I played the role of the loving wife. Behind closed doors, my husband’s secret destroyed me.


The deeper my husband got into drinking, the deeper I slipped into my self-imposed bubble of silence. A faithful, loving wife doesn’t talk about her husband peeing in an alley or passing out in the middle of sex while he’s still inside her. She doesn’t tell how he turns away in bed, tears streaming down his face because the sour stench of his drunken body is repulsive.

Or was that just part of it? My pledge of allegiance?

I can’t remember a specific moment in my childhood when I learned to follow a code of silence. As the eldest of five children, I started taking on responsibilities from an early age, and I fully understood that I was expected to be the kid who didn’t cause trouble.

We Midwesterners are not thought of as hot-headed, open-hearted. Silence is simply understood as standard procedure. We are not brought up to expose ourselves or make ourselves vulnerable.

This is what we do. We are. we exist We continue. We don’t talk about it.

To put yourself in the middle of a story is to be vain. Calling attention to something that should be kept secret just doesn’t work. Unmet needs? Everyone has them. Talking about it won’t change anything.

The prevailing understanding of difficult issues in polite society, at least where I grew up, is to be quiet. But silence is also the expectation imposed on all women. Be pretty and quiet and compliant and considerate. Please emphasize quiet.

And I’m just as guilty of silence as any woman before me. Out of apparent marital loyalty, I kept quiet about my husband’s alcoholism and rarely questioned why I did it. I didn’t cover for him or make excuses. I didn’t have to lie because life – the part that’s visible to the world outside of our home – looked good.

A high-functioning drunk goes through life hiding everything. He would survive the hangover and still go to work. He would break up his drinking into time slots so that outward appearances remain unaffected. He would argue that he was in control because he was still flat out at work.

I played the part that a loving wife should play. She protects her family.

Speaking publicly about my husband’s mistakes would be a betrayal, wouldn’t it? I thought so. But was my silence meant for him or for me? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But the stillness, the stillness I had chosen, languished inside me like something rotting.

hold back. hold back. Keep up.

I paused on the sidewalk in front of a high-rise building on Michigan Avenue and stared up at the carved stone arch overhanging the double doors. Buses and taxis hummed behind me and pedestrians passed me as I struggled with my emotions.

I had no reason to be nervous, but my heart was pounding in my throat as I prepared for the appointment I had made. With a therapist. A therapist to help me deal with addiction.

With a racing pulse and sweaty palms, I looked up at the building and took several deep breaths. Why was I Are you standing here on the concrete feeling like a shivering schoolgirl? I suppose I irrationally thought he was still drinking My Fail. I hadn’t found just the right formula of love and care that would get through to him.

Although at times I thought he had turned things around, it never lasted more than a few months. And now, many years later, after so many empty promises and broken dreams and returning to alcohol, it was absolutely clear that his problem was too big for me to handle on my own, so I opened a browser and scrolled through “Psychology Today” looking for practitioners specializing in alcoholism. It was a step ahead of the Yellow Pages, but I wasn’t about to ask friends for recommendations.

So here I am staring at a building in downtown Chicago and for the first time forced myself to say out loud, “My husband is an alcoholic.”

The therapist sat in her chair, notebook in hand, and asked, “What can I help you with?”

“My husband is an alcoholic and I don’t know how to get him to stop,” I choked out as tears welled up in my eyes and my throat tightened. My body shook as I sat and my hands gripped my thighs. I said so. I had said it for the first time. Loud. Now it was real. More rationalization is not possible. No more belittling or weakening the label by presenting him as a “heavy drinker” or “with a drinking problem”. He was a total alcoholic. A drunk.

“Have you suggested a support group? AA?”

I laughed. Her question wasn’t meant to be sarcastic, but all I could think was, “Honey, if only one suggestion was needed, could I prefix my name with Dr. add and put up my own clapboard.”

We spent 45 minutes discussing how I had tried to get him to his moment of coming to Jesus. As the session ended, she told me that she “usually worked with the alcoholic, not the family,” and reiterated her suggestion of starting a support group. She then asked if I thought he would do better with a male or female therapist if she made a recommendation.

But I didn’t want a referral for him. Who he saw was his damn thing! I needed help to understand and understand his problem.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized she had never asked a single question about me. How I did. How I coped. What support I Could use.

And just as a woman only sees part of her problem, my thoughts were also focused on my husband’s problems.

It took a lifetime before I realized that there would be a crisis in my future as well.

Excerpt with permission from “Where the shadows dance: He sobered up. I broke down”, from the author Dana Killion.

Do you need help with a substance use disorder or mental health issue? In the US, call 800-662-HELP (4357). National SAMHSA Helpline.

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