fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



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Alcoholism is a dreadful disease, and Robert succumbed to his as wholly and rapidly as anyone I’ve ever heard of. Writing about her husband in The New York Times, Paula Ganzi Licata describes how he began drinking only five or six years before his death at age 50 of alcoholic hepatitis. Early widowhood presents unique challenges, and Licata’s portrait of her last years with Robert is about the especially horrific challenge of being the surviving spouse of an alcoholic.

Despite the fact that alcoholism has been recognized now for many decades as a physical disease that is beyond its victim’s control, a stigma still surrounds it. Sufferers and their family members feel shame and embarrassment, much of it tied to the humiliating behaviors that are usually associated with the disease: e.g., intoxication, absenteeism, financial irresponsibility, and sometimes violence or criminal behavior. If these actions were caused by some underlying problem like a brain tumor, I’m not sure the blame would be the same. There is something about the idea that drinking is a behavior that a person is seen as a voluntarily engaging in that makes it shameful. The idea that the act of drinking is not voluntary when someone is an alcoholic is very difficult to accept, even for the victims themselves.

And many never fully do. Licata writes of feeling angry at Robert for his “drunken selfishness.” (He was never able to maintain complete sobriety once he started his downward spiral.) Her mourning was not straightforward, the way many widows’ might be. It was complicated by this anger:

“In the wake of Robert’s death, I began to process the past. What I’d come to accept— living separate lives with an alcoholic—was a wretched existence. Some surviving spouses are angry at God or at the cancer; I was angry at my husband. Hell hath no fury like a widow born.”

In fact, many cases of extended mourning that seem to go on too long are ones in which unacknowledged anger is part of the picture. We are not allowed to feel ill will toward the departed. Also, like Licata, widows are often left in less than ideal circumstances by their husbands.  Indeed, they can be left with a real mess on their hands even if their spouse was not an alcoholic. The husband may be much missed but far from perfect, yet his widow feels guilty about her ambivalence. Now that he’s dead, all of a sudden there’s no place to acknowledge her ambivalence. Often, people feel anger at being left alone, even when it’s totally irrational to feel that way. And yet it’s much healthier to allow ourselves these human feelings than to maintain the fiction of departed saint and angelic grieving widow.

Licata, two years after her husband’s death, falls in love with someone else, and finds that she is happier than she has ever been. This, too, causes guilt. Even though she and Robert had 20 or so good years, the wretched 4 years they had at the end of his life overshadowed them and poisoned her memory of the whole marriage. Throughout her widowhood she continued to question whether she could have done something differently to change the outcome.

Her piece is an especially poignant example of the way in which addictions destroy families, and the lingering effects of that destruction. She doesn’t mention if they had children, but, besides the fact that Robert’s disease literally cost him his life at a very young age, it cost his wife years of self-doubt and torment both before and after his death. It’s very sad that along with all the other afflictions, these families suffer, they still feel such shame.


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