How I Get Him Sober: A Relapse Plan From the Wife of An Alcoholic

I remember the way the sun fell through the window in the late afternoon. I strolled with satisfaction through my beautiful home, through a maze of boxes stacked head high. I admired how organized this move was going to be. All the care that I had taken over the last weeks to go through all our belongings and pack them with meticulousness. It made me feel proud. I felt like my life was well put together. This was it, finally. Our new beginning. All new beginnings should feel as well organized and hopeful as this.

It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon as I traipsed through the quiet emptiness of our home; the moving truck would be here on Thursday. Moving hundreds of miles from home was intimidating, for sure. But it filled my soul with adventure and the promise of a new life, it made me high. High on happiness. If there was one thing my family needed, it was a fresh start.

My husband had landed an exciting new career in southern Florida. He had been a Big Pharma guy for a couple of decades, making drugs. But this was biologics, it would add a whole new layer to his resume. It would be a new challenge for his beautiful mind. My excitement for warm winters and miles of beautiful coastline was hard to contain. The sand in Boca Raton has a golden hue, tiny golden, smooth pebbles. The water is so clear that you can see each wave delicately lift the tiny perfect gems and gently lay them back on the seafloor. I know well the motion and dance of the South Florida waves. I have an intimate relationship with the elegant flow of the sand. Intimacy is predestined when you spend hours upon hours together.

Twenty-four hours after walking through my packed up home, beaming with pride and excitement, I received a call. I do not answer numbers I don’t know. I screen calls with the best of them, a true professional. But, this number was from Boca Raton and my husband had started his job there the previous week- I picked up. I learned that my love was being held in a psych ward in southern Florida. He had gone into work raging drunk. A co-worker took him to the hospital, not knowing what else to do and they placed him in the behavioral unit. My brilliant corporate husband was now in a drunk tank, hundreds of miles away.

The moving truck will be here in four days.

It only took me one full day and night to reach him but they held on to him for days. He had to undergo a thorough evaluation and complete a full detox. In that time, I rested the sum of my worries on those ocean waves. My fear and anguish tumbled about with the churning tide, over and over; delivered back each time without fail, to rest at my feet.

This is but one story I have in my history box. As the wife of an alcoholic, I have cultivated quite a collection of bizarre recollections and experiences.

Our new future was squandered that day and the moving truck didn’t come on Thursday. We lived in that house for months moving through tunnels of boxes stacked head high. It took some time but my husband did land a new job. My job ever since has been to help him hold on to it. He makes four times my salary as a nurse so it makes financial sense for our family to pour resources into keeping him employed.

Years of living with an alcoholic and I am only now realizing that at-home breathalyzers are a thing. Kinda makes me feel like I have been living under a rock. But, I give myself grace. When the circuits are overloaded and everything is spiraling out of control, I am using my survival brain. I cannot access the creative brain that is capable of crafting thoughtful solutions. When we are in the middle of a relapse cycle, thinking becomes distorted and planning is too fraught with emotion to be effective. When we are not in the center of a relapse cycle, the cycle is the last damn thing I want to think about. I admire the strong women who are wives of alcoholics who can maintain serenity in the face of relapse. For me, it is an impossible feat no matter how many meditation minutes I have under my belt, and I have a lot. The women who handle an alcohol event the way that I do are no less strong. It’s that we have a tougher time maintaining balance when the bloodstream is flooded with stress hormones. Some of us go to war for survival and our bodies react as such.

The whole damn cycle of relapse is stressful. For me, the worst is at the very beginning when I am torn between trusting him or trusting my intuition — is he drinking? His behavior is different and familiar, not in a good way — it sounds so silly to say out loud. My intuition has yet to be wrong, why not trust it? Because believing him gives me the outcome my brain wants. Above all my soul yearns for him to not be drinking, for him to not be lying and manipulating. As if by ignoring my inner voice — and choosing to believe that he is only tired — I will somehow save myself from the impending nervous system explosion. Well, the explosion will occur, regardless of how unimaginable it feels. Each time, over and over, in slow motion — the unbelievable becomes believable.

When we find ourselves in a situation that we have no control over, often we will ignore our gut in the hopes that we can avoid suffering. The suffering always comes. I haven’t been wrong yet. Intuition is like a familiar blanket of sensations. You know you have been here before, and the outcome will not be good. We will do anything, even manipulate our own thinking to somehow make ourselves comfortable in the blanket. But the blanket is lined with razor wire. We need to learn to trust the blanket when it tells us we are about to get cut.

That’s why the breathalyzer rocks. It validates your gut right there on the spot. Knowing that self-preservation can cause us to ignore intuition, it is a fail-safe tool. It eliminates the need for the internal turmoil of not trusting yourself in a stressful and emotional situation. I imagine not all husbands will cooperate with a breathalyzer, and that is validation in and of itself. My husband purses those lips right up and blows to high heaven. And he fails. Every. Single. Time. The breathalyzer takes hours of the guesswork out of the process.

When my husband threatens our family and livelihood this way, I cannot help but take it as a personal attack. My protector is doing the opposite of protecting me and it is a very vulnerable place for a person to be. There have been moments I have looked at him in a drunken state and had very brief, but powerful moments where I have wanted to hurt him. The man that I love the most. My logical self knows there is nothing you can do to hurt a person in this state, they are completely numb.

Once my fear has been realized, the next phase is a full-blown lockdown. Historically, my tendency here is to run. I want to be somewhere else. To support him, I have eliminated all alcohol from my life. When he is confirmed drunk, my first instinct is to go sit down for a nice expensive meal, with a big beautiful glass of rosé. All by myself. Unfortunately, I can’t do that because this is when I have to go to work, to make sure he doesn’t lose his job and to minimize the effects of this event on my child’s life.

I want to run from it all, but I can’t. I have to sit with him here in the prison he has built for me and I have to wait it out. There is no weasel as sneaky as a drunk man who is about to sober up. He will try every trick in the book. A supervised lock-down is the only way to get out of this cycle promptly. To save his career, I become the warden.

I gather and hide all car keys in the house. On the offhand chance that he finds them, I always remind him that I have spoken with the officers on the non-emergency police line. I tell him that they are aware of what I am dealing with at home and are awaiting my call should he leave the house. Even at his most drunk, he knows he doesn’t want to go to jail. There have been many, many times he has gotten behind the wheel and it is horrifying. I know my husband’s true, sober heart is very tender and kind. If he hurt someone, he would not be able to live with himself. So preventing him from getting on the road is my number one priority.

The next step is to flush out any bottles of liquor. Alcoholics believe they need liquor in the same way they need air, it feels as if they will die without it. The cleverness my husband uses to hide bottles has evolved over the years and to this day, he keeps me guessing. There is usually a close supply, like in the couch cushions. Buried so deep you have to contort your body in strange ways to retrieve it. He also has a secondary supply, this one is much more difficult to pinpoint. He will take large swigs on the way home, cap the bottle tight and throw it on the side of the road somewhere near the house. It always amazes me that he can remember where he tossed it. Goes to show the power of the magnetism between an alcoholic and their booze. Flushing out bottles isn’t necessary, but it hastens the process. If my husband has to be at work the next day, I need this process to be fast. Any supply he has reserved will run out at some point. Cutting off the ability to leave home assures that the supply can not be replenished.

I know when my husband has depleted his resources when he emerges from his slumber and starts pacing. As the alcohol in his blood begins to lower, his anxiety begins to climb. We have a natural chemical in our brain called GABA that keeps our anxiety low. When an alcoholic floods their brain with booze, the brain says “hey, looky there, we are so chill there is no need to make any GABA.” The alcohol metabolizes fast and the brain is left with no mechanism to control the anxiety. It takes a while to build GABA levels back up once your brain turns it off. With no GABA and no alcohol, anxiety has nothing to hold it down and it goes through the roof. The nervous system spins out of control. This creates panic and a person will do damn near anything to get from under that feeling. It takes a long time for the nervous system and brain to correct this imbalance. The obvious, quick fix is to reach for the bottle. With no bottles left and no way to get one, the drunk now becomes a different beast entirely.

The next hurdle in this nightmare process is the high anxiety phase. Never in my life have I ever been more annoyed than I am when my alcoholic is going through an anxiety storm. My drunk husband is a blackout drinker, so he is quiet and not present while drunk. He guzzles until the lights turn out. When he runs out of alcohol he is the opposite of quiet. He knows he can’t leave because I will call the cops. So he turns on the manipulation machine. He tries everything he can to get me to go get him a bottle. He reminds me that he may have a seizure, he tells me that the shakes are coming. The energy in the household shifts and it is the most difficult environment to be in. He may take a walk to go get a side-of-the-road bottle but those are in short supply. He is noisy and annoying and turns me into a nervous wreck. A warden’s plight is not an easy one.

A few hours into the anxiety phase, I do have to start watching for signs of an impending seizure. We have wracked up tens of thousands of dollars from him going to detox and rehab facilities and he now refuses to go. I give him two options. I tell him that if he begins to feel out of control, I will be happy to drop him off at the emergency room. Or, he can have a seizure right here at home. I remind him that I am a nurse and that I have unfortunately been through his seizures before. Paramedics are so close to our house, when I call 911, they are there in a jiffy. Knowing this doesn’t make it any less scary. Seizures, coma, and even death are all on the table at this point. It’s like being trapped in a Rob Zombie movie.

Based on how much alcohol my husband has had determines how long the process will take to correct. The amount he has been drinking and the duration before I catch onto what is happening determines how difficult detox will be. Alcohol is the most deadly substance to withdraw from so we are taking a huge risk every time this occurs. Sometimes I do have to go buy beer to wean him out of his physical dependence. When he dips below .2% BAC on the breathalyzer, he begins to come back to himself and becomes more cooperative. This is when the broken record starts to play, he says the same things he says every time, over and over and over — I’m sorry… I don’t know why I do this.

Each time we find ourselves in this place, we tweak the treatment plan a little and go on with life. He puts on his superman cape and dives back into his work, trying to make up for the slackness he has exhibited in the previous days. He has to become an actor to propel whatever lie he has told his superiors for his recent lack of involvement.

When all is said and done, and we are back on track, that is when it hits me the hardest. When the dust settles, it puts me in a sad, sad place. My body begins to metabolize days and days of survival hormones. I question my choices and if I am right to stay. When the sudden activity ceases, I am left feeling depressed as if there is a void in my life. I have to pick up the pieces of our family and put everything back together again.

Sure, I said, “until death do we part.” And I meant it with my whole heart. My husband is brilliant and loves bigger than anyone I have ever known. He is tender and kind and except for this one demon, he always does the right thing. Although we never know how long he will stay employed, he provides an above-average lifestyle for his family. If he were abusive or mean, maybe it would be easier to leave. I cannot say for sure. I do know that my current life is built on a fault line. In an instant, everything that we have built could disintegrate to rubble.

I know that I alone could provide a nice stable life for myself and my son. It is not the fear of what my life would be like without him that keeps me in this marriage. Often I dream of having a peaceful stable life. One that is not upended every few months by a booze-filled relapse. My biggest fear is what will happen to him without me.

I read a lot about addiction and I have experienced addiction in my own life. I know what it means to need a substance so badly you feel like you may die without it. For me, the life I provide for my son is far more valuable than my need for any substance. I am grateful for the strength that love provides for me.

Many medical professionals see alcoholism as a disease. My opinion may be unpopular but I have a real problem with that terminology. Sure, once an alcoholic makes that choice to go buy a bottle, there are biological consequences that occur, the brain changes. Yet, you will never find a cancer patient in remission walking into a cancer store to buy more. Calling alcoholism a disease, to me, is very disrespectful to individuals who suffer from diseases they did not choose. The alcoholic always has a choice. Time and time again, they choose wrong. They choose not to stay in remission. Regardless of the consequences, the numbness they long for matters more. It takes courage to move through this difficult world feeling all the feelings along the way. An alcoholic is a coward and I hate the alcoholic that lives inside of my husband.

But I love the man with all my heart.

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Well-being curator + mom + yogi + registered nurse + board-certified nurse health coach — perpetually attempting to capture humanity with language.

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Natalie Greer

Natalie Greer

Well-being curator + mom + yogi + registered nurse + board-certified nurse health coach — perpetually attempting to capture humanity with language.