"He Got Sober, I Got Broken": The Trauma of Substance Abuse in Relationships
Dana Killion's memoir tells the story of the enormous impact alcoholism can have on the addict's partner
In conversation with psychotherapist Sally O'Sullivan below, she talks of the complex nature of guilt and resentment
We have therapists who specialise in addiction – find them here
“He can come back when he’s stops this stupidity!”
Those were the words that formed in my mind the first time I doled out significant consequences over my husband’s drinking. I asked him to leave.
But the stupidity was mine, the arrogance was mine. I didn’t know what I was dealing with then, not really.
It wasn’t the first conversation we’d had about his alcohol consumption, but it was the first moment that my anger surfaced. We’d already run through the logical progression of “what’s going on with your drinking?” and “honey, I’m worried” mornings-after. Each talk seemed to bring respectful acceptance and agreement that moderation was needed. And things would change, for a while anyway. But the drinking would inevitably come back.
I assumed I simply hadn’t found the right words. Hadn’t conveyed my level of worry properly or the seriousness of what I saw. After all, he loved me. I loved him. We had an amazing life. Surely this was just a misunderstanding, a difference of viewpoints, and he wanted to fix this too. But somehow my words never quite resolved what I saw as a burgeoning marital problem.
“I must not be doing it right,” I would say to myself.
That night when I asked him to leave our home, I assumed the forced punishment would communicate in ways my words seemingly hadn’t. Surely alone in a hotel room away from his family things would change. He would see the tear forming in the fabric of our marriage. Our separation lasted a whole week.
He phoned one evening, saying “I get it now. I’ll see someone. Can I come home?”
And of course, I relented. I’d gotten the outcome I wanted. Awareness. He was trying. And I’d spent a week tossing alone in my bed, alternating between the guilt over asking him to leave, guilt that my words hadn’t been sufficient, and hope that maybe this time I’d gotten through.
Because guilt and hope are ever-present when someone you love has a substance problem. It is the push/pull we utilise to our preserve our love.
He returned home, entered therapy, pretending to participate until that too became another promise broken. Became another moment when my words and fears were tossed aside. By then my fears had morphed into the terror of anticipating accidents or job loss or my children being in the car when he crashed. And to be blunt, my fear that I would be left cleaning up his mess.
But it was my mess too. I was inextricably intertwined with the consequences of his disease. After all, no one had more to lose than I did.
We moved into therapy-is-a-condition-of-marriage. Into secret drinking. Into another separation. Nothing worked for long. But when you learn your spouse has been drinking straight out of the vodka bottle when you aren’t looking, how much did I really know?
Still, somehow this problem was mine to fix. I didn’t really think I could fix him, removing alcohol from our life through my singular force of will, but I did think my words had weight. If he wouldn’t get sober at my urging, could he get sober at all?
Or perhaps he just didn’t love me enough.
These are our thoughts when our words and tears don’t work. When logic doesn’t work.
Was that my cue that I needed to leave, I wondered?
The stay or go debate is one that nearly every loved one wrestles with, in my case, multiple times, over years. But there are consequences to leaving as well. I’d be handing a man I still loved over to the disease. Abandoning him to drink. My thoughts of leaving were not because love had left me, but because I felt ineffective, frustrated, unsure what else to try. Felt I had tried all options other than leaving.
But could I live with the guilt of what I imagined would happen to him next? I pictured further decline into booze. A place that left him alone without even my impotent voice to moderate his drinking. A place where his future was irreparable liver damage and possibly death. And I would have to live with that too. Because I was the spider’s silk that kept him lightly tethered to life.
At least that’s what my brain told me.
Eventually the stories I told myself played on repeat, cycling like a hard drive that wouldn’t reboot and I pulled the last card I had in my deck. “You can have me, or you can have vodka. Chose.”
He chose me, went to rehab, and got sober. Finally. But it wasn’t the happy ending I had imagined. Nor was it the end of my guilt. I hadn’t thought about “the after” with any degree of complexity. Sobriety had my singular focus and with it I assumed the baggage we carried of bad behaviour and resentment and regrets would float away too.
They didn’t. But then I had to look at that baggage without the blinders of my sobriety mission. And he had to look at himself without the fog of drink and compartmentalisation and denial.
The ugliness of his past drunken behaviour now flashed raw and red. The weight of his lies laid heavy in my heart. I couldn’t shed them and knew leaving was finally necessary.
But even then, as I chose to end the marriage and save myself, I walked away with my guilt still attached, taking the burden of his possible relapse with me.
Shedding my guilt has become my path to healing.
Watch our interview with Dana and psychotherapist Sally O'Sullivan here: