoholic.  I stopped seeing her soon after.

So there I was.  On the outside, a perfect life.  A successful career.  A great house.  A perfect family.  But behind the veneer, things were far from perfect.  They were not even remotely ok.  (I have learned that appearances can be deceiving for most everyone by the way.  Everyone looks better on the outside.  Everyone struggles.  Everyone has a hard luck story.  Some are just more challenging than others.)

So how did I change my luck?

Next up:  Stage Two – Leaving


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