It was a nightmare watching my wife destroy herself.
WITH one in five adults in the UK now described as regularly abusing alcohol, attention is generally focused on their health risks and the burden on health and police services. Far less thought is given to the damage done to families of those with drink problems. Al-Anon is a support group aimed at those who live or are affected by anyone with a drink problem. KAREN HAMBRIDGE speaks to one Al-Anon member about how the group has changed his life.
JAMES' wife was a closet drinker. He would come home from work knowing full well she had hit the bottle before he arrived. Her behaviour and her appearance would prove to him that she had been drinking.
But, typically for an alcoholic, she would deny even touching a drop.
So James would explode, criticising, complaining, searching cupboards and drawers for the hidden stash of liquor, while his wife would continue the pretence of sobriety.
Only now does he know his reaction served merely to perpetuate his wife's problem. His anger and accusations spun her situation into a vicious cycle of guilt, resentfulness and further alcohol abuse..
Of course at the time he didn't realise how his actions affected her alcoholism. It has only been in the last two years, since he has attended Al-Anon meetings, that he has developed a greater understanding of alcoholism and the part he needs to play in his wife's continuing recovery and his own future wellbeing.
He knows he is not the reason why his wife drank but that his actions were a factor in her drinking habits.
"Al-Anon has made me recognise what the life of an alcoholic is like and make me look at myself and my own behaviour and what I must do to keep things in balance," said James.
"I have chosen to live with an alcoholic so I need to identify any problems and learn how to make things work."
For years James had resisted other's suggestions he go to Al-Anon.
It was a pride sort of thing, he says, he didn't feel he needed that kind of outlet, to talk to a bunch of strangers about himself and his wife.
When he attended his first meeting in Coventry though it was as if his eyes, previously blinkered, were suddenly wide open.
"I wished I'd gone years ago," James said. "I really do regret that I didn't attend sooner." James, 49, from Nuneaton, has a long experience with alcoholism.
His uncle died from alcohol abuse and when he met his wife, 18 years ago she had come out of a marriage break-up and was sinking into alcoholism.
She is now sober, and has been for the last 13 years, since starting AA, but the legacy and the spectre of alcohol abuse never goes away.
This is why James believes Al- Anon is so vital for anyone who is living with, a relative of, or simply affected by, someone who is an alcoholic.
"At Al-Anon you are with likeminded people who have been through similar experiences to you and you realise you are not isolated.
"After pushing it off for so long I finally went to my first session with an open mind and within 10 minutes I couldn't understand why I hadn't gone before.
"It was a wonderful experience, really, really helpful. You come to understand you have no control over what the alcoholic is doing but you do have a life to live yourself.
"It's a way of moving forward with your life." There are many reasons people start to abuse alcohol and alcoholism affects people in many different ways.
In James' case neither of the alcoholics he has been close to, his uncle and wife, have been violent or threatening, but of course that's not always the story.
Ironically in the case of his uncle the alcohol made him jollier, he became the joker of the pack, someone you wanted to be around because he was such good fun and always made you laugh.
The problem was he was drinking himself to death.
"He was an open drinker, he'd drink openly at home or go out down the pub," explained James.
"From Friday to Sunday he was never sober.
"My father was very ill at the time with cancer and it just destroyed him seeing what his brother was doing..
"In the end my uncle died suddenly aged 56. The post mortem report said he was just a timebomb, he could have died at any point his body was so ravaged.
"My father died nine months later in July 2003, he was 64. He said he couldn't get over the death of his brother." Seeing the sad demise of a loved one brought home to James how lucky he was that his wife had recognised her addiction and taken action.
It also brought home how hard it is for an alcoholic to kick the habit and how hard his wife was working at staying sober.
She had problems with alcohol before they met and during their early years there were constant rows about her drinking.
James tried to end the relationship but stayed when she said she'd get help..
"She drank white wine and she'd stash it around the house," said James. "It was a daily occurrence for me to be checking cupboards and looking in closets.
"When she went down the shop it would be to buy alcohol and she even got taxis to drop it off for her.
A taxi would pull up, she'd go out and speak to the taxi driver, then come back and say he had the wrong address, but he'd be handing her alcohol.
"It was a nightmare watching her destroy herself." The final straw came when she got pregnant.
"It was a very fraught time," recalled James. "But equally it was a wake-up call and it was one of the main reasons why she decided to go to AA.
"I can't thank AA enough for helping my wife and helping us stay together."
James' wife now helps with AA, manning a helpline, volunteering at drop-in centres and attending conferences.
She and James are a happy family with their 14-year-old son and a daughter, nine. They married after the birth of their daughter.
Both run their own businesses.
"She is a different person now. I admire her so much because it must be so hard to think every day you cannot have a drink.
"My wife's sobriety is more important than anything else because without that everything falls apart. Attending Al-Anon has taught me how I can help her remain sober and how we can improve things together.
"I don't believe alcoholism can be cured, it is a constant struggle.
But thanks to Al-Anon my relationship with my wife has never been better."
For many members, knowing they're not alone's a real help
AL-ANON started in the USA in the early 1950s, formed by a small group of close relatives of recovering alcoholics, who were the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (A A).
These first Al-Anon members realised they too needed help to recover from the effects of their loved ones' alcoholism.
Al-Anon is now a worldwide network and in the UK and Ireland more than 800 meetings are held weekly.
Like AA, Al-Anon adheres to a Twelve Step programme. In nonprofessional, mutuallysupportive meetings, members share their experience, strength and hope with one another, gaining insight into their problems and learning how best to improve the quality of their lives, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not..
Attendance is free and members guard their anonymity so meetings provide a safe and comfortable environment for sharing and expressing.
Those in a close relationship with someone with an alcohol problem are exposed to behaviour which is erratic, confusing, irrational, emotionally hurtful or even physically violent.
It can be living like Jekyll and Hyde.
For many members just knowing they are not alone in their struggle, is a great help..