Addiction is a hard and miserable thing for both the addict and for the addict’s loved ones. Let’s start with that. It’s hard to know what’s enabling and what’s showing grace and kindness. It’s hard not to scream and shout at them for letting you down yet again. And if you have kids, it’s hard to explain to those little guys why their dad (or mom, or aunt, or grandpa…) acts a certain way. It’s just hard. And it’s miserable.
I will say, I’m not an expert on how you provide kindness and grace while still married to an addict. I remained blind to my ex-husband’s alcoholism for years, even though I admittedly knew he clearly had a problem with drinking. It wasn’t until I walked in on him pouring whiskey in a Coke can at 7am that my reality shifted. And I personally felt that I would only enable and prolong his behavior if we stayed together, so he was out of the house within 2 months and we began our separation.
At that time, our oldest was 3 and our youngest was about to turn one. I desperately needed a partner to help with this difficult stage of parenthood, and mine repeatedly failed to show up. I was angry and hurt and frustrated, and then I felt like I’d explode looking into my daughter’s tear-filled eyes as she asked about her daddy and why she didn’t see him anymore, why he didn’t love her.
It’s easy for me to sit here now and tell you all I’ve learned since that time. But in the moment—when I was in the thick of the pain and confusion and anger—it was impossible to know what to do. Begging him to come visit might work on occasion, and he was usually good at a quick phone call to her if I asked enough times, but as his alcoholism began taking over his life, I knew there was no relying on him. I had no idea if he was going to be in our lives at all a year or five years from then. I had no idea if he’d be homeless, in jail, or dead. And trying to reconcile how our sweet suburban life had taken such a unique and difficult turn took a lot of reflection and prayer and community.
As you think about the addict in your life, I can offer 3 pieces of advice to help you manage your emotions:
- Separate their behavior from who they truly are/were. If I could go back to the start of our relationship and ask him what he thought about deadbeat dads, alcoholics who give in to the disease, or husbands who abandon their families—I can hear the conversation in my head, and it’s comforting and reassuring. The man I married wouldn’t have acted this way. The disease had mangled his brain so much that his reality was no longer mine. His ability to function as he had before no longer existed. And every day I need to remind myself that the man he became is not truly the man he was.
- Limit communication. Listen, it’s so.damn.hard. to keep your mouth shut and not spew off a nasty text or voicemail when he bails again on a visit with the kids or when he doesn’t call on their birthday, but I promise, he’s not in the mindset to hear what you are saying (see #1). If your kids are young like mine, then their sense of permanence isn’t developed yet, and their sense of time is ever-changing. You can get away with more, even though their tears make it impossible for you to live through. They need love from other similar outlets (eg. if their dad left, is there a grandfather or uncle who can step up for special visits, go to dad events at daycare, etc.). And if your kids are old enough, I highly recommend teaching them about addiction—not only for the benefit of knowing their parent didn’t abandon them by choice but also for their future and health and awareness. And get them in therapy—group, church, one-on-one, whatever makes sense for your family.
- Overly communicate with and support your kids. As an adult, we have resources at our fingertips to help us deal with our emotions, to teach us about addiction, and to guide us to peace. As a kid, they are relying on you—the stable adult in their life—to show them the way. Again, this varies wildly by age, but as you learn, share with them. My 3 year old is now 10, and every year her questions get a little more inquisitive, a little more grown up, and I can share with her a little bit more. By this age, I talk with her about how alcoholism is genetic, and she needs to be careful. At 10, she tells me she’ll never touch alcohol, but of course, that’s unlikely to be the reality. So, we talk about peer pressure and what she can say when someone does ask her if she wants to try something.
This advice is nothing earth shattering. In fact, it doesn’t scratch the surface of all you’re going through to manage life right now. And honestly, it’s easy for me to look back and share this advice with you. My ex died with a BAC of 0.39 at only thirty-six years old. It was 18 months after I walked in on him with the coke can.
So all those fears I had about him being in and out of my kids’ lives were put to rest. I know that’s not the reality most of you will face. It’s a constant battle to remind yourself that who he is today is an altered version of the real him. It’s a version of him that hurts others, hurts you, and of course, hurts himself. The pain we all go through is traumatic and long, but if we let it, it’s also what leads to incredible growth and strength—just as any hard time can do.
And you can do hard things.
You can read more about my journey in my memoir, The Other Side of the Door, available on Amazon.