Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Year of Recovery: Remembering January

On January 14, my husband was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit for 6 days following a suicidal episode. The following day, I drove to the city he was in to see him in the hospital. I didn't know what to expect, what his condition would be. I didn't know if he would be angry to see me or not; the last thing I had heard from him was anger that I had called 911. I didn't know what medications he would be on, or if he was in alcohol withdrawal. I had been in psychiatric units before, but not this one.

I was also very anxious about a number of things. Since he had lost his job, he had also lost his health insurance. How would we pay for all of this, the hospital stay, the ambulances, the ER visits? I had mixed feelings about seeing my husband. I was devastated by all of the things I had learned that he had done prior to my discovering his addiction. I was angry that we had not yet had a real conversation about anything that had happened. I didn't know who he was: I had discovered his secret double life, and I didn't know who I was married to anymore. I was angry, anxious, hurt and deeply saddened.

I arrived in the afternoon during visiting hours. I remember, and will probably always remember, being buzzed through the security doors into the locked unit, and seeing my husband sitting in a day room through glass doors. He was dressed in dark blue scrubs, barefoot and slightly disheveled. He looked up at me, and then his eyes widened like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He told me later he thought it was a hallucination from the medications he was on. He believed he would never see me again.

He came out of the room and hugged me. He told me he was sorry, and we sat down in some chairs. Not knowing what the food would be like here, I brought some clementine tangerines with me, and they became a tradition between us. I brought them every time I visited him, and we would eat them together.

This time marked the first time that I felt like we truly saw each other for who we really were, and as hard a time as it was for us, it's an incredibly special memory for me. As we talked, all the lies and illusions fell away. He told me everything he could remember about what had happened in the past few weeks, and I started to get a picture of what had gone on. I started to feel some compassion for him, now that we were talking and he was more lucid, even though he was pretty heavily medicated. He seemed to understand that we were in this place because of the addiction and because of all the events that had led up to that point. We had some very heartfelt and honest conversations in that hospital, and for the first time it felt like we might actually be able to come out of this experience together, that we might get better.

This was also the first time that I saw physical signs of alcohol withdrawal in him. They were mild, but definitely present. I feared the major delerium and seizures that I have seen others go through in my line of work, and I talked to the nurses about this a lot. But it turned out that his symptoms passed in a few days, and did not ever progress to a serious enough state that he would need more intensive medical attention.

Although we were not quite out of the woods yet in this acute phase of the crisis, it was a definite turning point for us. I spent that week there, taking a leave of absence from graduate school, and visited twice a day. The rest of the time I read and wrote and tried to take care of myself. I still wasn't eating much, due to nausea and anxiety (I lost 12 pounds that month), but I was exercising and trying to help myself. When he was released six days later, I had told him that I was only willing to work on our marriage together if he moved to the city where I was living, so upon his discharge we packed as many of his things as we could into my car, and we drove home to start our new life together. We think of this as our second marriage to each other.

A Year of Recovery: The Beginning

On January 5 of this year, my husband was laid off from his job. He saw it coming in the weeks before, but didn't want to worry me, so he didn't tell me. I found out on January 6.

On January 7, I discovered my husband's acting-out behavior: the full extent of one affair, as told by the husband of that woman. Over the next several days, I learned more about that one, and some others. We were in different cities because he worked in one and I went to school in another. We were about 400 miles apart. That weekend, I inisisted that he come to where I was, because talking to him on the phone about it was impossible. He was mostly silent, largely due to shame, but also because he was drinking even more once he knew that I knew. He came, and admitted the basics: the drinking, the acting out. Then he slept and went back.

On January 13, I went to my first Al-Anon meeting. I met and talked to a few women there, and got some phone numbers. I remember feeling very numb and confused, but vaguely better after going to the meeting. I was determined to do some things to take care of myself, even though I couldn't eat or sleep. I was constantly nauseated and anxious and near tears or crying. After the meeting, I went to the gym and worked out. I felt a lot better. When I got out of the shower at the gym, there was a voicemail from my husband. He sounded distant and different, and angry. It was a call from jail. He had been charged with a DUI and hit-and-run.

I had no idea what to do at that point. I was hundreds of miles away. I had also just heard about some new concepts, like "detachment with love" and boundaries. I didn't really understand what these things were or how they worked, but I did know that despite all my instincts to do something right then, there wasn't really much I could do at that moment. I couldn't even call him back. So I called some of the phone numbers I had. I didn't know if I should go out there, but I decided it was too late that night to go, or to decide what to do, and even if I was there, there wasn't much to do. Eventually I went to sleep.

The next day, I went to school. When I came home, I received a call from my husband. He told me that he loved me, and he didn't want me to worry, and good bye. Naturally, I panicked. His speech was slightly slurred and very quiet. I tried to keep him on the phone for as long as I could, to figure out what he intended to do. He hung up, and I called him back. I tried to talk to him longer as my mind raced through the options of what I could actually do from so far away. After a few minutes of me questioning him and him telling me I was better off without him, he hung up again. This time, I called 911. I explained the conversation we had had, and asked to be connected to emergency services in the other city. When I explained the situation to the dispatcher, and they told me that they were sending someone out to his address, I hung up and called him back. I was relieved when he answered the phone.

It's very painful to remember this episode in our life. Much of it is foggy in my mind now. I remember being so confused about what was the right thing to do. I had enough knowledge to understand that he had a clear plan and that it should be taken seriously. I knew that none of it was within my control--I was many hours' drive away, and even if I was there I would have to do essentially the same thing, that is, leave it in the hands of emergency personnel until the situation stabilized. As devastated and angry as I was at the time, I loved him deeply, and would have done anything if I could, but it was not within my control.

One of the worst things that I remember about this day and this series of phone calls was that after I called 911, I questioned myself. All the things that he had experienced lately: losing his job, having his addiction exposed, my anger and pain, the accident, the DUI, going to all the terrible things that had come before this. I wondered, would it have been kinder not to call? It is shameful for me to admit this now, because of course it was the right thing to do, and we are both so grateful that help arrived and that I called for help. But at the time I was so confused about everything and all I could see was the terrible pain we were both in. I thought for a moment that maybe he was right to want out of the pain.

Thankfully, this isn't what happened. He called me for a reason, because no matter how much pain he was in, the deepest part of him wanted to live. While I was on the phone with him, I heard a knocking on the door, and heard the voices of police men who came to take him to the hospital. They talked to me briefly once he was secure: he was very inebriated, and not hurt, but he did have all the things that he had described to me as his plan. They took him to one hospital for assessment, and I was able to talk to him there, where he told me he was angry with everyone: the police, the doctor, the nurses, and me. He told me I should have just let him do it, and hung up. I called the hospital a little later and talked to a nurse, who told me he was still very angry and uncooperative, but that they were going to take him to another hospital's inpatient psych unit. He was under a 72 hour court hold for evaluation, which was fairly standard for an episode like this. At this point, I knew he was safe from harm, although I had no idea what the next few days would hold. My next decision would be whether to come see him in the hospital...

Monday, November 23, 2009


When I first discovered my husband's secret life of addiction earlier this year, I grieved the loss of our relationship as I knew it. Everything I thought I knew turned out to be untrue. Our lives had been built on lies.

Then, I thought: This marriage is over. It was too devastating to think about. Now, I can look back and think with relief: That marriage is over!

All the things that I suspected weren't quite right, I knew now were in fact not right. The times I thought I had been lied to, I discovered I really had been lied to. All the redirection and distraction techniques my husband had used as an addict to protect his addiction, which made me feel crazy and made me doubt my own powers of observation and my instincts...I learned that I wasn't crazy, that something else was going on. All that time I spent alone, miles from my partner, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, when I was going to find out that something terrible was happening...the shoe had dropped. It was a relief in many ways.

The fear and the grief were awful, but at last I felt that I could live my life in an honest way. And for the first time ever, I had been brought so low that I no longer had the energy to pretend to others that everything was just fine. I could finally be real about what was happening in my life with at least a few friends.

I made a decision early on after discovery to stay with my husband. At first it was "just for today," that was about all I could do. And after 10 months, we still can't say what will happen tomorrow, but at least now we know that, thanks to recovery. The illusion of control has been lifted. I have learned something simple but profound: there is no shame in being loved by an addict, and there is no shame in loving an addict. We are all broken in our own ways. I have a partner who is facing his problems directly and is doing some extremely difficult personal work, through working the 12 steps and through very intense therapy. We are both more committed to our own health and sanity, and to our marriage, than ever before.

I am proud to say we are finally living a marriage that is open and honest. I hear newer members of our S-Anon group ask, "How can you trust your husband again?" The answer I usually give is, you can't, not the way you used to think of trust, which was blind and unquestioning. The best you can do is compare his behavior to his words. Some people make agreements with each other for the addict's partner to periodically check the addict's documentation--emails, web history, cell phone records, etc. We did that at first, but for me the process was very triggering, as it was the kind of "crazy" that I went through when I first found out about the addiction. And my husband is savvy enough that we both knew if he didn't want me to find out, I wouldn't find out through any of those sources (and I'm pretty savvy too). Some people have the addict take a polygraph test, but I personally didn't see much value in that for us. The only thing I could really trust was comparing his behavior to his words, and being more observant myself, and asking more questions.

The truth is, how can you trust anyone? That is something that I have to learn as part of my recovery about all people, not just my husband. There is a fine line between trust and willful naivete and denial, and I have to be more cautious and practical about that.

To trust others, I think you must first be able to trust yourself.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Several posts back, I mused about the possibility of my husband experiencing a "slip" or relapse in his recovery. It's an uncomfortable thing to think about. In the beginning especially, it seems like everything hinges on his sobriety. The point of my program is to learn that while his committment to his program is important to our relationship, I can live a serene and fulfilling life whether or not he experiences a relapse, or even returns to active addiction.

A few weeks ago, I came home from work to find my husband slumped over, asleep on the couch. As I approached him, I saw an empty vodka bottle on the floor. Yes, he had relapsed.

I had hoped that my 9 months in the program would adequately prepare me for a moment like this. It did prepare me, but it didn't prevent me from immediately relapsing into crazy thoughts myself. The first things I was aware of feeling were fear and anger. I wanted to shake him awake and interrogate him. I wanted to know why this had happened, and I wanted reassurance that it wouldn't happen again. Of course, this was not the moment to try to find answers, especially to an unanswerable question.

So, I tried to do the next right thing. I stepped out of the house and called some program friends. I left a message for one, and reached the next one on the phone. She helpfully reminded me that this was not an emergency: no one was on fire or dying. I could go do some things to take care of myself, and discuss this when he was sober. I did want to figure out one burning question: we had a therapy appointment in an hour, and I couldn't figure out whether I should bring him or not. She suggested I ask him, and call the therapist to see if she would object to him coming in this state.

It turned out that he didn't want to go anyway, so I went to the appointment by myself, and it was helpful. After that I went to the gym, and then did some studying. I had to stay out of the house to keep a bit of sanity in the moment, but I was glad that I was able to practice some self-care and remember that what he did was really not my business. Not that I didn't care, but I couldn't control it and it wasn't up to me, for a lot of good reasons.

Over the next few days we were able to talk more about it, and I think it helped both of us. The relapse was a wake-up call for both of us that sobriety is a gift, and one that should never be taken for granted. It taught us both humility in our recoveries, and it really taught me the importance of having my own recovery to lean on and prevent me from simply reacting and adding more fuel to the fire. I could see that reacting out of fear and anger was no better than the addict's behavior. It also served as a warning that he was under a tremendous amount of stress that he wasn't dealing with, and we were able to talk about both his stress and my stress over the same situation. As a result, he is more effectively dealing with the situation which is his to deal with, and I am able to see his committment to a healthier life.

I won't lie, relapse is scary. But with the help of the program, it is survivable, and can be instructive for the addict and the coaddict. I do hope for both of our sakes that it doesn't happen again, but if it does we will get through it.

Then and Now: Halloween

For years, I have felt like some kind of prude when I look at Halloween costumes. Each year it seems the costumes (especially for women) get more revealing, more trampy. Halloween parties, as an adult, have really become an excuse to drink excessively and release one's sexual inhibitions--inhibitions which normally serve a good purpose, i.e. boundaries.

Last year, my husband and I went to a Halloween party thrown by a coworker. The party was lavish, and huge. Many, many people from the facility I work in were there, and displayed some appalling behavior. There was a lot of alcohol. I enjoyed visiting with friends, and I did drink, but I was fairly shocked by some of the things that people who work together all the time were doing. My husband was there, but didn't know many people there. Surrounded by excessive drinking, he visited for a little while but then slunk off into a corner. I imagine it wasn't much fun for him: it was hard even for me to recognize people I didn't know well when they were in costume, and he didn't drink socially because, like many alcoholics, he didn't drink in public. (At the time I didn't realize that he was binge-drinking in private on a regular basis.)

This year, we spent Halloween at a SA/S-Anon retreat. There was no mention of the holiday at the retreat. I am sure that Halloween is pretty triggering for recovering SAs--and their mates, for that matter. Instead, we had several outstanding speakers, lots of meetings, and time to socialize with other people in recovery from the region. It was really nice.

The company party happened again, bigger and better than ever, but it was a relief not to go this year. The excessive drinking and sexual behavior is uncomfortable to me now, and would have been even less fun for hubby if he decided to accompany me. I like dressing up in costume, but it's hard to have fun with hundreds of people you hardly know, especially when their behavior is making you uncomfortable, and especially after recovery has shown you the dangers of this kind of behavior. It's not something I want in my life right now.