Ask a Family Therapist
with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist, and counsellor.
Q: My husband has had a drinking problem since the beginning of our marriage. He has gone to treatment three times now. Each time it seems to work for a few months or even a year, and then he relapses. After trying to quit again on his own for a while, he goes back to rehab and the cycle begins again. Last night he relapsed again and I’m at my wit’s end. I love him and our kids love him (he’s a great dad when he’s not drinking) so I don’t want to kick him out or threaten divorce, but I am also so fed up with this roller coaster and always worrying that the next relapse is around every corner. I barely sleep anymore, my boss has noticed how distracted and exhausted I am, and I’m worried our kids are going to start noticing something’s wrong.
Your letter indicates that you have been in a well worn cycle with your partner since the start of your marriage. You are now exhausted by being on that cycle and as you have put it, by being on a “roller coaster.” You can choose to get off that roller coaster in order to save yourself. You cannot control your partner’s alcoholism, but you can control your responses to it. If you respond in the same ways that you have since the start of your marriage, your situation remains the same and your alcoholic partner learns nothing different. If everything stays the same, everything stays the same.
Begin by asking yourself, “What do I want for myself and my children?” Whatever your answer is, it does not necessarily mean you have to end your marriage or even separate from your partner. It will, however, mean that you’ll want to begin learning to set real and appropriate boundaries for yourself when your husband is engaging in behaviours related to his alcoholism (cravings, actively using, and being hung over). You can continue to love him and let him know that you care, while also making the changes you need to get off the wild and uncontrollable ride he has you and your family on. While he is sober, tell him that you are stressed and that it is affecting you and the children negatively. Ask him to agree to stay away when he relapses and only come home when he is past his binge. Another option might be to tell him that you can no longer be on this ride unless he genuinely seeks help for himself to deal with his drinking.
These are all options that are available to you. Vocalizing your needs and making the necessary changes to meet them will at least give you the feeling that you are exercising some agency over your own life, and that you have not in fact been hijacked and held hostage in a hopeless situation. With that single shift of thinking, it’s quite likely that the courage to ask for the larger changes you need will follow. Know that you have choices; know what your needs are; ask for the changes to have those needs met. You have power in your life situation. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Renascent treats addiction as a family disease, and has a suite of Essential Family Care Programs. Two of these programs are designed specifically to help families in your situation. The first one I would recommend is Introduction to Family Care, which would help you acquire the tools to set boundaries and address any enabling and codependent behaviours. The second is our Children’s Healthy Coping Skills program, which allows children ages 7-13 and their caregivers develop practical tools for self-care, and learn the skills to protect themselves from the effects of addiction. I would also advise finding local Al-Anon meetings and attending at least six of them, until you find one you like. Listen to others in similar situations discuss how they are navigating their lives and learn that you are not alone and you can make the changes you need.
Our Family Care Team is also available for one-on-one counselling sessions; call 416-927-1202, ext. 3010 to book an appointment.