By Dr John McMahon & Lou Lewis for YourTango.com.
Every now and then, we receive notification that someone has started joining our website for the partners’ of alcoholics, but they have not completed the process. We usually, at this point, send a courtesy email to see if there are any problems we can help with. Just last week we were in contact with a person from the United States. The woman in question told us that she had wanted to join us but didn’t want any information to appear on her credit card statement. This was by no means an unusual request, but one that always causes us sadness.
Much has been written about the secret world of the alcoholic, but those closest to them seem bound into an even deeper code of silence, where even reaching out for help (as this dear lady was doing) feels shameful and difficult and must be done anonymously. The alcoholic might deny their problem but the tell-tale signs are read fairly easily. The smell, the gait, the changed demeanour and erratic behaviour is hard to hide on an ongoing basis.
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However, the partner of an alcoholic may well be the woman who serves you in a shop, the man who sorts out your insurance, the mother taking her kids to the park — all going about their lives apparently happily and normally, but hiding their daily struggles under a veil of secrecy. These people are virtually buried alive in a world where substance abuse is killing security and peace, and all respect and intimacy seem to be rotting into decay. This may sound overly dramatic, but I assure you that the world of these partners is regularly filled with crisis, chaos and a growing sense of family and relationship disintegration.
There is a movement however, I am glad to say, in which people in recovery are beginning to stand up and be counted; a sort of “recovery pride” where alcoholics and drug addicts are throwing off their cloaks of shame and coming out of the closet. “I was struggling with addiction and now I am doing my best to break free,” is a great message to stand for, and I pray that society responds warmly with support and encouragement. How much more, then, should those of us living alongside these people be free to vocalize our own journey: “I was struggling living with an addict/alcoholic and I am doing my best to break free from my secret world of silence.” Let this be a movement too. And let us give it our unswerving support!
It is true though, that in my 28 years of living with a problem drinker, I had some very powerful reasons (I thought) to hide our situation. For a start, I was working in the Christian church. In the circles I moved in one was expected to have gained victory over all these sorts of problems. How could I admit that, although the love of God was far more real to me than it had ever been, my personal family life was in chaos. And to make matters worse, I was also working as a therapist! Who would want to come to me for help when I didn’t seem to be able to help myself or my family. In short, I felt I should have been able to fix this mess; to stop my husband from drinking, sort out his issues and save my family from the awfulness of what was happening.
But I couldn’t and I didn’t. In the end, I stopped looking at what I couldn’t achieve and started concentrating on what I could. I found a lot more empowerment and change than I expected and learned, with forethought and practice, that I could certainly contain even if I was not able to totally restrain. Above all, I had to realize what I want to emphasize again in this article — namely that the drinking and drug taking is not our fault.
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It is okay to speak out. It is okay to say it how it is. It okay to come out of the closet. That said, do it wisely! Choose a friend or family member who loves you enough to listen carefully, love and support you. And if you are that friend or relative, be aware that such disclosures take immense courage. This person you love has been attempting, day after day, to survive their really difficult circumstances.
If you have not reached out for a long time, realize that bringing light into your darkened situation happens best if done a little at a time with due consideration of possible consequences. To tell a loved one about your struggles will hopefully engender support and compassion and remove the terrible isolation you have been living in.
Remember, too, that disclosure is not the same as exposure. The latter just increases vulnerability and shame. (Believe me, I know how tempting it is to decide honesty is the best policy and descend into cataloguing the litany of faults that are the daily portion from our alcoholic partners. There is much to tell — most of it bad).
However, please try to avoid swinging from complicit silence to reckless revelation. Your alcoholic loved one already carries huge amounts of shame, and exposing his problem inappropriately or nastily will almost certainly trigger his drinking button… along will come yet another ghastly scenario for you to deal with. Be honest, but also be wise and be kind. I must also note that if you live with a violent and aggressive drunk it may be best to start the journey of disclosure with a professional, such as a doctor or therapist, because you may need specialist help and protection. Do not take unnecessary risks, but do not keep silent any longer.
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Our web site, Bottled Up, is here for people like you. We offer wisdom and help for your situation, and even people to whom you can disclose if you want. They will be people who know exactly what you are going through, because they have been there too. It is a place where you can begin your journey of healing in a safe and supportive arena. Alternatively, you may want to start opening up in a different way or in a different place. The only thing that really matters is that your secret world stops bringing you pain, and that the terrible wilderness of isolation becomes an oasis of help and change.
You can find more information at Bottled Up and you can watch us discuss some the issues surrounding Living with an alcoholic in our series of videos.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.com: Buried Alive: The Secret World Of The Alcoholic’s Partner.