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I am completely exhausted. My story is too long and too painful to explain fully, but I’ll try. My husband has been out of work a lot over the last few years. We moved to our current home three years ago and it needs a lot doing to it. I have been keeping us going financially for years now, but now at the age of sixty-one, I still need to work and it's getting harder. Every day, I seem to go through every emotion there is. My husband is a drinker – he has been a problem drinker throughout our life together and this has caused me so much pain.

We have been together nearly forty years now and I’m just so worn out. I don’t know which direction to go in. Financially, emotionally my life is a nightmare – we’re arguing all the time and he is now complaining of health issues. I feel so angry. He has caused so many problems with his drinking and now I have to put up with his health problems. I don't even know if he is going to be able to work again. The thought of this just sends my stress levels through the roof and my job is suffering under the pressure of it all.  I feel lonely, isolated, stuck and on it goes. Every night I find myself lying in bed wondering just what the hell to do next.

Ammanda says...

One of the hardest things any family or partner can face is life with someone who’s primary relationship is with something or someone else, in this case, alcohol. From what you tell me, this has been your situation for many years and I can well imagine the pain and misery that you and any other family members have endured. Very often, the non-drinking partner keeps the show on the road for everyone else and that often includes dealing with the health problems that are so often a feature of heavy drinking. Taking this role for forty years or more is going to wear anyone down and leave you with a life time’s worth of ‘if only things could have been different’ and sometimes ‘why have I spent my life doing this?’

Living with an ‘addict’ is likely to sap will from the strongest of us and when so many years have passed by, it's very hard indeed to imagine how life could ever be any different. Even when life has been as tough as it gets, very often the sense of duty, responsibility and even love for an addicted partner overrules the will to get out of what is essentially an abusive relationship. I’m not suggesting that your husband has deliberately set out to cause the problems that have arisen. But his failure to address them and take responsibility for what he does (no-one makes him drink, despite what he may have told you) has pushed you to the edge of a very deep abyss. Feeling stuck, lonely and isolated is, I suspect, only the tip of the iceberg.

I don’t get any sense from your letter about who is around you. Are there grown-up kids, siblings, maybe parents still? And what about friends? Keeping everything going often makes it very difficult to make time for friends or doing anything that isn’t connected with sorting all the problems. Just having someone to talk with occasionally can make the difference between coping and not coping. But really, I want to say something that’s going to sound very challenging. The bottom line is that from what you tell me, he’s made his choice about how he wants his life to be. However, you don’t have to go along with this and even at sixty-one, you can still make changes to your life - from where you are now, this may seem unimaginable but it is possible.

Firstly, you need to recognize that this situation will stay exactly as it is now, with all its misery unless you get help. Help comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it about getting practical advice from places like CAB to help with financial and housing problems. Other times it’s about seeking out others who know what it like to live with an addicted spouse. Al-Anon is a support organisation for the partners and families living with a person with a drinking problem. I don’t think the help and support of meeting with like-minded people can be underestimated, because immediately, you aren’t on your own. Then there’s the support from wider family. In my experience, this is often the trickiest to navigate. Sometimes family members don’t understand why someone stays with an addicted partner and similarly, others may be horrified if you had said you wanted to leave him. If you have children together, you’ll know all too well what the impact of alcohol issues can be on kids as they grow up. Often it leads to fractured family relationships that can be hard to sort out, especially if you’re the only person trying to do the sorting.

The next and most difficult thing to do is to realise that you could leave this relationship. I don’t say this lightly, nor am I telling you this is what you should do. Really, I simply want you to see that with the right help and support other choices may come into view. When we’re worn down and worn out it can be really difficult to believe that even small, positive changes can happen. Seeing someone who can help you to work through the right route to take may seem like an annoying extra thing to have to do, but it’s often where people find their confidence and begin to prioritise their own emotional and mental wellbeing. I’d suggest you see your GP and talk through whether some counselling at the surgery would be a good idea. Seeing a counsellor and joining a support group will start you off on the road to considering what’s best for you rather than your husband. From what you say, you have more than done your bit and earned the right to prioritise your own sanity. The first steps are always the most difficult but getting help from people who really understand what you’ve had to cope with will make all the difference.

Ammanda Major is a Relationship Counsellor, Sex Therapist and Head of Clinical Practice at Relate.

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