The deeper my husband got into boozing, the deeper I got into my own self-imposed bubble of silence. A loyal, loving wife doesn’t talk about her husband peeing in an alley or passing out in the middle of sex while still inside her. She doesn’t tell stories of turning away in bed, tears streaming because the sour stench of his drunken body is revolting.
Or was that just part of my loyalty pledge?
I don’t remember a specific moment in my childhood that taught me to follow a code of silence. As the oldest of five, my responsibilities started young, and I thoroughly understood the expectation that I was to be the kid that gave no one any trouble.
We Midwesterners are not thought of as hotheaded, heart-on-our-sleeve types. Silence is simply understood as standard operating procedure. We aren’t brought up to expose ourselves or make ourselves vulnerable.
We do. We are. We exist. We move on. We don’t talk about it.
To place yourself in the middle of any story is to be vain. To call attention to something that should be kept private is simply not done. Unmet needs? Everybody has them. Talking about it won’t change anything.
The prevailing understanding around tough issues in polite society is to be quiet, at least where I was raised. But silence is also the expectation forced on all women. Be pretty and quiet and compliant and thoughtful. With an emphasis on quiet, please.
And I have been as guilty of silence as every other woman before me. In what I assumed was marital loyalty, I kept quiet about my husband’s alcoholism, rarely even questioning why I did so. I didn’t cover for him or make excuses. I didn’t have to lie because life — the part visible to the world outside our home — looked fine.
A high-functioning drunk gets through life hiding it all. He’d tough it out through the hangover and go to work anyway. He’d compartmentalize his drinking into time slots so that outward appearances remain untouched. He’d rationalize that because he was still kicking ass on the job, he had it all under control.
I alone held the truth.
I played the role a loving wife is supposed to play. She protects her family.
Speaking publicly about my husband’s flaws would be a betrayal, wouldn’t it? I thought so. But was my silence about him or me? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But the silence, the silence I chose, languished inside me like something rotting.
Holding in. Holding back. Holding on.
I paused on the sidewalk outside a Michigan Avenue high-rise and stared up at the carved stone arch that crested the double doors. Buses and taxis buzzed behind me, and pedestrians sidestepped me as I struggled with my emotions.
I had no reason to be nervous, yet my heart thumped in my chest as I gathered myself for the appointment I’d made. With a therapist. A therapist to help me navigate addiction.
Pulse racing, palms sweating, I looked up at the building and took several deep breaths. Why was I standing here on the concrete feeling like a shaky schoolgirl? I suppose I irrationally thought of his continued drinking as my failure. I hadn’t found the exact right formula of love and concern that would get through to him.
Although there had been stretches of time where I believed he’d turned a corner, it never lasted more than a few months. And now, many years in, after so many empty promises and broken dreams and returns to booze, it was abundantly clear his problem was too big for me to handle alone, so I’d opened a browser and scrolled Psychology Today looking for practitioners with a specialization in alcoholism. It was one step up from the Yellow Pages, but I wasn’t going to ask friends for a referral.
So here I was staring up at a building in downtown Chicago, steeling myself to say aloud for the first time, “My husband is an alcoholic.”
The therapist sat in her chair, notepad in hand, and asked, “What can I help you with?”
“My husband is an alcoholic, and I don’t know how to get him to stop,” I choked out, tears already filling my eyes and constricting my throat. My body trembled as I sat, hands gripping my thighs. I had said it. For the first time, I had said it. Out loud. Now it was real. There could be no more rationalizing. No more minimizing or softening the label by thinking of him as a “heavy drinker” or “having a drinking problem.” He was a full-on alcoholic. A drunk.
“Have you suggested a support group? AA?”
I laughed. Her question wasn’t intended as sarcasm, but all I could think was, “Honey, if a suggestion was all it took, I could add a Dr. prefix to my name and set out my own shingle.”
We spent 45 minutes discussing the ways in which I had attempted to get him to his come-to-Jesus moment. Then as the session wrapped up, she told me she “normally worked with the alcoholic, not the family” and repeated her suggestion of a support group. Then she asked whether I thought he would do better with a male or female therapist if she were to provide a referral.
But I didn’t want a referral for him. Who he saw was his damn business! I needed help navigating and understanding his problem.
It was only years later that I realized she had never asked a single question about me. How I was doing. How I was coping. What support I might need.
And in the ways of a woman only seeing part of her problem, my thoughts too were laser-focused on my husband’s issues.
I was a lifetime away from realizing that a crisis was in my future too.
Excerpted with permission from “Where the Shadows Dance: He Got Sober. I Got Broken,” by author Dana Killion.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
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