He was a devoted father and a good husband, but she couldn’t keep his addiction secret any longer.
- Posted on Apr 1, 2019
A secret is a powerful thing. It can protect or it can destroy. And the energy it takes to hide that secret will starve a marriage of the openness it needs to grow or even survive. I know. For a long time I hid what I thought was a terrible secret, and it nearly cost my husband, Dan, and me everything.
If you live in a small town, as I have my whole life, you know how hard it is to keep anything quiet. The girls working at the mini-mart are your kids’ classmates. You go to the same church as your parents and in-laws. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. I’m a private person by nature. Growing up, it felt like any little thing I did was fodder for the local gossip mill. It’s never been easy for me to confide in people. That’s why I never talked about my husband’s problem. Even when my friend Debbie would gush, “You and Dan have the perfect marriage!” I would hold my tongue.
So you can imagine how my whole world exploded with the ringing of the telephone that crisp autumn evening back in 1997. I was racing around the house in a good mood, catching up on a few chores while our two younger kids, Christy and Matthew, did their homework at the kitchen table. I grabbed the receiver. It was my cousin. “Wanda? Do you know what’s going on?”
I dropped the stack of towels I’d just folded. “No,” I said. “What?” Please, God, I thought, don’t let it be what I think it is.
“Dan just got pulled over by the cops,” he said. “Right in front of the mini-mart. He was pretty unsteady. One of the girls there said she saw him get handcuffed. Then they hauled him off in the police car.”
I hung up and paced the kitchen floor. Panic pulsed through me. Then anger. Real anger. He told me he was going to a sale after work; but he’d lied before about going out drinking. The phone rang again and my heart jumped. This time it was the state police. Yes, they’d picked Dan up for a DUI and they’d taken him to the hospital for a blood test. I could come get him.
I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe it was the pressure of years of trying to hide Dan’s drinking, even from the kids. Now, in one furious burst, I told them what had happened, and regretted it instantly. They had been taught that good Christians—people like us—just don’t drink. Now what would they think? What would people think? Now everyone would know. I threw on a jacket and grabbed my keys, my stunned children’s eyes fixed on me as I charged out the door. Deep inside, I always wondered if it would come to this.
Dan and I grew up on neighboring farms. We went to Sunday school together. Naturally, we couldn’t stand each other. Just as naturally, that changed in our teens. I suddenly took note of the kindness in Dan’s pale eyes, and I couldn’t resist his offbeat sense of humor. He was easy to be with. But I knew that despite his solid upbringing, he had a bit of a wild streak. And I admit, I liked that a little bit too. It would give me something to work on. He certainly knew what beer tasted like. That was true of most of the young guys around here. I wrote it off as youthful indiscretion. By the time our courtship began in earnest, I was certain that, for Dan, drinking was a passing thing. We dated for more than a year and got married in that same church we’d gone to all our lives. That’s how things have been done around here forever.
Supporting a growing family put a lot of pressure on Dan. At least that’s what he told me. He started to hit the bar with a few buddies on Friday nights. He knew how I felt about it—not good, to say the least—but he said it gave him an outlet. He’d recently launched his own construction business, and I knew the stress and working so many long hours was getting to him. But he’d rather start off the weekend at some bar than with me? That hurt.
“It’s not like I drink every day,” he would tell me. No one would ever peg him for a drunk. He wasn’t falling down, slurring his speech. He could go for days on sheer willpower, without touching the stuff, toughing it out on his own. In all other ways, Dan was a devoted, loving husband and a great dad. But as soon as the stress kicked in, he was back on a barstool. And I would go back to making excuses for him.
I laid down the law. No alcohol was ever to enter our house, and the kids would never know of any of this. For my part, I went to work on God. Every day I prayed for a miracle. Did I take any other action? I couldn’t. That would mean talking about it, and that wasn’t going to happen. I felt like I could only trust God with my family’s secret. Sometimes, in my desperation, I wanted to talk to someone. Anyone who might understand. But I couldn’t.
It must have been in the early eighties when Dan crashed into a tree and totaled our truck, driving drunk. He didn’t get caught, but it was time for an ultimatum. His drinking had progressed beyond just Friday nights. “I want you to know one thing,” I yelled. “I will put up with this until our kids are grown, and then I’m done.” I wiped the tears from my eyes. “I won’t live my whole life like this.”
“I’ll stop,” he said, averting his eyes. “I’m strong.” I didn’t believe him anymore, not after all the broken promises. There was Dan my best friend, whom I’d loved and believed in since we were teenagers. Yes, there was Dan the remorseful husband determined to reform. But then there was Dan the drinker, who I feared might never change, no matter what I did. So I decided to just hunker down and make sure no one ever found out.
Dan’s drunk-driving arrest changed all that. Now everyone would know. There was no point in going on with this charade.
Dan was standing outside the emergency room when I pulled into the hospital parking lot. Shoulders slumped. Chin pressed to his chest. He looked so tired. My angry heart started to soften, even though I didn’t want it to. Not this time. “I’m sorry, Wanda,” he said. “I’m going to quit drinking. I don’t expect you to believe that, but this time I know I need help. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do this alone.”
Alone. That single word almost knocked me down. Alone. That’s just how I felt. Terribly alone. Something clicked.
The next few weeks were tough. I worried that the kids thought Dan and I were going to get a divorce—like “drinking,” we’d always told them that “divorce” was something people like us didn’t do. Now it seemed to them that anything was possible. “Your dad’s been struggling with alcohol for a long time, and we’ve tried to keep that from you,” I explained one night, after I’d dropped Dan off at his counseling session. “But nothing is more important to us than our family,” I told them. I wanted them to know that no matter what happened, their father and I had made a commitment—to each other, and to them. Teenage kids can’t always express their feelings openly to adults, but I believe they were relieved.
Later I picked Dan up from counseling. He eased himself into the passenger seat and took my hand. “Wanda, this battle is bigger than me,” he said. “I can’t make any promises to you. I can’t say that I’ll never pick up a bottle again. I can only live one day at a time. But with God’s help, I believe I can be whole again. We can be whole.”
And again something clicked. With God’s help. Had I really asked him to do anything more than help me keep my husband’s drinking a secret? Had I truly sought his help, surrendered my problem to him? I was no more in control of Dan’s drinking than he was. Keeping that secret had isolated me, even from God. No wonder I felt so alone. I thought back to the vows we had exchanged so many years ago. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Despite any ultimatums I’d made, I still believed in those vows. Restoring the trust in our marriage would take work. I would have to trust God more, and be more open about my husband’s alcohol addiction and my own part in covering it up. Not that I had to tell the world about it. But if I were to heal, I needed to be as open as Dan was trying to be. Maybe sharing the secret could help someone else as much as it would help me. I started with my friend Debbie. What a relief it was to tell her the truth—to tell her everything, how frightened and isolated I’d felt because of Dan’s drinking. How draining it was mentally, physically and spiritually to keep that secret.
“Wanda, I had no idea,” she said. “But knowing that you and Dan went through some difficult times makes me admire your marriage all the more. It’s obvious how much you two love each other.”
That was one thing I knew for certain. I’d always loved Dan, ever since we were in Sunday school together. Ever since that day I first noticed the kindness in his eyes. We worked through our problems because we knew we had something very special. Every marriage has problems, but working through them is what allows love to blossom and to grow.
On July 1, 2003, we celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary. Dan hasn’t touched a drink since his arrest. Our relationship has matured and deepened with the passing years. We now have two beautiful grandchildren. God has been faithful to our family even when we weren’t always faithful to him.
What about my secret? It isn’t a secret anymore. I’ve learned that a secret can only hold power over me when it’s hidden. A secret revealed and brought into the light of God’s love has a hold on me no longer. Besides, there are no secrets from God. He is always faithful. He always hears us. He is always ready to help us. All we have to do is ask.
This story first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Guideposts magazine.