Friday, September 28, 2007

Alcohol Dependency, and Recovery

On Tuesday October 2 it will be exactly 6 months since my husband had his last drink of alcohol.

I have his permission to blog about his alcohol dependency and his recovery; he's been very open about it with everyone; but the fact remains that, six months ago, I suddenly had to deal with the fact that the man I've been married to for twenty-one years is an alcoholic.

How could I not realize something like that
(you ask)? Well, that's a good question. I'm not stupid; I knew he always drank wine with dinner (I only drink with dinner occasionally); I knew there were days when he drank too much, and woke up the next morning hung over. (He's very hard to deal with when hung over.) But we don't spend our entire lives watching what other people do; I was working full-time, in a high-stress job that took a lot of my energy and attention, and - frankly - I'm not always that observant, and I didn't realize how far it had really gone. Also, even though I wished he wouldn't do it, I realized that there was nothing I could do about it. I knew couldn't make him stop drinking; all I could do was nag at him about it, which would make both of us miserable, because I dislike confrontation. So, I chose not to do that. Also, frankly, I didn't want to think about it too much. It's just social drinking, I thought - but it wasn't.

What's really bizarre about the situation is that his alcohol dependency, which is a Bad Thing, has led to his alcohol recovery - and that is a really Good Thing. I didn't realize until he started talking about his recovery that he had almost completely stopped talking to me - or anyone else - at all. I didn't realize until he started going to nightly (now, weekly) recovery group meetings, that except for work, and his solitary hiking trips, it had been months since he left the house at all, and years since he attended any kind of social gathering.

So what happened? He says he finally realized that his alcoholism was affecting his ability to hike and take pleasure in nature, which is probably his major passion; and therefore it had to stop. Also, at my suggestion (I cheerfully admit), he talked to the Employee Assistance Program at his job - and the lady there read him the riot act about the characteristics of an alcohol dependent personality, and he had every one of 'em. So she enrolled him in the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Recovery Program, and he enrolled himself in a secular chemical dependency support group called LifeRing, and he hasn't had a drink since. In fact, we no longer have any wine or beer in the house, and I'm negotiating to get rid of some old bottles of spirits that date from before we got married. But they're not critical because on his worst day he never drank spirits.

I feel like I've gotten
back the man I married. He's chatty, he's cheerful, he's lost a lot of weight (many empty calories in booze), he makes awful puns again, he can go to parties and talk to people - a few years ago, we went to a New Year's Eve party at a friend's house, and he walked out after half an hour, leaving me to explain that he just didn't like crowds. I didn't realize then that the drinking was already a problem.

So where did this come from? When we married he was a social drinker, nothing more. Well, several personal things - we think it's been going on for about 6 years - and a genetic predisposition. His mother died of Alzheimer's disease in 2003, just before Christmas, after a ten-year "long goodbye." It hit him really hard. He was the caregiver, and he was very fond of his mother, and he had to watch her turn into a vegetable. That's one; the party he walked out on was right after that. Just about the time she died, his job became very very stressful. That's two. And finally, I knew that he had a history of weight problems in his youth, and he lost a lot of weight in graduate school; but I learned during the recovery discussions that he was bulimic at that time; he thinks the two behaviors are related (alcoholism and earlier bulimia), apparently there is some clinical evidence for it.

As for the genetic predisposition: I'll refer you to a book called Under the Influence, by Milam and Ketcham. Amazon has it; Barnes and Noble, or your local public library, probably has it. It's been around for a while, it came out in 1981. If you think that alcoholism is caused by moral decay or lack of will power or some variant of the "Demon Rum", you need to read this book. There is a small part of the population, I think around 10 percent, that simply metabolizes alcohol differently than everyone else. If people with this chemistry get into the habit of drinking regularly, for whatever reason, they find that they have to continue drinking in order to feel well enough to function; and the more they drink, the more they have to drink. They can recover if they stop drinking altogether; but after a certain point, they can't stop drinking without outside help. It's a startling and eye-opening book.

My husband, very fortunately, made the decision to stop before he reached the point where he had to go into detox - he just stopped drinking, assisted materially by the Kaiser CDRP, which provided him with different things to do instead of drinking. As people trying to quit smoking know, the habit patterns are as hard to break as the chemical dependency. He'd been coming home from work and drinking; now he came home from work and went to a meeting, and talked about it. In fact, some nights he went to two meetings: Kaiser's, and LifeRing's. He's now down to 2-3 meetings a week; he really enjoys the discussions.

I won't go too much into LifeRing here - I've linked their web site, you can read it for yourself - but he prefers them to AA because AA is just too Christian-tinged religious for him. He's a very religious person, but he doesn't consider himself a Christian (as I don't). In case you didn't think AA was a Christian organization, I'll refer you to the LifeRing leader's blog post on a recent court case, where a Buddhist convict objected to being forced to attend AA as a condition of parole. I've added the New Recovery blog to my links.

I've been mulling this post over for 6 months. I don't know if I'll post on the subject again; but I wanted to put this out on the table for discussion.


  1. Anonymous11:15 PM

    I think I get to make the first comment here, since I am the husband in question.

    Alcohol dependency doesn't happen all at once. What Karen saw was the lights going out once I got hooked. On the inside, the progression was slower. I can see some scattered out-of-control incidents maybe 4 or 5 years before the ones Karen cites and some set-up events like a slow ramp up in tolerance going back farther.

    The Kaiser CDRP program for me consisted of eight weeks of every-night-after-work discussion or education groups. The councilor who did the placement colloquially called it their Happy Hour Program. That's not a bad name given it kept me occupied at just the time when I would normally go home and start drinking. Those meetings were a place to understand how my addiction fit in with others – I'm a pretty typical alcoholic, if one who bailed out earlier than many – and to work the issues in moving to a resilient abstinence. Kaiser also gave me a case manager who has become a very trusted councilor. I can't praise that program enough.

    The driver in opting for LifeRing over Alcoholics Anonymous wasn't as much a religious issue as Karen suggests. Those moralistic, theistic 12 Steps – have you ever actually looked them up? – certainly would require a fair amount of metaphorical reinterpretation to work for me. But at least out here in the SF Bay Area, some AA fellowships are quite open to that. I went to several AA meetings early on in my recovery. The group can be very warm and supportive. So why LifeRing? It just plain works better for me. The meetings are open discussions welcoming "crosstalk" commenting on and building on other people's thoughts. To me that's a natural thing to have in support group meeting, but it's not welcome in most AA groups. LifeRing meetings are typically positive, forward looking, and empowering. LifeRing meetings can be very flexible. At one point when I had a very, very, very bad week – no, I'd prefer not to offer details now – two different LifeRing meetings each devoted about half their meeting to me, with lots and lots of supportive back-and-forth. Their workbook, Recovery by Choice, has become a major guide for me. And I just like the people. In the intellectual ferment that is Berkeley and Oakland, LifeRing draws a really interesting, if slightly quirky, mix of people.

    I am very lucky. I don't think my love of and by Karen was ever at risk. My employer didn't see anything before I asked for help and has been very supportive since. Our home and finances are intact. I'm out of my isolation, even if the social butterfly stage is still a ways away. I even managed to propel myself up to 12,000 feet above sea level backpacking this summer!

  2. Congratulations to you both. I started drinking beer when I was 17 and quit cold turkey six or seven years ago after a collapse on our playroom floor. That's nearly 35 years of at least two six-packs a day; in the later years I'd start drinking at noon (self-employment allows that).

    The collapse scared me, and when the various MRIs and CAT scans showed nothing that would have caused the fall, the conclusion was alcoholism.

    It's damned hard to lose that habit/crutch; anyone who's done it can tell you that. But it's possible, as you're proving. Congratulations again.

  3. I grew up with two narcotic addicts: Both my stepfather and mother smoked two packs of Camels a day, for years. Then, Harry, my Stepfather, tried to convince himself he needed to quit. He smoked a pipe, then went cold turkey, and tried to convince my mom to join him. They both ended up cheating on the other (secret smoking), and that settled it once and for all--they simply lacked the will-power or desire to quit. Both had wretched "smoker's cough"--especially her--and neither had any wind (though both were otherwise pretty healthy).

    They were very strict with me about habits. The rule was: If you start smoking you will die, but if you do and it doesn't kill you, we will. It was the same for grades: Either I got a B average or better, or I could forget about bringing the card home. "Don't start!" they kept repeating, and I never did.

    What really put me off the habit was the ritualistic nature of it, the little motions and comfy tics of dependency--it revolted me. Whenever I brought friends home it was "ugh, what's that smell?" which I tended not to notice.

    People with a tendency towards chemical dependence have a characteristic quality of drive--in my experience they tend to obsess and burn out, and the chemicals become an accompaniment (a friend) and a refuge from that stress. The stress and the addiction go hand.

    I drink a fair amount of coffee, and a fair amount of wine (with food). Over the years I've drunk a fair amount of beer--usually boutique beers--and I've been a part of a scotch malt whisky tasting club. I've only been "drunk" perhaps five times in my life (in 35 years). I'm big, and it takes a lot to get me woozy. The thing is: You "know" if you're addicted to something. I never have been. Periodically, I go off coffee for a month or two, just to prove to myself I can. I get absolutely no pleasure from inebriation, and am very cautious about alcohol and driving. Not so much because I doubt my abilities and concentration, but because I'm wary of the highway patrol: I value my freedom too much to sacrifice it to a DUI conviction. For me, one coctail, or two full glasses of wine, or one shot of whisky is the limit. If I have more than that, I'm done for the day and you better have a bed for me.

    I know a guy where I volunteer--two actually--who are big-time AA guys. I could spot them a mile away. AA provides a focus for their moral behavior, a kind of gyroscope. I'm just glad I never needed anything like that. I think seeing addiction up close scared the living daylights out of me, and I never wanted any part of it.