I don’t know anyone who likes to deal with death. I am particularly awkward and clumsy at expressing my condolences and finding the right words. A few years ago, I read an article about how empty and unsupportive it is for families to hear, “I’m sorry for your loss,” over and over and over again, and that little piece of advice just made me even more selfconscious about communicating in times of tragedy.
But no matter how ill-prepared and oafy I am, I step up and fumble my way through when someone dies. We all do. We get the rarely worn suit from the closet still with tissues in the pocket from the last funeral, and we practice shaking our heads slowly and staring at our feet. We give hugs, fully prepared for the person on the other end of the embrace to break-down into a sobbing puddle if that’s just where they are in the grieving process. Vulnerability is rewarded, uncontrolled emotions are fully understood and bonds of friendship and family are squeezed just a little tighter. We grieve, but we also connect. None of us want to go through it, some of us are more unpolished than others, but we all do what we know we have to do in support of each other.
Handling death in a supportive, caring, patient and predictable manner is part of being human. It is ingrained in our culture and has become an expectation of our society.
Therefore, it is astonishingly mind-boggling to me how people so committed to a supportive grieving process can suck so completely at supporting each other in times of crisis BEFORE someone actually dies.
And nowhere is this ineptitude and unwillingness more clearly on display than when it comes to alcoholism.
Last week, I heard a story from a friend about how she was confronted by a few neighbors the day after a neighborhood party. My friend’s husband drank too much at the party and became belligerent. Rather than confront the offending drinker the next day, the group of neighbors confronted my friend, his wife. They told her how angry they were at her husband and about all the bridges he had burned the previous night.
Did this group of neighbors actually believe that the abusive drinker’s wife didn’t know he was an alcoholic? Could they not imagine that the things he did and said in public were timid compared to the exponentially more vile and vicious insults he hurled at her in the privacy of their home? They wanted her, the person undoubtedly on the receiving end of the vast majority of this alcoholic’s rage, to be the intermediary for them? How unimaginably rude, insensitive and unsupportive of this group of neighbors.
If my friend’s husband died, they would be there with tissues, casseroles and shoulders on which to cry. But since he was just a flaming alcoholic, they thought yelling at her about his transgressions was the way to go. Unbelievable, and yet, not the least bit surprising.
A regular listener of our Untoxicated Podcast was the inspiration for our Echoes of Recovery group for the loved ones of alcoholics. This listener told me stories about the concern she heard constantly about her alcoholic husband. “How’s Bob doing? How is his recovery going? If there’s anything I can do to help him, please let me know.” All the concern was about Bob – his affliction and his recovery. At no point did anyone ask our listener – Bob’s wife – how she was doing. She spent years dealing with gaslighting, lies, denials and broken promises, yet the concern of everyone in her friends and family circle was for Bob’s wellbeing.
What about her? Why wasn’t anyone interested in her story or her mental anguish? Where was the support for her recovery?
But even more common than these misplaced comments and concerns in times of alcoholic crisis is silence. Alcoholism makes people turn and run the other direction like no other chronic disease or mental illness. If you think people are uncomfortable and ill-prepared when there is a death to process, try asking for help in dealing with an alcoholic loved one. When alcoholism is the discussion topic, the people closest to us seem eager to show us their impressions of cockroaches scurrying into a tub drain when the bathroom light is flicked on.
Here’s why this is such a gargantuan societal problem: the most crucial component of alcoholism recovery, both for the drinkers and also for the loved ones of the drinkers, is connection. For the loved ones, supportive connection tells them they aren’t crazy no matter what names their alcoholic narcissist slings in their direction. I should know – I was a name-slinging alcoholic narcissist, and my wife had no one to talk to who could bolster her instincts and make her feel supported and loved.
“Everyone drinks. You’re just going to have to learn to get used to it.” This was the advice given to a friend of mine when she asked her best friend if she was crazy for feeling such anger toward her heavy-drinking husband. “Yes, you are crazy,” is what she heard. Rather than process her grief and pain for committing her life to someone hell-bent on letting her down, she pushed down those emotions and instincts, and worked on being a little less of a nut-bag bitch. As for her husband, he kept on drinking and insulting. Well now, that was super helpful.
Why are we so bad at dealing with alcoholism? We’ve shown amazing competency at contracting alcoholism, perpetuating the myths of the benefits of alcohol and passing our dysfunction and ignorance from generation to generation. But we’ve never seemed to learn to deal with alcoholism. Of course, that is, until someone drinks himself to death. Then we make a casserole and get our suit from the closet.
Maybe we are so bad at dealing with alcoholism because the issues are so prevalent that they just hit a little too close to home. “Yes, you are crazy. All guys drink heavily. Just ask my husband.”
If we admit the truth – that alcohol is a poison in any quantity, and compulsive love of alcohol and compassionate love of another human can’t coexist – if we understand that, admit that truth, well, then maybe. But for now, we lean heavily on the myth that alcoholism is the problem of the alcoholic, and all the rest of us are just fine.
It is hard to fight the stigma when we refuse to see it standing right in front of us. Alcoholic blindness is everywhere, don’t you know.
Fighting the stigma is messy, isolating and even alienating. I should know. As a soberevolutionary, I’ve done my share of alienating. I guess I just can’t ignore the value of connecting and talking and listening and pushing forward, hand in hand. I guess, “I have seen enough to know I have seen too much,” (A League of Their Own, 1992). I guess I just can’t accept our societal refusal to fix such a solvable problem.
I guess I just don’t like the fit of my funeral suit.
If you are ready to stop being part of the problem, and start helping us reveal the solution, we could use your help.
Our SHOUT Sobriety program is for people in early recovery from alcoholism. Our Echoes of Recovery program is for the loved ones of alcoholics, sober or not. Check us out. Join us.