“Terminally unique.” That’s the term I learned in a 12-step program for those of us who think we’re the only ones trapped in the quicksand of someone else’s addiction. Yes. My story is mine alone, but it is somewhat textbook. We grasp how to operate in relationships early, usually by observing our biological parents. From mine, I learned codependency. I also married my father. Not literally, but my husband was my dad in many respects, and he concealed the Hyde to his Jekyll in those years before we gave birth to two beautiful girls.
My mother endured years of physical abuse from my drunken father before my parents divorced. I was three years old, and my sister was seven. While I was in college, at age 19, my mom died of cancer. It had formed in her chest around her heart, as if her anger toward my father and her parents literally suffocated her. She was only 48.
After putting myself through college, with the help of student loans, I volunteered with AmeriCorps, a domestic form of the Peace Corps. The organization sent me to San Diego, California to train tutors who would help struggling elementary school-aged children improve their reading skills. Being a small town girl, new to the big city, I filled out a survey that arrived in my mailbox from a dating service.
A few months later, Mike requested a date with me. I accepted after seeing his shy, humble demeanor in his video. He was classically handsome – resembling Patrick Swayze in the “Dirty Dancing” years. Although Mike wasn’t college-educated – a “must have” on my preference list – he owned his own plumbing business, which meant to me that he was motivated and financially stable. We met the following day and instantly hit it off. By the time he took me home after a holiday party the next evening, I was off the market. I knew I had met the man who was destined to be my partner in life.
We bought a home together before we married and entertained often. Then came the wedding. A year-and-a-half later, we had a baby girl. Our lives together seemed right on track. Except his drinking steadily increased, and his anger would flare. I began walking on eggshells. He raged over what he perceived to be my eyes on other men. My connection with certain friends, even my relationship with my sister set him off.
When we fought, it often became physical. By then I was teaching high school, and I went to class with bruises and scratches more often than I like to remember. I lived a double-life. At work, I was a dedicated, empathetic teacher. I felt purpose in my work and strove for excellence from myself as well as my students. My friends saw me as a successful career woman, mother, and wife. I wanted nothing more than for everyone to believe that I was juggling my responsibilities with ease. But at home, Mike and I were drowning in our disease.
He drank nightly, and I kept a watchful eye on how much alcohol he consumed. If his mood turned irritable, we sometimes ended up in a brawl. I always fought back. No way would a man beat me the way my father had beaten my mother. I used my fingernails as weapons to push him off me, and I slapped his face. The police were called a few times. Mike was booked for domestic violence twice. The following day I would go pick him up from the downtown jailhouse and tell the police I didn’t want to press charges.
After our second child was born, Mike’s drinking escalated. He passed out on the couch more often than he slept in our bed. He blamed my breastfeeding our baby in the middle of the night, but I knew his beer meant more to him than sharing space with me. Sex became routine and uneventful, a chore. As our daughters grew, so did the frequency of drunken nights.
Mike hid bottles of Bacardi in the garage. He drank on his drive home from work to get a beer down before I could see him. I began all the classic co-dependent manipulations to get him to stop – I threatened to leave, I pleaded, I cried, I yelled. I thought if I made his life miserable, surely he would make a change. Which he did. He spent longer days on the golf course with friends and returned home sloshed. More often than not, when he walked in the door after work at 5 o’clock, he was already wasted. When he saw disappointment on my face, he shouted at me and called me names. Our children would cry and tell us not to fight. I would call his mom, who lived six hours north of San Diego, and plead for her to talk with him.
Once, I called to talk with his mother after a fight, and I got his stepfather instead. His stepdad told me to try Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics. Desperate for help, I went to my first meeting in December 2008 with my disease at its height. I was a nervous wreck, trying to control everyone in my life. I vigilantly assessed what everyone else was doing, saying, and thinking. I couldn’t socialize without being hyper self-aware, scanning others to figure out what they wanted me to say and be. Friends told me I was overbearing and pulled away from me. Everything felt like a chore. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I was only 33 years old.
Mike allowed me to attend weekly meetings because he saw a positive change in me. He said I had been softer and friendlier. He didn’t know I was trying to practice detachment; that is, learning to keep my attention off others and on myself. This included self-care and how to avoid creating a crisis, while not trying to prevent one either. I got reacquainted with spirituality and was reminded that I had a Higher Power who I could lean on. I came to understand that the alcoholics in my life had their own Higher Power and had to walk their own paths. I learned about humility and how not to take others’ choices personally because it wasn’t all about me, which was a relief as well as a blow to my ego. All these things helped me to let go of trying to control all aspects of my life. It was a 180-degree turn from what I had been taught.
I had always believed the old American adage: “When it doesn’t work, try harder.”
Now I was trying to practice: “Let go and let God.”
I got a sponsor within six months of being in Al-Anon and we worked the steps together. She was kind and gentle and loving. She didn’t wince when I told her my shameful secrets. I learned to trust God and another human being. I learned to trust myself. I made amends with my father who immediately recognized the eighth step. He had also been working a program in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I began to pray for a sign to show me whether I should leave my marriage. Mike’s drinking was getting worse. He kept passing out on the living room floor. I took pictures of his drunkenness, so I could prove in court that he was unfit to take care of our girls if I left him.
The last time I took one of those photos, he was laid out in the hallway, snoring in front our children’s bathroom after a spring day of golf. The flash woke him, so I sprinted to our bedroom and locked the door. He yelled obscenities and threats and banged on the door. Then suddenly it was quiet, and when I mustered the nerve to peek outside the bedroom, I found him on the couch, sleeping off the drunk. The following morning, he was waiting for me on the other side of the door, and he attacked me. I called 9-1-1, reported the abuse and obtained a restraining order. After that day, Mike was no longer allowed in our home without a police escort.
Today, our children are eight and eleven years old, and they call me on a cell phone if they believe their father has been drinking. They know their father loves them, but he has a brain that tells him to consume alcohol as a form of medicine. When our youngest was asked by her counselor whether or not she believes her father might stop drinking if she were a better-behaved child she replied, “Of course not. He has a disease that has nothing to do with me.” When asked if she thought his drinking is a reflection of his lack of love for her, she adamantly disagreed. She knows her daddy loves her; he just has a problem.
I realize my daughters have learned these things from me, but I can’t take credit. These responses are typical of Al-Anon’s teachings and healing. I would never have discovered these concepts on my own. My children will grow up with a different set of tools than I had before Al-Anon. They will know about the disease of alcoholism and how to not engage in codependent behaviors with alcoholic friends and family members. Hopefully, they will refrain from attracting this kind of relationship in their futures. In the meantime, we pray for their father daily and put him in God’s hands because we have to mind our own business and take responsibility for ourselves.
It seems so simple: “Mind your own business.” We hear those words all the time. Now, I can honestly say I know what they mean.
(If someone reading this post would like to get in touch with Valerie. leave a comment, and I’ll make sure she gets your email address, so she can offer her experience, strength, and hope.)