“I didn’t understand that I needed help as well”

Joakim grew up in a rural part of central Sweden. He met his future wife Sara early in life, when he was 14 and she was 15. There was a strong culture of drinking alcohol in their circle of friends. Despite their young age, they both drank a great deal. They continued in this way throughout their 20s until Joakim eventually felt it was unsustainable.
“I know that I celebrated the new millennium sober. My wife did not.”

Woman with bottle

Photo: Mostphotos

Joakim says that he realised for a long time that things were not right. He was forced to listen to a lot of excuses and lies and was powerless to do anything.
“My wife managed to keep working for a long time. She was even a manager for a while. She drank the most at weekends. But, of course, I sometimes found her off her head after work.”

They wanted to have children, but they had to wait for a long time. They had almost given up hope when she became pregnant, and their son was finally born in 2001. Joakim remembers thinking that she would now have to stop drinking. During the first six months after the birth, Sara was unwell and off work. She received treatment but continued to drink on the sly. It was hard for Joakim to bear this, as he was beginning to realise that his wife was an alcoholic.
“It was no longer possible to deny that she had a problem. I thought and hoped that my love for her would be enough to make her stop drinking.”

When their son was 3, Sara entered a treatment centre at the instigation of her employer, which had now understood the seriousness of the situation. Joakim says that he was on the verge of a breakdown at this time.
“I couldn’t take any more. I used to shout at my son for little things like spilling milk. I had an incredible need for control at this time. I made her blow into a breathalyser every day to check her drinking. Later, I forced her to take Antabus. But it didn’t stop her drinking. It just made her feel worse. It was like a self-playing piano that we both kept going. My spitefulness supported her abuse! Sara never became violent when she drank. She used to fall asleep. Basically, our relationship was very destructive.”

They reached a turning point when Joakim went away on a week’s respite for carers and began to realise how he actually felt. He petitioned for divorce and he and Sara separated. Shortly before the divorce was to be finalised, Sara showed signs of having recovered.
“After the treatment centre, she started to attend AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings and I found the equivalent for relatives, Al-Anon.”
The support they found in their support groups meant that they decided to get together again, and their divorce never went though.

What can one do as the relative of an addict?

“You should remember that you are unable to solve the abuse problem. The best you can do is provide support. But you can’t control, threaten or give love to influence an alcoholic. It doesn’t work. The most sensible thing you can do as a relative is to look after and change yourself. If you do that, you can break destructive patterns in your relationship as you are no longer playing the game. At first, I didn’t understand that I needed help too. As the relative of an addict, you need to meet other relatives.”

What is the strength of Al-Anon?

“The anonymity is nice. Admittedly, I have now lost a lot of my shame. Now even my work colleagues know that I am a member of Al-Anon. I also appreciate the sense of community as it is very easy to feel incredibly alone as a relative if you are unable or unwilling to talk to any outsiders. In an Al-Anon group, you can feel safe. We learn from each other. It can be difficult to see your own situation and that’s where the others help out. There are some who live with an alcoholic and choose to remain in their relationship but it is not destructive, as it was before, because they work on themselves and see life entirely differently. Reversing your situation involves being willing to work on yourself and relinquishing control and letting go.

However, this can be quite a threshold to cross before you enter the twelve-step programme. Getting help from this method is a lot to do with putting yourself in the hands of a higher power, something that is outside yourself. However, you don’t need to define this in the usual religious sense. For example, you can believe in nature. Many people also see the group as the higher power.”

What has Al-Anon meant to you?

“An incredible amount. When things were at their worst, I could do nothing more than my work. Essentially, 90% of my brain capacity was consumed by anxious thoughts. I remember feeling ill for several days at a time. The twelve steps are tools that can be applied to all situations and relationships. They have given me more energy, new thoughts and new interests. I would even go as far as to say that my career has advanced thanks to the steps. One effect has been a dramatic improvement in self-esteem. I feel that I am able to live my life totally differently. Previously, I saw life as something that happened to me and I was unable to influence what happened. Today, I make my own luck and I decide how I see life. This has made life incredibly easier for me.”

Footnote: Sara’s name has been changed in this article.
Text: Emma Danielsson