I didn’t think of my husband as an alcoholic. I knew he had a drinking problem, I just thought it was a lifestyle choice — one that meant he drank down the local hotel while I stayed home with our son. From his perspective he didn't have a problem, his drinking was a part of who he was - the only person who had a problem was me.
He didn’t fit the picture of the down and out person begging for coins to buy a bottle of metho, so during our marriage I didn't realise I was dealing with an alcoholic husband.
The term: ‘functioning alcoholic’ seemed incongruous. How could anyone drink litres of alcohol and function properly at work the next day. He said alcohol helped him 'switch off'. I tried to understand but I had no idea. To me he simply preferred the company of others in a bar to life at home with our son.
In 2015, a US report said that 26.9 per cent of people aged 18 or older engaged in binge drinking monthly (2015; https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-facts-and-statistics) and on a worldwide basis 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of all global deaths (7.6 percent for men and 4.0 percent for women), were attributable to alcohol consumption in 2012.
With these statistics in mind, I know I'm not alone with what I experienced. Being married to a person who misuses alcohol or drugs is like living with a time-bomb.
Most nights I slept in a twilight world waiting for the click of the lock on the front door. Mentally I logged the ‘evidence’ which I'd air during our next round-in-the-ring where I’d accuse him of being a drunk who didn’t care about anyone else's needs but his own.
Looking back, I see how pathetic I was. How futile the arguments were. How much I believed my will to 'fix' the situation would resolve everything. Each time he'd show contrition. Each time I hoped he meant it.
Nothing changed. At Al Anon meetings I hear women talk about how they were part of the problem and I shudder. I listen to stories of families being destroyed and wonder at the damage done to anyone within an alcoholic's sphere of influence.
And I wonder most of all why women stay with men who treat them so poorly. And yes, why I stayed so long in a dysfunctional marriage that threatened to explode at any moment.
Looking back, I ended up shutting down emotionally. My body was in such a state of distress that the fight-flight-freeze response was permanently stuck on 'freeze'. Shut down. Incapable of movement. Iced over.
Professionals often describe this as co-dependency - psychological or emotional reliance on a partner (typically one requiring support) - and maybe this is part of the bigger equation, but the wife of an alcoholic has to fight hard to keep her head above water. They're survivors living in a twilight zone of someone else's making. Their crime? Not setting strong enough boundaries before getting sucked into their partner's intoxicating web.
Whatever it is that keeps women stuck in abusive relationships grows from their 'frozen' state - the proverbial 'deer in headlights' who's incapable of moving to save itself.
Logic seems swallowed in the enormity of making change possible. The energy to 'fight' saps the soul and in the end it's easier to retreat into a shell and disappear into a robotic state.
I'm many years past this relationship - and perhaps it's only now that I can make sense of the tension that held me on a tightrope balancing my son's needs and my dependency for so long.
In hindsight (this was before I became a therapist), I used willpower to control anything that seemed problematic. And so I put my will to the grindstone and shouldered my way through the early years of dysfunction believing his love for our son and myself would sort things out.
I was naive. The modern way of looking at alcoholics is to separate the 'disease of alcoholism' from the person. Part of me still struggles to see his behaviour as a 'disease' - it was a choice to walk into the pub after work and stay there until the early hours of the morning. I saw it as his ego needing stroking - and beer talks big.
While the struggle to survive the marriage took its toll emotionally on both my son and myself, I came out as a very strong woman. I'd buried myself in study learning anything I could about relationships, anger management and tools of change so I could make sense of the frustration I found myself in.
I believe knowledge leads to awareness raising. And this in turn leads to wisdom if you keep pushing forward. For me, standing still was no longer an option.
In the worst of times, I convinced myself I wasn’t worth coming home to. I was boring. I told myself I couldn’t do better. He reinforced this unhealthy belief by telling me he was the only person who’d ever love me like he did.
He was right.
No other person since him has ever ‘loved’ me with the emotional abuse he dished out during our time together.
I don’t share this story for you to feel sorry for me.
Putting my head down and becoming the best mother I could was a good thing. My son needed me to be strong — I’d brought him into this world — I needed to protect him, and me.
So what’s the upside and why am I sharing this? Like most people who solve problems in their own lives they turn to helping others solve similar problems. My study took me to a place where I had greater understanding around what millions of women around the world experience.
Nowadays this is the work I do — helping women reclaim their lives.
Sometimes it’s because they’re with an alcoholic partner — often it’s because life has dealt them some tough blows and their confidence has plummeted.
So in the spirit of sharing, here are 7 tools I use with people needing to find a way through the chaos they feel they’re living in. If you're still reading this you may relate to my story - or not. Perhaps you live with a person whose anger is out of control, who experiences mental health issues - or perhaps your relationship is just not working and you don't know what to do.
I don't believe it matters what the 'problem' is - what's important is that you learn the skills to firstly cope with where you are and then the skills to re-build courage and confidence so as you can make clear-headed decisions as to whether staying in the relationship is worthwhile or not.
1. First, Start Breathing Again
Simple to do? No. When you live with tension every day your body responds by absorbing it into your shoulders, neck, face and body. You forget how to relax because you’re constantly alert to danger. The sort that could rise up seemingly with no apparent trigger.
Learning how to breathe means learning how to trust yourself. To trust there’s a moment where fresh clean air can enter your body. Not just for survival, but also for filling your lungs with the genesis that you’re alive and you're worth caring about. To feel that breath entering your body, moving in your chest and sitting still long enough to feel fully the blessing of breathing.
Because it’s in this moment that you can take a pause. A moment of holding tension at arm’s length while you give your body what it needs most. Relaxation is possible. It starts with a simple breath.
Begin by noticing the breath as it enters your nostrils. Don’t try to change it, simply notice the coolness (or warmth) of the air, the way it feels as it touches the back of your nasal cavity, the softness as it descends your throat.
Count your breaths — 10 in and 10 out, and during this time aim to keep your mind as focused as you can on this tiny stream of air and be grateful for how naturally its rhythm continues day and night — it’s a constant. Something simple you can rely on.
Pause as often as you can during the day to witness this simple miracle of your body. Ten steady breaths, naturally moving in a regular rhythm. Practice this and begin breathing more easily.
2. Become Body Aware
I walked around as a ‘head on a stick’ for too long. I relied on my mind to sense danger. As a result I was in a constant state of ‘fight, flight and freeze’. When this happens — for years on end — your body responds to this state by storing stress in the form of toxins. Muscles become ready to flex as soon as a moment of dis-ease is sensed. This hyper state of ‘alertness’ isn’t healthy. Eventually the body’s stress takes its toll on your health and wellbeing - both mentally and physically.
To become more aware of your body's state, sit in a comfortable chair or find a place to lay down. Start by noticing your breathing again — slowly in and slowly out. Steady. One breath at a time. The natural rhythm of breathing is a reminder that your body is working for you even through all the stress you’re managing.
Aim to keep your breath steady — don’t try to change it, simply be aware as it enters and leaves your body. After 10 breaths, consciously drop your shoulders, breathing out as you do so. Feel a weight being lifted from you. You literally have been carrying a weight, so by breathing in this way and dropping your shoulders the weight begins to shift.
This is only level 1 of learning how to breathe and bringing a greater awareness into your body. Don’t rush things. Take one step at a time — 10 breaths in and out, now drop your shoulders on the last out-breath, repeat with another 10 steady breaths and then drop your shoulders once more.
Do this a couple of times a day, consciously being aware of a lightness around breathing and relaxation as you do so.
3. Get Grounded
Living with an alcoholic, an emotionally abusive partner or someone whose behaviour is less than desirable, means arguments are often part of your lifestyle.
When you’re in the middle of an argument and your emotions are pinging around your body like an electric current let loose your heart rate is elevated as hormones flood your body. Thinking logically is gone. When emotions feel out of control this is the worst time to continue pleading with your partner for change. Neither of you are operating from a rational state.
The best you can do is learn how to manage your emotions in the moment so you’re not ‘triggered’ into a reaction you’ll later regret.
Practising ‘grounding’ before you need to use it is important. No pole vaulter or cyclist goes into a competition without preparing their body — it’s the same for managing emotions.
a) Begin by taking a seat and again noticing your breath. On the out-breath drop your shoulders and feel that sense of ease in doing this tiny action.
i) Now focus on your feet. Push them into the floor so you feel the balls of your feet and your heels pushing into the ground.
ii) Hold this pose for the count of 10 — and yes, continue breathing throughout.
iii) Now release.
iv) Then repeat 3 times.
v) Next, hold your hands together in a firm clasp in front of you and again count to 10, breathing throughout.
vi) Now release.
vii) Repeat 3 times.
viii) Look around the room and notice 5 things, mentally say what they are and describe their colour and shape.
ix) Now close your eyes and listen for 5 sounds, mentally say what the sounds are and describe the quality of the sound you’re hearing.
The idea behind this is to allow any strong emotions to pass through you, not to keep them stored in your body.
By focusing on tensing and releasing your feet and then your hands you’re allowing this process to happen. Then tuning into your senses helps you be more aware of your environment and offers you a gentle way to be more present.
If you practice this skill on a daily basis, you’ll have it to use when you’re in the middle of an argument or a stressful situation. Start this one today, as it is a powerful tool.
4. Choose To Walk Away
Calming yourself prepares you to speak from a place of self-preservation. Alcohol-infused arguments go nowhere. Half the time your alcoholic partner won’t even remember them. It’s you that’s gone through the emotional turmoil, yet again.
Choosing to say, “Let's talk later when I (or we) feel more calm” is a way of you looking after your needs.
It’s not about ‘blaming’ the other person for ‘making you mad’ — it’s about being aware that while your body is ‘flooded’ with hormones that scatter your thinking you won't resolve anything.
Going for a walk is often the best thing you can do for yourself at this point.
Why? Because it helps release any toxins building in your body. You can literally walk out the anger, frustration and hurt.
5. Start Keeping Your Own Score
I used to keep a mental tally of the beer, wine and whisky bottles needing recycling each week. I kept score of how many nights he wasn’t home until the early hours. I even counted how many hours he was home (and awake) — the average: 11 hours in a 7-day period.
What I found was that by focusing on his poor behaviour, I took on a ‘victim’ mindset. I didn’t think I was — I believed wholeheartedly that knowing the facts were important. They weren’t.
What was important was for me to focus on my own ‘facts’ and keep score of what I was doing for myself.
I thought I knew how to set goals —I did for business and for finances. I found I had no idea of how to set personal goals for my own wellness and well being.
You attract what you focus on. While I focused on my husband’s poor behaviour and drinking, I attracted misery.
When changing to focusing on my needs (not shopping to distract me from the pain, eating extra pudding to feel good for a short while or using alcohol to numb myself) I started to get healthier. I lost the extra kilos I’d been carrying. I walked more. I ate more healthy food. I stopped drinking. I went to the gym twice a week. I read more interesting novels (not self-help books). I visited friends more. I cooked more. I played with my son more.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning to focus this way because the voice of despair and misery was never far away. But what I found was taking one tiny step led to longer strides.
6. Stop Cranking Out The Negative Self-Talk
Being your own worst enemy is hard to imagine anyone wanting for themselves. Who would self-sabotage their own mindset? Nobody wants to think that how they’re thinking or what they’re saying to themselves is harmful. But it is. Each negative word of self-doubt and self-blame leads to a personal retreat that can end in a world of depression.
I masked my depression for a long time with a nasty form of humour that aimed to belittle the bully I was married to. I thought it was fun to put him down and mimic his slur and bloated ugliness. It turned into a good comic routine that usually ended with me in tears because nothing about it was funny.
Not. One. Thing.
I knew it was a form of defense against the alcoholic I couldn’t get to stop drinking.
But all it really did was help keep me stuck.
I was caught in a no-man’s land where I ‘couldn’t’ leave and ‘couldn’t’ stay. I’d look in the mirror and call myself nasty names. I’d apply make-up hoping to cover the me that was miserable. I fooled no one. Friends saw it. Family saw it. And few people I met wanted to be-friend me because I was a shell — an empty vessel trying to pretend misery didn't live here.
I didn’t talk about the problems I was experiencing with anyone else. I was too embarrassed. I didn’t want people to judge me so I kept the sham of our relationship alive. All the time wearing despair like a row of over-sized cheap pearls around my neck.
I became lonelier and more isolated. Seemingly proving to myself that I wasn’t worth knowing.
This story does have a happy ending. I got out of the marriage and threw myself into work. I studied Modern Psychology —and founded the School of Modern Psychology. The courses I run are designed to help people create change in their lives. It's in learning the skills and having the right knowledge that change is possible.
There was a time in my life when I wouldn't have dreamed of writing an article like this. I wanted to be seen in as positive a light as possible. I know that I have a bigger mission now. I know that relationship breakdowns and alcohol-infused arguments are choking the life out of many women and families.
It's not ok. We are each on a journey, and if I can help touch people's lives and bring about change through what I teach - then my life has been worth living and the hellish pain I went through in a dysfunctional marriage worth something.
Sometimes growth hurts. I'd rather have 'growth pains' than the frustrating pain of 'stagnation' and the suffering that brings.
I'm a better person for coming through the fire and surviving.
And if you’re reading this, perhaps you’re looking for a turning point — one where you gain the confidence and courage to finally stand up for yourself and be the person you know you can be.
You can create change for yourself and your family by focusing on you first — it all starts by putting the proverbial oxygen mask on yourself. Then, when you’re breathing you can be of help to others. And the only way I know to do this is learning the right skills and building a deep understanding around human psychology.
Barbara Grace is a professional therapist working with people to create change in their lives. The days of living with an alcoholic husband are behind her.
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