Alcoholism – A Partner’s Story
Posted March 22, 2013on:
Just imagine for a moment, that you have a great life living abroad in the all-year round sun. Your apartment has a large terrace overlooking your swimming pool, with views out over the Atlantic Ocean to the front and up the valley to the mountain to the rear. You have a job which you love, an important job moulding young peoples’ futures, and a fantastic set of caring, supportive friends. A nice car and comfortable lifestyle completes the picture. Then imagine this is ripped away from you by the person closest to you… your partner. And that this partner doesn’t even know she is doing this. You end up with nothing, save a few good friends and a couple of suitcases; all that remains of your life in the sun. Standing in the cold outside Glasgow airport waiting for a bus, you reflect on how this could happen to you when you’ve done nothing wrong. This is the most prevalent disease in society today, cutting across all classes, professions, and personalities. This disease is Alcoholism.
It has probably been with the human race as a disease for as long as man has been fermenting fruit, but the implications for those who live with the unfortunate people affected by this illness are only just being fully recognised and understood. For make no mistake, alcoholism is an illness, a nasty dirty infectious disease. That we know. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (way back in the 1930’s) Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith, obtained a medical opinion to this effect which still stands without dissent today. Some people, it was claimed, have an allergic-type reaction to alcohol which kicks in after just one drink, setting of a craving and resulting in uncontrollable drinking.
Of course we now know much more about the whole physiology and psychology of addictions then those desperate pioneers of years gone by, but the effects of this most common of all addictions remains the same as it ever was. Think about it, about alcohol and the part it plays in our everyday lives. You can’t walk down the street without passing numerous pubs and off-licences or shops which sell the stuff. Try buying a comic birthday card for anyone over the age of eighteen which doesn’t mention booze. Open your newspaper each day, and the adverts for drink jump out at you. And now, of course, with the reality of twenty-four hour drinking upon us, there is no time of the day or night that we can escape this blight (for many people anyway) on society. We are, and live a drinking culture. No doubt about this.
Sufferers’ lives are destroyed by addiction to alcohol. We see the victims’ everyday on our way to work. They sit there, scruffy, unwashed, dirty and unable to control their most basic bodily functions, shaking with the withdrawal pains and desperate for the shops to open in order that they might satisfy their cravings once more. Or at least, this is the common perception of the alcoholic. The homeless down and out on the streets begging for the next fix. It’s true that alcoholics sometimes lose everything and end up on the streets, but in actual fact this is only a small percentage of sufferers. Most manage to maintain at least some of the basic requirements of civilised life. Homes, jobs, families are all possible…at a price. This price is usually paid, not only by the alcoholics themselves, but by those closest to them. Alcoholics can be teachers, lawyers, doctors, dustmen, accountants, just as easily as the celebrities we read about with their much publicised trips to the nearest Priory clinic.
And this is my story. Because I lost nearly everything I had due in the main part to my partner’s alcoholism. For me it started when we met. I actually had no idea she was an alcoholic at all. Ok, she liked a drink, and we went out a lot. And thinking back, she always had a half bottle of vodka in her bag, or by the bed. But I thought nothing of it at the time. Indeed, even when we moved abroad to start a new life in the sun, I barely gave her drinking a second thought. It was what everybody did over there, at least the British ex-pat community. The Spanish like and enjoy drinking alcohol. Morning, noon and night, but always controlled, in that somehow very continental way that never seems to be able to transplant itself over here into our crowded, socially inept binge-drinking culture, limited as it is by stricter licensing laws and limits on actual drink-purchasing time. I never saw a Spaniard drunk at all, but I saw plenty of drunken Brits fuelled by the cheap booze and unrestricted hours. My girlfriend was frequently amongst this crowd, usually at the centre of the action… everybody’s friend and mother to the world. Dispensing advice to put the problems of the world to rights. Quite the expert on every issue from football through politics to how to bring up children. Always loud, never actually listening to anything anybody else was saying.
A month or so after we had arrived, I had a job teaching in a local International school. I would go to work everyday, do my job, come home and lie in the sun, or swim. Even the simple pleasure of just relaxing in a low stress environment. Just what we moved abroad to find and yes, I was enjoying it very much. But little things started to spoil the dream for me. For one, it took her a long while to find even a part-time job. She had a trade and could have used it more to work, even just to keep busy, but no. That would have restricted her time with her drinking buddies, or even worse, prevented her from drinking before appointments. Looking back, I see now that this was a classic symptom of the disease, an inability to lead an ordered, structured life in any way. Another bone of contention for me was that when I arrived home from work each day, I had to drive right past our ‘local’ bar and she was usually to be found sitting on the terrace or inside the bar, glass in hand. It was always …‘come in Darlin’ just have a quick one before we go home’, but this ‘quick one’ never turned out to be just one and it would usually end up with me walking out and going home and her returning to the apartment some time later complaining bitterly about my anti-social behaviour. The end result was usually a bitter row with all the usual insults and name-calling, sometimes ending in violence, but always with her in a drunken heap on the couch or in the bed.
I would get up in the morning and drive to work, still stressed out from the night before, my work suffering as well as my sanity. Then I would come back home to the same unfortunate series of events.
Our apartment was untidy, sometimes dirty because it was never properly cleaned. I made the effort at the weekend because if I had not, the place would have become unhealthy.
I would wash the sheets from the bed which she had wet (or worse, soiled) and try to clean up our mattress. Incidentally, the feeling of waking up in the night in the bed which your partner has just wet is not one I would recommend to anyone.
And this is what our life became. A procession of rows and fights and make-ups and more fights. The boozing increased in bars and in the house as well. She would consume at least a litre of cheap local vodka everyday in the house, as well as beers and wine whilst she worked (she did have a job by now). Her health started to suffer. Painfully thin with yellow eyes and that sallow pale skin so typical of alcoholics, she started to bruise easily at the slightest pressure, another classic alcoholic symptom.
Worse was to come… heart muscle spasms brought on by low potassium levels caused by alcohol and no food meant hospital admissions, and more time off work for me. A move closer to my school was even worse for us. She got a job… in a bar, carried on boozing, and ended up claiming to have been raped by one of the customers in the toilets when she was on her own in the bar one night. It was then she lost all sense of reason and with it, her grip on reality finally went overboard.
Parents of my pupils and my colleagues would see her staggering drunkenly around town and I started to get the pitying stares and comments. Staff functions were an absolute no-no. It got so bad that in the end, I put her on a plane back to the UK and to her parents. All the time, she protested that she would sort out the problem… that the alcohol was not in fact a problem and everything else in her life was responsible for her drinking. Again, the classic alcoholic’s denial.
I gave up my job. I had no choice. I took two weeks to sort out our joint affairs and close down the apartment. Two weeks to dismantle a life I had tried to build. During all this, she insisted that she was dealing with her problems, being honest with her family, going to get help, but in actual fact, none of this was happening. She was just drinking alone in her room. Drinking lots and lots of vodka. When I eventually returned and managed to get her to see reality and deal with the problem, I cleared the empty bottles out of her room from where they had been hidden under the mattress, in the wardrobe, under the bed, anywhere. There were forty-three empty bottles to take to the bottle-bank that night.
There was also another watershed event that night as well. A meeting with a group of people which was to change our lives and give some hope of a future not blighted by alcohol. These were the fellowship of men and women known as Alcoholics Anonymous.
They saved her life and our immediate relationship as well (although this was eventually to end, torn apart by mistrust seeded by the years of lies and deception). One phone call and two lovely women came round to see us. They talked a little, listened a lot. No judgements or blame. Just quiet calm. After about an hour, after arranging to return a little later to collect us and take us to a meeting, they left.
That first meeting was a milestone event in my life. I saw the inherent goodness in people that night. The selfless concern for somebody lost in a sea of despair from which they had all returned. These people are some of the unsung heroes in our country today. If anybody deserves to be nominated for mention in the honours lists each year, it’s the volunteers of Alcoholics’ Anonymous rather than the legions of faceless civil servants who pick up their knighthoods almost as a right of passage. Except that these exceptional men and women would probably refuse, preferring to maintain the anonymity of the fellowship which allows them to continually save lives.
And save lives they do, because the approach advocated by AA has been tried and tested over the years. All the various components of this person-centred process, such as personal sponsors, the twelve steps to sobriety, living one day at a time, sharing experiences and feelings with the group and identifying with other members and their circumstances really force an alcoholic to face up to their illness with searing gut-wrenching honesty, and then after this process of deconstruction is complete, begin to reconstruct their lives with sobriety as their watchword. But above all, it is the fellowship, the welcome and quiet support for a newcomer, the joy at each new day free of the drink (one day at a time) and another life rescued that drives these selfless people on, as well as the knowledge that another recovering soul is another helper when the next phone call comes in. They have a phrase, quietly said to those in the grip of uncontrollable cravings, ‘This will pass’. It’s an approach adopted by other addiction self help groups including those involved with drugs and gambling. Because it works. The determination needed to move through the twelve steps programme could only be accomplished by those who have reached rock bottom, with nowhere else to go except back up to sobriety. For many, it takes years.
And as for us, we tried to rebuild our lives. The material things could be replaced. My partner could try and make amends for the lives that had been affected by her alcoholism. Most of all we lived one day at a time. Each new day brought the hope of another day off the booze, but also the ever-present threat of that first drink. I tried to trust again but that, for me, was the hardest thing. Resisting the urge for applying the methods of the Spanish inquisition to unaccounted-for periods of time in my partner’s day and surprise bag searches was a struggle that was ultimately to get the better of me as our relationship collapsed. Trust, for me is the most important part of any relationship and the after-effects of the lies and doubts has left me with my own hangover struggle which I’ve carried into a new relationship, together with a fundamental set of issues surrounding being able to trust someone again, enough to let them get close. I know I face an uphill battle to repair the damage enough so that it impacts as minimally as possible with my new significant other. But at least I am confident of such a life now, something I could not have conceived a few years ago. I will deal with the trust issue one day at a time as well. And after a few slips and regressions, she’s now been alcohol free for a number of years, as far as I’m aware.
And the men and women of Alcoholics Anonymous will continue to do their amazing work. Unsung heroes in our increasingly fractured society bringing help, support and hope to people whose lives are blighted by this addiction. In an uncertain world, at least we can be certain of their continued activity. Remember this, next time you read newspaper articles full of right-wing politicians criticising the level of welfare benefits for recovering alcoholics. These folk are ill and need intensive help and time to assist them in their daily battle against the bottle and a disease which is fuelled by the availability of alcohol in society. I often wonder, if it was invented today, would it, like each new designer ‘rave’ drug, be made illegal? After this experience, It took me a long time before I could even bear to be around alcohol in any form, let alone drink it. I’m acutely aware of the smell of stale booze on folk travelling on a bus I’m on, or on the subway, or even in the street.
Is legislation on alcohol pricing the answer? I don’t pretend to know, but it’s a start, for sure. Better still though, is education, but above all, funding for services working with recovering alcoholics to repair the damage caused by alcohol, not only to the addict, but also to the world around them.