Alcoholism has a devastating – but often-overlooked – impact on the loved ones of those caught in the grip of addiction. But one family in Yorkshire are amongst those who have managed to find a way out of the darkness. Chris Burn reports.
“The days of living with an active alcoholic were the loneliest days of my life,” explains Mary, a mother-of-two from Sheffield. “I had been with my husband for 11 years but married for just one when the problem spiralled out of control.”
“We used to go out drinking together and have fun. The problem was my husband had to be the last man standing, he was funny, loud, a real extrovert. ‘Just one more drink’, he would say. I didn’t know how the night would end up. Was it going to be fists through walls or doors or arguments threatening to leave me and that it was my fault and he was never coming back?”
Mary, not her real name, is sharing her experiences in the past decade since getting married in 2010 with The Yorkshire Post to highlight ‘The Untold Story’ campaign by the charity Al-Anon Family Groups UK & Eire, which provides support to family and friends of alcoholics who are struggling to cope with the impact of their loved ones’ drinking.
Started in the US in the late 1930s as informal meetings by a small group of the close relatives of recovering alcoholics, Al-Anon came to the UK in 1951, with the first group being formed in Belfast.
Since that time, Al-Anon has grown in the UK and Republic of Ireland into a network of more than 700 self-help groups.
Participants who attend use their first names only as a way of enabling members to be open with one another without fear of being embarrassed or exposed.
It describes itself as a “spiritual fellowship” and operates a 12-step programme adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous which include references to God. But Al-Anon says it is non-religious and non-political, with members of any faith or none welcome and a point made of discouraging talking about specific religious beliefs.
The free service is available to anyone who is or has been affected by someone else’s drinking, including adult children of alcoholics, parents, partners, spouses, other relatives and friends of alcoholics. There is also a parallel support service, called Alateen, which is for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17.
Al-Anon’s latest campaign aims to highlight that although the problems associated with alcoholism are widely recognised, the friends and family of problem drinkers often live every day with uncertainty, deceit, and in some cases violence or emotional and physical abuse and may need support themselves – the untold story of alcoholism.
Mary’s husband also had a drug addiction in addiction to his drinking problems – but this only came to light after he finally checked into rehab. In addition to struggling with her partner’s behaviour, Mary also had two young children to look after the same time.
“He worked all day – or I thought he did. He would come back in at night, do his own thing, ignore me and the children and go and seclude himself to play on his games console drinking and using.
“I was unaware of the drug abuse until the day he checked into rehab. I remember laying in bed thinking ‘If he really loved me why does he do this?’
“I used to cry myself to sleep most nights with palpitations in my chest. He was up all night, I use to hear him drinking and sniffing.
“We had two young children - a three and seven-year-old at the time. I had to do the school run everyday, smile and chat to the mums in the playground, then work a full day pretending I was fine.
“I used to put a mask on to my family and friends as I wanted to protect my family and husband from the shame, embarrassment and judgement. I paid privately to see counsellors and went to the doctors who put me onto antidepressants. Each time I went back for review, he would double the dosage. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do.”
Mary says problems had got worse shortly after they married in June 2010 and her husband’s father committed suicide that December. The funeral took place the day before they went on a pre-arranged family holiday to New Zealand.
“I noticed the drinking escalated on that holiday,” she says. “Eventually in October 2011, enough was enough and I asked him to not to come home. I couldn’t cope with the lies and the deceitfulness anymore.”
She says her husband went into rehab for six weeks before moving into secondary care.
“For me it was liberating, out of sight, out of mind,” she says.
But while her partner came out of rehab promising to be a new person and start a new chapter in his life, Mary admits she felt isolated and angry.
“Once he left rehab, I didn’t recognise the person he had become. He had all these new friends in recovery who he was on the phone to all the time.
“I continued at home working full-time with two small children.
“I was full of resentment and felt I didn’t have emotional support from anybody, nobody understood how I felt.”
She says after one particularly intense argument between the pair, her husband called her a “control freak” and suggested she attended an Al-Anon meeting.
Mary says the decision to go along to one changed her life. “After feeling very offended, I decided to Google Al-Anon meetings near me and I went to the next available one. I was given a newcomer pack, offered a cup of tea and sat in a room full of people I had never met but felt comfortable.
“As the meeting continued I realised everybody that shared a little I had something in common with. I shared at my first meeting I remember feeling resentful before I arrived and have no idea what I said but felt the support and common understanding.
“I remember someone hugging me, saying ‘Please, come again it’s for you’ and the offers of telephone numbers from people there were absolutely overwhelming.
“They said try six meetings just to get an idea of what Al-Anon is all about. So I did and I now go every week unless I’m on holiday. I got myself a sponsor and went through the 12 steps adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous and am making a full recovery.
“Al-Anon gave me the strength to be honest about what my life was like and how alcoholism is a family disease. I needed help and didn’t know where to find it. Al-Anon is my counselling session and antidepressant.”
Mary says family life is now much happier than it was.
“Today I live a very happy life with my husband and children. My husband is sober and helps others.
“I am even very grateful that I have an alcoholic in my life otherwise I would have never of found Al-Anon’s gentle programme that saved my life. Today life is serene.”
Widespread impact of drinking problems
For every person with a drinking problem, it is estimated that at least five of their family and friends are affected by their behaviour, says Al-Anon.
A spokesman for the organisation says: “Al-Anon Family Groups provides support worldwide. In the UK and Eire, there are currently over 750 support groups, and a helpline running 365 days a year.
“Meetings provide a safe and confidential environment for anybody who is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking. As a self-supporting organisation, there are no membership or registration fees, making it more easily accessible for those needing help.”
For more information, visit www.al-anonuk.org.uk or call 0800 0086 811.