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I’M AN ALCOHOLIC’S WIFE
Alcoholic is babied as a noble, frustrated soul,
says this wife. But what about the real victim - the family.
has become respectable, so to speak. It is discussed in
magazines and papers, in sermons and at Rotarian meetings;
everywhere in fact. It seems that alcoholism is an illness,
and the victim of the disease needs sympathy and not blame
- the victim, according to this theory, always being the
one who indulges, never the family. It's just like a bad
cough or measles.
The weak spot in this comparison is that people are usually
glad to be rid of disease, and will go to ludicrous lengths
to effect a cure (as witness the radio commercials), while
the alcoholic clings with a love, "passing the love
of women", to his so-called disease.
Better compare it to insanity, but again there is a difference.
An insane person is generally confined where he can do no
harm, while the alcoholic is allowed at large to drive high
powered cars, trucks, buses, to carry firearms, to squander
money, to run up bills.
It's nice, though, to have the alcoholic so fashionable.
A wife can now sit at a bridge table and say to another
wife, "Oh, your husband is tubercular? Mine is an alcoholic,"
just like that - not a bit embarrassed or anything. In this
way she can hold the floor for quite a while, instead of
remaining silent when other wives discuss ailments of husbands.
In fact, the alcoholic is now almost a hero. It seems he
is a sensitive, noble soul, who can't stand the sorrows
and sufferings of mortal life, and must have liquor to cast
a rosy glow over it, or to numb him into not feeling anything.
good! What about the wife, sister, mother, or even brother,
who perhaps, too, is a sensitive creature, and to whom war
and famine and orphaned children are unbearable thoughts,
but who must think about them cold-sober, and also put up
with the eternal worries, the chronic heartache, the everlasting
pall which hangs over every alcoholic home which shelters
an alcoholic? What about them?
seems they are impatient, self-righteous clods, lacking
in understanding, thinking about such mundane subjects as
how to pay the rent or what to feed the children, thinking
about - would you believe it? - of what the neighbors are
saying when the dear alcoholic staggers up the front steps
in broad daylight.
alcoholic writes a whole book on the subject, blaming the
ordinary natural family affection, the indulgence and praise
of his mother, as the cause. Don't praise your children
too much, he solemnly warns, well, that sounds logical.
Most drinkers seem inordinately fond of praise; but the
next authority says profoundly, "People drink because
of an inferiority complex. Parents should praise their children
for every effort."
all around, you see people with inferiority complexes of
the most painful natures who never take to drink, who either
endure or overcome their feelings of inferiority, and in
many cases lug an alcoholic along with their complexes.
When will the learned people start looking for the cause
at its source - alcohol?
But you mustn't be bitter. These people are trying to help
you. All you have to do now is tell Johnny and Suzie that
papa is sick. "Why doesn't papa have treatment?",
little simple Suzie asks. Papa doesn't want treatment. I
mean, what fun would paps have when Joe Doakes drops in,
if he had treatment - what fun would papa have on his business
trips, at his class reunion, at the bar?
No, on second thought, better not tell Suzie he is sick.
Better not say anything to Suzie, To Johnny, maybe, Johnny
has been acting morose lately, embarrassed when the gang
sees papa not quite himself.
Johnny, "Papa is sick. He is an alcoholic. You mustn't
be ashamed of him any more than Jim is ashamed of his father's
heart trouble." If Johnny cries out, "But Jim's
father stays in bed with his heart trouble. He doesn't say
and do foolish and bad things because of his heart trouble.
He is not allowed to drive and knock down fence posts because
of his heart trouble!" - but he won't, being Johnny,
will squirm uncomfortably and change the subject. He'll
become quieter and meet the gang down the street a way,
and sometimes you will catch him, with sympathy in his eyes,
looking at you.
goodness Suzie is different! She is gay and is never bothered
by papa's actions. But the little demon, memory, whispers,
"Johnny was like that a few years ago too." Suzie
will get quiet and ashamed, and will look at you with pity,
and do little kindness’ far beyond her years - which
will hurt you more than any childish thoughtlessness ever
hurt. But you smile until your face aches, and you swear
that no one will ever see you looking like a drunkard's
You dress becomingly, and keep the children looking nice
and the home homelike. By rigid economy you manage fine
- that is, on a good week you can save just about as much
by all your economies and mendings as papa spends in a day.
BUT KEEP THAT SMILE ON! Drunkards wives are apt to let their
faces sag to scowl, to let their hair hang down their necks.
You will never come to that!.
you extol papa's virtues to the children and to outsiders.
You are old-fashioned. You still can't talk about papa being
a drunkard - excuse it, an alcoholic. You know that everyone
knows, and that they know you know it, but it saves your
face a little to pretend you don't. This wins you some admiration
but not much. Mostly it brings you scorn. "Why doesn't
she admit he drinks too much? Wouldn't it be better?"
Better by far, a hundred times better, but you can't. It
hangs over you every waking minute, eating into your vitals,
coloring, or discoloring your life; but you can no more
talk about it than you can undress on Main Street.
As the years go by it gets harder to keep your resolution
not to look like a drunkard's wife, not to let the children
know, not to invite sympathy. You don't give a damn how
you look some days, but habit is strong (even a good habit)
and you keep up appearances. You don't care what the children
think of papa, but secretly you hope they think the worst.
You long to win sympathy on the street car and in the stores
by your look of patient long-suffering - to let your hair
down and tell all to the "girls" - to hear their
cluck-cluck of sympathy, their words of praise - or just
to get it out of your system.
all, some days you don't care what becomes of papa. Better
have him come to some harm than to harm someone else, you
say grimly or philosophically, according to your mood. The
quick sympathy, the feeling of tenderness, when he becomes
sober and penitent, is gone. It seems kind of good. Enough
to feel sorry for yourself and the children without feeling
sorry for papa. You tear out of your heart the image of
the man he might have been - the man he was. Like having
a tooth pulled, it's hard, but a relief.
You read some more. "Only an alcoholic can help another
alcoholic. He alone understands his problem." Only
an alcoholics wife can understand another alcoholic's wife,
you paraphrase. And they are not always sympathetic, you
think sourly, they can always see how the other wife is
to blame, but not themselves. You wouldn't confide in them
anyway. Instead you hold aloof and don't associate with
them. What snobs we drunkard's wives are!
You lose control more easily. You sob and cry and pound
the table, and heap curses on the heads of the liquor interests,
and maledictions on anyone who hands out a drink of liquor;
but the next time papa gets out the drinks for the guests,
you adjust your wooden smile and help. Never must the alcoholic's
wife openly disapprove of liquor. That will always be seized
upon as a reason for his drinking, by relatives, by friends,
In fact, you learn early that alcohol is a Sacred Cow. To
help food saving you eat up all the crusts so obediently
that there is nothing left with which to stuff the Sunday
chicken. You feel guilty to have the chicken, even, and
well you might, the papers tell you; but only the most courageous
- or foolhardy - editor will suggest, once in a while, that
perhaps some of the grain that goes into alcohol might better
go to feed a starving world. Leave that Sacred Cow alone!
You hear that there is a comedy at a downtown theatre, and
you all go, including your husbands’ maiden aunt.
Monty Woolley portrays, in equally divided parts, a mixture
of Monty Woolley, Alexander Woollcott, George Bernard Shaw,
and the village bum - with an endearing character! He plays
a gifted actor who never holds a job, an alcoholic, well
pleased with his status. His daughter is a cripple because
he drunkenly dropped her when she was a baby. You can see
what a riot it is! She waits on him and worries over him
and has no social or romantic life. Devastatingly funny,
of course! Monty is selfish, rude, lazy - and full of charm.
Hired to be a store Santa Claus, he becomes inebriated,
insults the customers, and burps. The children force a laugh,
but presently you all leave, voting it the worst picture
of the year.
What is your amazement to find, in a respected magazine,
a review of this picture, citing its humor, and adding,
gratuitously, that everyone will delight in it but bluenosed
prohibitionists. You boil. You contemplate writing a scathing
letter to the editor and pointing out to her that the one
who disliked it the most was not the maiden aunt, not the
children, not the wife, but the alcoholic himself. But you
don't - you don't. No Carrie Nation you, to lift up the
tongue against the Sacred Cow.
Many a night you go to bed sobbing hysterically, to be brought
up short by the thought of the children. What will become
of them if you break down? You have been a father and mother
to them for years. You settle down to sleep. Surprisingly
enough, you sleep long and soundly, and awake amazed at
your own resiliency. This is another day. Be thankful you
can take care of the children.
Occasionally the day ends with you feeling encouraged and
hopeful, but perversely, the next morning the pall is thick
around you, and it seems almost impossible to go on. It's
a relief to get the children off to school, and no longer
have to pretend before their searching, sympathetic eyes;
and on this day life stretches before you without a ray
of hope, with no release this side of the grave. The one
thing you are thankful for on one of these days is that
there is no gas stove in the kitchen, no gas jets on the
the week ends, the horror of the week ends! No school to
send them off to, Suzy's friends in and out, Johnny spending
more time than is good for him at the movies and bowling
alleys to avoid seeing his father celebrate. The "new
leisure," the long weekend, beginning Friday afternoon
and lasting until Monday morning.
Oh, for the good old days when drunkards had to wait until
Saturday night to start the week- end celebration! But Sunday
you get up and start the dinner. You rouse the children
in time for Sunday School. You dress carefully, and put
on your new hat for church. How flattering the color is
with your silver hair. You can wear a lot of colors now
you never wore before. You must remember that when you shop
for clothes. All these things help in keeping up appearances.
once again, you vow eternally that you will never look like
a drunkard's wife - no, not even like an alcoholic's wife.
Maclean’s Magazine, December 15, 1946)