Alcohol’s wake – Jean’s story

I have yet to find a set of marriage vows that make reference to a Restraining Order. When we marry, we typically promise to love our spouse in sickness and in health, and by illness we might mean all manner of diseases. But surely no one imagines that sickness will descend into destruction and abuse requiring legal intervention.

Jean and Henry were a normal couple for whom everything seemed to progress as you might expect. They were married in the summer of 1972 and had four children in reasonably quick succession. Jean has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Henry was the Vice-Principal at a school in a large city. He was also a well-respected and well-known member of their community. Initially, Jean worked in her field but as her family grew she stepped away from work to care for the children.

Life was not without its challenges in those early days. Henry’s position brought with it tremendous stress which was exacerbated by long commutes in rush hour traffic. While he was quite active he was also a smoker. The pressure at work, combined with his smoking habit and a Type A personality eventually took their toll.

A series of shocks

In 1978, on his 38th birthday, Henry had a heart attack. He survived but the two week stay in hospital as well as his doctor’s orders to stop all activities marked the start of a downward spiral.

For many of us, it takes a medical emergency to make us realize how unprepared we are. The same was true for Henry however he was in for another shock: He wanted life insurance to protect his family but due to his heart attack he was no longer eligible. He decided to invest in real estate to compensate for the lack of insurance. What he could not have foreseen was that interest rates would soon skyrocket into double digits. When that happened the family had to declare bankruptcy and in the process they lost everything. That was in 1988.

Jean tells a heart-breaking story of the day that the bailiff came to take back the van. Their oldest child was home at the time and saw it all. The emotions that both Jean and the child must have felt at the time are unimaginable. (As a side note, this same child had a heart attack when she was 38.)

Between Henry’s heart attack and the real estate fiasco, there was another tragic event. Exactly one year after Henry’s heart attack, things went from bad to much worse when Jean and Henry lost a baby boy in child birth. The baby was full term but tragically a complication had developed and the baby died. Both Jean and Henry were devastated.

Jean describes the aftermath of losing the baby as “brutal”. Henry, who was already suffering from depression, sank further and further into a psychological black hole. As back to back tragedies struck, he turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Alcohol takes over

From 1980 to 1988, Henry drank more and more until he was considered an alcoholic and had cirrhosis of the liver. After they declared bankruptcy in 1988, Jean went back to work and Henry had a breakdown. The final blow to his ego came when he was removed from his job and placed on disability. His behaviour quickly descended into verbal abuse. It was an awful time for Jean and the children who were all, in their own way, traumatized by Henry’s behaviour.

The family situation spiralled further downward. As Jean worked harder and harder to keep her family together, Henry, who felt increasingly guilty and angry, drank more.

The breaking point came in 1990 when Henry threw all of Jean’s possessions on the front lawn; three of the children were in the house at the time. Jean knew that she had to make a choice between Henry and the kids. After years of trying to deal with the abuse on her own, she finally succumbed and called the police. It was humiliating for everyone. First, Henry was a well-known and well-respected man who had gone downhill. Second, you can imagine the trauma of having all of your things strewn about the lawn with police cars parked in front of your house dragging your husband away in front of the kids and the neighbours. Dreadful – there’s just no other way to describe it.

This is what led to the Restraining Order, which Henry tested a couple of times. After being evicted from the house, Henry slept under bridges for a time and yet continued to sing in the church choir. As Jean describes it, he was in complete denial, a textbook alcoholic.

The aftermath

At home meanwhile, Jean was trying to pick up the pieces of a broken life. She and the children had all been deeply affected by Henry’s alcoholism. The kids had to develop coping mechanisms to deal with their father’s illness not to mention the societal stigma of having a father at home. Jean spent a lot of time during the 1990s trying to help her children to understand that their father was ill and that they shouldn’t hate him.

It all ended for Henry in 1996 when he succumbed to his disease. For Jean, there was finally a measure of relief. Quite understandably, she had wished him dead on many occasions. On that point, there was some closure but unfortunately the effects of years of abuse and trauma persisted for the family.

Two of the children are in therapy to this day to deal the impact of their father’s alcoholism. As mentioned earlier, one child had a heart attack when she was 38. The family have all paid a heavy price for their father’s illness.

Today Jean feels that she enabled Henry. She used to find bottles and would make excuses to protect the kids. Since she had no experience with alcoholism, she didn’t know how far it would go. When he was on the bandwagon she believed that things would be OK. When he fell off she kept telling herself that he would and could get better. Through it all, there was a desperate grasping for hope.

I asked Jean if she ever thought of leaving Henry. She replied that the thought of divorce was too scary with four kids. It was such a busy time that she didn’t think she could manage on her own. In addition, she wanted to try to preserve the family and his reputation too. Divorce was unpalatable on so many different fronts.

Given what she has lived through, Jean has learned a great deal and she has the following advice for women:

1. Don’t wear rose-coloured glasses. It’s fine to be optimistic but there’s a point at which you have to be honest with yourself about your situation. It does you no good to lie to yourself.

2. Your response to situations will determine your outcome. You want to be able to look back without regret. Take a good long look at the situation you face and have the courage to make the best choice.

3. Whatever your situation, you have the strength to cope. Just have faith in yourself and get support in various forms.

4. There are some things about your spouse that you can never change. Don’t delude yourself, otherwise you might enable destructive behaviour.

As I ended my interview with Jean I was struck by how determined and practical she is despite everything that she’s been through. She is a great example of the boundless supply of strength and resilience in all women.

If you know of a widow or divorcee who has experienced some challenges, please connect us by email. I’d love to interview her. Thanks for reading. Another story to follow next week.

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