My Partner's Descent Into Alcoholism

By Jane Whitman 03/10/17

After twenty years I threw my partner out because his drinking was out of control. After he got sober, he thanked me.

Silhouettes of man separated from woman and child by big chasm
Sometimes separation can begin the healing.

My brother-in-law was an alcoholic and died without ever coming to peace with his addiction. At the time I remember farewelling him in hospital, looking down at his yellow skin, and wasted body, and thinking how lucky I was that I’d escaped all of that pain. I’m not sure how I didn’t see it – my partner’s slow descent into addiction. Granted he wasn’t drunk constantly like his older brother, crashing motorbikes, and breaking his neck. And he was employed, he was functioning and he didn’t drink every day. But, and there’s always a posthumous but, when you face what you knew deep down, there were very clear signs. Signs I chose to ignore for many years. Until last year when he had a nervous breakdown, and his controlled drinking became ugly and frightening.

I will never forget my son coming home from school and disappearing down the side of the house and coming back victorious with two empty wine bottles that he’d found hidden in the barbecue. It became his favorite game: finding dad’s stash. The more it happened the more I panicked, the more I ranted to my partner about what he was doing to us, the more he disappeared. It escalated until he was caught with a cask in the backyard, drinking greedily from the tap straight into his mouth. I will never forget watching my son watching his dad. It was the moment when no matter how bold my partner’s lying was or how much he made me doubt myself, I knew the truth and I couldn’t pretend anymore.

Distraught, I called my partner’s psychologist. I had to do something. He told me I couldn’t threaten anymore. If I wanted it to change then I had to draw a line and not cross it. I rang my partner’s siblings and told them what I’d suspected, but hidden, for a long time. That their baby brother was also an alcoholic. None of them could cope with it. They didn’t have the energy to go through it again, having watched their eldest brother drink himself to death. They apologized but they couldn’t take him. I couldn’t afford to send him anywhere. But he had to leave. After pretending to the world for all these years that his drinking was normal, I was done.

I phoned his three oldest friends, all female, all mothers, and told them what had happened. They didn’t believe he had a real problem. They thought I was exaggerating, because I’d long given up alcohol myself as a reaction to his drinking, and they thought I was being dull. But they agreed to take him. So the next day one of them came to collect him and when we came home from school that night, he was gone.

I cleaned like I’ve never cleaned before. I scrubbed the house, removing him and his smell. I threw out bottles from all the hiding places in our yard. And I cried. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I’d thrown out my lover, the father of my children, because he couldn’t stop drinking. I felt like I’d failed him and me and our kids. I felt like I’d given up on us, and I was so ashamed. It’s not something you want people to know, that your partner has moved out because he’s an alcoholic.

So to try and find some space, I packed my kids up and took them on a holiday to the beach for ten long days, to reset all that we’d seen. Slowly we started laughing again, relieved to be free. And one by one the women who were caring for my partner rang me to admit that he’d drunk their entire liquor cabinet and whatever he could get his hands on. They were shocked. They had no idea he was such a drinker. Nobody knew what to do.

For ten long days my children and I healed. We swam in the sea. We saw whales. We walked. Ate good food. Slept and laughed. And I felt his pull, his neediness and desperation leave me. I felt free of him.

Returning home, he was worse than when we’d left. He’d stopped eating. Stopped getting out bed. All he did was drink. I booked an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist who could admit him to a rehab clinic if he agreed and when I met him there, he tried to kiss me. I remember being so disgusted by the sight of him, the skinny, dirty sight of him, that I turned my face and his lips grazed my ear. And then I sat and listened as he told the psychiatrist he had no hope anymore. And I realized that neither did I.

When I arranged to meet him two weeks later in a park near where he was living, we arrived late. The traffic had been bad and the kids wanted to take a picnic because they were excited to see him. He was half the man he’d been in size. His jeans barely stayed on his hips. He stank like wine. He was smoking again. And every time he looked at the kids he burst into tears. He lasted fifteen minutes and then he had to go. For twenty years he’d been in my life, and that day as I watched him walk through the park away from us, all my anger left me. I just felt really sad.

That night the friend who he was staying with phoned me and said he’d locked himself in his bedroom and was detoxing. She was a nurse and so she made sure he was drinking water and sleeping. Two days later he phoned me. He said he hadn’t had a drink in 48 hours and that he wanted to see the kids. I told him he could come for dinner if he washed and put on clean clothes and tried not to cry when he saw them because it frightened our son.

He came over the following night. I remember sniffing the air as he passed, fearing that he’d started again. I remember how seriously he thanked me for throwing him out and him telling me that he’d started going to AA. I didn’t know what to feel, or what to think. I had no idea if I loved him, hated him, felt nothing for him. The kids were desperate for him to come home. I wasn’t sure. I was scared that it would all just start again, but he kept going to AA meetings and still wasn’t drinking. He’d started seeing his psychologist again and so three weeks later I let him come home.

That was a year ago last weekend. He has not had a drink in a year. I no longer sniff the air in the night or check in cupboards for bottles of vodka. I no longer doubt him when he goes out. Sometimes if we’re having a fight I remember flashes of how he was when he was drunk, but mostly that image has gone. It took months for him to understand how much damage his lying had done to us, to me. That was the hardest part, making him understand that lying to my face all those nights, giving me no choice but to sniff the bed and his clothes in the middle of the night, was what broke me.

About six months ago, I went away for the night with the kids. I knew it was a risk. Leaving him alone. But if we were to survive, trust had to come back somehow. So I went, worried that when I came back the next day he’d be a closet drinker again. Instead, when I arrived home, he told me unprompted that he’d considered it. Going to the bottle shop and buying a bottle of wine because I’d never know, but he chose not to. That was the first time he’d ever talked to me about his addiction or the pull of the drink. The first time he’d ever been honest about making a choice. After that I stopped feeling resentful and angry and started loving him again. Slowly and precariously, because a lot of damage had been done. But we got there in the end. 

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