Was this you in This Is Us season premiere?

For those of us who have lived with an alcoholic, the storyline of Jack, the beloved father, and his wife, Rebecca, in This Is Us will be hauntingly familiar. In this scene when Jack confesses to Rebecca – “I’m drunk right now. I’ve been drunk for weeks” – she’s not just heartbroken, she’s shocked.

Have you ever been asked: ‘How long was he drinking? Didn’t you know?’ Yes, we eventually discover their secret, but at first we second guess our senses: I must be mistaken. It can’t be. My husband was a social drinker. How would I know when that first drink wasn’t social, but medicinal? How many of us know when the alcoholism began?  To this day, almost nine years after Robert’s death, I still try to pinpoint when he slipped from a Scotch with dinner, to sneaking in Scotch before breakfast. I’ve constructed timelines, and re-read a decade of day planners. My mind constantly rewinds snippets of yesteryear: the thud of his car trunk being closed in the dead of night; never being without his backpack; overdoing the mints and mouthwash. When did all the secrecy and deceit begin?

For those of you who don’t watch This Is Us, please watch this scene. It was validating for me, I wonder if it will be for others.  His wife hasn’t yet realized the enormity of it all; it’s a ‘drinking problem’ not alcoholism. “I know you’re not an alcoholic.” To which Jack replies: “You don’t know everything about me. I’m drunk right now. I have been drunk all day. I’ve been drunk for weeks. And I thought I had it under control like the first time, but I have a problem, Rebecca. And I’ve hidden it from you for a very long time. And I’ve hidden it from the kids. And I need to get a handle on it before I walk back into that house. I’m sorry, baby. I’m very embarrassed. And I am very sorry. I need to fix this, on my own.”

Rebecca takes Jack home, vowing, “If you have a problem, we will fix it together.” Most of us have learned it’s impossible to fix someone else’s problem. But I didn’t always know that. And Rebecca’s shock and innocence was validating as I recalled my own.

 

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Starring Alcoholism

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Alcoholism shows up on the movie screen, in TV shows, the pages of books and for some of us, in our lives. For those who have lived with an alcoholic, these words may sound hauntingly familiar.

“I don’t know if I started drinking ’cause my wife left me or my wife left me ’cause I started drinking.” ~Ben Senderson, played by Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

He came with his date…alcoholism.~Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemmon, talking about her father on the TV show 30 Rock.

In The Lost Weekend, Helen is in love with Don. “I know you’re trying, Don. We’re both trying. You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you.”

Don’s brother, Wick, talking to Helen:  “Who are we fooling? We’ve tried everything, haven’t we? We’ve reasoned with him. We’ve baited him. We’ve watched him like a hawk. We’ve tried trusting him. How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scraped him out of a gutter and pumped some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time.” The Lost Weekend

Everything seemed possible over a beer. ~Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life

In the film, Flight, Denzel Washington plays ‘Whip’ Whitaker, an airline pilot. Before appearing in front of a Hearing Committee, he gets some advice: “Remember, if they ask you anything about your drinking, it’s totally acceptable to say ‘I don’t recall.'” Whip responds:  “Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.”

Later in Flight, Whip tells the Committee:  “I’m drunk right now, because I’m an alcoholic.”

In the film 28 Days, Gwen, played by Sandra Bullock, ruins the wedding of her sister, Lily, by giving a rambling drunken speech, knocking over the wedding cake and stealing the limo. Lily tells her: “Gwen, you make it impossible to love you.”

From the film, My Name is Bill W, the story about the founders of a support group that became the basis for Alcoholic Anonymous. When asked by his wife, Lois, why he drinks, Bill responds: “I found that a drink…a few drinks…makes me feel comfortable. Like I always want to feel. Gives me courage…to be with people…do things…to dream. The money, the success, the respect, it was all good for a while, but it never seemed enough. I always want…doubles of everything to make me feel alive, worthwhile inside. And then… it all began to slip away. I feel cheated. Angry. Always so full of fear. So I drank… more… and it makes it okay for a while. I convince myself that things will turn around tomorrow. Soon. That I’ll make it all up for you, but it only gets worse. I…I keep promising you…others, myself, that’s it, no more, going on the wagon, THAT’S IT! And I think I mean it, but…but the guilt…and the depression…I can’t look in a mirror…or at you… especially…especially at you. I’ve stopped believing in everything. People. God. Myself. I know it sounds insane, Lois, but in spite of all this, what I want right now more than anything else…is another drink.”

Life After an Alcoholic Husband

Alcoholism segued subtly into our marriage, stealthlike, until it was everything in our lives. Now, years after my husband’s passing from alcoholic hepatitis, a glance in the rear view mirror.

  • I don’t anticipate with dread what I’ll find when I come home.
  • My basement no longer smells like Scotch. And urine.
  • I sleep through the night.
  • Broken promises and lies are no longer the norm.
  • I’m not constantly making excuses.
  • The tension in my neck and shoulders has disappeared.
  • I finally, finally realize that there was nothing more I could have done about his drinking.
  • Constant worry has been replaced with tranquility.
  • I live in the present, no longer haunted by ‘what if’ scenarios.
  • Chaos has been replaced with happiness.
  • There is nothing I miss about life with an alcoholic.

Sharing Privately

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Some followers here at Widow 2.0 who lost their spouse to alcoholism mentioned in their comments the need to share with family, but in the form of a journal — and to share privately. One way to do that is to create a private Facebook group just for your loved ones, where only invited members can see your posts, as well as respond. It’s a helpful way to disseminate your thoughts, but only with those you choose.

Whatever you decide to do, keeping a journal is worthwhile. It’s chilling when I read my notes years later. But it’s the only way to capture how you’re feeling in the moment. Writing helps to heal and make sense of all that you’ve gone through.

Besides sharing with loved ones, there is something very comforting in sharing with the widowed community. For those who are survivors of an alcoholic, there seems an even stronger need for solidarity. Feeling guilty? Angry? Responsible? Thoughts unthinkable, unspeakable? For all of you who have watched a loved one drink themselves to death, it’s important to reach out to our very specific community of widows. May you find peace and comfort. You deserve a good life.

 

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Lie to Me, I’ll Believe

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Did you believe the lies they told? The lies you told yourself?

In my essay in The New York Times, “Surviving an Alcoholic” (5/27/15), I wrote about the challenges the widowed of alcoholics face: shame and guilt.  But what about the lies? The aftermath of death is often filled with discovery. I’ve touched upon this topic before in my blog, the secrets uncovered post-mortem. With the overwhelming interest in my Times piece, readers reached out – not only survivors of alcoholics, but survivors of drug addicts, sex addicts, gamblers. Of course, not all addictions cause or contribute to death. But the realization of their spouse’s secret lives and alter egos was an added agony to the devastation of loss, compounding their grief.

In a Psychology Today article, “The Truth about Lying,” Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, notes: “You save your really big lies for the person that you’re closest to.” While that may not make you feel any better, perhaps you feel less alone.

The truth is, relentless honesty isn’t likely. Can anyone of us claim having never grasped for that ‘little white lie’ in a sticky social situation? But the big lies hurt. The big lies destroy.

When I began to suspect my husband was an alcoholic, I didn’t let on, in part because I was in disbelief. He’s a social drinker, it’s not what I think. I needed proof.

But even after months of scrutinizing, there was still a swirl of emotions upon discovering evidence: vindication (I was right, he’s an alcoholic – I’m not crazy.); revelation (I was right, he’s an alcoholic – What now?); devastation (I was right, he’s an alcoholic  – What has happened to our life?). How much more proof did I need to accept what I already knew? I was lying to myself.

Was I lying to others by my omission? Except for the few who knew, those whose help I desperately needed in order to help Robert, I refrained from telling others. It was suggested by my husband’s physician that the time for admission would come later in Robert’s 12 Steps phase. In order to help Robert focus on his recovery and his career, the doctor thought it best not to share.

We lie to spare feelings, to avoid awkward situations, to protect our loved ones, to save lives. Our goal was to help Robert. But the truth is the only one who could have helped my husband, was my husband. But he was lying to himself.