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Surviving An Alcoholic

MAY 27, 2015
Reprinted NY Times
Meeting someone for the first time since my husband’s death is difficult. There are two groups: those who know about Robert’s death but haven’t seen me, and those who have no idea. I choose my version of the news carefully to avoid questions. But what can you expect when a seemingly healthy man who just turned 50 dies suddenly?
“How are you doing?” my periodontist asks.
My emotions get the better of me and I can feel my face scrunch up ugly, tears seeping out of the corners of my eyes. But the tears are running up, toward my scalp, because I’m fully reclined in a dentist’s chair. I can’t manage words, so I shake my head up and down as if to communicate, “I’m O.K.,” the inability to say so making it obvious that I’m not.
If he’d asked how Robert died, I’d have faced a split-second decision: Do I acknowledge that Robert died of alcoholic hepatitis, or lie?
Alcoholism is a disease that keeps challenging loved ones after the alcoholic is gone. Surviving spouses don’t hesitate to talk of heart attacks, cancer deaths, car accidents. But other than suicide — and some might argue that alcoholism is a slow suicide — it’s a death laden with shame.
Response 1: My husband died of a kidney infection.
Response 2: My husband was a high-functioning alcoholic, which is a clinical- sounding way of saying no one knew he had Scotch before breakfast and urinated in the basement utility sink each night, too drunk to climb the stairs. His doctor estimated that Robert started drinking heavily only five or six years before his death. There was a sudden spiral, perhaps exacerbated by excessive amounts of Tylenol and unprescribed Xanax, in conjunction with a genetic predisposition. A perfect storm.
I tend to go with Response 1.
Shame is just one challenge for survivors of alcoholics. But it’s nothing compared with the guilt.
Could I have done more? Was I too harsh? Too easy? An enabler? Should I have kicked him out to scare him straight? Or driven him to an A.A. meeting every night? Should I have told more people? If I had left, would he have stopped drinking? Why did I stay? Hindsight is filled with “what if” scenarios, second- guessing every step of the past.
Bereavement counseling sessions are grouped by the particular loss (spouse, child, parent), some age-specific, in an effort to gain the support of others in similar situations. I was assigned to the Under 50 Widowed Group. But no member’s situation was similar to mine. Robert’s addiction caused chaos in our marriage, our happily-ever-after days got hijacked at the bar, revealing the ugly underbelly of our often admired marriage. The others in the group had been looking forward to their futures, whereas I worried about fresh troubles each day. While they felt the loss of a partner, I’d lost Robert long ago to a never-ending drink of Scotch. They saw their lives as bleak and empty; I’d found some peace and comfort.
Widowhood was overshadowed by memories of misery.
How did I become a widow? It began in our basement, where Robert holed up with his Dewar’s bottles. One night he fell asleep in his recliner watching TV, and eventually sleeping two floors apart became the norm. Initially, the basement was his home office, but it mutated into something dangerous and ugly — rock bottom. The Jekyll-and-Hyde personae were happily married college professor by day, passed-out drunk at night.
Transformed from wife to detective, I began kissing for the sake of sniffing, snooping for receipts to see how much liquor he bought and how often, discovering hidden trash bags full of empty bottles. The confrontations escalated, initiated by me. I was outraged by Robert’s denial and disregard; yet protective and heartbroken, wanting to save him from himself. In what I thought was the beginning of recovery, I accompanied a jaundiced Robert to his doctor where we were told his condition was reversible. He started an outpatient program, began seeing a psychologist specializing in addiction and attended only a few A.A. meetings, despite doctor’s orders that he go every day for the rest of his life.
I can’t say Robert “fell off the wagon,” as he never fully abstained. And I couldn’t force him into rehab: We lived in New York, where a person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem must voluntarily appear for treatment unless he presents an immediate threat to himself or others. The threat Robert presented wasn’t the kind they meant.
Six months later Robert was given a diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis and given a 90 percent chance of dying within two weeks. All my anger and frustration vanished,
replaced with heart-wrenching devastation.
I changed doctors to a specialist who offered better odds and a steroid program; arranged to have A.A. reps visit and tell their survival stories; coordinated bedside therapy sessions. Family, friends and professionals all tried to keep Robert focused. But he was a terrible patient. Robert’s phobias made him demanding and uncooperative, refusing dialysis, treatment rooms with low lighting or hospital rooms on a high floor. I slept beside him in a recliner. “Don’t be long,” he’d call out whenever I left the room.
Nineteen days later we were at Robert’s deathbed.
Operating on surviving spouse autopilot, I tended to the details of death, my family and friends helping me with each task. The days of the wake had a partylike atmosphere — loud, crowded, unorganized. The day of the funeral had a sense of finality, an agenda to adhere to, a task to complete: bury Robert. Like a bride making her grand entrance, the widow follows the coffin from church vestibule to altar, all eyes upon her. The funeral felt like our wedding video rewinding, our life unraveling.
Robert left me with the cleanup. The squalor in the basement wasn’t a surprise, but the $64,000 of credit-card debt was. When it came to money, Robert lived as if he were dying.
Our marriage counselor and Robert’s therapist each explained to me the unrelenting and unwarranted blame and guilt associated with alcoholism. Those who don’t understand think they have all the answers (If I had known, I could have helped). Those who do understand still feel it’s their fault.
In the wake of Robert’s death, I began to process the past. What I’d come to accept — living separate lives with an alcoholic — was a wretched existence. Some surviving spouses are angry at God or at the cancer; I was angry at my husband. Hell hath no fury like a widow born.
Two years after Robert passed, I met someone.
“This is the relationship I’ve been looking for all my life,” Billy said.
I felt the same. And there it was again — guilt. Not for finding love, but for declaring that this love was better. How could 23 years with Robert pale in comparison to these four years with Billy? But they do. The scales tipped as surely as Robert’s last years of drunken selfishness, recklessness and verbal abuse obliterated our good years.
Not only am I happy, I’m honest, openly discussing his drinking. I needed to acknowledge Robert’s death in order to understand my life.
Robert didn’t survive alcoholism, but I did.
Paula Ganzi Licata lives in Bellmore, N.Y. She blogs about widowhood at and is working on a memoir.

Constant Flame

And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out. Leviticus 6:5

There is a tradition that interprets this verse as a specific warning against the fire on the altar going out even under conditions where one might reason that it should. No never, even if it travels or other obstacles present themselves we are ready and do not allow ourselves forced into bad decisions. Much like our spiritual renewal, we must make the choices that keep it alive.

On a deeper level, this verse also speaks to the person about the “flame” – that is the passion – that burns on an internal “altar” in our heart. We must always be enthusiastic in the service of our Maker. Apathy, depression, sloth and other “cold” emotional states are antithetical to being of true service to our Higher Power.

It is easy to keep the fire in our heart burning as long as we are in our routine and the comfort of home, but we cannot become complacent and think that s just because we are away, and it is more difficult that we can let it slide. After all who would know? We would and so would our God. We do it for the peace of mind we give by constantly having that flame alive to keep us in touch with the Power of the Universe.

We carry it wherever we go; there is no situation too lofty and none too bleak that precludes our constant need for exuberance, joy and warmth.

Substance Abuse Rampage: Report & NIH Update

NIH Report

A sobering report from the National Institute of Health offers an even more in-depth look at the potentially tragic effects of alcohol consumption, including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and a higher risk for mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive drinking kills about 88,000 Americans per year—making it the third-leading cause of lifestyle-related cause of death in the U.S.
But it’s not just getting wasted that’s dangerous. Just this week the British Journal of Medicine released a study showing that even one small alcoholic beverage per day can raise your risk of heart disease—findings which call into question the concept that drinking reduces one’s risk of heart disease.

The results are the first of their kind to show how young adults’ drinking on a single occasion can affect their social status—and run in direct conflict to a plethora of studies on the negative impacts for the Americans who took part in 1.5 billion episodes of binge drinking from 1993 to 2001, according to a study from JAMA.

So while men and women who drink the heaviest may have benefitted short term—they’re likely to pay for it in the long run. In a recent American Journal of Pediatrics study, researchers found underage binge drinking is a direct contribution to the three leading causes of death—unintentional injury, homicide, and suicide. Those who binge-drank were more likely to report poor school performance, sexual assault, attempted suicide, and the use of illicit drugs


Like physical illnesses, mental and substance use disorders cost money and lives if they are not prevented, are left untreated, or are poorly managed. Their presence exacerbates the cost of treating co-morbid physical diseases (1) and results in some of the highest disability burdens in the world for people, families, businesses, and governments.( 2)

The impact on America’s children, adults, and communities is enormous:
The annual total estimated societal cost of substance abuse in the United States is $510.8 billion. (3)

By 2020, behavioral health disorders will surpass all physical diseases as a major cause of disability worldwide. (4)

In 2008, an estimated 9.8 million adults aged 18 and older in the United States had a serious mental illness. Two million youth aged 12 to 17 had a major depressive episode during the past year. (5)

In 2009, an estimated 23.5 million Americans aged 12 and older needed treatment for substance use. (6)

Half of all lifetime cases of mental and substance use disorders begin by age 14 and three-fourths by age 24. (7)


1 Stein, M. B., Cox, B. J., Afefi, T. O., et al. (2006). Does co-morbid depressive illness magnify the impact of chronic physical illness? A population based perspective. Psychological Medicine, 36, 587–596.

2 World Health Organization (WHO). (2004). Prevention of mental disorders: Effective interventions and policy options. Summary report. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO.

3 Miller, T., & Hendrie, D. (2009). Substance abuse prevention dollars and cents: A cost-benefit analysis (DHHS Pub. No. SMA 07-4298). Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

4 World Health Organization (WHO). (2004). Promoting mental health: Concepts, emerging evidence, practice. Summary report. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from

5 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National findings. (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, DHHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434). Rockville, MD: SAMHSA.

6 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Vol. I. Summary of national findings. (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-38A, DHHS Publication No. SMA 10-4856Findings). Rockville, MD: SAMHSA.

7 Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 593–602.

8 World Health Organization (WHO). (2004). Promoting mental health: Concepts, emerging evidence, practice. Summary report. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from

Gratitude and Trust

Gratitude and Trust

Oprah sits down with Oscar®- and Grammy®-winning songwriter Paul Williams and screenwriter Tracey Jackson, who discuss their new book on addiction and recovery, Gratitude and Trust. In the interview, each shares a unique experience of addiction: Paul as a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 24 years, and Tracey as someone who has been inspired by her friends who participate in traditional recovery programs. Paul and Tracey believe that everyone, even the nonaddict, struggles with life-limiting behaviors. Through these fear-based habits—including perfectionism, smartphone obsession, overeating and fear of intimacy—we subconsciously stand in the way of our personal wholeness. Paul and Tracey have created six affirmations, rooted in traditional principles of recovery, that they say can help people identify personal obstacles, break their dysfunctional patterns and embark on a path toward a better version of themselves while learning to evolve through trust and gratitude.




The first time I tried to stop drinking for more than a few days or weeks, it was by attending AA meetings and being stubbornly abstinent. I did it to get everyone off my back. My wife had threatened to divorce me and I thought this was the way to lessen the incessant feeling of being scrutinized every time I picked up a drink, which was often. It lasted about 3 years and I got nothing. My life did not get any better. It was a conniving attempt on my part to appear to be better. I would listen to old timers speaking of recovery and burglarize their conversations, repeating what I had heard as if they were my thoughts, pretending to have found some spirituality. It didn’t work.

I was out to dinner after about 30 months and without any premeditation said, “ It’s been 2 ½ years since I had a drink, I can probably have one with dinner.” The naïve responses were, “That’s great.” I was off and running for 6 months. The end came when I totaled my car in a blackout on the interstate, in the middle of the afternoon. Miraculously, I walked away without hurting myself or anyone else. My next step was to try recovery not abstinence. I found that they were compatible and my life could be better.

It is generally accepted that addiction is a disease if left untreated has a predictable end, premature death. Addiction was defined as a disease by Dr. William Silkworth in the 1930’s and continues to be recognized as a disease of the mind or mental illness by the AMA and SAMSHA. This is commonly referred to as the disease model, and is 100% part of all 12 Step programs and most treatment centers.

A new dynamic that has been introduced with more zeal lately is the elimination of addiction through medication. Not new in the sense it has never been tried but that it is the new cure. The opinion among those seeking a non-12 Step cure is that religion plays to big a role in 12 Step Programs and that scientists have developed medications that if taken as prescribed can cure addiction. One of the offshoots of this approach is that some are better off with a life of moderation rather than total abstinence.

The disease of addiction is a gradual deteriorative affliction that devastates entire families and will continue to do so unless the addict member takes action to live a life of sobriety: physically and mentally. It affects the person who is addicted, that person’s family and everyone who interacts with that person.