I’ve never been much of a drinker myself but alcohol turned my life upside down

Glass of wine“Collateral victims” of the bottle

A local study in the Alpes-Maritimes has estimated that one in ten inhabitants of the department has a serious problem with alcohol. In other words, they can’t control their input and this has a damaging effect on their physical and mental health. The outcome can range from loss of job to death. When we talk of the ravages of drink we usually have in mind the immediate victims who have become slaves to the bottle. But for every individual who has moved from social drinking to a state of addiction there have to be others considered – family, friends, even colleagues – who, even if abstainers themselves, are adversely affected by their relationship with the alcoholic.

Angry scenes, shouting, tears

A couple of years ago we wrote in these pages of Carole who, by that time, had become what she wryly called “a dry drunk”. As she explained, “I came here as a trailing spouse. I wasn’t working, I was home alone a lot, we had no kids, not even a dog – my husband wouldn’t have one. I was bored and got into drinking wine, first around lunchtime, then again in the late afternoon, finally straight after breakfast. So that meant all day. My husband would get home and find me totally passed out. And no dinner. He ended up leaving.”

More recently I’ve been able to get husband Ed’s side of the story (he now lives some distance from his old home and with a new partner). “I’d like you to believe that I’ve never stopped feeling bad about it. Back in Hampshire where we’d lived and worked before we were a happy couple. I jumped at the job I was offered here and Carole seemed ready to move as well. I didn’t realise that she’d end up being alone so much and nor did she. In fact, it had a devastating effect. She’d had an executive job and was used to having a certain status in her own eyes and those of other people. That just disappeared. I was totally taken up with work and assumed she was okay. I was wrong. I don’t know when the drinking started. At first she was careful to make sure I didn’t notice. I saw no bottles around the house. After a time, though, she stopped caring. I remember coming home one evening and there she was slumped over an empty bottle and a glass. When I tried to talk about what was obviously her problem she became abusive, put all the blame on me. After that things got worse and worse. Angry scenes, shouting, tears, the lot. When I suggested AA she got very nasty indeed. I realised that the situation I was going home to was affecting my work and I couldn’t allow that. As you know, I decided to walk. Eventually she agreed to a divorce. Anyway, I’m glad she’s got herself together, as you tell me, but for me she’s now just history I don’t want to revisit.”

Ed struck me as a decent enough guy although very self-engrossed and ready to disengage rather too quickly with his wife’s problems. The breaking point came, I sensed, when she refused his suggestion that she should go to AA. As he said to me, “I’ve never been much of a drinker myself but alcohol turned my life upside down.” In many ways, this story is a textbook case of how alcoholism creates “collateral victims”. But could things have turned out otherwise? Well, yes: and there are thousands of people worldwide able to testify to that possibility. Take the case of Olivia: “I don’t know quite how it happened but my husband who was a highly paid yacht captain slowly descended into a state of alcoholic dependence. Eventually he got fired and in that business you don’t resurface easily after that kind of thing. Today he’s no longer drinking, we’re happy as a couple and he’s got a land-based job. We owe a lot to AA but also to Al-Anon.”

Al-Anon: You find help ... and give help

Everyone’s heard of AA but what’s Al-Anon? Explains Olivia, “Well, alcoholism doesn’t only affect the drinker. I know that only too well. Derek became moody, ill-tempered, often abusive and at times passive and uncommunicative. It was affecting his job, I could see, and I was desperately worried. Then someone told me about Al-Anon. It’s an organisation that exists to help people in my situation – having to deal with the drink-induced behaviour of someone close to them. What happened was that I started with Al-Anon and managed to finally get Derek to go to AA. It took time but eventually he made it.”

And what about Al-Anon? “I’ve read quite a lot of their literature and they’ve got decades of experience in their field. The original idea goes back over 75 years and since then they’ve become increasingly active and well organised. To put it simply, those who are living with an alcoholic come together to share their experience and to work through a 12-step programme. It’s a great help to talk to others at the meetings and you get some useful stuff to read. One of the worst things about my situation was the feeling of isolation. You don’t really want to tell people ‘my man’s a lush’. At Al-Anon there are no judgements: just a convivial atmosphere in which you find help and give help.”

The names in two cases related here have been changed.

To contact Al-Anon see http://www.al-anonriviera.org or call 04 94 47 10 28. The Al-Anon/Alateen (http://www.al-anon-alateen.fr) component in the name refers to a dedicated service helping children and adolescents seeking help in their problems with alcoholic parents.

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