Will my husband ever stop drinking?

He's tried and tried and I wonder if it's hopeless. What can I do?

By Cary Tennis

Published March 15, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because from prior letters I know you know about alcoholism. My ex-husband is calling me, for the third time, asking me to take him back. I have left him twice before. The second time was 10 years ago. Our issue was always his alcoholism. He would try to stop, but eventually fail and then his drinking would become progressively worse. He was a mean drunk. Not physically, but still scary mean.

When he first called, he was in a sober living house, following a jail stint after three DUIs in three months. We talked for hours on the telephone every night for months. He talked about the past in a truthful manner for the first time. He took responsibility for his actions. His remorse was genuine. We spent two great weekends together and then he relapsed, calling me from jail after being drunk in public and resisting arrest. You see, the people in his sober living house are mostly not sober. They go out and drink during the day and as long as they make curfew there are no penalties. The place is in a very bad area and drugs and drunks abound on the streets. My son (our son, actually) went to visit him there. He said it's a wasteland of abandoned buildings and gang/drug activity.

So now he is in jail. Of course I will not be bailing him out. But eventually he will get out. He receives Social Security disability for a back injury and will likely return to the same sober living house or one similar. My question is, How can I help him? I live alone in a beautiful suburban area. Would taking him in be a big mistake? Can he ever get better in the place he is in? Can he ever get better anywhere? He is 53 now and he has been like this his whole life. He, of course, claims he will not drink ever again if only I would take him back. I, of course, have heard that song before. Yet, I believe it would be hard for anyone to spend their days living in such a terrible environment. I'm afraid that I will be the one consumed with guilt if I let him return there and something worse happens.

I do love him with all my heart. I believe he loves me too and wants a better life. But wanting a better life and actually achieving it are two different things. I guess I want to know what to do and what not to do, what helps and what hinders someone from stopping drinking. Any advice you can give me would be much appreciated.   I feel ...

Lost and Sad

Dear Lost and Sad,

Moving in with you will not help him. Continued help from experts and people with direct experience in alcoholism may help him. There are no guarantees but certain things are clear: Resuming old romantic relationships has not been shown to cure alcoholism.

There are many wise people to consult on this, and many groups, most notably Al-Anon, where you can get advice and inspiration.  You will hear many things when you begin your search for answers; you will hear about codependence and so forth. Some of what you hear may sound unscientific, and you may meet people who strike you as zealots and cranks drunk with their own doctrine. You may also meet people of lifesaving grace, honesty and caring. Alcoholics and their families and friends constitute a universe all its own. My advice to you is to begin your own journey, which is to understand your place in the alcoholic's life. Alcoholics have certain generally shared traits. Those who become involved with them do too, generally speaking. Understanding yourself in relation to him is your task. It may turn out that you can help him in some limited way. But first must come your own journey of understanding.

I have answered this question many times in different ways. Each time I try to take a different approach to essentially the same answer.

This time I suggest an exercise of the imagination that may allow you to understand the situation emotionally.

Imagine that your husband is in another country, across a vast ocean you cannot cross, on the other side of an impenetrable wall. Imagine that you cannot reach him and only receive reports every few months, possibly unreliable reports, delivered by people who claim to have seen him. The reports contradict each other. One month you will hear that he has met a wealthy backer who is helping him mount an expeditionary force of men who will help him scale the wall and come back to you. Another month a disreputable-looking man walks up your walk and tells you the most terrible tales of degradation, how your husband was found in an alleyway, thrown out by hookers, left to bleed in the gutter. The man then asks for money and promises to take it to your husband, to help him.

You don't know whom to believe. You hear that he was kidnapped, that he has a job in a port city, that he is waiting for a ship to bring him home, that he has died, that he is ill and needs you to send money.

You cannot call him and your letters do not reach him. One month you hear that he has a rare disease that prevents him from remembering where he came from or formulating a plan to escape and return. Another month you hear that he has met a woman and is marrying her. When your son comes of age he sets out to find his father and you wait long months for word. He returns and says only that he found him but that it was not a happy encounter. You ask your son, Isn't there something you can do? What did he say? How did he look? He turns away. Then he becomes angry with you, claiming that you did this to his father, that you drove him away, that if only you would send him money he would be healed.

People tell you to forget him and move on. You wonder how they can be so callous.

I ask you to imagine this because it is something like what is happening. Your husband is beyond your reach. He may return. He may not. He is in a land where he may find help. Help is certainly available to him. If the people around him are drinking in a sober living house, then in all probability it is a mixed bag. There are some who are exploiting the system and some who are trying to get sober. It would be better if he were in a place where everyone was sober. But a person who wants to get sober can find a way. A person who truly wants to get sober is like a person trying to survive a shipwreck; he will grab at anything; he will be resourceful; he will hang on.

But not only is that eventual goal of sobriety in essence a gift: Even the desire is a gift!  Even that fierce, desperate clutching at any chance of survival and sobriety, which you would think every suffering alcoholic would have: Even that is a gift! Some suffer and occasionally lament it but never have that searing moment when they feel themselves drowning and thrash about in the dark sea for anything, anything that will keep them from sinking into oblivion. Some just quietly sink.

I don't know why that is. I don't know much. That is why I suggest you imagine him in another land, beyond communication, lost to you for now. It is a way to understand, through metaphor, what has happened.

The one thing that might work is a person like himself who is sober and has been where he is. This is the foundation of the Alcoholics Anonymous method: One desperate alcoholic who has found a way to recover finds another who is struggling and talks with him, sharing without reserve his own struggle and the solution he has found.

This has been seen to work. It is one way he might get sober. It might happen in the course of living at the sober house. That presumably is the idea of the place -- that alcoholics would encounter each other and share their stories, and authentic experiences of recovery would result. But a certain element of chance attends there. If you were to introduce a bit of planning it might speed things along. I'm just saying, if there is any way to introduce a truly sober person into his midst, someone he trusts, perhaps someone he has known and drunk with, it wouldn't hurt. It might work. If you could find among your circle of friends or at your local AA chapter someone to visit your husband and offer to help him get sober, that might work. You never know.

It's possible that this scenario has already played out numerous times with the same result. However, sometimes it is like lighting a fire in damp wood, or hitchhiking. You just have to keep at it and eventually the fire lights, or you get a ride, or you get enough sobriety that it sticks.

It is sad. It is sad indeed. It is one of the saddest things on earth to see a man waste his life. On the other hand, people do come out of it. After enduring the most horrific trials, people do come back.

You must cling to that hope. He may come back. There are examples all around us of people who have come back from his state and worse.

Meanwhile, you can't put your life on hold.

Do what you can. Let go of the results.

Cary Tennis

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