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Healing a Marriage Through Recovery

I thought my husband had the drinking problem. But it was I who needed help.

Julie Ziglar Norman

I stood outside the bedroom door and said a quick prayer for courage. Then I walked in. My husband Jim lay in bed reading. He glanced up with uncharacteristically sober eyes. Jim sometimes took a night off from drinking after an all-out bender. Tonight was one of those rare nights.

“I’m going to a twelve-step meeting,” I said, trying to sound more resolute than I felt. I didn’t have to explain that the meeting was for loved ones of alcoholics. The look that crossed Jim’s face told me he knew full well what I was talking about.

We had discussed his drinking problem many times, but I’d never actually done anything about it. Jim kept his eyes fixed on his book. He didn’t say a word. I walked out.

You might think such a negative scene would never happen to the daughter of Zig Ziglar, world-famous motivational speaker and champion of positive thinking. You might think Zig Ziglar’s daughter was a model person who always made good choices and did not end up at age 30 on her second marriage, this time to a total drunk.

Well, if you thought that you would be wrong.

My mom and dad were wonderful, loving parents and all my life I wanted to follow their example. Instead, I fell in with a bad crowd in junior high and before I knew it I was married at age 18 to a man twice my age.

I got out of that marriage when his hot temper crossed the line from verbal to physical abuse five weeks after our daughter was born. For seven years I prayed for a husband who would love me like my dad loved my mom. A stable provider, a good influence on my daughter, Amey.

Then I met Jim Norman, a successful businessman on the rebound from a divorce.

Jim had three kids of his own, a college-age daughter and 12-year-old twins. They were great kids. A good sign, I thought. Jim and I had a lot in common and I got along with his friends. We all liked to drink socially.

“My ex-wife said I’m an alcoholic,” Jim said when we were dating. “You don’t think so, do you?”

“No,” I said. Jim didn’t seem to drink much more than I did. I drank with clients sometimes (I was in sales) and I might have an occasional drink or two after putting Amey to bed. But that was it.

I thought so for Jim too—for the first three months of our marriage. Then for no apparent reason Jim’s drinking escalated. He’d come home from work and fix himself a scotch and water, then another and another.

“I love you guys,” he’d gush to me and the kids at the dinner table, his words slurring. When he finished eating he’d pour himself a large snifter of cognac and disappear into our bedroom, where he kept his easy chair facing the TV.

By the time the kids were ready for bed Jim was passed out in his chair, the TV blaring.

“What’s going on with you?” I asked one morning.

“What do you mean?” Jim answered defensively.

“Your drinking is out of control.”

Jim looked at me. “I like a few cocktails in the evening but I’m no drunk. My dad was an alcoholic. He drank from sunrise to sunset. I never drink before five o’clock.”

That evening, when I saw the scotch and water come out yet again, I defiantly poured myself a bourbon and Diet Coke. Not enough to get drunk, just enough to take the edge off my gathering fear. What if Jim did this every night?

Jim did do it every night. Weeks became months and Jim’s drinking became part of our family routine. So did my bourbon and Diet Cokes—the kids called it “dirty Coke”—but of course I didn’t get drunk like Jim.

I had to keep up with the kids’ homework and activities. A cocktail or two helped me cope with Jim’s nightly disappearance to his easy chair in the bedroom.

Jim and I were youth leaders at our church. Every Sunday, driving home after services, I looked at Jim’s kind, sober face and wondered whether he really was the answer to all those prayers I’d prayed for a good husband.

My mom and dad liked Jim. But we never drank in front of them. I thought Jim was part of your plan, Lord. What went wrong?

The kids started avoiding Jim in the evenings. His 12-year-old daughter, Jenni, and I stopped getting along. I began adding Amaretto to my after-dinner coffee. It helped my stress.

One day I picked up Jim from the doctor’s office. He’d hurt himself horseback riding. The doctor pulled me aside.

“Mrs. Norman, I’m going to be blunt with you. I’m a recovering alcoholic myself so I know the symptoms. Your husband has a serious problem. When you’re sick and tired of living with a drunk, call me. I can help.”

I hardly knew what to say. I drove Jim home in silence. A serious problem. How serious was it? Jim’s work didn’t seem to suffer. It wasn’t like he was out at some bar every night or on the street.

Several months later Jim and I went to a charity benefit. Jim drank until he was incoherent. The next night we went out to dinner with some friends and he did it again. Then he came home and drank everything in the house.

I’d never seen him drink like that. It was as if he was trying, and failing, to quench some desperate thirst. The next morning I called the doctor.

“I’ve got a phone number for you,” the doctor said. He gave me the number of a man who he said was experienced in 12-step programs. “Do your best to follow his advice.”

I called the man and told him my story. His reply shocked me. “You realize you have a problem,” he said.

I was so taken aback I was practically speechless. Me? What did he mean?

“You can’t do anything about your husband’s drinking,” the man said. “No one can persuade an alcoholic to stop drinking except the alcoholic.

“Your problem is that you’re too involved in your husband’s drinking. It’s taken over your life and you need to get it back. You’re as sick as he is. Get help for yourself. There’s a twelve-step program for loved ones of alcoholics. I can direct you to a meeting. Will you go tonight?”

“I—I guess so.”

He hung up. I stared at the phone, confused. A meeting? What kind of meeting? If this was God answering my prayers it sure didn’t feel like it. Why did I need help? Jim was the drinker!

But in my heart of hearts I knew, I just knew, the man on the phone had spoken some truth I didn’t yet understand, something that had gnawed at my soul for a long time. I was just so afraid to admit it.

So that evening I walked into the bedroom and told Jim I was going to the 12-step meeting. And I went.

The meeting was in an old house in a slightly run-down neighborhood. A group of women sat in chairs drinking coffee. Right away I felt out of place.

The women seemed to be speaking a foreign language. They talked about “detaching with love,” “feelings are not facts” and “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” They said normal people don’t marry drunks so we spouses had to work on our own issues.

They encouraged me to turn my husband over to the care of God and find a “sponsor,” someone who could help me work the program’s 12 steps. Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Well, that certainly applied to Jim. His drinking was destroying our lives. Still, I knew there was more.

When I got home I sat on the edge of the bed, looked deep into Jim’s yellowed, bloodshot eyes and announced, “I’m turning you over to God and I’m going to work on making myself better.”

The next evening I was stunned to hear Jim say, “I went to a twelve-step meeting today.”

“You what?”

In a quiet voice he said, “What you said about turning me over to God scared me to death. It really sunk in. I thought about it all night. And today I just went. Are you going to keep going to your meeting?”

I nodded. We weren’t sure what to say after that. This was new territory.

I didn’t trust Jim to stay sober, so I stuck with my 12-step program for family and friends of alcoholics. But Jim stuck with his meetings. In fact, he seemed to be having a better experience than I was. He found a sponsor and began moving through the steps and recommitting himself to God.

I had trouble finding a sponsor. Worse, I was unsure how to live with the new, sober Jim. It even felt awkward drinking my “dirty Coke” in front of him, so I drank only when I went out of town.

I came to Step Four in my program, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. I sketched out my history with Jim and the years before. The folks in my program said I had to recall everything I possibly could and be totally honest. Honest with myself and God.

Turns out being honest was the hardest thing I’d ever done.

What struck me was, Boy, I did a lot of drinking in those days! I noticed practically every dumb thing I’d ever done, every humiliating situation I’d found myself in, every regret I had was connected to alcohol. What if I was an alcoholic?

But…that couldn’t be! All these years I’d functioned well. I’d taken care of the kids. I’d run interference for Jim’s drinking. It wasn’t the life I’d envisioned when I’d prayed for the right husband. But I’d done my best to make it work.

Or had I? Oh, I prayed all the time. But did I pray for the right thing? Can we really pray if we aren’t being honest?

I’d put off confronting Jim’s drinking because I didn’t want to confront my own. What if Jim was the right husband after all because through him I was finally seeing my own problems? Not just with alcohol but with honesty.

The moment I let that thought in I saw with stark clarity just how I’d been deceiving everyone, especially myself. I’d say I was deceiving God too, except God is never deceived. He sees everything. He saw me. He heard my prayers. And he answered them in his own special way.

I found a 12-step meeting for alcoholics, separate from Jim’s. We’ve both been sober well over 25 years now.

For a long time I thought that because of all my bad choices God couldn’t possibly use someone like me to glorify him. Today I have the joy of seeing how God is using the story of my past to comfort and encourage those who are still on their journey from brokenness to hope.

Ask God for help and he will meet you in your greatest weakness. He will transform that weakness into strength, self-deception into rigorous honesty. He will make you the person he always meant you to be.

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