Married to a Chronic Relapser: The Wife’s Story

My husband helped me get sober, then he went back to drinking, relentlessly. Today, I’m walking the fine line between staying sober and staying married.

wifeI met my husband, Jimmy, at my very first AA meeting. I stumbled into the 14th Street Workshop, bloated and reeking of booze from the night before, in my pajamas. I hadn’t showered in days, and I was wary of the people in the room. I didn’t trust anyone.

Jimmy recognized that I was new (it wasn’t hard to spot), and he put out his hand to shake mine, welcoming me and giving me a meeting list. I don’t remember much about that first meeting, but Jimmy’s kindness stayed with me.

A few days later, I was walking down 14th Street with a beer in a brown bag when I saw Jimmy in front of the Workshop. I tried to hide the beer, thinking he would be angry or disappointed with me. Instead, he told me not to be embarrassed, and welcomed me to come back to the meetings anytime I wanted.

After being used and abused by so many sleazy men in bars, this kind man was a new animal to me. He radiated the philosophy of “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” He had no ulterior motive in being kind to me; he wasn’t trying to get in my pants. He was simply another alcoholic offering his experience, strength and hope—no strings attached.

I made a commitment to go to the 12:30 Beginner’s meeting at the Workshop every day. A group of us always went to the Little Poland diner to fellowship afterward. Jimmy always bought my lunch. He was the elder statesman of the group with about five years sober. I remember laughing with him one of those early days at the diner and realizing, This is the first time I’ve laughed this hard in years.

I noticed that Jimmy helped a lot of homeless guys get off the streets—bringing them into his home and cleaning them up, getting them into detoxes and rehabs. I asked him if I should be doing this. He smiled and said that we each find our niche in sobriety where we can be of service. This brand of 12-stepping worked for him because of his experience. In time, he told me, I would find ways my experience could benefit others.

As I struggled through early sobriety, I was angry and depressed, and suffered from severe mood swings from untreated bipolar disorder. I should say that Jimmy suffered from my mood swings too, because I could be combative. He put up with a lot of abuse, but seemed to understand that this was my process of getting clean. He saw something in me that was good, that I couldn’t see in myself. He was very forgiving.

We had fun, too. On my birthday I mentioned to him that I had never seen snow on the beach. He came up with the idea of going to Coney Island to see the snow and go for an icy dip in the ocean. I remember how warm the sun felt on my skin after jumping in the freezing water for a couple of seconds. I felt myself coming back to life.

After a few relapses, I finally put the plug in the jug and managed to stay sober. A big part of the reason for that was Jimmy’s support and absence of judgment.

Jimmy and I went through a lot together over the years. I was in and out of psych wards, and he was always the first to visit me. He had his demons, too, and I tried to be as supportive as he was. I moved to New Mexico, and later to Virginia. We always stayed in touch.

We always said that if neither of us were married when I hit 40 and he hit 50, we would get hitched. But God had other plans for us. While living in Virginia, I realized that I had fallen in love with him. I got up the courage to tell him, and to my surprise, the feeling was mutual.

It was a messy situation, because he had a new girlfriend. But it really felt—and still feels—like our union was meant to be.

And then he relapsed after a particularly bad fight with the ex-girlfriend. He called me in Virginia, drunk, telling me how much better Lou Reed sounded with a few beers in him. I was stunned. We had just celebrated his 12th anniversary. I never imagined he would drink.

I never imagined that I would drink, either, but a few weeks later, I relapsed myself. On Nyquil, of all things. It didn’t take long for me to start drinking in earnest. One of Jimmy’s sponsees relapsed around the same time. I’m not saying it was Jimmy’s fault, but there did seem to be a domino effect. In looking back, I think maybe my co-dependent mind told me I had to drink to be with him.

In any case, we were both off to the races. I moved back to New York to live with him. He landed a plum job and we traveled, drinking top shelf booze and dabbling in cocaine. We moved into a beautiful apartment. He proposed to me in our local watering hole. It was a spur of the moment proposal, and he didn’t have a ring yet. The bartender, our friend, fashioned a ring out of a paper clip. I still have it to this day. We milked that engagement for weeks, with people buying us drinks to celebrate.

A few months later we were holed up in that sumptuous apartment, shades drawn, on marathon cocaine binges, paranoid that our neighbors knew what was going on. At one point we were doing two to three 8-balls per binge, then recuperating for a couple of days, only to repeat it over and over again. My nose was permanently stuffed up, and I was bloated and looked terrible.

Amazingly, we kept going to meetings. For several years, I went every Monday to my home-group with one day, only to be drunk and high again by Friday. People in my home-group were supportive, but no one understood what I was going through as much as Jimmy. It was a humiliating, frustrating experience. I don’t know why I didn’t give up. I think Jimmy had given me such a strong foundation in AA in the early years, that I remained loyal to the program even while relapsing.

One night we were doing coke, and Jimmy was shooting speedballs. He overdosed. I looked at him passed out on the filthy couch, and then looked at the coffee table. I still had about a gram left. I didn’t want to flush the coke down the toilet and call 911. I decided to do the rest of my share of the blow. By the time I was finished, he was still passed out. I decided to do his share of the blow, as well. When I finished, he started to wake up.

When I crashed, I realized: “My God. I chose cocaine over my husband’s life.”

He wasn’t ready to stop, so I made the most difficult decision of my life: to move out. I knew there was no way I could get sober with him doing lines in front of me. I packed up and moved with my dog to a little apartment in Bay Ridge. It was heartbreaking. I missed Jimmy so much. I used to cry going back and forth to the city on the subway every day. Something about the anonymity of the subway made me feel safe sobbing. There were people around, but I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was so alanonic, I went to Jimmy’s apartment every day to make sure he was still alive.

After a while he lost the plum job, lost the apartment that came with it. He was facing homelessness again and it seemed to be a bottom for him. I agreed to let him move in with me, and we lived happily together, sober, for about a year, until he relapsed again.

The day he relapsed, I was as stunned as I had been the first time. I panicked and took my dog with me to a Holiday Inn for the night to get away from him drinking. But over time, as he continued to drink and drug, I became desensitized to it and could actually be in the same room with him using and still stay sober myself.

People in the rooms think it is very dangerous to my sobriety to have him getting high in front of me. But the truth is, it doesn’t look too attractive. He is as messy and sloppy a drunk as I was. He is only marginally functional, barely able to make it to work.

It has become routine for him to go MIA during the day. When I can’t reach him by phone while I’m at work, I assume he’s at the bar again. This happens at least two to three days a week.

I live in fear for the rest of the day, wondering what I’m going to find when I get home. At times he can be angry and menacing while drunk. He has thrown things in my direction, denting the wall. Once he threatened to throw the coffee table at me. So I do fear for my safety. I started packing a night’s supply of my medication in my purse so that if I find him in a violent mood, I can get out and stay away until he’s sobered up. This is not the man who showed me so much love and kindness. This is not the man I married. This is a drug and alcohol-induced “Mr. Hyde.”

So I wonder, will he be angry and violent? Will he be coked up? Will he go to work drunk? Will he be in the hospital again? He’s already had a heart attack. Or will this be the day that I find him dead? He once showed me a noose he had fashioned with a rope. He’s often suicidal during and after binges. When I ride the subway home on days he’s MIA, I mentally prepare myself to find him hanging from the shower rod.

I started going to Alanon a few years ago and it has been really helpful. In Alanon meetings they say, “We can find contentment, and even happiness, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.” This has happened for me. I have been able to find joy and meaning in my life, separate from my relationship with him and his continued drinking. I have my own little business, I volunteer at the zoo, and I have a great support system, in and out of the rooms. My life is full.

The flip side to the peace I have found is that the situation with Jimmy has started to feel manageable and acceptable. Sometimes I don’t know whether I am working a kick-ass Alanon program or if I’m in denial. It can be hard to tell the difference.

For months I prayed for clarity about what to do about Jimmy’s drinking. Should I kick him out? I separated from him once before. Do I need to do that again? But the message I got was to get a sponsor and work the steps in Alanon, as I have done in AA. So I have a new sponsor and we are going through the Alanon Step book.

Someone asked me what I would do if I knew that he was never going to get sober. I thought about it, and I thought that I would break up with him. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this.

But I do have hope that he will get sober again. After all, this is the man who helped me get sober. He knows the program. He’s done it before. I believe he can do it again. He showed me unconditional love and support throughout my early relapses. And so I have tried to be supportive to him through his struggle. At the same time, I try to “detach with love.” Let him have the dignity of his own experience, his own consequences.

Today my dear husband has 10 days. It’s the longest stretch of sobriety he’s had in months. I am hopeful and happy. I am so proud of him. But I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch. How can I be hopeful, but not naïve?

The answer is, just like with my own sobriety, I have to live in the day. Be grateful for this day sober together, without looking too far at the past or the future. We’ve had a long, winding history together, and I do hope we have a long future. But for now, we are just two drunks trying to stay sober for this 24-hours.  Article Link “the fix”…

Sadie Long is pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about animal activism. She is married to Jimmy Long, who wrote the previous story about his relapse.

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