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Providing non-judgmental and non-criticizing support for family and friends of end-stage alcoholics through one-on-one coaching, support groups, blog posts, workshops and public speaking.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Red flags and yellow lights...

I first met Riley when I was only 17 going on 18. I was a naïve country girl and he was a sophisticated older man. I didn’t like him so much at first. But he did check off many of my husband requirements and he was so charming and polite. It wasn’t long before I was in so deep that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Visions of marriage, babies and white picket fences danced in my head.

When I think about the beginning of my life with Riley, I see that there was a plethora of emotions – happy, sad, joyful, angry, hopeful, disappointed, giddy and hurt. The early relationship was all those things. And mixed in there during that first couple of years were all the red flags that should have told me to run – run fast and hard away from this man.

I don’t know why I ignored them. Warning signs flashing in my face like those blinking yellow lights atop a sawhorse in the middle of the roadway. Maybe it was because I was so young and inexperienced and had not been exposed to any real marital problems since my parents had never openly displayed any in their marriage. The only big issue between my parents was that my father was a work-a-holic and there was never enough money. So, I guess, I really had no idea what I was getting into and when the signs were in my face, I just didn’t recognize them.

I remember one evening when we were in Riley’s apartment. He had been to a doctor that day – I don’t remember why. When we were sitting down to dinner, he told me that the doctor had told him he needed to stop drinking. At that point, I had never seen him drunk so I didn’t really understand why the doctor would say this. In reality… maybe I had never seen him sober. I just acknowledged his statement and we went on with our evening.

Over the next couple of years, we separated and reconciled several times and when we were together he had affairs. One affairee, a married woman, turned into a relationship, but he continued to keep one foot in our relationship. I decided to move on. That entire two year journey was a red flag that should have been burned into my memory.

Several years later, I was walking down the street in a major city and we literally ran into each other. The roller coaster was back in motion and I was in the first car. I moved across the country and became a Navy wife. This is when I started to see a drinking pattern but not so much in Riley but in everyone around us.

Every Friday at least 20 shipmates and their spouses gathered in the common area outside our apartment. Everyone brought food to grill and booze to drink – and drink – and drink. People fell down drunk in the yard and on my floor. The party lasted until Sunday evening. This was our typical weekend for almost three years. I didn’t like it, but I was told by several of the wives that I just needed to go with it and loosen up. I should be happy that Riley didn’t get drunk. Another red flag screaming out – this is not the life you want – get out now!

Many years later, I started to recognize that Riley was drunk when I thought he was not. I think I realized it because I started to see him actually consuming the alcohol. It was a bottle of wine every night with dinner after 3 or 4 scotch drinks the minute he got home from work. He seemed to get drunk every weekend. But, I figured he was just unhappy about something – maybe he was unhappy with me. And my feelings were confirmed when I found out he was spreading his seed in other women’s flower garden.

Devastated – I went to a therapist to find out how I could fix me and make my husband become faithful again. If I could do that – the drinking would stop and he would emotionally return to me. Now – I can’t believe that I really thought this was how to make things right. I can’t believe I was so stupid. My therapy helped me, but it didn’t make Riley stop drinking or womanizing.

The Navy ordered him into his first rehab center and for several years things got much better. He was sober. He was monogamous. He was attentive. But, it only lasted a few years and things returned to the nightmare of previous years.  There would be at least four more returns to rehab, but the cycle continued. And I stayed. Each time he entered rehab a red flag was added to the others and by now they were all waving with the strength of hurricane winds.

After the last Navy rehab, there seemed to be a strong determination in Riley to stay sober. My son was moving into his first apartment and my daughter was completing high school. Riley was very close to retirement and we had a plan. After retirement Riley would take a civilian job and we would dedicate most of his civilian salary to getting the house, car and all our bills paid off. I thought – this is a good plan.

But Riley was forced into retirement early because he returned to drinking again and the Navy had already sent him to his quota of rehab centers without satisfactory results. He retired. He refused to work in the civilian world because it interfered with his drinking. We lost the house. We lost our two cars. We lost everything. I left him.

I don’t blame Riley. I blame myself. The signs were there from early on. All those red flags waving about – and I ignored each and every one. By my own choice, I spent the best years of my life waiting for this man to respect our marriage. I could have left him early on but I didn’t. I choose to stay with the emotionally abusive alcoholic always hopeful that he would be “normal.” I can blame no one else for that decision.

I think I see clearly now – 20/20 hindsight is incredibly enlightening. It was what it was. I won’t live in the past by pining away for what could have been. I look at the present and feel so very grateful for what I have. I look to the future and know it will be what I choose to make it be. I make every effort to make my choices carefully with a clear and open mind. And I’m constantly checking for red flags or flashing yellow lights.


Karen E. said...

Once again a post that I can relate to RIGHT NOW..I or we chose (hubby and I( to move in with my alcoholic mother..to help her..but it would help us financially also..we own our own business and times are tough.. I find myself questioning this decision..the chaos, the attitudes..the stress is getting to me, to my husband. His BP is up high..never had blood pressure problems before ever. If we leave she has NO ONE..I would still have to make sure there is food, vodka...flags everywhere ...what is this costing us?...ugh...thnaks for the post! We must look to our future like you said and make it what we want...but what about her?..ugh.

HyperCRYPTICal said...

A very moving post Linda and thank you for sharing your experience.

I think goals for women were different then and I must admit that all I was looking for was to be married, have children and my own house.

If I had been born twenty years later I think my aspirations would have been much different.

You have nothing to reproach yourself for. Sure you may have seen the red flags and yellow lights - but the dream of the happy marriage was greater and there is nothing wrong with that.

You are an incredibly brave woman Linda and an inspiration to others in your position.


Anna :o]

Jennifer said...

Times don't seem to change. I'm twenty years younger but had the same relationship & marriage essentially (minus rehabs -- he's never been). No one in my family ever had a drinking problem, so I missed all the warnings. Lately, I'm becoming aware that the pain of the past is nothing compared to what lies ahead. Now, I'm enough of a realist to know the increasing physical health problems for which he refuses to see a doctor (because he knows treatment will include sobriety)as well as mental ones like depression, dementia, and paranoia will worsen as I helplessly watch him poison himself.
Not that challenges past were necessarily easier. I'd never want to relive any of this.

Syd said...

I chose to ignore those red flags too. I stayed, but eventually had enough and was leaving. That is when my wife got into AA. She has been sober ever since. I started Al-Anon at the same time. The interesting thing is I did not want a divorce. But I knew that I could not keep going in such a sad and destructive relationship. You are still with Riley. That tells me a lot about your loyalty. I know that I will not live with active alcoholism again. It is a boundary that I feel I must keep.

Ann said...

Linda, you weren't stupid, you were naive, as was I. I can look back and see red flags that make a bull fight look like a tea party! But we didn't know any better, and we wanted what was presented to us a the 'perfect life', the picket fence, two point five kids, the dog and the station wagon. As my mental health therapist tells me so often, I just hold people up to a higher moral standard than they are capable of....I'm not stupid, just naive.