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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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

There's always hope...

When Riley first started going to rehab centers and AA, I participated in his recovery right along with him. I attended Al-Anon as often as 4 times a week. The Al-Anon teachings became a way of life and I truly believed that things would get better. I believed that if I worked just as hard as Riley, he would get and stay sober. I heard the warnings about relapse, but I’m stubborn and I was convinced that I could prevent those horror stories from happening to my family. I had so much hope for our future.

But, each time Riley relapsed and each time he went into rehab, I had less hope that he would be able to achieve sobriety in the long term. Rehab just became a way for him to get some time off work. After the first rehab, he never once said he wanted sobriety. He just wanted to do whatever he had to do to keep his boss and me off his back. The only way a recovery program can work is if the alcoholic truly wants sobriety. Riley did not and made no excuses for it. Any hope I had for our future as a loving couple, disappeared with the realization that it was not what Riley wanted.

There’s a song by Dusty Springfield that was popular in the mid 1960’s, it’s Wishin’ and Hopin’. The essence of the lyrics is that simply wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming won’t get you what you want. Of course, she’s talking about getting the man of your dreams to love you. I’m talking about getting the man of your dreams to remain sober. There’s a point in time when the sober one realizes that he/she can’t just do all that wishing stuff and add incredible amounts of hope and get the alcoholic to truly want sobriety. There is no hope strong enough that will create that desire. Eventually, with each failed rehab and every near-fatal detox, hope leaves the equation. That’s the reality of end-stage.

There is a turning point in relationships with alcoholics. It is the point when the alcoholic becomes end-stage and requires caretaking. It happens so subtly that it almost goes unnoticed by the person who becomes the caretaker. Often the caretaker is a spouse or parent. We non-alcoholics, go about our daily routine making adjustments along the way. We don’t even realize how many adjustments are being made until we have that “Ahh-Ha!” moment that all we ever do is make adjustments for the alcoholic.

The beginning of caretaking can often start the same way. The alcoholic gets sick and we take care of him/her. We don’t know if they have the flu or cancer – all we know is that this other part of our partnership is ill. It is perfectly normal to take care of our sick loved ones. It’s how we are wired as humans. Relationships are based on give and take of support, understanding, and "standing by" when things are not-so-good. If one develops cancer, the other does not walk out, but rather provides nursing and aid to promote recovery. Because we don’t know for an absolute certainty that the alcohol is the illness – it could be cancer -- we take care of them the best we can.

Eventually we have another “Ahh-Ha” moment and realize that the drinking is the culprit that has turned the person we loved into the mental state of a child that would require a baby-sitter if left alone. But, we missed that turning point because we were so busy trying to keep our heads above water that we didn’t see there was a plug in the drain. We are now in so deep, getting out seems impossible. Because we would not turn a cancer patient out into the street. We took a vow. We promised. We are morally bound to provide a safe haven in sickness and health.

Have you ever bought a bag of M&M’s and thought to yourself, I’ll just eat a couple now and save the rest for later. You pull out a couple of the candies and, with the open bag in your hand, you begin talking on the phone. When the phone call is over, you realize you’ve eaten the whole bag. You didn’t even realize you were doing it. The bag is empty. It’s much the same for the non-alcoholic caretaker. We just do a few things for the alcoholic and then the next thing we know, our lives are taken over by seeing to their needs.

Faced with the realization that we are now the caretaker, we still have a tendency to fight the idea that our alcoholic is in fact, end-stage. We take them to the doctor for some kind of diagnosis that would make everything more understandable. We want some kind of medical plan that will help us in our effort to “normalize” our situation. But the only plan any doctor can offer is detox and rehab and the alcoholic refuses. We are left with an impossible decision without any satisfying outcome. The next “Ahh-Ha” moment is when we know that our alcoholic is in fact terminal. The alcoholic is dying. We do the humane thing – we provide a soft place for them to die.

My uncle had lung cancer. He was dying with just a few days left on his calendar of life. He wanted a cigarette. He asked me over and over to get him one. But, I was adamant not to give it to him. When his doctor entered the room, my uncle told him he wanted a cigarette. The doctor told me to take him to the smoking courtyard and give him what he wanted. I was shocked. But, the doctor made perfect sense to me when he said, “Your uncle is dying. Nothing he does now will stop that. Make him happy and give him the damn cigarette.” I complied with my uncle’s request.

I was also shocked to hear Riley’s doctor tell me that I had to make sure he had plenty of alcohol. It was contrary to everything I had ever been told. But, the doctor explained that to take away his supply now would lead to a very certain and unpleasant death. He went on to say that Riley was dying. At this point nothing I, nor the doctor, can do will stop the process. Much like my uncle’s cigarette request, I complied with Riley’s need for alcohol to keep him from having that quicker, more painful death from the ensuing DT’s.

End-stage caretakers do what we feel is humane. We make a choice and although it may seem unpalatable to others – our decision is ours alone to make. Those who have an end-stage alcoholic in their home will understand the struggle we have endured just to make the choice. None of the options have desirable outcomes. It’s like choosing between “bad” and “really bad”.  Most end-stage caretakers choose the “bad” choice while wishing and hoping for a quick end to the pain and suffering the alcoholic causes for himself and others in his life. The only HOPE we are left with is the hope that the end will be quick.

The next time you are talking to an end-stage caretaker, instead of passing judgment or being critical – try saying this: “I hope for a quick resolution of your situation. I may not have made the same decision as you, but I respect how difficult it was for you to choose a path.”

We all always have HOPE, but your HOPE may look different from my HOPE.


Karen E. said...

THIS is MY LIFE... I feel the need to cut and paste to share with others so maybe they will understand. IF we were caring for a relative with cancer the support would be overwhelming. Caring for an end stage alcoholic..I at least keep it inside and hidden from my "normal" associates/friends/. She chose this way of life. I have chosen to give up the unrealistic hope of her sobriety and do the best I can to give her that soft landing place. It is so nice to realize thru your words and your followers that this isnt a bad choice or a good choice of ours..its just what we feel is right for our situation. Thank you. Your words give me strength to keep going.

ADDY said...

So true. This WAS my life. I am now crawling back from it into sanity. Nobody knows what it is like unless they have lived with it. Hugs for you and hoping that you will be free from it soon. Addy.

Syd said...

I know that I am too selfish to stay and take care of someone who is end stage. At least that is what I think as I read your post. Perhaps if I were in the same situation, I would do the same. I know that I won't choose to live with active alcoholism again. But never say never....
I still have hope, a lot of it in my life. I am grateful for each day that I am not living in total insanity. But I know that can change.
Take care.

Kitty said...

I love this post and it also makes me fearful. I hope that my drinking never progresses to the point where someone will have to take care of me. I'm pretty sure my husband won't. I'm not even sure if he would be capable of caring for me if I had cancer or any other type of disease. He is not a care-taking type...that's my role. it's food for thought.

Beth said...

Very powerful post Linda, thank you! I understand that most people never have to go through something like this, and would hope they wouldn't pass judgment on those who do, but that doesn't seem to be the nature of this affliction. People look down on the alcoholic as weak and the care taker as even weaker for "putting up" with it. When someone makes an unkind or thoughtless remark I just try and not take it personally, but in honesty I have learned to not be so sharing in what I'm going through unless I am talking with someone I believe will understand.

My husband is dying and I will stay and be there until that happens.....For better or for worse, those are the vows I made to someone I loved very much.

Thank you for giving us this place of understanding Linda.

Anonymous said...

Everything said here is so true. My husband has no family, no job, and no where else to go, but I seem to get a lot of 'why don't you just make him leave' from people. I've told people before that you don't know what you would do until you get put in the middle of it. It's really hard and most days I haven't completely given up hope, but it sure hurts and gets lonely sometimes.

jo said...

what a great blog, linda. i am gonna remember the line.."my hope might not be the same as your hope." so true. i am not you...none of us are. we are all ourselves.

im still curious what it is about us that triggers others so badly. indeed, triggers them into losing their basic manners! must be something pretty deep. the ones i come in contact with almost foam at the mouth over how ignorant i must be.

my hope is that i have the strength and sanity to make it thru this and it doesnt last too many more yrs. (i feel guilty just thinking that, must less typing it!)

this blog really said a ton today. i remember a pa telling me to not lose hope. is he kidding? do i want to continually be in this limbo without learning acceptance? heck, no. altho he prob had no clue, what he said was very cruel. and far too exhausting a way to live.

a social worker told me the other day mine was afraid to die. i said no,,,he is afraid to LIVE.

this journey has taken me years to get where i am now mentally and emotionally. it doesnt come easy. once their gone, it will be a completely new and just as hard a journey, i think.

thanks again linda, for saying it so well.

Wanda said...

Right on with your article today. Been up most of the night with A who was really sick most of night and calling me. Of course he is asleep for hours now but was up at daylight with hat and shoes waiting to get to liquer store after professing he wouldn't make it through the night for vomiting and diarrhea. Just another day like most of them at this point. Thanks for your blog. Helps so much.

Jenna said...

Thank you for sharing htis heartbreaking story. You are a fabulous writer. Thank you for your courage and your obvious love.

Anonymous said...

This was the most poignant blog for me yet and the comments so close to the bone with my own life. I must say though i have some very good friends, most say im brave and unbelievably patient, and the situation is so sad as Dave is so young. But like you i think most people ending up with an end stage alcoholic would do the same. The only people who tell me to leave him or dump him are his 2 aunties who live miles away and havent seen him for over a year. I think middle stages of alcoholism is when you make your mind up to end it or not, end stage its too late, you stay and work though it all because they are dying, its as simple as that!....

My mum lives away and came to stay with me for a week, her reactions during that week basically put all the anxieties, feelings etc into a nut shell. At the beginning of the week she held my husband, talked with him, cried with him, felt so very sad, helpless and upset for him. By the end of that one week she screamed she just wanted to shake him and shout hurry up and die and give my daughter her life back. I feel so guilty sometimes for hoping the end is close but if my mums reaction is how most outsiders would feel within one week then surely i have nothing to feel guilty about??????

Beth said...

Sadly, I think most of us in this situation are holding out for a quick end to everyone's suffering. Mine has threatened suicide more times than I can count and I've gotten to the point of suggesting it look like an accident. Of course I wouldn't want the husband I married to die, but that man is long gone and the shell of a person that is left is so sick and tortured that if he were to die he would at least be at peace, and sadly, so would I and our children. I guess I would feel differently if I thought there was any chance of him regaining the happy and productive life he used to live. If I had my choice I would have my husband back to fulfill all the dreams we had when we were married, but I know in my heart he's too far gone. My heart breaks for all those lost dreams and for the loss of the wonderful, kind, thoughtful, loving, funny, hardworking man that I married.

jo said...

sending hugs to everyone who commented...and to linda...

you are some of the most courageous, caring people i have ever known and spoken to. a precious gift you have that can not be bought, and only given away to another who needs it.

Eli said...

You took the words that I think all of the time and made them real (and acceptable.) "The only HOPE we are left with is the hope that the end will be quick."