What do you do when your husband decides to drink himself to death?
Can you stop him?
Can anyone stop him?
If you can’t stop him, are you an enabler?
Could you have done something?
Could something have been done?
Such questions assailed Paula Ganzi Licata after her husband died of alcoholic hepatitis.
She described her late husband’s problem:
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.
She reacted with waves of self-doubt, guilt and shame:
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.
What about treatment?
Licata tried everything she knew. The physicians and the AA sponsors tried everything they knew how to do. The problem was, her late husband refused to take advice. He was a very bad patient:
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.
After her husband died Licata was enraged. Appropriately so, his slow-motion suicide was clearly an egotistical act, an assault on her moral being. (We owe the concept of egotistical suicide to French sociologist Emile Durkheim.)
Robert didn’t seem to care what happened to him, as long as he could hurt her. He did it by inflicting psychological torture, by showing that he was so powerful and so willful that he could do as he pleased. No one could stop him. His legacy to his wife would be a curse. She would feel shame for having failed to save him.
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.
If her husband was so hellbent on hurting his wife and those who cared for him, there was nothing she could do. One likes to imagine that the state should pass laws allowing us to commit such people involuntarily to rehab, but that seems farfetched.
Should Licata have abandoned her husband and left him to his bottles? In many cases this is the correct response.
And yet, if her departure appeared to have precipitated his descent into oblivion, she might have suffered more guilt, coupled with social opprobrium. After all, they had been married for nearly two decades when he began his death spiral.
If she had left him while he was apparently sick, she would also have risked social censure for abandoning a sick man.
Had she spent the rest of her life grieving for him and guilt-tripping herself, he would have succeeded.
In reality, Licata moved on. She did not allow his abuse to define her life. She found a new husband and concluded:
The scales tipped as surely as Robert’s last years of drunken selfishness, recklessness and verbal abuse obliterated our good years.