The grim and bitter life as the other half of an alcoholic
You have to feel for the pain of the partner (be it in business or marriage) left to carry the can
I have spent the best part of 17 years hiding. You get very good at that when you are married to an alcoholic. Their whole existence is built on a tightly woven web of lies — lies which you often end up helping them to keep.
David was always very good at hiding his problem. So good that for years I couldn’t even acknowledge that he had one. Once I admitted to myself that my husband has been an alcoholic for as long as I’ve known him, I found myself waging my own battle to keep his secrets, and keep him sober.
I know from experience that an alcoholic will do anything to protect their drinking, no matter who that destroys in the process. Being their partner, whether in marriage or business, makes you collateral damage.
My husband and I met while working in the City of London. Back then, long liquid lunches were routine, and the partners would sink a few bottles of wine on a daily basis. David was no different.
When we began dating, one of the partners came to me and said: “Sarah, you need to be aware that David has a problem with alcohol. We’ve all noticed it — I just think you ought to know.” I didn’t speak to her for six months, assuming she was jealous. How could he be an alcoholic? He’s phenomenally successful; he couldn’t do what he does if he was drunk all the time.
But that’s the point about many alcoholics — they are very high-functioning, and they are rarely overtly drunk. They’re as likely to be the man (or woman) in the corner office as the one swaying on the corner of the street. When David was drinking he might slur a little to me, but then he’d pick up the phone to a client and perform. When he had to, he pulled out all the stops and put on that front.
For some time, I told myself lies, but 10 years ago everything changed. David, now 62, became very ill and was diagnosed with cirrhosis. He was forced to stop drinking for a while, but as soon as the doctors told him his liver was showing signs of recovery he started again. Pretty soon we were in hospital three or four times a week as his condition became more and more dangerous. He was put on the transplant list and eventually was given a new liver, and what should have been a second chance at life.
Cirrhosis chronic scarring, or fibrosis, of the liver is caused by many forms of liver diseases as well as chronic alcoholism. Cirrhosis occurs in response to damage to your liver. Each time your liver is injured, it tries to repair itself. In the process, scar tissue forms. As cirrhosis progresses, more and more scar tissue forms, making it difficult for the liver to function.
Even then, with the damage David had done to his body clear to see, our friends didn’t ask any questions, didn’t try to talk to either of us about his history with alcohol. The trouble is that, by then, most of our friends were his rather than mine — I’d cut my friends out so I didn’t have to face the questions, because they were coming thick and fast.
His friends were very much your upper-middle-class types who don’t really want to know. “Oh what a shame, poor old David’s in hospital again. Oh well, we’ll send him a card and have them over for dinner once he’s out.”
You put yourself in this little bubble so you can keep protecting the lie, because you don’t know how else to carry on. And I think I always thought I could do something about it. That’s the hardest pill to swallow: the realisation that you can’t cure them.
Soon after his transplant, David started drinking again. But by then he’d got very good at hiding it from me. He’d also begun to tell lies about me to anyone I tried to reach out to for help. He would make me out to be hysterical.
The trouble is that the more people tell you you’re a mad harpy, the more you behave like that. You’re so desperate, it becomes the norm to scream at your other half, to hide the alcohol from him, to need to know where he is at any given moment of the day. You help him perpetuate the lie, and the more isolated you become the deeper the lie grows. It is devastatingly lonely.
In September last year, while we were on holiday, I caught him drinking. I walked past a bar and saw him sitting there, being served a gin and tonic. He turned, saw me and panicked. He made to run away, but when he realised it would be hopeless to escape, he ran back and began downing the drink — the thought of not being able to have it filling him with more horror than the prospect of me running after him in a public place. I have never behaved as I did next and hope never to again. I stood in the doorway of the bar and screamed at him. People turned as I shouted: “What the hell do you think you are doing?” I ran towards him, knocked the drink out of his hand and stormed out, as he ran after me apologising profusely, all the old excuses being trotted out. It sounds so sordid now. I had become the screaming harpy he had always made me out to be.
When we got home, I phoned his grown-up daughter and told her what had happened. Together, we persuaded him to go to rehab. He didn’t go willingly. He barely participated at first. But slowly, he grew to love going. Two months later, he is sober and seems to have turned a corner.
It sounds awful but, strangely, it was as hard to see him coping as it was to see him suffering. Suddenly he didn’t need me to keep him alive — he had this group of sober friends from treatment whom he spent all his time with. I’ve found myself feeling terribly jealous and left out over the past few weeks, ridiculous as that sounds.
It has made me realise what I’ve shut myself off from, these past few years. The addict has to cure the addiction. But the partner often ends up developing addictive tendencies, too — in my case, to policing his behaviour, constantly obsessing over how to keep him safe.
It has been so terribly lonely. I’ve been on my own on a raft, desperately trying to keep it from sinking. Now it’s floating on its own and I’m left with my self-confidence in tatters. You start to believe that there must be something wrong with you if you can’t keep the person you love from hurting themselves. I know now that I wasn’t the cause of David’s drinking, nor could I cure it or control it.
One thing I’ve never truly doubted is that I want to be with him. In the heat of a row I’ve thought of leaving, but all these years later I’m still here. David is using rehab to get better; now I need to help myself, too.
As told to Eleanor Steafel. Names have been changed.