What It’s Like To Date A Closet Alcoholic

Photo: Rockie Nolan
My therapist once said: “If you have family members who are alcoholics, you have no choice but to stand by them. But dating an alcoholic is completely different: You choose to be in a relationship with an alcoholic, and that is one choice I would never recommend.” I was two years into my relationship when she said this to me, but I wasn’t strong enough to leave until two more. Thinking back, the evidence that Jake* was an alcoholic was right in front of me. I just didn’t recognize it. The telltale signs, like routinely passing out at 7 p.m. and slurring words on a daily basis, are easily disguised, especially when someone denies their significance. But I also think I didn’t want to see them for what they were at the time. Friends and family would mention that Jake smelled like alcohol, but I was too busy smelling the roses. Compared to my ex-boyfriend before him — who repeatedly cheated on me — Jake was perfect. He was charming and attentive, and he made me feel like he would never be unfaithful to me. When I asked him about the alcohol smell, he chalked it up to the scent of his cologne, and I believed him. And when more and more people would ask me about it, I’d repeat his answer, because why would he lie? As our relationship progressed, people around us felt more comfortable asking me why his eyes always seemed glazed over, and why he often told the same story twice. Why was Jake so clumsy? How did he break his ankle just by walking down the stairs? When I would repeat those questions to him, he’d shrug his shoulders and say, “That’s just the way I am.” One night, while we were watching a movie in his bed, I found an empty pint-sized bottle of vodka in with his sheets. He said it must have belonged to his brother, who had watched a movie in his room earlier that day and who was a known alcoholic. Again, I believed him. I now know I shouldn’t have listened to his simplistic answers. I should have looked past his attempts to placate me and opened my eyes to his illness. A year into our relationship, we were working a cocktail party together to help out my brother with his catering company. I prepped and served food while Jake tended bar. About halfway through the party, a guest pulled me aside and said, “I thought I should tell you that your bartender is inebriated.” My heart dropped. I looked over at Jake. He was leaning on the wall behind the bar; he was so drunk that he couldn’t stand on his own. Hidden amongst all the alcohol bottles, I saw a plastic cup he had been drinking vodka from. My brother and I had to carry him out to the car to put him in the backseat, where he slept for the remainder of the party while we continued to work. I wanted out right then and there. He was a liar; that’s not what I had signed up for. But after we talked about it, he finally admitted to having a problem, and he promised he could easily get it under control. Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

He promised he could easily get it under control. Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

At this point, we were already living together, so I supported him by keeping a dry house. I wouldn’t drink at weddings, birthday parties, or any other social event, since I didn’t want to tempt him. I bought alcohol-free mouthwash, and stopped cooking with vodka sauce or wine. I even banned rubbing alcohol in our home. I wanted to support him. Still, Jake would pass out on the couch like clockwork at 7 p.m. until the next morning, just as he had before I was aware of his drinking. I was starting to realize that, this whole time, I had been in a relationship with a semi-functional, closeted alcoholic. I say “closeted” because he would pretend that he wasn’t a drinker around our friends and families. He’d deny drinks when they were offered to him, but then secretly drink miniature bottles of vodka throughout the day. I say “semi-functional” because even though coworkers would point out his “alcohol cologne,” he was still able to hold down jobs for years at a time. Throughout our relationship, I don’t believe he ever stopped drinking. He just got better at hiding it — until he slipped. One day, I was driving past the liquor store and saw his car parked out front. It wasn’t even in a real parking spot: He had just pulled up in front and left his car, the way one parks in an emergency. As he left, I drove behind him and called him so that I could ask him to pull over. He refused for about a mile, and then finally gave in. Once he pulled into the nearest parking lot, he jumped out of his car, ran to a nearby tree, and then ran back to his car. Rather than meet him, I went to the tree and found six miniature bottles of vodka — three were empty and three were unopened. Even then, as I confronted him with what I had seen with my own eyes, he did nothing but deny, deny, deny. I understood alcoholics relapsed. He assured me he wanted to stop. He promised me he wanted a future with me more than he wanted vodka. So he agreed to try Alcoholics Anonymous, but after trying a few meetings, he claimed AA wasn’t for him. He said the religion aspect turned him off, and he insisted he could kick the habit on his own. We tried therapy, as a couple and individually, but he gave that up after a few times, too.

He promised me he wanted a future with me more than he wanted vodka.

During the last few months we were together, everyone who came into contact with him would tell me he was drinking again — even his hairdresser. But where was he hiding the alcohol? We lived together, and I could never find a trace in our home. Then it clicked: his car. A few days later, he called me in a belligerent state and picked a nearly incoherent fight. By the time I got home, he was in his usual spot on the couch, out cold. I quickly grabbed his keys and sprinted to the parking lot. And there it was: a half-empty pint-sized bottle of vodka in his trunk. I moved out the next day. Ultimately, it was the lying that undid the little we had left. He didn’t want to get better; he wanted to continue pretending he was better without putting in any of the hard work it takes to become a recovering alcoholic. He wanted to live a lie, but I couldn’t be a part of that anymore. If he had told me when he fell off the wagon all of those times, rather than lied to me, I would have felt compassion for him. I made it clear to him that he could have come to me when he was feeling weak, and I would have given him support. Instead, he gave into temptation and pretended to be someone he wasn’t. Two years after my therapist suggested it, I left Jake with a clear conscience, but also a heavy heart. I knew this meant he would probably just sink further into his illness. But I chose myself, and I still think it’s one of best decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t look at the time I spent with Jake as a waste. Because of him, I learned the importance of paying attention to what’s happening right in front of me, even if it’s easier to believe it’s not. I won’t ever let another partner lead me away from the truth again — I’m now strong enough to take the more difficult road if I have to.

Julissa Catalan lives and writes in New Jersey. Her writing has been featured on Refinery29, Latina Magazine, The Establishment and Modern Loss, among others. Read more of her work at https://julissacatalan.contently.com/, and follow her on Twitter @Julissa_Catalan.

*Name has been changed.

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