Alone in South Africa with a drunken husband

I left the U.S. when I got married and now, with three grown children at home, I feel torn.

Published September 5, 2008 10:11AM (EDT)

Dear Cary

I find myself in one of those countries that are bearing out the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. At the tip of Africa. Since I grew up in the USA and have lived in South Africa for my entire married life, I feel torn between memory/nostalgia and present reality.

And when that reality bites, then I have an awful yearning to go home. But what can you do: three adult children still living at home, a husband not retired yet, a mortgage, extended family and of course the problem that you guys have with Bush.

What I really want to know is at what point do you realize that living with an alcoholic (I am not comfortable with labels but it is a shortcut for saying a person who drinks so much that his family life is affected as well as his health and budget) is never going to change. That no matter how much you love him, it's not going to happen. Is it the day you wake up and think that you never want to see him again? How do you know that there are other reasons for falling out of love? Do you blame the alcohol because it is the easiest thing to blame, the obvious cause?

I have children that have their own issues with alcohol and weed, both things that I enjoy periodically. Can I blame their father? When my child says to me that it is a time for a family intervention, I put him off saying that his dad's drinking is not that bad. Although he drinks too much regularly, he holds down the same job that he has had for almost 25 years. He is also a musician and an artist, active in both. Are creative types more prone to substance abuse? Two of my children play guitar well and my daughter sings and is studying art full time.

I feel that we have had a good life together -- people look to us as a success story -- and yet so much of what I fell in love with takes a back seat to his drinking. We always have something to talk about from our earliest days, music or books we are reading, but now he remembers little of our conversations. In fact after he begins drinking at 5, he remembers little of anything. Why should I then bother -- drunk people are so boring to talk to.

The very, very scariest thing for me is that both his parents have drinking problems at 80 years old. That upsets him, but he doesn't seem to see it. And his sister is a prescription-drug junkie. I am shaking as I write this far; he reads Salon and particularly your column and I feel as though I am crossing a line. He has never been violent with me but he is an extremely private man. I have said all of this and more to him either in anger or in love. And he is also the most honest man I have ever known. I think that he is just as lost as I am.

Lonely for My Lover

Dear Lonely,

It's natural for you to feel torn and alone.

Living with an alcoholic is a lonely occupation. As you say, no one wants to talk to a drunk. A drunk repeats himself and does not remember what was just said. The things you say to a drunk disappear into the miasma of a besotted brain. You are not seen and recognized. You are not reflected back; rather than reflection back, you experience only loss. Everything goes down the drinking hole. Eventually not just conversation goes down the drinking hole, but money, family, houses, reputation, life itself. So it is a very lonely thing to live with an alcoholic.

You left the U.S. when you got married and have lived on the tip of Africa ever since. So you feel torn. Of course you do. When you left, you left a great deal. You left your parents and siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles. You left your friends and your streets and the familiar buildings of your town or city. You left the familiar skies and the telephones peculiar to your region, the street signs and water fountains and handguns of your origins; you left the cakes and sandwiches you grew up with. And you made a new life. So of course you feel torn. Of course you feel alone.

Consequently, you are bursting with things to talk about. This comes through vividly in your letter. You have a whole history to talk about. Your whole life seems to be on the tip of your tongue, and this adds to the sense that the loneliness of living with an alcoholic has brought you to a point of crisis. It is as though you walked into a meeting or a therapist's office and started talking and found that a flood of emotions was unleashed. Your words come at a torrential pace. All the issues of your life are before you. Each issue is worth hours and hours of conversation, contemplation and reflection.

What you really want to know, you say, is "at what point do you realize that living with an alcoholic ... is never going to change?" That is indeed the central issue. It represents the realization that this is not just a behavior of choice, but a condition.

It sounds as though you have already realized that. So let us replace the word "realize" with the word "accept." You need to accept what you realize. This involves something of a personal encounter, perhaps prayer and meditation, or just solid, focused introspection. The point is to allow certainty to settle before you and regard it as indeed a certainty, not just a possibility -- to regard it as an actuality, to say to yourself, yes, this is indeed what it is.

I suggest you contact Al-Anon in South Africa, and see if you can find some way to just go and talk about what is happening. That would be the first step in building a new life around what has become apparent to you. There you will find many people like yourself who are living with a situation they cannot change but can learn to accept and place boundaries around.

Accepting the situation as it is does not mean giving up hope that he will never change. He may never change, or he may awaken tomorrow miraculously sober. Stranger things have happened. The point is that you have no power over when and how he might change.

So you accept the situation as it is today. And you build yourself a new life. It can be done. Seeing how others have done it and continue to do it will show you how, and give you the necessary hope that it can be done.

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