I want to share our story. Not all the gory detail. Just the bare bones of our journey through alcoholism, and maybe, just maybe, out the other side. I hope it helps you somehow.
My husband had always liked a drink. And it was very much part of the culture in Ireland. I liked a drink too. However, it eventually became clear that, unlike many other people – including me – Noel had become unable to control his drinking. Like many men, he used alcohol to deal with stress, anxiety and depression – and had become addicted.
I realised that we now had a serious problem, and that Noel’s drinking was out of control. No matter how much I nagged, begged, pleaded, cried, criticised his behaviour or threatened consequences, he would not stop. Noel’s alcoholism was destroying both our lives. Both of us suffered severe depression and felt, separately, that life was no longer bearable. Noel was essentially committing suicide , and I planned ways to kill both of us, as we plummeted further and further into despair, and debt. Luckily, we had no children, so had only ourselves to consider.
One day, realising that Noel had no power over this terrible affliction, I confronted him with the undeniable fact that his drinking was out of control. He agreed, as we held each other close and cried – and our long and painful search for help began.
We were now living in England and, despite working full-time, I spent endless hours searching desperately on the Internet, in the phone book, in libraries, looking anywhere and everywhere for support. There was very little, and it was very fragmented. I was confused – at this stage in my life I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and found my husband’s behaviour inexplicable. I could control my drinking – why couldn’t he?
I had been brought up to think of alcoholism as a weakness. Obviously, I must be morally superior, or of a better class, or was a much stronger person. So how did this explain the fact that I KNEW my husband was a good and very intelligent man, who had the highest standards of principles and behaviour, and tremendous willpower? But everything I read, everything I heard, everyone to whom I spoke, told me he was choosing to continue drinking and that he could stop if he really wanted to. So why was he doing this to me? Didn’t he love me enough? Despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, I knew he did – demonstrably!! None of this made any sense!
Such is the stigma around alcoholism that you feel you must hide the dirty little secret of your addiction, or that of a loved one. I had long been too ashamed to admit to anyone that my husband was an ‘alcoholic’. No-one knew.That included our GP. It took a while, but eventually I gathered up all my courage and made an appointment. I remember that first appointment with anger and distress; sadly, the doctor I saw on that day let me down. He said that ‘they’ couldn’t do anything about alcoholism, and I went away in tears.
It was a full year before I gathered up the courage to go back to see another doctor. His response was totally different. He went into action immediately, and took charge of Noel’s treatment. He could, however, offer only what was available to him. Over the next 15-20 years, Noel did everything that was asked of him. He attended sessions at a local alcohol treatment centre, where he was offered various, seemingly random treatments, including acupuncture, Indian head massage, reflexology, acupuncture and Neuro Linguistic Programming.
Throughout, he was obliged to attend group sessions, which, as a quiet and introverted person, he intensely disliked. And for a highly intelligent man, the ‘treatment’ seemed incredibly patronising and did not appear to respect the views of the ‘alcoholic’. Why would it? Laughably, it seemed that the plan was to try to talk him out of alcoholism – as though he had ‘chosen’ this destructive and devastating way of life, and ‘chosen’ to destroy his marriage, his own health and our happiness.
At the time, I naively believed and hoped that this strange concoction of approaches might work. I was desperate. Our lives were in turmoil. I had lost the man I loved to a pernicious drug. I was married, and yet had no husband! His body and his brain were being destroyed simultaneously. His personality was eroded. It was like living with cancer and dementia – but there would have been support for these, and Noel would not have had to feel unworthy and ashamed if he had fallen prey to those illnesses. Not ‘self-inflicted’, you see……….not his fault.
Noel attended one session of Alcoholics Anonymous, but did not return as he felt it was not right for him. Instead, we both attended a local peer support group, run in those days by a Hospital Psychiatrist who specialised in Alcohol Use Disorders. Noel saw a raft of psychiatrists, social workers and counsellors, was given anti-depressants, and was eventually sent on a 10-day rehabilitation programme in a nearby city. He agreed to go, against his better judgement, in order to please me.
This well-intentioned, but ultimately useless, ‘treatment’ included confining him to a small room to detox, and only letting him out to attend yet more group sessions, where he was essentially humiliated and made to feel guilty for his past behaviour. That made me angry – my husband had nothing to feel guilty about. He is a good man, has always loved me and treated me well.
When I went to collect him after the treatment, he was unhappy, lonely and desperate for a drink. That appalling experience irrevocably changed my outlook.I knew by now that Noel had not failed – rather, the treatment had. We went home, a lot wiser, sadder but just glad to be back together.
It was around this time that I began to understand what might really be going on in Noel’s brain. Having been a skilled teacher who supported the Local Authority in turning around failing schools, I then had begun to work as a behaviour consultant, training and supporting staff and developing programmes to support troubled youngsters. I had learned how our brains develop learning by building neural pathways, which become strengthened and reinforced over time, as behaviours are repeated again and again. I knew, through my research, that alcoholism seemed to be an uncertain mixture of genetics and this learned behaviour. But everything I was hearing from so-called ‘professionals’ told me that abstinence was the only way. Noel must stop drinking. He was being unreasonable. He was choosing the wrong path! Sadly, it was not only professionals, but also fellow sufferers, who espoused this view, leading us further into isolation and despair.
I knew by now how utterly irrational and stupid this was. Noel desperately wanted to stop drinking. If he could have torn his brain out of his head to get rid of this dreadful addiction, he would have done it!
Realising that the support Noel was getting was not working, I continued to research online. Meanwhile, my beloved husband was becoming more and more ill. He was now epileptic. His liver was failing, and his once powerful and logical brain was unable to function properly due to toxins which had built up because his liver could no longer remove them. By this stage, even our wonderful GP did not know what else to do and I was left entirely alone with a dying man.
Over the years, I had seen innumerable ‘cures for alcoholism’ advertised on the internet, only to dig a little deeper and find them meaningless, or based on some mystical and supernatural ‘higher power’. So it was with some cynicism that I came upon a book entitled simply, The Cure for Alcoholism. Resigning myself to yet another wild goose chase, I delved a bit deeper. It seemed to make sense – surely not! This book, written by Dr Roy Eskapa, set out clearly the logical, scientific reasons for alcohol addiction. It described in detail the process by which a person’s brain learns the behaviour and eventually becomes ‘hijacked’ by it. The neural pathways become so deeply ingrained that the person is indeed ‘powerless’ over their drinking – their brain is dictating the behaviour, and the desire to drink is driven, insatiably and irresistibly, by the way their brain has been changed – ‘rewired’ if you like.
Finally – a logical explanation! And not just that – the book explained, also in great detail, how the brain, having been changed and restructured by alcoholism, could unlearn the behaviour – could, in effect, be reset to a previous point in time, a time BEFORE the addiction pathways had been built – a time when there WAS no addiction!
This is called The Sinclair Method, after the scientist who developed it. Naltrexone (or Nalmefene) must be taken in conjunction with alcohol, as it works to block the opiate receptors in the brain. It reduces the feedback that drinkers normally receive from alcohol. This gradually weakens the addiction pathways. The scientific method is called pharmacological extinction.
I also discovered from the book that there is something called the Alcohol Deprivation Effect, which means that, after a period of abstinence, the brain’s urge to drink alcohol returns stronger and more irresistible than ever. That explained the increase I had observed in Noel’s consumption of alcohol after time spent in rehab. That made perfect sense too!
Could there be hope for us after all?