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'My husband led a double life'
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

For Melanie, the nightmare began the day she cleaned out the garage.

 

There had always been an understanding between Melanie and her husband Charles (not their real names) that the kitchen was Melanie’s domain and the garage was Charles’. But on this particular day, Melanie was frustrated with the mess. So she began opening boxes and going through them. That’s when she found the stash of empty vodka bottles – over a dozen of them.

 

Melanie was confused. Charles was a beer drinker -- she’d never seen him consume hard liquor. She dragged the box into the den, where Charles was watching TV. “I said, ‘What is this?’” says Melanie. “And Charles said, ‘Well, now you know how bad it is.’”

 

For Charles, the nightmare had begun years earlier. For years, he’d struggled with the disease of alcoholism. And until that day, he’d managed to keep his problem under wraps. Melanie wouldn’t even begin to learn the full extent of Charles’ addiction – and other hidden areas of his life – until a few years later, after his death.

 

Melanie has agreed to share the story of her husband’s life and death with ANEW readers in the hopes that someone might benefit. An intelligent, educated, and professional woman, Melanie says, “If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.” 

 

Melanie and Charles met, ironically, in a bar, but Charles’ drinking didn’t seem out of control early-on. “We talked all night long,” says Melanie of that first night. “I felt as if I had known him all my life, he was so easy to talk to. He was charming.” Melanie, having been divorced, knew what she was looking for the second time around, and Charles filled the bill. He was interesting, he was educated, he had a steady income. He didn’t seem a bit secretive; he wanted her to meet his family right away, and she did. And Melanie’s grown sons thought Charles was great.

 

Not wanting to rush into anything, Melanie and Charles took things slowly. But after attending a concert together, “the rest was history,” she says. “I felt like a new woman. We fell in love right away.”

 

The couple moved in together, and got married shortly thereafter. “Everything was great. Everything we did was fun – nothing but fun. We did everything together. Life was good.”

 

Drinking was part of the fun, of course. And Melanie knew that Charles drank a lot sometimes, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.   She also knew that he had a bit of a past. Cocaine had been a problem for him in his youth, he said, but he had licked the habit. But their life together was pleasant, and their relationship seemed strong. “Our life together was built on trust,” Melanie says. “I had no reason not to trust him.”

 

That began to change on the day Melanie found the bottles. Within a short period of time, Charles’ heavy drinking – once, she thought, limited to special occasions – began to affect their lives. Charles was arrested for drunken driving twice within a few months. He vowed to change. He graduated from a Madison area outpatient addiction treatment program and began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. “He told me he was doing 30 in 30 (30 meetings in 30 days),” says Melanie. “And he was great at home. We cooked dinner together every night.” Charles complained of stomachaches in the morning, something Melanie attributed to job stress. “I never smelled alcohol on his breath,” she said. “I never saw him drink again.” She was thrilled at Charles’ recovery.

 

Melanie – who worked very long hours and was often not home – was out of town on a business trip when she got the phone call that would forever change her life. Her husband, the doctor said, was in the hospital. He’d been admitted with an infection that had spread quickly though his body. Melanie took the first flight back, but Charles was already comatose. He died within a few hours. She never had the opportunity to say goodbye.

 

Melanie was in shock, but her nightmare was just beginning. Charles, it turned out, had died from the infection and from massive organ failure. His entire system was damaged due to his alcohol abuse. But there would be more, much more, that she would discover in the weeks after his death.

 

First, there were the bottles of alcohol she found hidden in his truck. And there were talks with friends who informed her that, despite his AA attendance, Charles had never actually stopped drinking. “They’d never said anything to me,” she says. “I found out later that an alcoholic’s loved ones are usually the last ones to know about the drinking. Charles spent all of his energy trying to keep it from me.”

 

Melanie began going through Charles’ personal things – something she’d never done because, she had believed, their marriage was built on trust. In his wallet she found a razor blade and dollar bills that had been rolled up – telltale signs of cocaine use. And when credit card bills started coming to the mailbox – bills Charles had been intercepting for some time – she found bills for huge cash advances and charges for hotel rooms in the vicinity of Ho-Chunk Casino. She also found a woman’s name and phone number – a phone number she chose to dial.

 

What Melanie found on the other end both confirmed her fears and relieved some of her anxiety. Yes, Charles had been a regular gambler at Ho-Chunk. He’d found time to go up for a few hours each day after quitting his job recently (something else Melanie didn’t know about). He was, in fact, using cocaine. But he hadn’t had an affair; he’d just been seeking someone to talk to, someone that knew about his “other” life.

 

Melanie set out to find out as much about her late husband as she possibly could. She spoke to his friends, his former co-workers, and his family. Among her discoveries: Charles had never graduated from the college he’d attended; he had no degree at all, despite what it said on his resume. And the $200,000 he’d had in savings only a few years before was completely gone; he left behind debts. In short, Melanie was simply not married to the man she thought she had married.

 

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And Melanie has spent the last year dissecting every detail of her relationship with Charles. Charles had been skillful in covering his tracks. As for the lies he told, Melanie points out, “How many people will request college transcripts from the person they are dating so they can prove they went to college?” Charles had been able to fool his employers and his friends; it had been just as easy to fool her. Having been raised by parents who were social drinkers, Melanie hadn’t been able to define where “social drinking” had ended and “problem drinking” had begun: “I thought alcoholics were fumbling, bumbling street people sitting on a park bench with a paper bag.”

 

In fact, Melanie’s beliefs about alcoholism are shared by the majority, says Amy Mosher-Garvey, a mental health and addictions therapist at Women & Families Psychological Services. “Ninety-six percent of people imagine an ‘alcoholic’ to be a 50-60 year old white male unemployed derelict,” she says. In reality, the majority of people with addictions are employed, and many are functioning well enough in society that friends, co-workers and families are unaware of the problem. “When the young mother with two kids pulls up next to you in her minivan, you don’t think, ‘I bet she’s an alcoholic,’” says Mosher-Garvey.

 

How could Charles drink hard liquor daily and not “act drunk”? The situation is not uncommon and the answer, says Mosher-Garvey, is in how the human body becomes acclimated to addictive substances. “Our bodies adapt as more and more alcohol or cocaine is taken, and the body gets more efficient at processing it,” she says. “As someone gets used to feeling drunk, they can learn to adjust their behavior accordingly. And they can put more alcohol in their body without appearing to be impaired.” 

 

At some point, the addict needs a “maintenance” level of the substance in his body in order to feel normal, and much more to actually feel intoxicated. A “maintenance drinker,” she says, can often escape detection. “It gets back to the belief that ‘if my partner was drinking or using drugs, I would know because he would act in a certain way,’” she says. “Therefore the behavior isn’t identifiable, because it doesn’t look any different.”

 

The issue of denial – both of the addict and of the spouse – also figures in. A spouse may not “see” what she doesn’t want to see; an addict will tell himself, “This is the last time,” “It’s not a problem yet,” or “I can quit on my own.” And for the addict, the shame can be so great that he becomes adept at lying to protect himself.

 

So what are some of the red flags to watch out for?  Mosher-Garvey lists some of them: Missing appointments, forgetting things, being late, vague stories, missing money, a change in friends or habits, falls and other accidents, stories that “don’t quite fit,” and keeping secrets.

 

What could Melanie have done differently? Today, two years after her husband’s death, the question still draws a thoughtful silence. “To be honest, there is nothing I could have done,” she says finally.  “Toward the very end, he had illogical thought processes. He would forget things. His brain chemistry had changed. But he needed to change his mood – if he didn’t have alcohol, he’d do cocaine; he just substituted one thing for another. But I loved him; and I’m able now to forgive him.”

 

   

 

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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