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April 1988

Wife, Mother, Churchgoer, Drunk

"My name is Ruth, and I'm an alcoholic."

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever introduce myself that way. I never considered that such a thing could happen to me. And--once it did--it took me a long time to face the fact, and even longer to accept it.

Today I believe alcoholism is a disease, based on the wealth of information to prove that premise. I did not always accept that. I saw uncontrolled drinking as a moral weakness. I still am not comfortable discussing my disease with nonalcoholics, because I've found many still consider an alcoholic person a "loser," a weakling. Diabetics may have a problem with sugar, but they are not scorned, laughed at, or thrown into jail. I believe alcoholics fall into the category that lepers or epileptics once did. Great strides have been made against the stigma of those two illnesses, but it took centuries.

I think women alcoholics face a different set of problems than do men. It is more "acceptable" for men to drink. Nice women simply are not supposed to lose control. There is more of a stigma attached to an alcoholic mother. Therefore, I think women have a more difficult time admitting they are alcoholic. It simply does not fit our cultural norms.

Whether I drink or not, I suffer from the "ism" of the alcoholic. I don't feel quite on a par with others, so I strive for perfection. I know how I "should" be, so I stuff all the feelings I consider unacceptable.

I am sure I was born with alcoholic tendencies. As far back as I can remember, I blocked out unpleasant reality with pleasant fantasy. If real life didn't suit, I could invent one that did. I was very proficient at doing so. I was considered "creative."

I was also considered even-tempered (I believe the correct term is "passive"). Because I hated unleashed temper in my father, and later in my husband, I went to great effort to keep my anger under control.

I stunted many of my emotions. If the pain was too great, I overlooked or sugar-coated or buried, or I retreated into fantasy. For years I never came to terms with traumatic experiences, including molestation by an uncle and a brother-in-law, and a rape when I was eighteen. I conveniently blocked out those events. I never fully grieved the death of my baby. And when physical abuse took place in my marriage, I invented remarkable fabrications to explain the bruises and black eyes.

Grown women cannot continue to overtly play make-believe. As a wife, mother, and career woman I could no longer run away to a dream world of cowgirls or queens or movie stars.

But I discovered another way to cope--a way accepted by society. A relaxing drink could do no harm, and it did help one unwind. And, after all, my husband always had a drink or two after work, and my female neighbors enjoyed backyard "happy hours."

I was a social drinker for a good many years. I disliked seeing people drink to excess, so I was always careful. I was also careful about drugs of any kind, for I knew from experience I had very low tolerance to any medication. It never occurred to me that alcohol is a drug in liquid form.

As abuse in my marriage moved from verbal to physical, my consumption of alcohol to "mellow" my feelings increased. Such tactics may have worked for a nonalcoholic. For me, it simply made more rough spots.

During the last couple of years of my marriage I would fortify myself before my husband came home because I dreaded it. Conversely, I would also drink when he was gone because I was lonely. I wasn't a fullblown alcoholic yet. I was a good housekeeper, a good mother, a good employee.

I do believe batterers are also sick, and women who stay with them are just as sick. So our marriage was unhealthy on every front. I may have drunk because of my unhappy marriage, but my husband did not "make" me an alcoholic. He was simply the catalyst. But at the time, I didn't realize that.

Finally, I did leave my husband and sought divorce. Divorce is a crazy time for any couple, and ours was pure hell. There was a great deal of jealousy and the battering continued. The hurt, the fear, the games played are beyond description. With my life in such a mess, who wouldn't drink?

I honestly believed that once my life calmed down, my consumption would lessen. After all, everybody drank! It harmed nobody. But I had the responsibility of a house, a job, children. I needed to relax!

But evidence was mounting. There was that DWI. And the blackouts. And the late-night phone calls. I would tell myself I would only have two drinks--and never keep that promise.

Blame and denial. The two deadly aspects of the disease. I blamed my ex, my loneliness, my finances, my lovers--you name it, I blamed it. And hand in hand came denial. I had no problem, he was the problem.

Even after taking the tests to determine if I indeed was one of "those," I denied. And I denied because of shame. To me, an alcoholic was still a bad person, one who had no scruples or backbone. One who couldn't cope. So, damn it, I'd prove I could cope.

On the outside, for a while, I did cope. I'd work until I was exhausted. I could be Marvelous Mom, great career woman, fabulous lover. I could sparkle--and wish I were dead.

Finally, through treatment and AA, I did face some of my ghosts. I acknowledged my fear, my anger, my frustration. I accepted the fact that I used alcohol to cope, and for me that was not a viable solution. I came to believe I was suffering from a disease as real and as deadly as cancer or diabetes. I could not be blamed for being an alcoholic; I had no more control over that than I would have over an allergy to strawberries. Nor could I control my drinking through my own willpower. The big word, and the most difficult, was "surrender." I had to realize what factors would spur me on to take a drink--and turn that problem over to a Higher Power.

It worked most of the time, but it took daily, conscious effort. I had no desire to drink "for fun" anymore, but when life got perplexing I often faced the desire to block the frustrations out. My ex-husband still knows exactly which buttons to push for a response. And in weak moments, I allowed those buttons free reign. And then, full of fear or rage, I would long for a drink. With a sneer, a threat, a putdown, sometimes even a proposition, he would once again have control of the woman who had dared to leave him.

After a long period of sobriety, I acted on the longing. It was December, a month full of sad memories. A child, my mother, and other close relatives had died in December. My finances were low. And my ex tore my ego to shreds.

So I drank, I drove, and I am now serving a prison sentence because of that "relapse."

I know I did not drink because my son died or because my ex called me names. I drank because I am an alcoholic, and it is unnatural for an alcoholic to not drink. Those "things" gave me the impetus to drink; but a logical person would weigh the consequences. The insanity of the disease dispels logic.

What can I do now? Get down to business and fully accept the fact of my disease. I can no more be a little bit alcoholic than I can be a little bit pregnant.

I do not believe punishment helps alcoholics. If I take a drink, the fear of consequences flies out the window. What I do think helps is a thorough understanding--before the drink--of how surrender to a Higher Power must be put to work.

A woman with the disease of alcoholism already bears a tremendous guilt. Wife, mother, churchgoer, drunk. It doesn't fit. But. another female who has been down the same road can share the feelings, and speak in the tongue of a fellow sufferer.

My sponsor told me, "By all reason, we should both be dead by now." She is correct. Even overlooking the reckless chances, the driving, the suicidal thoughts--drinking itself is a slow suicide.

I should be dead. God chose to keep me alive. He has a reason, although at this point I am not certain what it is. Perhaps it is just to show, no matter what the obstacles, there can be life after drink.

An old Indian saying is, "Do not judge your neighbor until you have walked a mile in his (her) moccasins." Wherever there is another woman who has suffered the hell of alcoholism, we have walked that same fearful, desolate path, and shared those well-worn moccasins.

I do not believe I am a criminal. But I was a prisoner to alcohol long before I was jailed for DWI. I should be home soon. And I only hope in some small way my story can help some other "nice" woman from walking all the way down the hill in those tattered moccasins.