chain around bottles of alcohol and a hand

Passive Alcoholism : Coming out of the closet

Passive alcoholism is what I have started calling the experience of being under the influence of a person under the influence of alcoholism.

Those following me on Facebook were aghast a couple of months ago and then again last week, when I spoke of suffering the effects of my husband’s alcoholism. It seems that as usual, I broke quite a few of society’s norms by having “no shame”.

Those who think that “dirty laundry” shouldn’t be washed in public need to think about what they call dirty laundry. I am speaking up on the subject of passive alcoholism in our home. The face is, at least a tenth of the adult population of our country drink often. Among these, at least a third of them drink regularly. Far from being a private matter, this is a big concern for today’s world, but remains unspoken behind a curtain of shame.

The government is content to make laws that change nothing. Expensive alcohol only means more money needs to be raised. That it will be raised is never in doubt. Guess who pays? Overburdened and deprived house wifes, parents, children.

I am taking a risk speaking up, but it is not to defame anyone, or to ask for pity. My husband did end up fielding a lot of awkward questions from friends. I did end up getting a storm of messages from ‘conservative’ friends for speaking up. I also got a lot of friends openly offering me help, advice and support. Not a single person criticized my husband. Nor was that the intent of the conversation.

I hope it can’t be said that I attacked him unfairly. He didn’t say that either. It seems that the criticism was of me and in private messages for bringing up something that “decent people” hide. People are even ashamed of criticizing someone speaking up on alcoholism. Not a public thing.

Yet, there seems to be absolutely nothing wrong in sitting publicly in a bar and drinking. Only in saying that that drinking happens. In saying that a drunk hurts many people with inconsiderate, irresponsible behaviour. In admitting being hurt.

There isn’t a locality in Mumbai without a bar. But apparently, no one drinks in all these places. Or at least, if they drink, they are all graceful, witty people bonding with true friends after that. Nothing ugly exists.

There are far more people dead from drinking than from cigarettes – from illness and accidents. If we look at the impact on relationships…. it is untold damage. So where is the alcoholism related information in the public space? The limit seems to be in saying “don’t drink and drive”. For every one person who drinks and drives, there are ten who drink and abuse. Who steal to drink. Who lose all confidence in self and drink. Who scare their kids awake with domestic arguments in the middle of the night. Who drink and fight. Who drink and get aggressive at whim. Who insult their loved ones to feel better about themselves or to bow them to their will, in the fear that their drinking might get questioned – even when no one is questioning it. Where are the campaigns?

chain around bottles of alcohol and a hand
By: Imagens Evangélicas

I can understand it if an alcoholic avoids the subject out of shame, but it is the family members who suppress such talks.

Some say alcoholism is an illness. Others say it is an addiction born of irresponsibility. All agree that once established, it is compulsive.

When you live with an alcoholic, you meet more alcoholics and you meet more people suffering from alcoholics. They are as much a victim of alcoholism as the drinker. I have lost count of the times I have offered wry smiles at my husband behaving in an embarrassing way. I have lost count of the times when I have given or received an empathetic look of support to other wives at a table. When a party can go silent at some unexpectedly degrading insult by a supposedly loved one.

And before someone jumps on me saying that I’m assuming alcoholics are men, I’m not assuming that at all. Only that the ones in my husband’s circle are all men.

I know I have been stunned into disbelieving silence out of fear or out of a false sense of dignity, and I know many people who are trapped in prisons of passive alcoholism. Where they make excuses why someone can’t attend. Where they lose touch with society because they feel ashamed. Where they are always short of money. Where they keep borrowing to make ends meet. Where they keep lying about so many things. Where having a rational conversation with your alcoholic is an extraordinarily unrealistic expectation. The world keeps shrinking, options keep decreasing. It is difficult to endure.

I know it, because I have been there. I know what it feels like to see your mother-in-law helpless to reason with her son as he loudly demands that you be removed from the house. The tears in her eyes as she clutches your son to her chest hoping to soothe him to sleep through the racket.

It makes those around the drinker as insane as the drinker. I know I’ve had my share of anger, fights, frustration trying to get him to not drink. I have done many things to get him to be normal, to live up to committments. I have blamed him, been angry with him, hated him…. all the time covering up his ‘failures’ and resenting him for failing on simple things like answering calls from people. I have seen myself a bitter, sarcastic woman scoring cheap insults at his expense…. my world was as twisted as his was without drinking a drop.

It is all the more infuriating because he is what is called a functional alcoholic – he is able to work efficiently, which creates an illusion that I am the one being over obsessive over his actions. Not true.

I can only share that the more you hide, the more you start owning the guilt for actions you did not do and hating your alcoholic for making you suffer that. Some part of me still cares for the man. I have not given up hope. Nor do I wish to leave him and start a fresh life with a baby in my arms. But it is claiming my life and following my own desires that keeps me sane. This blog, my child, my other interests…. I have a full life. Then, the sorrow becomes a smaller share of it. Then, if I am sane, I am able to still care for my son, my family and yes, my husband too.

I refuse to return to a shell where I pretend everything is fine and suffer the embarrassment of appearing less than fine all the time. Of feeling a fraud when telling people that all is well. Things are not fine on some fronts. This is what I live with. This isn’t asking for pity. This isn’t defaming. It is being honest. It is refusing to be complicit in the sheltering of this disease. It is my own fight against becoming victim to passive alcoholism.

I go through tough times and good ones like us all. When the going is bad, I speak about the alcoholism as openly as I would about insomnia or diabetes. I ask for help and advice as easily as I would for an argument with a family member. And, I see nothing wrong in expressing my mood, frustration or need on Facebook, because I consider those who come there my friends enough not to pretend smiles and grins all the time. I see no need to hide things that I am not responsible for doing. Getting rid of the shame is more than half the healing.

The coming out of the closet is not only for the addicts, but addicts of the influence of addiction – if that makes sense.

If you find yourself nodding in recognition, my invitation to you is to stop drowning in shame and shrinking your world. If you suffer from someone’s alcoholism, you need help as much as the sufferer, because this is a “group disease”. It will help to reach out, speak with people, stop hiding things. You are no help to anyone by becoming crazy yourself. Nor are you any different if your frustration makes you equally irresponsible and abusive. Your suffering achieves no purpose, though it may seem tragic and melodramatic at times. It is only playing with the cards you have that will get you to a different place.

An organization called Al-Anon offers support to those who live with the effects of alcoholism on someone they care about. I urge you to find a local chapter and join. Or meet a counsellor, or a friend with plenty of time, or ….. reach out right here, on this blog 😉 Don’t keep it to yourself. It isn’t yours to keep.

Update: My husband continues to drink. However, since moving to a less urban setting, the drinking is at home, which somewhat lessens the risks as well as decreases influences of woman abusing company. Life at home has achieved a functional, if uneasy and sporadically abusive truce.