Overcoming depression and alcohol addiction in a relationship
Reprinted from "Couples" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (4), p. 14
In the beginning
Violeta: I met Frank nine years ago, when he was working and travelling in my home country, Peru. I was very drawn to this handsome, intelligent, knowledgeable, creative, compassionate, adventurous and funny man.
Frank: Violeta was and is a beautiful, kind-hearted woman. We dated for six months in Peru and were apart for six months before Violeta came to Canada and we got married. Her deep spirituality and gentleness continue to attract me.
It came to this...
Frank: It was 2008. I again found myself lying on the floor, feeling helpless to overcome my dependency on alcohol and my depression. My body felt tired. I had pains in my chest. I’d lost most of my social support, as I’d cut friends and family out of my life. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I was nearly always in a bad mood. My mind was filled with negative thoughts and a mess with anxiety and memory loss.
The depression had been there from an early age. At 15 I found alcohol, and friends who loved alcohol. An unhealthy cycle began, where the worse I felt, the less I did, and the less I did, the worse I felt.
When I met Violeta, I did my best to hide this side of myself. In Peru, the drinking was minimal; I wasn’t in a depressive state. When I was back in Canada, I had recurrent depressive episodes and my drinking increased. After Violeta arrived, I drank alone—went camping, went to bars or waited for Violeta to leave the house. There was a lot of lying, secrets and arguing on a day-to-day basis.
My relationship with Violeta, the one person who truly cared for and loved me, was severely affected. Understandably, she became resentful of my selfish behaviour—I wasn’t the husband and friend she needed and deserved in her life.
Violeta: When we first met, I didn’t have any idea about Frank’s addiction to alcohol. Then, maybe I just didn’t want to realize that he was struggling with it. He was depressed and always wanted time alone. By the second year of our marriage, arguments and shouting happened constantly. I felt resentful, disappointed and hopeless.
Whenever Frank was sober, we’d discuss our feelings, negative behaviours and thoughts. I instigated this, because I wanted a healthy relationship. Most of the time Frank agreed to discuss our problems. Some days, he remembered what had happened the night before so he apologized and promised me it would never happen again. But other days, he blacked out and didn’t remember anything, which made me feel helpless and angry. I just couldn’t believe how such an intelligent, trustful and understanding man could hurt himself in this way.
It was very difficult to see the man I loved feeling so depressed, losing hope and having health problems. I was very stressed out. I wanted to fix Frank’s addiction by myself, without asking for the help of family and friends. And I really wanted to tell them that Frank’s dependency on alcohol, isolation and anger was making me feel depressed and very sad too. But I felt ashamed to talk about it with them. Dependency on alcohol is a serious problem in Peru, but nobody in my family has this problem.
Many times I wanted to give up on my relationship and run away, go back to Peru, thinking life there would be less painful and stressful. But somehow I realized that I’d come to Canada not just to marry and help Frank, but also to help myself. I believe that, on a spiritual level, everything happens for a reason. The problem in our marriage allowed me to realize that I always wanted to be in control of everything and that I always tried hard to meet other people’s needs instead of my own. “Things need to change,” I thought.
Violeta: One day, four years ago, when we were calm and serene, Frank and I decided to discuss the consequences of alcoholism, not only in our marriage, but in our individual lives. We were both aware and understood that change for the better was needed.
I expressed that I missed the kind, responsible and fun guy I had first met and that I felt like I was losing my husband and a good friend who had always supported me and made me laugh whenever I felt homesick and sad. I told him I’d leave him if things didn’t change.
Frank expressed feeling very sorry and that he wanted to change. I loved Frank deeply and didn’t want to abandon him during this difficult time, so I encouraged him to seek help from a professional.
Frank: I knew that I’d probably die the way I was going, if I didn’t change my life. Violeta’s love and compassion for my well-being made me appreciate that this relationship was good and worth living for. I told her I loved her, I wanted to live and I wanted to live with her. I asked her to forgive me and she did.
The way back
Violeta: We knew we needed to shift our attitudes—to communicate and be aware of our issues. We also needed to get other people involved in our healing and get support from the community. Frank was terrified to seek help from a professional. He felt ashamed, but never resisted the idea, because he realized how dangerous his health and situation had become.
What resources do we have to cope with this problem? we wondered. Fortunately, we found many resources in our community. One session with a marriage counsellor helped us figure out ways to face our challenges on our own. We learned to communicate and share more of our feelings with each other, and to not judge or shame each other.
Frank: With Violeta’s help, a team effort in health care was started, and I committed to the process of recovery. I learned about addiction and mental health. I understood that it was necessary to completely change my life, including the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects.
Violeta improved my dietary habits, with the help of more vegetables and herbal medicine. She also helped me in my spiritual life, with prayer and meditation.
On the psychological and emotional side, I took advantage of the support offered in my community. I took courses on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness awareness that were offered through the group therapy program at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock. Both helped me change my old patterns of thinking. In 2014, I also became involved with the Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDABC), an organization that offers support groups across BC.
I learned about goal-setting from the Peace Arch Hospital group therapy program, MDABC, reading self-help books and exploring spirituality. With Violeta’s continued encouragement, I set small goals for myself and built on those slowly over the long-term. For example, I wrote a daily journal tracking my food and alcohol intake, exercise time, meditation time, music time, depressive thoughts and feelings, etc. This gave me a daily discipline and the ability to notice small changes over time, which helped me to not be discouraged by relapses. I got back into biking, hiking, camping and enjoying nature. I built up a social network again. I returned to playing music, which continues to be a passion of mine.
We made it!
Surrey Support Group for Couples and Families
Frank and Violeta facilitate a support group through the Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDABC). The group is for couples and families going through depression and anxiety-related issues.
For more information about the support group, contact Frank and Violeta at [email protected]
For more information about the Mood Disorders Association of BC, visit www.mdabc.net.
Violeta: I truly believe that a team effort and a willingness to start anew was vital for the recovery of our overall health, the decrease of Frank’s addiction and depression and the improvement of our marriage.
I felt very lonely trying to cover up this problem, but now my family knows and they are supportive. Having a spouse with any kind of addiction or mental health problem is nothing to be ashamed of. I finally understand that, through awareness and education, the stigma and fear associated with addiction and depression can be overcome.
I always knew that Frank had a big heart and that he was more than his mental health and addiction struggles. Together, we set up goals for our healing journey and encouraged each other to get the support from our families and the community. Now we believe in hope again.
Frank: I’ve had occasional relapses, but today I’m generally in a much healthier and happier state. With better overall health, my addiction to alcohol and my depressive symptoms are largely in control. My thoughts are clearer and my emotions are kinder. I’ve learned to love and take of myself and Violeta. My relationship with Violeta has improved immensely—she now has a husband and a partner in her life.
The various therapies and support have helped me to face my problems and issues, gain confidence and decrease my feelings of shame. I’ve learned to think differently about myself—my life and my problems are not the centre of the universe anymore. I needed to change my lifestyle from one of self-centredness to one of connection, especially with my wife. Sharing my life and not keeping toxic secrets from those who love and care for me has been key. This has taken time and lots of reprogramming, but now I know that changing myself is possible.
Recently, Violeta and I both became trained facilitators with the Mood Disorders Association of BC and now host an MDABC support group in Surrey, focusing on couples going through these struggles (see sidebar). We are now each following our calling to help others, and doing this as a team.