Loving an alcoholic

CW: addiction, mental illness, self-harm, suicide

If I could have chosen not to fall in love with an alcoholic… well, I probably still would’ve said yes.


Some people say if they really love me, they’ll stop. Some say I can’t be supportive enough. Others say I’m overreacting and of course they can ‘have one drink.’ Some just think I’m an idiot and I should leave. I get it. Lots of things about this relationship test my sanity. Long distance. Their job as a musician. Their insane ex who sends me death threats. Though none as much as their drinking – but it’s also extremely rewarding.


Like many alcoholics, my partner knew something wasn’t right. Yet, no matter how many times they woke up on benches, in hallways they didn’t recognise, cried as I threatened to leave, it never occurred to them their drinking was the problem. They’d quit a harder drug, been clean for over 20 years. If they could kick that, how could alcohol be an issue? It took dying and being resuscitated to make them, to make even me, see.


Because I didn't see it, either. When we met, my mum – a recovering alcoholic 31 years sober – remarked that they reeked of booze. We all laughed. They were a musician. Of course they drank. It was a given, a fact of life.


Photomontages, 2015, about being young and stupid and falling in love in New York

Two weeks in, I awoke in their arms to their giddy smile and, without warning, they asked ‘well, you’ll marry me, won’t you?’

I said yes.

Was that stupid? Of course it was. I was too infatuated to care. We climbed into the attic and wrote our names on the rafters. They sang me Beatles songs. We danced to Generation X in my living room. Neither of us slept well, so we talked until sunrise – about art, politics, our hopes and dreams and our future together. When we shared our pasts, we felt heard for the first time. The beer in their hand, by my bed, was a blur. It was just there.


Everyone who met them loved them. They’d leave gas stations with three new friends’ numbers. The day after they stopped at the local pub on their way back to the airport, I walked by and heard booming karaoke to one of their songs. My mum was their new BFF. They could barely see medical professionals without becoming friends.


The signs were there. They were in my face. I remember them being so drunk they couldn’t speak. I remember them waking up on a bench in Fruitvale. Amidst our infatuation were what I called ‘rock star moments’ – when the person I fell in love with seemed to disappear, leaving only a cocky, inflated ego that was outright nasty. In those moments I was afraid. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone and I’d forget.

Yet it was clearest of all in what I considered normal – what I thought, what I was told was ‘just the rock ‘n’ roll life.’ Glancing back at the diary I wrote, I’m appalled by the blatancy I missed:


‘They climbed onto the table, rolled around a bit, poured their beer all over their face in an attempt to drink it, then fell off the table altogether and brought the table down with them.’


‘They told me they’d thrown a bottle at someone, got into a fight in some toilets, smacked [friend] and mashed a burrito into [friend]’s face. They said they’d been drunk a lot and sometimes got up and left me to drink in the night. They kept insisting that I don’t really know their dark side, I’ve only scratched the surface, and they wanted to be a good husband to me but they didn’t know how.’


But there were other things to worry about. They couldn’t keep any food down. It wasn’t just booze. The slightest crumb made them vomit. Not to mention their stomach was in agonising pain. When we met, they could lift me over their head. A year later, as muscles wasted to nothing, they couldn’t lift much at all. Their skeletal frame barely weighed 100lbs. Doctors diagnosed an ‘IBS-like stomach condition,’ but the prescriptions didn’t work.


Their mental health was at a record low. I lost count of their suicide attempts. The overdoses battered their liver. They were covered in spots and self-harm scars. The sight of their blood filling the sink as their youngest kid sobbed and dialled 911 is as fresh as it was then. A psychiatrist – we’ll call him Inge – gradually diagnosed them with borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, body dysmorphic disorder and PTSD. The alcohol they drank, 24 hours a day until they blacked out, went unseen. In fact, when their management suggested they had an issue, Inge laughed. Their physical illness, as they began vomiting blood, remained a mystery.


6000 miles away from me, too weak to walk, let alone fly, they were alone. Their closest friends and family bailed and made fun of their schizophrenia exacerbated by drinking. They were too afraid of their mum’s and stepdad’s ill health to tell them. Inge and the voices of my mum and I, distorted over Skype, were their only lifelines.


They couldn’t work. After their ex brutally assaulted them while bedbound, they were admitted to hospital. Doctors gave them three weeks to live, not only from the assault, but from an illness nobody understood. To them, that was a relief. They thought things could never get better, that death was the only way to end their mental and physical pain.


I was powerless. They were on the other side of the world. I woke up every morning expecting a missed call from an American number, a number I would call back to find the person I thought I’d spend my life with was gone. I went from anger to frustration to despair.

Clinically, they died. ‘Physically I was alone, more isolated than I’d ever been, but I also felt I was together – with God, dead relatives, I don’t know,’ they recounted, ‘There was flashing, like lightning. A bright, white, all enveloping light. I saw myself, laying in the hospital bed. I felt nothing then, except this sense of wellbeing and terror together, like I was falling from a height, yet I was weightless – but as I came around, I realised how pathetic I was. I think it was then I knew. I knew I was an alcoholic. I knew that whatever was wrong with me physically, I had to stop drinking before it could be solved.’ Doctors resuscitated them.


They outlived the three weeks. Timidly, they made a suggestion – ‘what if I really am an alcoholic?’

I thought it was outrageous. I thought they were beating themselves up. They weren’t so sure.

‘What if the booze is causing all of this?’

They talked to my mum. She encouraged them to write down the number for their local AA helpline – just in case. If and when the time was right, she said, they’d ring.


One night, after a tumultuous argument with me, they picked up the phone. With shaking hands, they dialled the AA number. When they heard the dialling tone, they threw their phone down and drove back to the gas station for beer.


My mum couldn’t understand how she missed the signs. Still, together, they worked it out. ‘She was amazing,’ they said, ‘That was exactly what I needed – someone I respected, someone who seemed to have it all together to tell me they were like me once, that they were this bad but there was a way out. She inspired me.’ Curled up on their living room floor, they called AA again. Hung up again. ‘Try again,’ my mum said, so they did. This time, they waited. The next day, a lady we’ll call Jean picked them up and took them to their first AA meeting.


A few months later, I noticed there was something different in the way they walked. Something different about them. They were calm. Confident. Not holding a beer bottle.

Sober.

The ‘rock star moments’ were gone. I didn’t just catch glimpses of the person I fell in love with – they were that person all day, every day. One of the last things I wrote in that diary says it all:


I’m so happy. I have my fiancée back. They’re alive. We’re alive again. We never stopped loving each other but that fiery passion died years ago… and today it burns so bright again.

I would have married that distant person, the one who was being slowly consumed by alcohol and mental illness, and I would have been happy. I would have been the happiest person in the world and loved them until the end.

But the person I’m marrying is alive and healthy; confident and all ready to start again.

I am blessed.’


They went outside with a curious smile, like a blindfolded captive finally seeing. There was wonder in their voice as they told me that for the first time since they were 13, drinking and getting stoned to forget their trauma, they knew what happiness felt like. They said life was beautiful. They wanted to live.


From a 2014 photobook

I might have complained. I might have wondered if the people telling me to leave were right. They were wrong. Because few moments in my life were more precious than then, when I saw the person I once desperately held down as they fought to end their life realise they wanted to live.


There were slip-ups. It didn’t matter. They were trying. With medication, their schizophrenia was invisible. They laughed at their past episodes. Yet although their physical health was better, it wasn’t perfect. They still struggled to keep food down. They were still frighteningly thin. Heavy painkillers struggled to mask the stomach pain. They repeatedly went back to hospital and, over two years since an out-of-state doctor noted concerns, their regular gastroenterologist finally admitted he, too, had spotted a lump in their stomach. He blamed the lack of investigation on my partner for never fasting before seeing him – despite never asking them to – but assured them it was the ‘IBS-like stomach condition’ he diagnosed, not cancer. They were too young for stomach cancer.


It was cancer.


As soon as they awoke from surgery, they were cracking jokes, cheering up their youngest kid crying in the waiting room. I smile just thinking of their ‘victory selfie,’ beaming with the surgeon. We’ll never know if the booze was entirely to blame. It undoubtedly played a part in it.

Despite their sobriety, the cancer returned. They were terrified of further surgery, but went back regardless. They kept going to AA. Once, their car broke down and they slept on someone’s floor – but this time they recognised that floor, for it belonged to another recovering alcoholic. They began the 12 Steps. Sometimes, they broke down and told my mum they couldn’t stand it, they needed a drink. She stayed with them, reminding them to take it one minute, one hour, one day at a time until the urge was gone.

In the process, lifelong friends and relatives fell away. They thought this true self was boring, a party-pooper, too outspoken. Unlike the pre-sobriety parties, where they’d pass out in a corner, their wallet would be passed around and they’d find a concerned bartender by their side at 4am; they stood up for themselves. All their life, they'd smiled along with abuse, ignored mockery, excused discrimination as long as it was directed at them. Now they refused. If people didn’t like them, if people didn't want to deal with a sober, part-native, grey-ace trans woman, it was too bad. They had me and my mum. They had their friends at AA.


Balancing that with their career was the biggest challenge. Their bandmates were amongst the lifelong friends who found their sober self annoying and, at points, a laugh. My heart broke as over Skype from Australia, their distraught voice recounted their bandmates, their lifelong friends, jeering ‘schizo!’ ‘[t-slur]!’ ‘psycho!’ ‘alchie!’ in front of venue staff. Inge was there and of course, he stood up for them, which led to the crew mocking them for being ‘gay.’ These people have never been outwardly homophobic, transphobic or ableist. One is trans and another is bisexual. Yet they exploded with things they’d never otherwise say in retaliation to someone’s decision not to drink.


Though some of my most positive memories of their sobriety are from that trip. I remember them skipping parties to go sightseeing. I remember them taking photos of places one of my favourite photographers, Frank Hurley, photographed for me. I remember them finding exhibitions of his photos I could never see in England and their nervous selfies – because they were still a bit nervous for me to see them sober – in front of Sydney Opera House. I remember them saying, despite their questionable crew, they didn’t need booze to walk onstage with confidence. I remember their voice breaking as they sang about wanting to die, about drinking themselves to death, because now they wanted nothing more than to live.

When they got home, they told me their stomach was in pain again. They were vomiting blood. Their ex refused to allow the kids to form their own opinions on their addiction or cancer, insulting them and insisting it was all in their head. Distance grew between them. They were broken by the hatred of their bandmates and crew; not that they simply couldn’t forgive their drinking or couldn’t gel with them sober, but that they thought it was all hilarious. They went to hospital for the pain and blood to find they had another tumour.


Things spiralled. They were drinking again – and heavily. Their schizophrenia medication stopped working, or they stopped taking it. Inge was locked out. Wearing the same clothes every day, hair matted, they thought I was working with their bandmates against them. I awoke to them screaming at their ex, who wasn’t there, to stop or get out. Their grip on reality faded further, until they no longer knew where they were or where they’d been. It took hospitalisation after another suicide attempt to end the episode.

I’ve never really liked alcohol. It’s not a straight-edge or even religious thing – if I liked it, I’d drink. I just hate the taste and feeling. At this point, though, I was almost phobic of booze. Friends shouted at me that I couldn’t live like that, that I had to accept people would always expect me to drink, that I’d never be any fun if I stayed sober.

After a particularly bad week, I took birthday cards and tore them to shreds. I hurled my engagement ring and a record they sent me at the floor and stamped on them, like a child – but that was I’d become. A lost child. I didn’t know what to do or how to cope anymore. I didn’t recognise my fiancée but I loved the person I remembered so much I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving… yet, as time went on, I felt I had no choice.

Sobriety taught them true love was wanting the best for me. Even if that meant they had to let me go. We danced in the golden field at the bottom of my garden to that song we first danced to in our living room. I chose a university 300 miles from home so I could move on.

The photo I took that day we danced in the field, used in my final project at college

I wanted to stay friends. They’d always said they could never do it. Yet, during that difficult period when I was alone, away from everything I knew, they weren’t my lover. They weren’t just my best friend. They were my selfless angel.


They stopped drinking. Their mental health was back on track. When I invited them to come see Falmouth, one of my favourite artists, Lights, had just released a new album. We listened together (despite them hating Lights, although I've now converted them). The last song was Don’t Go Home Without Me.

I think I knew deep down it was never over. But that was the moment I could deny it no more, when I knew that ‘if we made it this far, those differences I can put away.’ I knew ‘it’s amazing that you’re here. So alone I would be, in a world that you’re not near.’

So, like we once danced in my living room, we danced there in the cramped uni room we both hated. We cried into each other’s shoulders as we promised ‘this is the song I will sing to you when you’re old and tired, I will sing it to remind you that I’m old beside you and if you’re tired of hearing my voice, I’m gonna sing it to you anyway’ and ‘I’ll be hanging around every mighty mile.’


One year later, standing before their friends at AA, they received their first 'one year of sobriety' coin. It’s been in their wallet ever since. I made a cake to celebrate.

My partner's 1st sober birthday cake

It was, truly, like being reborn and having their first birthday. They saw the world through new eyes. Their outlooks and morals changed. They found themselves for the first time – and so did I. I fell in love all over again. We fell in love all over again.

They nagged me to kiss them on the Prince of Wales pier. We hauled my tripod to Falmouth Docks to take night shots. We walked to the ‘make out spot’ at Pendennis Point in the dead of night and kissed like teenagers. We padded along Gylly Beach as the moon's reflection glowed on the gentle waves and clumsily climbed over fences to walk the sea wall. I watched them surf and whooped when they caught a wave.

When I heard Green Day’s Still Breathing for the first time, it hit me I no longer expected to wake up to that phone call. Hearing ‘my head’s above the rain and roses,’ it sank in that they could live, that our future might be more than a dream. I cried. I bawled until I could no longer feel my head or hands. Every tear I’d never shed in frustration or despair coursed down my cheeks then.

‘I need to tell you something.’


I don’t remember what happened. I do remember, my stomach knotting as if it was today, the sledgehammer hit of those words.

‘I’ve been drinking.’


When it happens, there’s a hurricane of emotions. Despair. Nausea. Terror. Anxiety. Then there’s grief, like a knife twisting in the gut – because you’ve lost someone you thought was safe and you don’t know if you’ll ever get them back. You don’t know if they’ll even be alive tomorrow, because it’s never ‘one drink.’ They might not drink themselves to death, but they might stumble into the path of a truck, or be harmed passing out on a bench, or end up in jail for something they don’t remember.

From my 2013-2014 project Paranoia, partly inspired by this

There have been periods of sobriety since. Every time, whether it’s two days or a month, I feel the dread asphyxiate me as I smell it on their breath; or the despair, the grief, hit me with that sledgehammer when I hear those words. Sometimes periods of continuous drinking are less painful. I get used to it. I settle into the uneasiness of knowing they could die. There’s no time to seize hope without realising I’m even doing it.

This time, when the cancer returned, it came with a diagnosis of liver cirrhosis. After years of refusing chemo, one of their worst fears, they gave in. Their hair is thin. Their skin is grey. Doctors say one drink could kill them. Yet as I write this, they’re in hospital, having been thrown out of a car on a state route for throwing up and passing out on the tarmac.

I don’t think it helped that their AA meeting fell apart. Jean went off the rails, stole the coffee maker and table they donated and kept bringing booze to ‘prove alcoholics can drink.’ They gave up. Sometimes they make friends, real friends, or they finally reply to old friends who’ve worried since they lost touch… but they never stay in touch with anyone but me. They’re too depressed. The only people they come into contact with are those they meet professionally; who are either drunks themselves, or ‘friends’ thrilled to see them inebriated, because finally, they’re fun again! They don’t stand up for themselves anymore! I’m controlling, or a figment of their schizophrenia. The cancer never happened. Even if it did, what does it matter? Saying they don’t care is a sweeping statement, but it’s how I feel – that I’m the only person, other than my mum and the friends they lose touch with, who truly cares or can even see it.


I want to cry, but I have panic attacks instead. And I want to scream. I want to scream at the top of my lungs because not only are they powerless in the face of alcohol – so am I. There is nothing I can do. No amount of love, of determination, of desperation can help them. Only they can do that.

‘If they love you, they’ll stop’ isn't how it works. Addiction is a disease. It’s not a choice. Alcohol in particular is hardly something we’re taught to avoid. We’re actively encouraged to drink. No one can know before they do something that’s not only socially acceptable, but expected, if they’ll be in that 10% who become alcoholics.


I don’t think I’m a victim. My partner, of nine years now, has never guilt-tripped me into staying. It's my choice. I’m partly writing this because selfishly, in a world where no one hears me, I want to feel heard. Not sympathy, just to be heard. But a bigger part of me hopes maybe someone will read it and feel less alone. Maybe they’ll realise how serious alcoholism is. Maybe they’ll encourage someone to get help. Maybe they’ll think I’m overdramatic. But that’s how it is. That’s loving an alcoholic. It gets you like that.

If you have any questions, want to share your story or just need to vent, whatever – you're welcome to comment.


Helplines


If you know you need help then hey, it’s worth a try. If you’re unsure or not ready, making a note of these resources can’t hurt.


Disclaimers: I ensured I had my partner’s permission (sober) as well as anyone else mentioned before sharing their stories. The guy in my New York photomontages is a very kind classmate, not anyone mentioned in this post. Give him a round of applause for wearing that wig!

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© 2019 Maria Gloria Harvey

 Fine art and self portrait photographer.