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. – Jada
A: Hi Jada, thank you for writing in about your current situation with your partner. I can feel the stress from how you have related your experience of being married to an alcoholic. I am happy to tell you that there is hope and that you are in charge of bringing that hope to yourself and your children. Hope begins by understanding and remembering the following phrase: “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” I understand how this phrase can first appear to be flippant and even uncaring, but let me explain.
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.
I have my list for Step 8 from my Step 4 inventory. This step holds me accountable to the harms I have caused others. Step 8 awakens me to clarity. I have heard a common phrase in the rooms for years: “What is your part?” and I was asked to consider, could it all be your part? I discovered this to be more true, and I must take full responsibility for my thoughts and actions.
Al-Anon taught me that alcoholism is a family disease. The disease manifests as selfishness and self-centredness, not only in the alcoholic, but in the family member as well. I was also introduced to Al-Anon’s principle: “we can be happy, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.” I unfortunately did not heed this principle and suffered with the delusion that I could not be happy until Spencer, my son, was sober. My self reliance, driven by a hundred forms of fear and self pity, was how my disease manifested. I truly believed that I needed him to be different for me to be happy. I managed, manipulated, and mothered his life without awareness.
As my awareness of the disease grew, I was now on my path to recovery. I admitted I was powerless over wanting Spencer to be different, to be sober. And with this admission, I admitted the harms I had done. Because of this defect, I became obsessed with him and his life. The drama and pain were insurmountable for both Spencer and me. From the time he was 15 and for the next 10 years, I watched the disease progress from drinking and marijuana to OxyContin and injecting heroin. An inadvertent overdose of fentanyl finally took his life.
I am truly sorry that I worked harder on his life than on my own. My love was conditional, for it required that he get clean and sober. Little did I know that my disease had progressed just as fast as his.
Through the grace of God, the 12 steps, and loving sponsorship to guide me, I considered the question: are you willing to be happy whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not? Are you willing to change, to do the work, to experience happiness?
Brought to my knees, I admitted that I was a hopeless Al-Anon. I was open to a power greater than myself. It took Spencer’s death for me to realize my powerlessness — my disease. When I think anyone should be different than they are, I am causing harm to them and I will continue to make my list and be willing to make amends. I continue to ask God for help.
Through the process of the 12 steps, and Step 8 not being the least, I have recovered from this selfish self-centred disease, so long as I stay in fit spiritual condition. Thank you Al-Anon for showing me the path of happiness. Alcoholism is a family disease and I can be happy, no matter what. God is Good.
Sadly, children are often the first hurt by alcohol and drug addiction and the last helped. Children of alcoholics are four to nine times more likely to develop an addiction as a direct result of their family experience. Left untreated, these kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues as teenagers and adults.