My boyfriend's an alcoholic -- should I leave him?

Things are getting worse and worse, but sober he's such a great guy!


Cary Tennis
April 20, 2009 2:19PM (UTC)

Dear Reader,

Two things. One, Slate's Prudence and I did answer the same letter last week. To explain: Letter writers do send advice columnists "multiple submissions." So it is possible for two columnists to pick the same letter. To prevent it, we advice columnists would have to coordinate our activities like some kind of cartel. That's not likely or to be desired. Besides, in a way, I'm amused by this; I think it's kind of cool and interesting, a quasi-biological (Twins!) or random (Double rainbow!) phenomenon of the media organism.

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Second, OK, my column on Friday was really weird and that's all me. Salon was going to fix it but I wasn't available by e-mail in sufficient time to green-light the changes -- which might well have saved me from looking like a total nut. So, if it seemed incoherent, well, we have our days. I was trying something experimental. At least I didn't burn down the kitchen. Maybe even a few people liked it! OK, call me a dreamer ...

'Nuff said.

Dear Cary,

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I am dating a man who is an alcoholic. What's worse, once he's had a few drinks in him, he needs to buy cocaine, which probably makes him a cocaine addict too. I met him under these circumstances and started dating him almost two years ago for what I thought would be a fling. Initially, I didn't take us dating seriously because of his lifestyle, but after time we got to know one another (sans alcohol) and we fell in love. Unfortunately, his addiction reared its ugly head and it has been causing constant grief for the past year and a half. It's the same story you've heard before, he's great when he's not drunk or high, in fact, he's close to perfection. But the three times a week habit is exhausting and emotionally draining. I cannot handle the constant worrying and wondering what he is up to. In the past, I have made some serious efforts to leave him, but he was persistent, saying he would change, stop, go to AA, do anything, and never having dealt with any type of "holic" of any kind, I thought I'd give him a chance, particularly because there was part of me that thought he was going through his "party phase" (one I've gone through myself). I just didn't know any better. He has made some efforts to change, going to an AA meeting and seeing a counselor, but I don't think he feels his problem is bad enough as he is highly functioning -- goes to work, has money, etc. And when he hears other people's stories (e.g., they were homeless, living on the streets, broke, no job) he thinks he's doing great in comparison! Furthermore, since he mixes alcohol with cocaine, he is never one of those incorrigible drunks; he actually appears normal so he hasn't really experienced any negative consequences. The only one affected by his drinking and drugging is me. Occasionally, he questions his behavior, but the fear of giving up the drink for good probably frightens him. He thinks he'll grow out of it in his own time.

Another factor is his culture. Drinking is embedded in it. Everyone he knows -- including family and friends -- engages in this type of behavior on a regular basis so it's normalized in the community. He also grew up in an alcoholic home and he displays many of the characteristics of children of alcoholics (e.g. insecure, fear of abandonment, trouble expressing himself, etc.), but many of these have improved. He's in his late 20s and also has this "I need to find myself" complex so there are many factors to consider with this situation. It's as if he needs to resolve some deep issues from growing up in an alcoholic household. Sometimes I think he is so close to his breaking point -- where he is sick and tired of being sick and tired -- that he will reach out for help on his own and in his own way. But, since I feel that I will hit rock bottom before he does, I've been trying to take care of myself with books, Al-Anon meetings, therapy, etc., so I can find that inner peace and make the best decision for me. But I don't know how much longer I can wait. I know it seems like the easiest answer is to just leave, but I feel he can still get out of this mess before it gets the best of him just by the baby steps I've seen him take (he'll still go out, but will call me so I don't worry). I love him deeply for that innocent, vulnerable, genuine, kind person I know beneath the substance abuse. He's been there for me emotionally and has always given me unconditional love and support. I've seen some improvements, particularly in his desire to change, so that keeps me hanging on, but when is enough enough?

Paralyzed

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Dear Paralyzed,

I think you will know when enough is enough. That will be your "bottom." So much life force will be drained out of you by the vampirish maw of his addiction that you will feel as though you were near death, just as the addict, when he reaches bottom, feels that he is near death.

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You may have had a taste of that feeling already. Even thinking it through clearly today may bring you to a point of decision. But that moment is yours. No one can tell you when to reach it.

So my suggestion is to assume that you are definitely going to hit bottom with this relationship eventually, and plan for that moment. Planning has many benefits. It is privately empowering. Yet it does not bring any chaos into your life. You don't have to act. Planning allows you to think through issues and make decisions and take as long as you need. You know when things get crazy and unbearable, you have a way out. Thus having a plan gives you some degree of comfort.

Think of it as a trip you are planning. Look at brochures. Consider the possibilities. If you were not burdened by this relationship, what would you do differently? Are there things you have put off doing, or things he is not interested in doing, that you would like to do? Put them on your list of things to do.

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You can plan to make a definite break, or you can begin taking certain actions that are gradually going to lead you out of the relationship. For instance, you might find a new boyfriend. That is one way of forcing the situation. Or you might begin drifting away with new activities, slowly carving out an autonomous space that at some point in the future you may leap into and inhabit. Or not. The important thing is to assume that this relationship is going to reach a crisis point, and begin preparing for that.

That is, prepare your breakup kit. What will you say? What will your conditions be for the post-breakup world? What degree of contact will you be able to tolerate with him? Will you want him completely out of your life, or will you want to maintain some kind of communication? Think these things through so you know what you want.

It's possible, meanwhile, that at any moment he may hit bottom. You never know. Outward appearances are not a reliable indicator of an addict's readiness to quit. Look at the drunks on the street who never quit no matter how shitty their lives become. Look at the executives who never miss a beat yet one day announce they are addicted and must seek help. Addicts hide their torment well. Much of the torment is inner and thus invisible. He may be starting to suffer unbearable things that he does not speak of. So be prepared for the unexpected.

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If you leave, he may go into treatment to get you back. It may look like he has hit bottom. I would not count on that. It is possible that your hitting bottom and leaving would precipitate a profound and definite change in him. But he might also go through the motions of asking for help in order to keep you on a string. That happens too. Addicts are often cunning and manipulative to a degree that we find astonishing once we are out of the blinding cycle itself.

So in your plan, try also to think through what you would want if he were to decide that he is addicted and wants to quit. Relationships with addicts are usually a little skewed, sober or not. You don't really know what you've got until you clear away the booze and coke -- and some of the practical wreckage as well. It might be that a relationship that worked, in its way, with him drinking, would not work with him going through the grueling process of early sobriety.

So my main wish for you is that you will make the assumption that you are going to hit bottom with this relationship eventually, and begin planning for that moment now. Do yourself a favor. Take care of yourself. You can't save him. But you can care for yourself.


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Cary Tennis

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