Alcohol – that other bloke’s problem
By Susan Prior
In April 2017, we buried my ex.
We were together for about 22 years, and had been apart for some 17. One way or another, he had been in my life for two-thirds of it. In our marriage there was Colin, there was me, and there was alcohol.
We met at the freshers’ dance at Guy’s Hospital in London. I remember him well back then. He seemed self-assured, confident, and, even though we were both new students at the university, he had already got the hang of how things worked.
Colin was fit, strong, intelligent. He was charismatic, had an incisive wit, told the best jokes, and was at the centre of any social event.
Together, we moved countries, ran a business, went scuba diving every weekend. We embraced the Australian lifestyle – camping, fishing. Through the summer season we would take part in many open blue-water swims around the coastline of Victoria. We went through the heartache of IVF when the technology was in its infancy.
Eventually, we built our family. And we had some happy times.
The story that follows was published in The Weekend Australian, with the title ‘Alcohol is a sneaky underhand bastard’, back in 2013. When I wrote this we didn’t think he was going to last much longer. But in the four years since then he lingered on, sometimes in a homeless men’s hostel, sometimes on park benches, and finally in a seedy back-street hostel in a seaside suburb.
Until, eventually, I took a call from the police to say he was gone.
We went to the hostel to pick up his few belongings. The manager warned me not to go into his room. ‘It isn’t pretty,’ he said. I was happy to take his advice.
One of the things that became achingly sad and obvious as we sorted through the garbage-bag remnants of his life is that Colin tried, and tried, but sadly failed, to come to grips with his demons. He never shook them off. He died in pain. Physical and mental. Now he at last is at peace, set free from something he never really understood or maybe never wanted to understand.
If I cried, I cried for what his life could have been.
I am lucky. I never had those demons. From the bottom of my heart, because it has not been scraped enough, I need to thank my husband Brian for his love and understanding. Brian took over where Colin was unable to – and throughout our time together has been supportive and kind to me, to my daughters, and to Colin. No words do justice. He is a beyond compare.
One thing that strikes me is that none of us should be complacent. As humans, we are all flawed. Each of us has our own issues and pain. We need to realise that our own lives could just be a tissue’s breadth away from spiralling out of control.
That man on the park bench, the woman slumped against a pillar at the train station – they could be our husband, brother, father, son, our wife, sister, mother or daughter. If Colin’s life and suffering teaches us anything, it is that we must be kind to each other, love and support each other, and show empathy and understanding.
Your life is going well. And then, unexpectedly, along comes some gut-wrenching news that rocks you to the core.
I receive a call to say my ex is ill in hospital. Seriously ill. The news is not entirely unexpected. He has been a train wreck waiting to happen – I knew he would crash, it was just a matter of when. He is now slumped in a hospital bed, the fallout from his train wreck has left him broken, mumbling, incoherent and confused. In the beds around him there are others, mumbling, incoherent – their families confused. They lie in parallel lines, like so many cracked empty shells, potential spilt and wasted, hope evaporated.
It may not look, act or sound like one, but alcoholism is a disease, and these patients are very sick indeed. The medics are doing their best, trying to piece them back together.
As I observe him lying in urine-stained sheets, waves of pity, resentment, anger and frustration flood back. The whole gamut of emotions. I swallow hard and walk out of the ward so he cannot see my tears. I think he must feel bad enough without the ignominy of having his ex looking on pityingly – no matter what has transpired between us.
But then he probably doesn’t know I am here.
As partners of alcoholics will know, alcoholism is a malevolent beguiling lover who undermines her prey. She leaves little room in a relationship for the partner. In my relationship I was never going to be the victor. Booze won, hands down. There is no point in nagging or cajoling, because you are arguing with a disease.
Alcoholism is like an oh-so-subtle earworm. A niggling, gnawing tune insidiously repeating itself in your head. Remember those advertising jingles you begged others not to hum? Imagine, if you can, swinging your legs over the side of the bed in grey dawn light, the jingle playing in your head. Imagine retiring to the comfort of your bed at day’s end, praying for peace, but in the darkness it is there, resolutely demanding your attention. On a dazzling sunny day, playing with your children, like an evil spectre perched on your shoulder chanting in your ear, there is its unrelenting drone.
At first the song can be quieted with a drink or two, but then it takes a few more, and then just another – and another for the road.
Together for 22 years, my partner and I listened to and sang our different tunes, until the deafening insistence of his earworm drowned out all other melody. He listened because he had no choice. Some say that alcoholics are wired differently. For many, alcoholism is an inherited predisposition, a mental obsession, but it can also be triggered by factors such as stress and depression. The irony is that those suffering from depression can turn to alcohol for relief—to dig them out of their black hole. But alcohol is a depressant, which only digs the sufferer deeper into the quagmire. Alcohol is a sneaky, underhand bastard like that.
It is a progressive disease, a disease of the other – the other bloke. With cunning, it imperceptibly, seductively, inveigles its way with the silken-strong gossamer threads of a spider’s web, without the alcoholic even being aware that the trap is laid. One day, the alcoholic awakes to find there is no more right and wrong, no relationship is more important than the next drink, and there is no choice about whether to drink or not. A painless escape from the compulsion to drink is unlikely.
Alcohol is part of most Australians’ way of life and of our economy. Even the First Fleet arrived on these shores with more than 1500 litres of rum and more than 1350 litres of brandy stowed among its provisions. Imbibed in moderation, alcohol has been shown to have some health benefits; and it can give us greater confidence in social settings. Its production and consumption lubricate the wheels of our economy, as does the revenue raised by the taxes levied on its sale. But it also has hefty costs: health issues, including increased incidences of cancers and lower life expectancy; drink driving causing traffic accidents; increased violence and other crimes; divorce; job loss; loss of productivity; financial problems; policing and court costs – I could go on.
Each year more than 3000 people die from excessive alcohol use; more than 100,000 problem drinkers are admitted to our hospitals. Apart from tobacco, alcohol is the most preventable cause of hospitalisation and drug-related death.
Scientific reports and studies variously cite – depending on what consequences the researchers include – a financial cost to our society of between $15 billion and $36 billion each year. There is a great deal of argy-bargy conducted among these researchers about the exact costs. Some are tangible, they can be quantified; while other costs are intangible. How can you calculate how much a life-lived-well costs? What is the dollar value of death?
Despite all the cold detached calculations and ethical debates, I am not sure the dollar value is that helpful to anyone other than Canberra ‘suits’ working in the Treasury. How can you place a dollar cost on pain and suffering, mental distress, and loss of quality of life caused by someone else’s drinking? What about quantifying feelings such as safety and security?
I wonder what the conservative estimate of $15 billion in social costs mean to Victoria. She is a mature, intelligent, highly skilled professional. Her partner of 26 years is in the final stages of alcohol disease. He drinks four litres of wine each day, which she purchases. It is easier than trying to fight him about it, or for him to buy his own. He no longer works and doesn’t drive. I ask what induces her to stay with a man who verbally, and sometimes physically, abuses her? Is it pity? Love? Guilt? ‘I am pragmatic,’ she says. ‘As the sole breadwinner, I pay the mortgage and support us both.’ If she leaves, she will have to buy him out, which she can’t afford. As I talk to Victoria on the phone, I hear a deep voice mumbling in the background. Victoria tells him that she is on a call and will be with him in a minute. More mumbling, then suddenly, urgently, ‘I have to go …’
It is another week before I find out what happened. Apparently, he overheard the conversation, became aggressive and wouldn’t give her any privacy. It’s a common occurrence. ‘I would love to have a social life, but I can’t have people here. If I go out, I can’t take him with me. His behaviour is embarrassing.’ She describes her existence as being one of utter isolation; she honestly hopes that he will drink himself into oblivion as soon as possible. ‘And when that happens you will hear me singing “I’m free” [by The Who] in top voice. And I don’t care what people think.’ Victoria admits she is codependent—she is as reliant on him for a roof over her head, as he is on her for his booze. She can’t see any easy resolution.
Watching someone slowly kill themselves is painful. Victoria has been though the mill of emotions, from anger to pain, denial to worry. She, like many other codependent partners, has made excuses, covered up, been lied to and lied for her partner. Don’t judge her. Until you have been where she is, how would you know what you would do, or how you would react?
Part of the problem is the lack of understanding about what constitutes a standard drink. The National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines suggest consuming no more than two standard drinks a day to reduce the risk of long-term harm from alcohol-related diseases, and to have at least two alcohol-free days each week. A 100 ml glass of wine is about one standard drink. I suggest you go to the kitchen right now and measure out 100 ml. It is not much.
In April 2013, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) published their Annual Alcohol Poll, which looks at Australians’ attitudes to alcohol consumption. It makes for salutary reading: 23 per cent of Australians can’t stop drinking once they start; 31 per cent feel guilty or remorseful after drinking; 67 per cent think it’s OK to get drunk. The greater the quantity of alcohol consumed, the less likely people are to perceive that they have a problem. Again, from FARE, ‘Australians only admit to drinking half the alcohol that’s sold’.
As a society, we think of people with alcohol problems as those others, the down and outs who are intractable, dealt with by social welfare agencies, moved on by police, and who overnight in the lockup. Or the binge-drinking youths in the nightclub precincts. It’s not our problem, it is the problem of that other bloke. But the reality is quite different. Alcoholism directly and indirectly affects nearly every Australian in every walk of life, including the white-collar professional who drinks quietly and steadily at home in suburbia at the end of a long stressful day, like Jane.
Jane, an attractive 50-something flame-haired woman, with skin ivory white and as smooth porcelain, sits across the table from me thoughtfully stirring her black tea. Jane is an alcoholic, but nothing about her gives away her secret. ‘The only time I could relax was when I was asleep or drunk,’ she says.
From a family with an alcoholic father, Jane began experimenting with alcohol as a teenager. Gradually she became increasingly dependent. Her cheeks pink slightly as she describes the humiliation of sleeping with men, and often more than one at once – they would take it in turns – just for the free drinks they would give her. These days she controls her drinking. She tries to stick to fifteen standard drinks a week because, she says, of her vanity about keeping her looks, and because of her pride. Jane says she doesn’t have that inner switch that tells her when to stop, and sometimes a day at the office needs a bigger ‘reward’ so she can face the next day.
Later that evening, I sit in a dusty suburban church hall. It is a chilly autumn night, the wind rattles the windows and doors. With me are a group of ordinary people, all women, who live with the spectre of alcoholism. Before the meeting gets underway, we sit huddled in a circle, regarding each other, wondering about what brings each of us here. The meeting starts, and everyone swears to secrecy. It is an Al-Anon meeting, a support group for families and friends of alcoholics. Each woman has a story – of love, hate, codependency and entrapment. The pain in the room is palpable and raw. Some find themselves in similar circumstances to Victoria, and all are getting to grips with the consequences of living with an alcoholic. When I leave, I feel sad, and grateful that I escaped.
Australians have a problem with alcohol. It is time to recognise it and time to shift our culture to a greater understanding of the costs, both tangible and intangible.
Back in the hospital, I look at Colin. Relations since our divorce have been difficult, as they often are, even so this news is hard. For anyone with a smallest glimmer of compassion, to hear that a once-loved individual has descended into an abyss of self-abuse and neglect is heart rending. He was found alone, the doors locked to the prying world, a recluse to his neighbours, with little apart from a dismantled motorcycle engine and an empty bottle of meths in his house. No food, no money, few home comforts. He lay in a soiled bed, the victim of a stroke, powerless, alone.
I compose myself and gently stroke his hair. He opens his eyes, piss-yellow and bloodshot, a shadow of recognition passes over his face. Memories of the arguments fade, and instead I recall his first kiss in the dark cavernous spaces of a London train station on a freezing wintery night. The nights of passion snuggled up in our single bed, all we could afford. His cheeky and wicked humour. A good-looking man, fit, strong, intelligent. This man, I once loved.
But the man in front of me is confused and mumbling. His hands shake, his body is deformed and distended. His kidneys are failing. The doctors say he has alcohol dementia. His legs are useless. He tugs at his hospital gown, as if trying to prise it away from his body. He pulls, irritated, at his incontinence pad.
Yes, we have a problem with alcohol in Australia. And it is costing us dearly.
* All names have been changed for privacy reasons.