My wife’s disease killed her—and it took away my best friend and my partner. In Al Anon, they teach us that alcoholism is primary, progressive, chronic, and fatal. But it took a while for me to really accept that…
I met Elaine at an intra-office baseball game on a weekend afternoon. She wasn’t a very good baseball player, and I teased her about that a lot. We quickly became inseparable. Elaine was a formidable woman with a sharp tongue and a quick wit. We dated for a few years, and then decided to get married.
I had reservations, but I loved her and so I ignored the problems. In retrospect, I knew then that she was an alcoholic. But I needed the good in her, so I took the bad with it, too, because I thought I could fix her.
We took long road trips together and made plans for the future. Before we went to bed each night, we discussed the places we would explore together and spent hours upon hours gathering postcards from cities unvisited. We planned to buy a house on the beach in North Carolina and eventually retire there.
I tried to make her happy at all costs, thinking that if I gave her everything she’d ever wanted, she wouldn’t need to drink anymore. I saw her need to drink as my personal failure as a husband. We paid for world-class rehab facilities—but every trip ended the same way, with an eventual relapse.
I remember all the times she would wake up in the middle of the night to drink in order to keep her body from going into withdrawal. I often stayed awake and watched her to make sure that she wouldn’t asphyxiate. I also became obsessed with making her eat. Her body had started rejecting solid food altogether in order to have more space in her stomach for alcohol. This is when it first hit me that she was suffering from a disease: I realized that her body considered withdrawal from alcohol a bigger threat than lack of food.
One time, I took her out for a big anniversary dinner at this fancy restaurant. I had put so much effort into making arrangements, hoping that we could recapture who we once were. We sat down and ordered these great dishes. And of course she ordered wine. When our food came, she immediately asked the waiter to wrap it up to go. She said she didn’t have an appetite. So we sat in silence, and I ate alone.
The drinking took a definite toll on our marriage. I felt like a zombie. I didn’t have any feelings other than pain. I was grieving for the loss of the life I thought we would have together. I would look at our stack of postcards and feel like our dreams and plans—which had once seemed so real and reachable—had become fantasies. I was an emotional slave to her and I couldn’t see where she ended and I began. When she was happy, I was happy. When she felt sad, I felt sad. We talked about divorce, but I wasn’t ready to give up on her.
I started going to Al Anon meetings at first because I wanted to hear stories from family members who had succeeded in getting their loved ones clean. I know now that I went for the wrong reason. I was supposed to go for me, but I went for her. When I told her I was going that first night, she asked if she could go with me. She was drunk, but I said she could. When we got there and it was my turn to introduce myself, all I could say was ‘Hi, I’m Max,’ and then I broke down crying. She got up and walked out. The next day, she checked herself into a 90-day rehab facility. Shortly after arriving home, she relapsed again.
This time, I took it upon myself to detox her. I found something online that suggested starting out the addict at their original dose—which for Elaine was four or five bottles of red wine a day—and then slowly easing them down to none. So, the first day I gave her twenty five-ounce glasses at specific times. I would wake her up in the middle of the night and give her the glass of wine like she was taking medication. The next day, I gave her 19, and the next 18, until she eventually got down to nothing. She lasted one week.
Because of her repeated relapses, Elaine’s family had started distancing themselves from us. I did my best to keep her addiction a secret from friends and family, and I was suffering from the alienation of not having someone to share my burden with. I would write letters to advice columns asking for help—but I never sent them.
Elaine became increasingly isolated. She often refused to talk to me at all. She spent all day crying and drinking, and completely lost her zest for life. She had given up. She started writing me these accusatory Post-It notes and putting them everywhere. I found them in my closet, in my gym bag, inside my shoes…everywhere.
One night, I had been getting ready for bed when I heard a crash from the living room. Elaine had fallen and hurt her shoulder. We went to the emergency room, where the doctors informed me that both her blood oxygen and blood pressure were very low. After rehydrating her by early the next morning, the doctors decided to discharge her.
When we got home, she ate and wanted to rest. I went to an Al Anon meeting, and got back a couple of hours later. She had been on the phone with her friends and family. We sat down on our porch and we talked about things—about life and her illness. She seemed like her old self. I was very emotional because she was so lucid and present. She told me she was too tired to walk, so I put her in a rolling chair and rolled her to the bedroom. Then she asked me to help her into bed. I started turning down the bed, and when I turned around she was breathing erratically and she had passed out. I gave her mouth-to-mouth and called the ambulance. When I got to the hospital, the doctors told me it didn’t look good. They put her on life support, and she passed away the next morning.
It hit me that she was gone on the day of her funeral. I was standing in front of the closet, trying to pick out a black jacket. I’m not a formal wear guy, you know. I prefer jeans and a button-down. As I slid my hand in the sleeve to put the jacket on, I felt the faint crumple of some paper, and then I saw a Post-It zigzag to the floor from the corner of my eye.