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​The Other Side of Addiction: A Spouse Tells Her Story

The spouse of a Caron alum shares her experience with her husband’s addiction:

I didn’t know it at that time, but I met my husband when he was active in his addiction. I was 24, he was 29. Coming out of college and being a young professional, it wasn’t unusual to go to bars and drink a lot on weekends. That’s kind of just what we young people did. But, I remember that he would always drink just a bit more than the rest. And at the time, I would always rationalize it. He’s older, he’s taller, he’s a guy, he’s an athlete… I never thought it was anything more.

About a year into our relationship, odd things started happening. Every once in a while, he would just not show up for a commitment; or he would randomly call in sick for work, even though I never noticed him starting to “get sick”; or if I showed up at his house to visit him, he would stay behind his locked door. It never made any sense to me, but again, I would rationalize his behavior. Maybe he really was sick. Maybe he had food poisoning AGAIN. Worse yet, maybe he was depressed or had some psychological illness?!

What I didn’t understand, or maybe I never let myself believe, was that he had a big problem – a drug problem. I remember one time someone asked me if he did drugs (more like, they were letting me know that he DID do drugs). I cut that person out of my life because I didn’t want to believe them. I spent so much time pretending everything was fine. I wanted everyone to think we were the perfect fairytale couple.

Finally, I had had enough. I didn’t want to, but I broke up with him. I confronted him on the drugs and he denied it. He wouldn’t talk about it. Secretly, I thought that if I broke up with him, it would be enough to force him to stop whatever it was that he was doing. I broke up with him to try to control him. Eleven years later, and four years into working my own Al-Anon program, I now know how powerless I was over him and the disease.

But, it worked. At least for a little while. He called me a few weeks later, told me that he thought he had a problem, that he had tried AA on and off before and he made a commitment to go back and get a sponsor. After three years of sobriety, we got married. His sponsor was the best man at our wedding. Life was “perfect” again. Until it wasn’t…

Two years into our marriage, we were on vacation, and I was struggling with my husband’s sobriety. He had stopped going to regular meetings and seemed “fine”. He started to rationalize that his problem was only with drugs, not alcohol, and I believed him – well, I convinced myself that he must be right. After all, I missed having a glass of wine with dinner or going to a bar with friends. At that time, I didn’t understand the disease of addiction. I figured it was something that people could just turn on and off, especially if they loved someone enough. So I said, “Okay. Let’s try it.” We were both in denial.

At first, things were pretty normal; we’d have a drink with a meal or out with friends. But then, every once in a while, he’d turn into “that guy” who was the life of the party, but always went just a step or two too far. And then that step or two turned into 5, 10, 100 steps too far. Next thing I knew, he slipped into drugs again.

A new pattern emerged. Every 2-3 months, he would lock himself in a room in our house and use incredible amounts of drugs; I still don’t know how he didn’t die. But again, I would justify. It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t like he was doing it every day. It was only every few months… and only for a day… maybe I could live with this? Looking back, I can’t believe I was willing to accept this behavior. I think the thing that killed me most though, was that this usually happened just as things were starting to get better from the last time. Just as we were starting to reconnect and act like a real couple again. And every time it happened, I would cover up for him. I would lie to my friends and family, to his work… to myself.

I recognize now that I was an enabler. I kept giving him ultimatums, but I never followed through. I didn’t have the tools to understand my role in his addiction. I didn’t know what I needed to do to take care of myself; to set the right boundaries and make the right choices for me, not him.

Finally, I had had enough. I had turned into a crazy person. My life was completely unmanageable. I would look through his phone and computer and I would delete phone numbers from unknown sources in case they were a dealer. And no one knew anything about what was going on in our “fairytale” family. How could they? I did everything in my power to present my life as perfect. I was so ashamed. I controlled everything in my life. I was a fixer. Why could I not fix this?

I remember my bottom like it was yesterday. My husband was supposed to pick me up from the train station after a long day at work. He never showed up. I called his cell, it went straight to voicemail. I texted him and I would get the heart tearing “dot dot dot” on the screen. That was his tell. That meant he was sitting in his room, high off his rocker, and didn’t know how to respond. This was the pattern we went through year after year.

Thankfully, by this time, I had started to go to Al-Anon. I was beginning to acquire the tools I needed to live my life. So, with the support from my program friends, I kicked him out. It wasn’t a backless ultimatum this time. I really didn’t believe we were going to make it. I loved him more than anything, but I wasn’t going to stand by this unacceptable behavior. I still remember the look on his face. He couldn’t believe I did it. Neither could I…

My husband was gone for a week before he called me. He told me that he decided to go to treatment. That he really had a problem and he meant it this time. I didn’t really care. I was done. I was angry. I was hurt. It was just another story; I’d heard it before.

I had so many emotions during the 30 days my husband was in treatment at Caron – anger, resentment, sadness. Why did he get to go somewhere to “get attention”, when I was holding down the fort at home? I was still trying to keep it all together, lying to family and friends, and putting up the perfect front at work. Every time we attempted to talk, I would end up blowing up at him because my emotions were just so raw. Years of bottling them up turned into an uncontrollable release. Thank goodness for Caron’s Family Education program. The weekend I spent with other family members, with Caron’s counselors, and with my husband was life-changing. I started to learn to cope with and understand my emotions better. I truly understood that addiction was a disease. And I started to see my husband as a person separate from that disease. But it also left me really raw.

I didn’t want my husband coming home after treatment. He seemed different, better, but I was skeptical. He had seemed like he had changed many times before. I also didn’t know how to act around him. The truth was, neither of us had a clue how to interact with each other as adults.

Caron’s My First Year program was a safety net for us once my husband returned home. It allowed us to stay connected to our counselors (both online and on the phone), who helped us figure out how to reconnect and continue communicating about topics that were really touchy. Our Wednesday night “family meetings” were really beneficial. I always came prepared with my “When you did X, it made me feel Y” statements. The random drug testing also made me feel more comfortable and helped us regain our trust.

Almost three years later, while we’re still a work in progress, we are amazed at where we are. The thing that has changed most is how open we are with each other. How much we share our feelings (which, by the way, I NEVER did), and how much we talk about what each of us is facing. From talking to our friends, it’s eye opening how little people actually share. We were in that camp too, until we learned how to communicate, share, and really hold each other accountable. I think one of the reasons the My First Year program was so beneficial for us was because both us of were also working our programs (AA and Al-Anon). The combination of the two had a powerful impact on both of our recoveries.

It was a long and hard road, but I am extremely grateful for where it has led us. I’m happier than I ever thought I would be, and that is something I never thought I’d say. And, it’s not just because the addict in my life is sober. Who knows what will happen down the road, but all I know is that, for today, I am taking care of myself and now have the tools to live my life to the fullest regardless of what tomorrow may bring. And for tomorrow, I am incredibly hopeful.

To all the women out there who are struggling with a spouse and their substance use, please know that you are not alone. It is okay to reach out for help. There are many resources available like Al-Anon and treatment centers like Caron. We’re all in this together.

If you can relate to some of the feelings expressed in this piece, click here for more information.