At some point, I ceased to exist.
It’s Sunday evening, 7 p.m., and he announces he’s going to a meeting. An alarm clangs in the back of my skull. I remember having mellow faith in fellow humans, enjoying the luxury of assuming you’re not being lied to, and being right. However, I tend now more to eternal, endless vigilance, and the trouble is, I know too much. There’s no meeting in our area at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening.
Faith and vigilance go to war as he goes out the door. Vigilance, checking my phone: yeah, there’s definitely nothing online for this. Faith, stubborn: but maybe it’s not on the records? (Because certainly AA’s cultural prominence stems from clandestine meeting locations and times, and secret handshakes and coded knocks, ooh, there’s some self-deprecating sarcasm, not to be left out.) Okay, everybody, calm down. We’ll know soon enough.
I hear his car pull back in an hour and a half later. So does his dog. She waits at the window, whining, wagging her tail. “Daddy’s home!” She waits. And waits. And waits.
No motion from the car. Sitting on the couch, waiting too, I can’t hear any music. Just silence. Maybe a phone call? After 15 minutes have passed, I feel like I can justifiably go outside to check on him without seeming the shrew.
No motion in the car. Fear (never far either): Oh my God did I wait too long? I tap on the window and he lolls his head in my direction. Opens the door, but doesn’t get out. Is as scarily out-of-it as I’ve seen him since before the surgery, when we were both supposed to have been saved.
“You okay?” I ask gingerly.
“I don’wanna go to meetings anymore,” he slurs.
“Okaaay… do you want to come inside? Puppy’s waiting for you…”
It’s the mention of the dog that moves him, in a lurch, to pour forth from the low black bucket seat. I help him out of the car and up the stairs to his bed. I ask him if he’s been drinking. He says he’s just tired and upset, and he describes what with very little imagination sounds exactly like a bar fight, that he insists occurred at an AA meeting.
Vigilance knows he’s drunk. Faith sows doubt.
That is, faith (in him) sows doubt (in myself). He’s so agitated, going on and on about how awful this meeting was, and how terrible the people there were, and how these meetings make him worse and not better. I take his hand while he lies there. With vigilance knowing and faith doubting, I tell him how sorry I am that he’s so upset. Then I ask him, “Do you want me to help you find another kind of meeting?”
“God, being married to you is such a fucking nightmare!” he yells. He doesn’t even let go of my hand, too drunk to feel our palms pressed together, leaving me to yank away like it burns. “You’re the angry ghost that lives in the walls, you’re the angry ghost that lives in the walls, you’re the angry ghost that lives in the walls…” Over and over and over he chants it, like a curse.
He won’t even hear me say, “I’m your wife.”
I. Don’t. Exist.
And yet, not even existing, I’m still the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.
Who am I? As it turns out, I’m not a ghost at all. I’m flesh and blood. I’m real. I exist. I’m telling myself that as much as anyone else.
I’m the former partner of a currently-active alcoholic. I’m a lot of other things, too: a multitude of my own. Remembering that is its own journey, one I’m still on. And with remembering, there’s so much ready anger and resentment at having such a huge part of my identity derive from someone else’s disease. Sometimes I feel like a hostage, like I have no choice in this identity. And I’m partly right.
But only partly.
In the broadest strokes, my husband and I were together for twenty-three years. For most of the last seven years, he wrestled with devastating health issues, sickness secondary to alcoholism. After three hospitalizations in just as many years, each one verging ever closer to a final stop at the morgue, he had a liver transplant that saved his life.
I was the donor.
That was the beginning of the end.
There are of course many chapters that precede that one. We met in California, moved to Maryland, had a lovely home with good jobs and two awesome dogs, and the secret inside that didn’t resemble the outside at all.
A life built around alcohol, which we were perfectly in control of until we absolutely weren’t.
It’s an all-too familiar tale.
I first reached out to Matt and Sheri about six months post-transplant, desperate, my marriage perceptibly unraveling. I’d been listening to Sheri’s stories on their podcast, and what a tough haul, both for me to listen and clearly for them both to record and share. I was awestruck with admiration. I’d found myself nodding along and “yeah”ing and “damn straight!”ing, especially at the parts dealing with anger and isolation. The thing that struck me was that Matt and Sheri were sharing their recoveries, their discoveries, in real time. They were telling us as they were finding out. Scary brave.
It resonated. My husband, whom I loved and didn’t want to leave, had relapsed. His manic high of feeling so much better after transplant gave way to the daily grind of life and his own struggles with depression and anxiety. This relapse, set apart from others that were beginning to creep into my awareness, was especially taxing on our marriage, since for extra drama it was now my actual liver he drank with.
This was severely complicated by the fact that his relapse caused a rejection event. I always had this image of “rejection” like your body suddenly barfs up a liver or kidney or whatever that it doesn’t like, but it’s actually much more insidious. The body starts to reject the organ, the organ starts to fail, and doctors correct the rejection and failure by tinkering around with literal fistfuls of medications. Usually, unsurprisingly, by increasing dosages. But, perversely, these meds all have side effects that contribute to neurological and cognitive issues like depression, anxiety, memory loss, confusion, you name it. So it’s like battling the Hydra; cutting off one head of the monster only to have two more grow back. I told Matt at the time: I literally have no idea how this is going to end.
The toughest thing was my own real-time realization that in the same way I couldn’t fathom life without my husband, he couldn’t fathom life without alcohol. And even with that piece of me inside him, he chose booze, he loved it, and the more he chose it and loved it, the further away he had to shove me from himself, from his own life, from his own mind.
Until I was just the angry ghost that lived in the walls.
The months leading up to COVID were excruciatingly intense even without a pandemic bearing down. My husband had had several relapses; we’d attempted marriage counseling to absolutely no avail (he actually “fired” our counselor in a spectacularly unhinged 1 a.m. text that accused her of undermining our marriage and of being an alcoholic herself, despite which I’ve continued to see her); I was doing everything I could to get out of the house (without actually moving out); the psychological damage of increasingly-frequent fights escalated. When the shutdown hit Maryland in March I told him that I wanted him to either go to rehab or to dry out in the house because I wasn’t going to deal with liver rejection during a pandemic (an added risk when one’s alcoholic is on a borrowed liver and completely immunosuppressed). He agreed, at first, but of course it went quickly downhill. He’d sneak booze in, have it delivered, have it mailed. He’d drink, be drunk, think I didn’t notice or couldn’t tell. I’d find the booze, tell him the marriage depended on him quitting or rehab or finding a substance abuse therapist or going back to marriage counseling. Rinse, repeat: ad nauseam. I finally hit the wall in the summer: found a half-consumed liter of vodka in a packing box in the basement, and decided I was done.
This, as we all know, is the hell of addiction. We can have our bags packed ready to go to the ends of the earth, but if our addict isn’t willing to address it, to admit that there is a problem and that they need help, there’s literally nothing we can do.
Hope doesn’t always look like staying together.
The lesson we’re learning, from Matt and Sheri and others like us: sometimes we can save our marriages, sometimes we can’t.
What happens to those of us who can’t? With my divorce decree barely two months old, I’m giving that a lot of thought. We have to find ourselves again. We’ve been lost, in the background for so long, the output of the function of someone else’s alcoholism. We’ve kept families together, kids fed, dogs walked, the machinery of households running on time, running on fumes ourselves. And there’s a lot out there that tells us the stories of our addicts, of our alcoholics. And there’s so little that tells us about ourselves. How we survive.
We’re afterthoughts. We’re extras. We’re there, and we’re not. We’re ghosts.
No wonder we’re angry.
So I’d like to take this time here, on this blog, to see us differently. To see us for ourselves. To use some different lenses for this experience. Ones that don’t mirror the alcoholic path, and ones that don’t use words like “failure” for the end of a relationship. It’s fair for us to mark our own journeys now.
It’s not even a linear path. It’s a spiral, twisting around alcohol, either its chaotic presence or conspicuous absence. Sometimes it feels like a spiral down a drain, but those are the bad times, to be expected. Often, though, it’s up, like switchbacks on a mountain. We strain and push so many steps ahead, and when we stop and look at the long road we’ve come, we’ve risen only a few feet, but the valley below, where we were, is coming into clearer view. Forging the long path back to ourselves.
The ghost made flesh again.
If you are ready for connection with people who understand – a loving and empathetic group of loved ones of alcoholics, please check out our Echoes of Recovery program.