Disability and Addiction: The Seemingly Easiest Fix
Bob and Saralee
By Saralee Perel
Bob and I would never have believed that a spinal cord injury could destroy our marriage. Other marriages, maybe. But never ours.
I would never have believed that an SCI would lead me to another horrifying dark place. Others maybe, but not me.
A few days after my spinal surgery, which left my legs entirely useless, someone brought over a gift of a bottle of Jack Daniel's Whiskey. I was an occasional wine drinker. Booze wasn't a problem for me . . . back then. And I hadn't ever touched much of the hard stuff.
When I took my first sip of the Jack Daniel's, I loved it. Oh how I loved it. It numbed the emotional pain of a life turned upside down in an instant.
Was this just a phase?
There was a major difference in my ability to handle alcohol. Two sips would affect me like twenty. I would slur and lose my balance right away, even if I was holding on to two people, with both of my arms. But that didn't stop me. The only change I made in regard to drinking was to switch to any brand of whiskey that was cheaper than Jack Daniel's. Bob figured this was just a phase and not a big time addiction. He was wrong and I knew it. I just didn't care.
Within a short time, I narrowed my world. I didn't want to connect with others; didn't want to go out; didn't want to help myself physically because I was certain I couldn't. I'm a writer by profession, but I didn't want to write. And I certainly did not want to stop drinking.
Within a very short time, the allure of the effects from whiskey formed a solid grip. Bob began questioning me about my drinking. I was evasive.
"You're going through a lot of alcohol every day," he said.
"I know. It's just a phase. It'll pass."
At times, he'd get angry. I would have too if I were him. He said, "What are we going to do about your drinking?"
I'd get angry back. Who was this awful person I had become? "We aren't going to do anything about it. It is my problem!"
"It's our problem. And it's going to get worse if you don't take control of it."
"So now you're an expert on alcohol addiction?"
Clearly, we were not going to get anywhere talking about it this way. And that was because I did not want to change. Booze didn't make me feel good. It made me feel nothing. And that beat reality.
How alcohol affected my life
By around five PM, my feet always turned blue. The small remaining part of my spinal cord protested, "I'm exhausted from trying to do the work of an entire spinal cord all day. I quit!" And my circulation just shut down.
Of course drinking whiskey, which I was now doing every day, made it all the worse. Any strength I might have had was zapped by the booze and no matter how I managed to prop myself up, either with two canes or leaning my full body against a wall, my legs would simply give out. I couldn't even talk without it being an effort. I was usually in bed by six.
My decision to keep drinking became our battleground. Who could blame Bob for hating what I was doing? It was awful for him to see me slump to the floor every night because I was drunk. And getting me to bed when I was in that condition was harder for him. How could I put him through this after all he was doing to care for me?
Soon, I didn't just slump to the floor after dinner. I passed out on the floor after dinner, if I ever bothered eating dinner in the first place. The following mornings, I'd never remember if I had eaten supper the night before.
A "wise" treatment plan
Bob went to a therapist. On the night after his first appointment, when I passed out, he left me on the floor. That was the treatment plan many therapists thought was wise. It was meant to make the drinker take responsibility for their drinking. And Bob would no longer be an enabler. By helping me to bed, he was supposedly inadvertently solving the problem I had made for myself by drinking so much.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that this common treatment plan is either a good idea or a bad one.
Bob's plan didn't work. Well, in a sense, it may have worked for Bob because at least he wasn't participating in my problem. Resolving my addiction had to be something I wanted to do for myself.
And I did not want to resolve it.
Prior to surgery, I would have had plenty of warning if I was on my way to overdoing alcohol. But now it was sudden. I seemed to be doing fine, yet right in the middle of a sentence, I'd pass out. In spite of this, I desperately wanted to drink. Focusing on re-learning how to live with a spinal cord disorder was the very last thing I wanted to do. Getting zoned out on the alcohol's effects became my greatest desire. As soon as I got up in the mornings, the first thing on my mind was a drink.
Our traditional Thanksgiving meal
In all 25 years of our marriage, Bob always had a heavenly time preparing the Thanksgiving meal. We had a tradition of keeping it just the two of us.
We stayed in our pajamas all day. Bob cooked for hours. He made dinner rolls from scratch, stuffing from scratch, squash, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy – the whole nine yards. We adored the all-day preparation more than the meal. I'd say it was our favorite day of the year.
But on one Thanksgiving, I started drinking at noon.
"Please take it easy," Bob said.
"I promise. I'm just having a dollop."
Within five minutes, I felt the buzz. And as always, it felt great. Anytime Bob wasn't looking, I'd add another dollop. I pretended to be straight. My words were beginning to slur and I tried to hide it. But Bob knew better.
I kept nibbling on food so I could keep drinking without falling apart. But by the time we sat down to our candlelit dinner, I was drunk.
"I know I seem out of it, but it's just from the long day. I'm really fine."
Bob didn't respond as he served the complete and beautiful meal.
The way I spoiled our favorite holiday
After taking a few bites of turkey, I managed to get to the bathroom in time to vomit. I was so ashamed I did not want to go back out to the dinner table. Feeling nauseated and dizzy, I held onto walls to get back, where I fell into my seat.
Bob was livid.
"You've spoiled this day," he said.
"It got away from me, that's all. I didn't realize," I was slurring too much to get the English out correctly, "that it would hit me."
He got up and took our plates away wordlessly. He began wrapping the dishes in Saran Wrap to put everything in the fridge.
I tried to stop him. "Why don't you eat?"
"I'm not eating a Thanksgiving meal while you're drunk."
"I'm so sorry."
"No you're not."
"I am. I really am."
"If you ever meant that then you'd do something about it."
"I always mean it!"
And then I got mad. Behaving atrociously, I grabbed the large covered plate of turkey from his hands and smashed it on the floor.
"That was a brilliant idea," he said. "Our dog could choke on the bones. You put more than just yourself in danger with your behavior."
I fell to the floor
"I can't get up, Bob."
He didn't help me. Why would he?
"I wish I had died on the operating table," I said and I meant it.
I think he kept himself from voicing that he felt the same way. I don't know.
I crawled to the bedroom and got myself on the bed. That night Bob slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. He began sleeping there every night.
My remedy to my problem
Alcohol was a major escape for me, but it wasn't enough to numb the pain completely. I decided to end the pain for good.
Bob's life had become shattered and most of it was not because of what happened to me but how very poorly I handled it.
Our horrendous situation could not continue. I finally realized a way that I could make it stop.
I decided there was no reason for me to live. Divorce wasn't an option. Where would I go? I was incontinent from both exits. I needed round-the-clock care. I had no intention of spending the rest of my life in a rehab facility.
My life consisted of making Bob miserable. I knew he had a chance for a good life without me. I believed he had no chance for a good life with me. Staying in our marriage was brutal. We fought. He cleaned. He cooked. He worked. I drank. He took care of my physical needs. He rarely had fun. He had nothing joyous in his life other than our pets. If I wasn't here, he could be happy again.
Thinking about releasing Bob from the bonds of me brought me a sense of calmness. That is because I believed I would ultimately be doing the love of my life a favor.
What I thought was for the best
One day, I took the keys to our truck. Bob tried to get them back from me but I kept a death grip on them.
"Saralee, you cannot drive!"
"It's okay. I'll be able to drive."
"You can't drive for the first time without me with you!"
"I have to."
"I need to do something by myself. I can't stand not being able to do anything by myself."
He tried to get the keys again, but he couldn't.
"You can't talk me out of this," I said. "I'm going to do something for both of us."
He began to cry. "I'm scared. Where are you going?"
"Somewhere close by."
"I'm really scared."
I turned and hobbled with my canes out the front door.
I heard Bob call out in desperation, "You're not coming back are you?" I didn't answer. I was in another world.
Important disclaimer: I do not believe anyone has to bottom out like this in order to make a change.
Bob knew in his heart and soul that I had no intention of returning. He had heard me mention suicide before. He knew I had decided it was time.
He got to the truck before I did. He squeezed my hand painfully so I'd drop the keys. He was crying. Not trying to hurt me, he forced me back into the house.
We both sat on the floor, saying nothing for a good 10 minutes.
And then suddenly he sobbed – deep sobs from his gut.
"What have I done to you?" His face was filled with pain, his eyes running, his nose running. And he kept repeating, "What have I done to you?"
We finally made a connection
As I watched him, I knew that this horrific experience we were having was life altering. I reached for Bob's arms. We cried together. Finally, after all these years, we cried together.
"You have not done anything to me. It is my responsibility. You must not ever again believe anything like, ‘What have I done to you?'" It would take a long time to convince Bob of this, but I planned on convincing him, if it would take the rest of our lives.
"Saralee," he said, "You are a part of me. You are my heart."
We continued to hug and sway together. He said, "Remember what Helen Keller wrote? She said,‘What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose. For all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.'"
"My sweetheart," I echoed his words through my tears, "You are a part of me. You are my heart."
My husband and I had turned a corner. And we both knew there was no turning back.
I realized that hitting bottom had two sides to it. I gave myself a choice: I was either going to get out of this life, or I was going to live it. To live it in every way – by trying to help myself walk, by consulting a therapist for my depression, by resuming my writing, and by no longer drinking.
But you know what my biggest disability has been? My personal lockdown. Keeping everyone away. Keeping me away from myself by drinking. Keeping the world, not simply at arm's length, but nowhere to be found, because in an isolation room, there is nothing.
Now I have resumed writing, but for different reasons. It is so emotionally satisfying to be able to touch the lives of the members of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation through my stories.
This leads me to the most vital ingredient in life: connection.
And connection is nowhere to be found in an isolation room.
Connection is nowhere to be found in a bottle of whiskey.
Connection is a choice.
I owe my life to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation's staff members as well as to recipients of spinal cord disorders, their caregivers and all of the wondrous information specialists who have helped me help myself. They are all a part of my family.
I owe my life to the love of my husband.
Therefore, from all that I've cited above, the obvious entity to which I owe my life? Connection.
Thank you everyone, for helping me by allowing me into your hearts.