This is how our marriage survived my husband’s alcoholism

Relationships

January 7, 2020

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Three years ago, I married my husband, Dan. I vividly remember standing at the altar, saying our vows, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health,” promising to love and care for each other, even in the tough times.

But, like most newlyweds, I never could have anticipated what the future would hold. And if I’m being completely honest, our marriage has been very different from what I’d imagined.

Dan and I met in college. We had been dating for six years and were happily engaged, with a June wedding scheduled—and then, thirty days before our wedding, Dan got hit by a car on his skateboard while coming home from a bar. He broke his leg and tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. 

The bulk of last-minute wedding details and moving into our new apartment fell into my lap while Dan’s leg was healing. Friends helped us where they could, but the mental load of coordinating the wedding and the apartment on my own proved very challenging. I had certain expectations as to how engagement, living together, and the first years of marriage were supposed to go. And all of these were turned upside down. 

I grew frustrated with Dan, and as I look back, I can see that this is where my resentment began. On the drive up to New Hampshire for our wedding—also Dan’s twenty-fifth birthday—the stress of the last month exploded into a massive fight. Thankfully, we managed to get it together for our wedding and had an amazing celebration. 

But from the morning of our wedding and into the early part of our marriage, I saw Dan suffering from panic attacks—and other symptoms of what I now know to be alcohol withdrawal. Little did I, or perhaps even Dan, know, he was struggling with the disease of alcoholism and mental illness, and had been for years.

In fact, now we both truly believe that he was born with the disease of alcoholism. 

The disease of alcoholism

The first year of our marriage was definitely not the “honeymoon phase” people talk about. I spent that year learning for the first time how much Dan really drank. His alcoholism was progressing at a rapid pace, and the effects of his alcohol abuse were increasing. 

Dan threw up on the morning of our wedding. And then on every day of our honeymoon. His throwing up was the norm in our marriage. 

He told me he vomited because of his panic attacks. To a certain extent, that may have been true, but it was also from severe hangovers and alcohol withdrawal. 

On one of our first nights back from our honeymoon, Dan was having another severe panic attack—severe enough that he thought he was having a heart attack. We spent the night in the hallway of the ER, waiting to be seen.  When he got checked the next morning, the doctors told him that his heart was healthy and that this feeling was typical of a panic attack. 

I remember specifically asking the doctor if Dan’s daily drinking could have something to do with his attacks, and he said, yes, it might. But Dan was able to convince himself, and me, that he could still drink—that his drinking wasn’t a contributing factor. 

At the same time, he was also struggling with a serious lack of motivation (depression) and was becoming increasingly agitated (anxiety). He complained constantly, and found an excuse and a mean thing to say about everything and everyone. He was never happy, and he did nothing about it.

Dan was able to convince himself, and me, that he could still drink—that his drinking wasn’t a contributing factor. 

I remember telling people that if I had lived with Dan before we were married, we probably wouldn’t have gotten married. In fact, marriage was the worst, and they should never get married! People had told me marriage was hard, and I thought that all marriages were like mine—not a good idea. 

Rock bottom

On April 27, 2017, less than a year after our wedding, we had the great joy of welcoming our first son into the world. Over my maternity leave, we were fortunate enough to have both of our separate companies transfer us from Hoboken, New Jersey, to their Boston offices. This allowed us to live closer to our families. 

We moved into my parents’ home in August of that year while we searched for our first house. In December, Dan’s dad died as a result of his own battle with the disease of alcoholism. 

In those first months after Charlie died, Dan’s addiction was the worst it had ever been. His depression was so intense that he struggled to get out of bed and motivate himself to work—he would always say how awful he felt in the mornings. One day, I was sick with a fever and asked Dan to help me take care of our son. He complained loudly about how terrible he was feeling, and made me feel guilty that I’d asked him for help. 

He was also becoming more isolated, rarely leaving the house. He could not get himself to go to family events, and his panic attacks would worsen when he left the house. So he stayed home and started drinking earlier in the day. He worked from home almost every day because he couldn’t get himself into the office. 

His depression was so intense that he struggled to get out of bed and motivate himself to work

One morning, he had a big meeting scheduled in NYC with several of his bosses. On the day of the meeting, he called me crying as he lay on the bedroom floor, saying how horrible his panic attacks, depression, and anxiety were. He said he had to cancel the trip.

He had done this once before, but it wasn’t for a big meeting. So I told him if he were to do this again—to cancel this meeting with his boss (and his boss’s boss!)—then he needed to take medical leave and get serious help. 

A week or so before this, an employee of a detox center had spoken after Mass at our church and handed out flyers. I had spoken to him, received a flyer, and asked questions. So when I told Dan he needed to take leave and seek help, we knew exactly who to call. 

This happened while we were living at my parents, only five days before we moved into our new house. Dan delayed going to the detox center, but on the second night in our new house, he said he’d go in the morning. 

I got up, got ready for work, and told him to go. He told me that he will never forget the look of anger, dislike, and sadness I gave him that morning. I wasn’t sure he would go, so I told him to call my dad—and if he didn’t, I would. 

Dan texted my dad to ask for a ride. I don’t think my dad was surprised, because by this time my parents had witnessed the serious impact of Dan’s alcoholism. My parents are loving and generous, and they would have taken a call from a stranger to do the same thing. 

Later that afternoon, I asked my dad how the drive had gone. He said Dan seemed to feel happy and relieved that he was taking a step toward ending this constant mental and physical battle.  

While he was gone, I packed up all the glassware and wedding gifts we had that had anything to do with alcohol, and I picked Dan up from the detox center five nights later, on my twenty-eighth birthday. 

Ironically, we had been asked to give a talk about our first year of marriage that night. We stopped to do that on our way back and made sure not to mention the worst of it. From there, I dropped Dan off at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. This was the start of our new life in recovery. 

Recovery 

For me, the first year of recovery was just as hard as our first year of marriage. I resented Dan for the pain he had put me through when he was actively drinking, and for the life I was forced to have now that he was sober. I remember my dad saying off-hand one night, “Well, I wish we had known about this before you got married.” I wished I’d known too. 

Meanwhile, Dan was working incredibly hard on strengthening his recovery. For the first ninety days, he went to a meeting every single day, sometimes twice a day. He became filled with a new passion, fire, and joy for life. 

Every morning he was the first out of bed. He would run several miles, make us both breakfast, and help get our son ready for daycare. His gratitude for this new lease on life intensified by the day. He would turn negative situations into positive and was giving people the benefit of the doubt. He was open to growing as a person and was quick to apologize for things that upset me. 

Each day began and ended with him on his knees beside our bed, thanking God for his sobriety and asking God to remove his obsession to drink, handing his will over to God. He was slowly becoming the man that I always knew he could be.

Despite this, I was struggling to move on. I would go out and drink with friends and at work outings, doing so to spite Dan. My anger toward him felt like an excuse for my behavior. I had decided I had a right to act the way I was and to treat Dan rudely because of what he had put me through. 

In the fall of 2018, we found out that we were expecting our second child. Honestly, I was pretty upset. But with my body so quickly moving forward, it was harder to hold onto the past. 

I knew I had to work to renew my friendship with my husband. Dan encouraged me to participate in a twelve-week program called the Sober Parenting Journey. I joined this group with six other young moms also working through addiction recovery. 

The program allowed us to take a serious look at ourselves—in one class, we literally looked at ourselves in a mirror and described what we saw. We talked about our childhoods and how they affected who we are today,  and we took deep dives into our mentalities, why we are the way we are, and how we could improve ourselves to be better parents for our kids. 

During this class, it became clear to me that I was absolutely miserable. I had lost all self-esteem and self-confidence. I was living in resentment and denial—but it wasn’t all because of Dan and his complicated recovery. I was also in a job where I was enormously stressed, underappreciated, and constantly made to feel insecure. I was at my breaking point, similar to what my husband had been experiencing the year before. 

There was one woman in my class who I believed to be in a much worse situation than I was, and one day she looked at me and simply said, “I don’t think being at this job is very good for you.”

If the negative impact of my job was so clear to those around me, I realized that it was about time that I not only acknowledge this reality, but do something about it. 

The Waiting Place

As Dan and I continued to have an alcohol-free home, each night felt the same. We were no longer “living for the weekend.” Monday and Tuesday nights were the same as Friday and Saturday nights. 

One evening, I was reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss to our son before bed. I was in the middle of the page about “the Waiting Place” when I froze. 

“The Waiting Place,” he wrote, “is for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.”

I couldn’t stop staring at the page, and I started to cry. I realized that I was in this horrible place. I was living a life filled with stress and pain, and the biggest receiver of this besides my husband was my son. 

During the little time I did have with my son, I would stare blankly at him, thinking of all the things I had to do. We spent our car rides in silence or listening to the news as a distraction. I had limited patience and would get easily upset. Even when he would do something silly or cute, my underlying feelings of unhappiness quickly surged back, making the good times short-lived. 

I often felt guilt over my mothering, which added to my low self-esteem. Everything I did and everything I thought only increased the negativity in my life, adding weight to the chains keeping me in “the Waiting Place.”

After tucking our son into bed that night, I sat with Dan on the couch. We talked about how we do not need to be in this place; we do not need to live in unhappiness. We all have the power to change our lives, and we can do it at any time. 

I knew I needed to change major parts of my life, like my job, but I also had to change my attitude and perspective toward my husband. Led by patience, love, and understanding—and grounded in recovery, living “One Day At A Time” (the AA saying)—Dan and I began to work very hard on renewing our friendship and our marriage. 

Taking a leap of faith

On July 1, 2019, we had the great joy of welcoming our second son into our family. During my leave, I started seriously thinking about what I wanted to do next for work.

Sobriety and the new perspective that accompanied it gave me a new life, one filled with gratitude and the most amazing group of people. These people fought every single day to be better versions of themselves, to want the best for one another, and to live one day at a time. I spent much of my job search looking into non-profits, focusing on ones supporting addiction recovery.

But when my maternity leave came to an end, I still had not secured a new job. After many tears, I made the very difficult decision to do what I knew was best for me and for my family anyway. I gave my resignation after working for my company for almost eight years, taking a giant leap of faith into the unknown. 

A few more soul-searching weeks later, my husband came to me with the wild idea that I could run the clothing line he had been designing (SOLO N.E.) on the side for the past few years. 

Starting a business is like having a baby: there is no perfect time to do it, and both are harder than they sound. Of course, we did both at the same time. 

Getting comfortable with the finances was first. I had managed to save some money, which helped us out as we moved to one income, and we received a small business loan, which we lean on for business and production costs. 

We still had to cut down our spending and stick to a tight monthly budget. Dan and I pack breakfast and lunch and make dinner most every night. We removed our personal expenses like getting my nails done, buying clothes, and going on vacation. Our sons went from five days a week at daycare to three days a week.

I love having those two extra days with our kids, but it does mean that my three days working are packed. Additionally, with Dan having a full-time job, the only time we can work on SOLO together is at night or on the weekends. This creates its own tensions and stresses, and we are still learning how best to work together and keep our marriage fresh. 

The apparel and retail space is completely new to me, so it took some time to educate myself on each step, from the idea phase of a garment through the sampling and manufacturing of each piece. Thankfully these were all things that Dan had learned previously, so he was able to catch me up to speed relatively quickly. 

The selling, marketing, and actual business operations, however, were completely new to both of us. We are still learning how best to position ourselves to build a customer base, make a profit, and manage the roll out of additional pieces from a financial and production standpoint. But this journey is an adventure. It allows me to be creative and us to run our own business, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The next chapter

Recently one of my friends asked me if I ever get mad at my kids. With a huge smile, I said, “Not since I quit my job!” The relief I felt after leaving, the weight lifted from my shoulders and from my family, is palpable.

Although our apparel brand is new, I know it will be successful. Dan designs incredible clothes and does not compromise on quality. With his feet rooted in tradition and his heart longing for creation, his clothes bridge the gap between classic and contemporary. And we make a good team.

But more importantly, today our marriage is fun, loving, and caring. It feels similar to when we were dating, only stronger, because we’ve been in the trenches together. We are able to be honest with each other and to stay positive through our daily challenges. 

Sometimes we look back on what we’ve gone through together in this short amount of time, and we wonder how in the world we are still together. But our bond is permanent and greater than anything temporary we are going through.

We have learned to trust each other more deeply than I ever thought possible, knowing we have really lived out the “for better, for worse” of our vows. Recovery has taught us to rely on each other, and more importantly our higher power, and to communicate in truth and love. Sobriety has given us the marriage I thought was a happy fiction when we were at our worst.

I am proud of Dan, of the person he is today, and I am reminded how I fell in love with him close to ten years ago. He is constantly working to improve himself, which challenges me to do the same. He is a true joy to be around, and I am so grateful to spend each day with my best friend.      

Today, I feel lighter and happier than I have ever been. My days are filled with music and laughter, playtime is imaginative and creative, and dinners are joined with friends and storytelling. 

I have a new enthusiasm for life, and I am enormously grateful to be able to share this with my husband and our two sons. While staying focused on and grounded in recovery, and living in the day, one day at a time, I know that whatever life throws at us, we will thrive.

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