SHOULD YOU STAY OR GO WHEN YOUR SPOUSE IS STRUGGLING WITH SUD? ONE PERSON’S DECISION

By Beverly A. Buncher, MA, PCC, CBC, CTPC

I believe that the best chance an individual with a use disorder has to survive and thrive comes from the healthy involvement of their family in the recovery process.

Of course, not everyone agrees. In today’s throw-away culture, struggling loved ones are often cast aside as non-productive or not carrying their weight, or an embarrassment to the family. In fact, the words, “Get rid of them” are commonly spoken upon hearing a story a parent or spouse tells about the problems their loved one’s using is causing the family. And when the family buys into the stigmatizing approach of kicking out family members caught up in substance use disorder, the fabric of society begins to shudder, with reverberations far and wide.

My family was touched by SUD and specifically opioids many years ago, when I was a newlywed.

Yes, I married a wonderful man who was also a man with an active Substance Use Disorder. And, I knew it was active when we met.

Along the way to our engagement and subsequent marriage, friends and family told me to run.

“There is no future in it,” one said.

“You can do better,” said my mom.

“Let him down easy, “ my dad added. “After all, he is such a nice guy.”

But I wouldn’t hear anything of it. I was young and in love. I was in Al-Anon. I could surely handle this man’s problem.

Truthfully, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Six months and many tear-filled nights later, I watched my new husband deteriorate right before my eyes and I thought, “What on earth have I gotten myself into?”

I would go to Al-Anon meetings where the other young people in the meeting were all separated or divorced. At this point, they told me to get out before it’s too late.

I was starting to question my own resolve.

Every day I played the mind game of “Should I stay or should I go?”

A friend shared a calendar exercise with me that I adopted and still teach to my clients and students to this day.

It was life changing – especially back then, when we had paper calendars.

I wrote “How are things now” on the calendar after every three month period and committed to not leaving, not questioning my commitment daily anymore….and hoping to last at least a year…

That exercise showed me that time mattered.

Right before my eyes, my husband was getting worse and worse and the people in my support group told me there was nothing I could do to help but take care of myself and get the heck out.

“Could that be true?” I asked myself.

I couldn’t wait it out.

As an educator, I was curious and sure there was an answer in there somewhere. As a person who believed in the loving message of the original Al-anon members, I was sure they wouldn’t have left their husbands. But I also knew that if things didn’t change in my home, I would eventually have to leave.

Then I found it. A little book from the original Al-anons about married life with a person whose drinking was out of control.

Written in the 50’s, it was outdated in so many ways, but I found a treasure buried in that book that became the basis of a way of life that one day turned into a career path for me.

The book had a chapter that told a story of a woman whose husband would go out drinking nightly after work and often not return until 11:00-12:00. Meanwhile, she would cook and have dinner ready every night at 6 and sit down and wait for him to eat it.

Her evenings were filled with tears, resentment, boredom, and worry as every night was the same: a cooked meal gone cold, a husband not appearing until very late, a plate of food thrown out, and screaming and yelling at the drunk (her husband) who appeared at the door way beyond bedtime.

Then, one day she found Al-anon. She went to her first meeting and learned so much about how to take care of herself. Every evening she made dinner, put his plate in the fridge, went to a meeting, came home and went to sleep.

He would come home and shake her in her bed.

“Are you all right?” he would ask.

“Yes dear. Just sleeping,” she would respond before turning over and going back to sleep.

One morning he asked, “What is going on? Why have you changed?”

She responded. “Honey, I was so wrong. I was yelling and berating you for doing what you enjoy every evening instead of finding something meaningful for me. I have learned my lesson and won’t do that again.”

Within days, her husband started coming home for supper and soon they were going to meetings together, she to Al-anon and he to AA.

That story inspired me greatly. The next time my husband went into a panic because his drugs didn’t arrive in the mail, I watched his reaction without interfering. I watched him take the bottle of alcohol (not his drug of choice) that had been in the cupboard since our wedding and guzzle it down.

I said nothing as he went to the bedroom, threw up everywhere and passed out.

After making sure he was still alive, I simply went to sleep in the den.

The next morning, he was shocked.

“What happened here?” he asked.

I explained that I had seen him not get his drugs, drink down the bottle, throw up and go to sleep.

He asked why I didn’t clean it up.

I explained that I loved him and it was not my responsibility to clean up after him and besides, if I had, he would not believe that he had caused that mess!

That was a turning point in our home. One day soon after, I came home from work to a letter from my husband telling me he was sick and had decided to go to treatment. That day, my husband entered recovery and our beautiful life together began! (Please return next month when I will tell you how good it got, how everything fell apart and what happened then!)

Beverly Buncher is the author of the book BALM- The Loving Path to Family Recovery, the founder and creator of the online and in person BALM® Programs designed to help families become their loved one’s BEST chance at recovery. BALM Family Recovery Services include classes, groups, tools, coaching and an online community of learning and support that is accessible 24/7 to members. (Learn more at https://balmfamilyrecovery.com/find-recovery/) She is also the founder and Director of The BALM Training Institute, which trains Life Coaches specializing in Family Recovery, and is the first and only International Coach Federation- Accredited Coach Training Program (ICF-ACTP) to focus on recovery (Learn more at https://balmfamilyrecovery.com/become-a-coach/). You can also learn more about the BALM on Bev’s blog at https://balmfamilyrecovery.com/blog.