This story below was sent to us at Changing Lives Foundation. We share this candid and powerful account of one woman’s struggle and ultimate healing (with the author’s permission) with hope that it will provide inspiration to others who may be experiencing some of the same struggles. You are not alone.
We have changed the name of the author, family members and some details per the family’s request, to protect their privacy.
I Was the Wife of an Alcoholic.
~ by Vicki S.
There are so many books out there about alcohol recovery, the addict, what addiction means and what family members are supposed to do. We are led to believe we need to be the addict’s personal cheerleader. Support them thru all the chaos they create in the lives around them. Pick them up when they fall, as relapse is a part of addiction. They skirt around withdrawal. Maybe because the people writing these books were the ones going thru withdrawal and not seeing it from the perspective of the people actually witnessing the withdrawal.
My question was always “when does he start taking responsibility for his own actions? When does the disappointment stop?” This tells a real life story about what family members go through on a daily basis living with an addict. I am not skirting around the withdrawal. The havoc it causes in your life. This is the story of my life.
I was the wife of an alcoholic.
I have two amazing children. I feel I am a very straightforward person. I try not to pull any punchesâ€”this tends to get me in trouble, as I have been known to hurt people by what comes out of my mouth. I usually remain calm and composed during difficult situations.
My husband could not be depended upon to be there for us. My son once described to me our familyâ€””there is me, you and Courtney who live upstairs and there is Dad who chooses to live downstairs.” Profoundly true. We have a dysfunctional family “true by every meaning of dysfunctional.” I have tried my hardest to make things as normal as possible for my children. I feel I have been a good mother. I know things haven’t been smooth sailing with them, but I feel our past has made us stronger people and we will be better people because of it.
My parents are still married. They have been my lifeline. When things were really bad and I knew I needed to get out of my house with the children I went to my parents. I did not have the financial means to get my own place. Without hesitation my father came up with a plan. We will convert the finished downstairs into two bedrooms with a small sitting area. Courtney could have my old bedroom because she only had a year before moving away to college. Within days the renovations started. My parents are both strong, opinionated people. My dad is the “take control of the situation” type person. My mom thinks nothing of helping with whatever needs to be done.
Courtney is my eighteen-year-old daughter. She has been an adult since she was a child. She loves to have fun and when you hear her laugh it brings a smile to your face. She doesn’t show her emotions. She is straightforward. Courtney loves life. She loves to try new things, she loves to be original and is truly comfortable with her uniqueness.
I have a sixteen-year-old son Andrew. He too is old beyond his years. Prior to all the chaos in our lives, Andrew would smile and laugh all the time. He loved to be hugged and give hugs. That all changedâ€”partly because of the family situation and partly because of his age. Looking at him, he has this tough exterior. He is quiet and usually only talks when he is being talked to or needs something. He is such an observant kid. He takes everything in. He too is straightforward and always feels the need to protect himself from being hurt.
And so it beganâ€”
I met my husband when we were in high school. We became friends. I was a cheerleader, he was a football player. When we were juniors in high school we started dating. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was cheering at a basketball game. He came to the game. At half time we were walking down the hallway, he put his arm around my shoulder and asked me to go to the party after the game with him. I should have seen it. He was drunk but we were in high school and everyone was drinking.
Fast-forward nineteen years- (more detail later)
July 28th, 2007
Hospital Stay #3: I was only out of the house for two weeks. My phone rings at 6:30AM. It was my husband. “Vicki, I need you to come to the house. I’m sick and need to go to the hospital.” I tell him I’ll be right up. I arrived within minutes of his call. He was sitting in his recliner, smiling at me. I ask him what’s wrong, as if I don’t already know. He said with the faint smell of alcohol on his breath “I just need you to give me a ride to the bathroom.” I know this isn’t good. I am not a nurse or a doctor but I’ve been here beforeâ€”he has encephalopathy again. I know that ammonia is going to his brain causing this confusion. I asked him if he called the ambulance yet, he said, “No I was waiting for you.”
Seconds later there is a knock on the door. The paramedics have arrived. I didn’t call them, they told me my husband did. (This has been a constant in my life these past few months. Asking him questions, getting a response from him, but never knowing whether or not to trust the answer that comes from his mouth.) He wanted to change his clothes before he went in the ambulance as he told them “I soiled myself a little”. The paramedics told him he was fine and were taking his vitals. I needed to walk out of the house. I was so angry. One of the paramedics came outside with me to ask some medical questions. They smelled the alcohol on him too. I just shook my head. My thought of “My God Tom, you knew if you drank again you were going to die. Why???” I knew what we were all in for. I called his parents. I was crying and telling them that I had the ambulance at the house and their son needed to go to the hospital. I told them that this is exactly what I did not want to be doing, that I could not do this anymore. They reassured me they would meet me at the hospital. They lived twenty minutes from the hospital. Two and a half hours later they arrived. Of course, my own mother knew what was going on and immediately met me at the hospital. She walked into the ER room that my husband was in, talked to him like he was going to be OK. Thoughts of “Am I insane? Am I seeing something that nobody else is? Am I exaggerating his medical condition and what the GI doctor told meâ€”if he drinks again he would die? My mom walked out in tears. She never showed him those tears; she wanted him to have hope.
I needed to leave the ER as I had a second job I needed to go to. I know this may sound cold of me to leave him alone, at the hospital; waiting for his parents to arrive but mine was the only income. I was responsible for the mortgage, utilities, food etc. I had no choice but to go to work. I was the responsible one. I had two teenage children to care for.
I just pulled into the parking lot for my job when, my husband’s GI doctor was calling my cell phone. He said, “Vicki, I know we just worked really closely on your husband’s case a few weeks ago, but his parents are telling me that you are estranged and they will be making all the medical decisions.” I explained to him that I moved out two weeks ago, however, I was still his wife, knew what my husband wanted and that I would in fact be making any and all medical decisions if my husband could not. He asked me to please come to the hospital as soon as possible. I ran inside Bed Bath and Beyond where I worked, found my manager, trying to hold back my tears I explained to her that my husband was in ICU, and I needed to go to the hospital immediately and would be unable to work my shift. I told her I would call later as I didn’t know what the week would hold for me. Running out of the store and to my car my thoughts were “Damn you Tom! I can’t believe you are doing this to us again!”
So now I’m feeling anger at him, anger at his parents, fear for what’s ahead. It’s always been a feeling like getting punched hard in the stomach when you’re not looking. On the ride to the hospital, I played it out in my head, what I would say to his parents, what I would do, how I needed to keep composure. Falling apart was not a part of the plan.
By the time I arrived at the intensive care unit, the nurses were already giving him a blood transfusion. His parents were sitting in the waiting area. I stopped briefly, and calmly told them I knew that they told the doctor that I was the estranged wife and that they would be making the medical decisions. I told them that I have lived with their son for the past nineteen years, and lived the hell of his addiction. I told them that I was still his wife, I would include them in on any medical decisions that needed to be made, however my decision would be the final one. They of course, denied ever saying that to the doctor. My thought was “let it slide, Vicki- just take a deep breath and let it slide.” The reality of it all was I knew my husband was dying; I didn’t need a doctor to come out and speak those words. I knew in my heart, that my in-laws could not make the tough decisions that were ahead. And I was his wife; it was my responsibility to make those decisions.
I met with the GI doctor. Based on my husband’s blood levels, he felt he was bleeding internally, and wanted to perform an endoscopy to see if there was varicies. I signed the consent for it, because my husband was incapable of signing. The doctor also informed me that he would like to wait until the next morning to do it, however, if things got worse today he might need to do it on an emergency basis.
I needed to go home and tell my two children what was happening. They were numb to what I was telling them. You tend to feel emotionless when you’ve been thru this enough times. How many times can you hear “you need to be prepared, your father probably won’t make it thru this time.” I have always been honest with my children about their father’s disease. I knew it was so important for them to be able to trust me with this, to know I was always going to be straightforward no matter what the outcome may be. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My daughter was accepting of it. She was angry but wanted to see her father. It’s been a crazy year for her. Between her father going in and out of the hospital, leaving for rehab on her birthday, in June she left for an economics leadership program, she was home for a week, she spent a week at my brothers house taking care of his animals while they were on vacation and then she left for Washington DC to volunteer at the Hugh O’Brien World Leadership Congress. She arrived back home late on July 28th. On July 29th her father was admitted to the hospital and she hadn’t seen him in weeks. She was exhausted to say the least. Another emotional roller coaster for her.
Can you imagine going from a World Leadership Congress with 400 plus teenagers from all over the World who excel in academics, leadership and volunteerism, a place where when you walk into a room with these teenagers you can’t help but feel their enthusiasm for life, their positive spirit and feel through your entire body the energy that radiates from them to a place where death is imminent? All I can say is she is a remarkable person.
My son was angry. He told me he was not going to see his father at the hospital. I respected his decision. My family did not understand my acceptance of his decision. You see, they didn’t live in our house; they didn’t experience the day-to-day chaos that the alcohol brought into our lives. You need to experience it to truly understand it. I was told “he will regret this the rest of his life if you don’t make him go see his father.” I knew my son. I knew he absolutely needed to feel he controlled his own decisions. I was truly fine with his decision. In a lot of ways I envied him.
It’s funny now, how really “in control” I was during this time. I guess I had been preparing myself for years. During the last week of my husband’s life, I stayed calmly in control. I listened to people’s opinion; I saw their concern, their hurt, and their tears. I was able to take it all in and feel for them, be there for them. I was able to talk to doctors rationally about their expectations, plans, and reasoning’s behind certain tests. I amazed myself. I believe so much of this was due to me making a promise to myself and my family to do everything possible to help my husband with his addiction. I knew that this day would come and I was going to need to say “you have done all you could for him, it was in his hands and Gods hands.” As this promise came into play, I shared it with my children- always using the words “we are” or “we will”. Always letting them know I would be truthful with them. In the end, they too, were able to feel “we” did all we could for him. There was no guilt attached. What a good feeling.
There are a few parts of this that remain foggy to me. This next part is one of them.
My brothers and their wives arrived at the house. I sat downstairs with them, explained to them what was happening with my husband and we all held each other and cried together.
“My Father had a difficult time accepting that my husband
couldn’t just stop drinking.”
During this time, my father was walking around on crutches. He badly needed to get his hip replaced and was in agony from the pain. My father was angry with my husband for all he put us through. He had a difficult time accepting that my husband couldn’t just stop drinking. He made a lot of excuses for not going to the hospital to see him. My mom is a very forgiving person, and while her son-in-law hurt her daughter and grandchildren, she completely understood the disease and forgave him.
I went back to the hospital. I know I said I would not do the hospital scene ever again. But the truth was, I still loved this man. I hated the alcoholic but loved the man. I realized I was finally able to separate the two. He was going downhill fast. Blood transfusions had been running throughout the day, he still had brain confusion when he was awake.
My family (minus my father) arrived shortly after. (My father did eventually come up to the hospital and then we couldn’t get him to leave).
I remember walking into my husband’s hospital room with my twin brother and standing by him. His anger now gone. His compassion, immeasurable. He walked over and kissed his friend (my husband) on the forehead. My husband opened his eyes and smiled. I remember my brother walking out of the room, tears running down his face, and I hugged him. He has felt that blinded punch in the stomach that I have lived with for so long. As I write this, I have tears running down my cheeks. It is like opening newly healed wounds
Monday July 29th:
It’s early Monday morning and there is some confusion as to whether or not the endoscopy will be done. The resident doctor comes out to speak to me. We talk about a DNR. We talk about the expected outcome, it’s grim. I am confident with my answer to the DNR. I know, without a doubt, a DNR order needs to be in place. This is something my husband and I talked about in depth.
The doctor covering for our primary care physician arrives. We sit on the couch of the waiting room in the ICU. It’s eerily quiet. We talk about the lab results, the blood transfusion, and the encephalopathy. He explains to me what to anticipate. I told him I signed a DNR order. He said it was a good decision. I remember looking him straight in the eyes, hoping for an honest answer. I asked him, “When will I know it’s time to stop everything?” He said, “You will know that it is time when the blood transfusions are being hung one after another after another. When you see that he has had three or four transfusions and nothing has improved it will be time to consider stopping all help.
At this point all we will be doing is playing games with numbers. One transfusion brings the lab levels up only to drop again and another transfusion is given to bring numbers up again. Follow your heart, you will know.”
My husband’s GI doctor arrives. He sits and talks briefly to me. He said, “I understand there is some confusion as to whether you want this test done.” His GI doctor is all business. Bedside manner could be better, but he is the best in his field. So I ask him, “Why are we doing the endoscopy if there is little chance of him pulling thru this?” He said, “Vicki, you brought him to a hospital, at a hospital we do what we can to give the patient a chance. I am not saying this will help anything but if there are varicies and we can clip them so they stop bleeding, maybe it will help. If you didn’t want to take these chances then you should have gone to hospice.”
I thought he was fair with his answer. I didn’t need him babying me with words. Short and sweet and to the point. Perfect for me. I said go ahead do the test.
The endoscopy was done right inside the ICU room. I remember my parents, my twin brother, and my best friend being there. (It seems like my best friend NEVER left my side during this week). It seemed like an eternity before the doctor came out. But he came out and called me over to the side away from everyone. I remember seeing his face how pale it was for a doctor, so I listened to him and looked down at his clogged feet. He told me to prepare myself for the worst; my husband was in congestive heart failure. My husband had minimal varices. That was good right? Wrong- Instead, the doctor explained to me that my husband’s entire GI tract was oozing blood. It was described as “kinda like when you scrape your knee and it just keeps oozing and stings.”
The doctor told me he put an oxygen mask on my husband to try to help him breathe a little easier, and I should go in and be with him. I called the family over and explained to them what was explained to me. I then walked into my husband’s room totally unprepared for what I was about to see. The hospital staff had my husband propped sitting straight up; his eyes were bulging as he was gasping for air. There was blood everywhere. On his face, on his Johnny coat, on the sheets. He then began to make a God-awful noise. It was loud, so very loud. I didn’t know what to do. He was looking at me with his bulging eyes looking for me to help him. I wanted to run. I needed to get out of that room. I am a strong person but I was not prepared for this.
I can’t tell you how many times I walked quickly away to the door leading to the hallway- the hallway where I could escape and not see that image any longer. At that moment I knew what it was like to be insane. I would walk away only to tell myself I couldn’t leave him alone like that, alone and scared. I think by the fourth time I just had to leave. The nurse actually came in and told me to leave she wanted to clean him up. She did this to save me from making the decision. I remember just barely being able to walk out of his room, my energy completely drained from my body.
Everyone was standing there wanting to know how he was, I couldn’t speak. Instead I let my knees give out and I slid down the wall in a crouched position, my hands covering my eyes, and I sobbed uncontrollably. While this was happening, his moaning increased in volume and everyone in the waiting area could hear him. I didn’t need to say anything else. They all cried along with me. I would not allow anyone to go in to see him like that, I wanted him cleaned up. I knew that vision was going to haunt me the rest of my life. No need for anyone else to experience it.
It was an extremely long day of not knowing what was going to happen. My husband was not going to pull through this time. I called both of the kids and told them that I did not think their father was going to live much longer. Throughout the afternoon we all went in to say our good byes. At one point both families had encircled his bed and you could feel the love for him in the room. I remember holding his hand and telling him that it was okay to let go. I was trying to give him permission to die. We stood around and cried, and hugged one another and tried to console each other. I didn’t care who was in the room; he needed to know it was time to let go. I never thought I would actually know that he was dying. I always said he was going to die from the alcohol, I didn’t know that I would actually know when but I could feel it in every fiber of my being that my husband was going to die. I knew what I needed. I needed to turn back time and find a way to change the outcome of my husband’s addiction. That wasn’t going to happen.
Everyone was trying to support me the only way they knew how. You need to remember this was a new experience for all of us. No one planned on my husband dying at the age of 42.
During this stressful day, I took a few minutes to call my divorce attorney. I told her my husband was in the hospital and was not going to pull through this time. I needed to stop the proceedings. She didn’t really know what to say, so she told me she was there for me-anything I needed just call. When I look back at this, I wonder why I made this call from the hospital.
Later in the afternoon, my son called me. Mom I’m coming up. I’m not staying more than twenty minutes. I told him “whatever you want to do.” He was walking to the hospital. Everyone offered to give him a ride, but I know my son, walking is a kind of therapy; he can collect his thoughts and feelings. I called him back to see if he knew where to go, he didn’t so I met him at the elevators. He was so angry. But I know he came for me. We sat at the furthest waiting area, and we talked. I told him what was happening with his dad. He didn’t want to go in to see him. He told me he was leaving.
It’s now Tuesday morning. I arrive at the ICU room at approximately 6:30am
Slowly, the last day, he slipped in and out of consciousness. When he was awake he kept asking for water. WATER
At some point on this day, the hospital social worker stopped by to see me. This is the same social worker that walked out on me when my husband was standing over me with his fist, the same social worker that told me I was speaking out of anger and would not get inpatient rehab the first time around. She came up to me and told me she was there for me and whatever I needed she would be there for me. I said thanks and walked away shaking my head laughing. Now she wants to help me? Now when there was no hope left. What help could she possibly be? I didn’t need a friend or supportâ€”I had my family.
On August 4, 2007 my husband passed away, quietly in his sleep. The death certificate read heart failure. The reality was his death was caused from alcohol dependency.
As for me- I struggle every single day. I have a difficult time trusting people. I don’t let people in easily. My philosophy on this is if people aren’t in your life they can’t hurt you. It’s hard to even let family members in. I don’t want them feeling sorry for me. I close my eyes and see the last week of my husband’s life. Sometimes it will be a vision of him after his endoscopy when he was in congestive heart failure, sitting straight up in his bed with an oxygen mask on his face, eyes bulging, and blood all over him AND HIS BED another time it may be him prior to his final hospital stay, bloated to the point where fluid was leaking thru his skin and running down his legs. He would take a sanitary napkin and put it inside his sock to soak up the fluid so it didn’t drench his sock. These are two memories that haunt me. This is what the other books don’t tell you. The insanity of living with an alcoholic.
It’s funny how the people around you judge you when they don’t know what’s going on in your life and then feels the need to feel sorry for you when they realize the hell you’ve been thru. I remember people I went to school with my entire life, making statements behind my back about my lack of participation in my children’s school events, sports, meetings etc. during the past year. It really hurt but in the grand scheme of things it just didn’t matter at the time. If they only knew the insanity in my life, my kids life, if they only knew I had all I could do to keep things together for the kids and myself.
I’ve learned a very important lesson thru all of this and that is not to judge people. When you think that someone is snubbing you, stop and think that maybe they have something going on in their own lives that they aren’t ready to share.” Walk away with a smile because if they are snubbing you, your smile will be an indication that it’s not really bothering you, and if they have something going on that smile may just brighten their day a little even if they don’t show it.
After my husband died, I began to hate these two simple phrases; “so how are you doing?? ” and “how are you?” The walls go immediately up. What I really want to say is “how the hell do you think I’m doing– I lost my husband, my house, my life”â€”but I realize that would be my anger being thrown at people who simply are just asking a question of concern. So I simply smile and say, “I’m fine.”
My life has been forever changed. But I am moving forward. I am currently enrolled in college. I am working toward obtaining a BS degree in psychology. My goal is to become a Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor.
“I simply smile and say, “I’m fine.”
What you read above, is a small section of the book I am in the process of writing. It is a slow process–mainly because it becomes too painful to write at times. But I have a goal to finish it.
I want other people to know they are not alone.
Contains new chapters and info on: Heroin, Shame & Stigma, Harm Reduction, Marijuana, Synthetic Drugs, 12-Step Groups & The Church, and much more!
Why Donâ€™t They Just Quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
~By Joe Herzanek
Best book ever about addiction. Written by one whose done it and is recovering. Easy to read, not preachy, just honest. I recommend this book to anyone with an addict in their life! ~Lynda A
Got an addiction problem in your family? Read this book. Joe knows his stuff. This book helps you to better understand those who are dealing with friends and family that are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I have read several of these books but this one is the best. ~RJ
I, like many people, have some knowledge of what drugs and addiction are, but are clueless on what the process of recovery entails. This book does a great job in what it would take to help a loved one, who is an addict and is willing to get clean and stay clean. It also gives one hope that your loved one will survive the nightmare they are living through with their family. ~CG
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