The Loneliness of Loving an Alcoholic
I listened yesterday to Dax Shepard and Glennon Doyle talking on Dax’s podcast (Armchair Expert – it’s my favorite) about how in many ways, it is harder to be a high-functioning alcoholic than an obnoxious, obvious, stumbling lush. When we keep our predilection quietly hidden behind a veil of normalcy and productivity, not only must we manage the internal chaos of alcoholism, but we also expend incalculable energy keeping our secrets hidden. We all agreed this was a valid and significant point (they agreed, and I was nodding, but I feel like they could sense my support).
Do you know what’s even harder than being a high-functioning alcoholic? It’s loving a high-functioning alcoholic. The deceit is still there. All the downplaying, making excuses and covering up still exists, but by participating in the denials, the loved one is perpetuating the disease and dysfunction that they so loath. It must feel like constantly painting the house that your alcoholic is trying to tear down from the inside out.
“Enabling,” is on the long list of alcoholism-related words that I hate. The loved ones of alcoholics are often accused of enabling their drinker if they stay in relationship, participate in the cover-up, make decisions to ease the stress on the family, agree to have sex when their spouse is drunk, show appreciating for their drunken life partner, etc. It is a no win situation for the loved ones of alcoholics – especially us highly functioning ones. If they set ultimatums and leave the relationship, they are breaking up the family and harming the kids. If they stay and continue to live a lie of normalcy, they are surely enabling the disease. The tightrope the loved ones of alcoholics are asked to walk is so thin and perilous that it is invisible and impossible.
Alcoholism is such an isolating disease, for the drinkers, and for the loved ones as well. And nothing ensures that feeling of being alone like the secrecy of living with high-functioning alcoholism. My wife, Sheri, mostly had no one to talk to about my drinking. I would have been livid had she discussed my excesses with any of our friends. She was not motivated to talk to any of them, anyway, because of the embarrassment she felt for, “getting herself in such a bad situation.”
On occasions, she did get our families involved. Sheri’s mom and sister had lots of experience with alcoholism and resulting divorces. My family had lots of experience with drinking, but none with finding resolution to a problem like the one she faced. My sister, Sheri’s sister and our parents all listened with compassion, and they gave their best advice. There was no consistent message. The opinions varied, and the suggestions left Sheri as confused as ever. She could stay and pray through suffering, or leave and create trauma for the family. When it comes to loving a high-functioning alcoholic, there are no good answers.
Eventually, Sheri stopped asking the questions. She knew how mad it made me when she got our families involved, and she felt like by ignoring the advice of some, bringing it up again just made her look weak and stupid. That’s a huge part of the cruel irony of loving an alcoholic: Having patience, compassion and love for the children leaves the loved one feeling stupid. My wife is the strongest, most courageous woman I’ve ever met. Yet, my disease made her feel weak and wrong.
So Sheri suffered in silence. As a result, her mental health was under attack. My disease perpetuated her silence. Her silence perpetuated my disease.
Sheri is not alone. She knows that for sure, now. This is a part of our story that resonates with so many loved ones of alcoholics. When we talk about our relationship on our Untoxicated Podcast, we receive overwhelming feedback from the loved ones who are living the terror we survived. For Sheri, those are the people for whom she has endless empathy. She aches for the plight of the loved ones. We both do, honestly. We love that sharing our story of pain and healing on the podcast is helpful, but we want to do more than talk at people. We want to talk with the millions of people suffering through the high-functioning alcoholism of someone they love.
That’s why we started the Echoes of Recovery program to provide connection and support for the loved ones of alcoholics. We talk and listen. We write and we read. We share our stories and share understanding only available to people who are going through the same pain and dysfunction. Surviving and recovering from alcoholism is infinitely harder when done in isolation. Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction. Connection is the opposite of addiction, and that applies to the loved ones of alcoholics in a profound and meaningful way.
If you love an alcoholic, we want to share our story, and listen to yours with empathy and mutual knowing. We hope you’ll consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery. Processing the drinking of someone we love is not a passive endeavor. Recovery is an active process, and connection is vital to your healing. Echoes of Recovery is a donation-based program, and we ask for a $25 per month recurring donation to participate. If ever you feel it is not working for you, you can cancel your donation without explanation. Your generous donations keep our work to destigmatize alcoholism alive, and help us help others find solutions. For more information, to make a donation or to enroll, please click the button below.