‘We Just Forgot How to Care for Ourselves’ A Widowed Husband Reflects on the Toll of Alcohol Abuse on His Family

Content Note: Alcohol, depression, death, grief

In 2015, a woman named Heather completed the AMPLIFY Q&A and she caught my attention. This response in particular has stayed with me all of these years later.

What motivated you to take part in this project? I don’t talk about this part of my life a lot, and when I saw Sue’s post on FB, I thought, sure. I actually hesitated as to whether I was an ally or a member of the community, and then I thought, I’m doing it. I’m doing what I hate for others to do to me – I’m marginalizing myself as “not truly a part of the community” because I’m bi, but living a heterosexual lifestyle. It’s not OK. I am bisexual. I can contribute.

I was so sad to learn about Heather’s unexpected death at age 47 on November 16, 2022 I reached out to her husband Chris with a link to her Q&A and my condolences. We connected on Facebook. Chris has spoken openly about the impact of alcohol abuse on Heather’s health and his own history. He recently posted this essay on his timeline in the hope of reaching someone else who needs to hear/read this. And so I offered to publish it.

Heather’s story and the stories of her surviving husband and son are part of the LGBTQ experience. You simply need to read her Q&A to see that. She was truly a part of our community and her experiences, for good and for bad, are part of our narrative.

I grew up in a home with multiple generations of alcohol abuse. I know people who need to hear/read this, but I suspect they will not. And my heart breaks for Heather’s son.

Heather’s legacy is more than either of these posts, but together they provide a more nuanced glimpse into her life and her death. Rest in power, Heather. ~ Sue

Heather Vallone Alcohol Abuse
Chris submitted this phone of his wife, Heather walking behind their son. It was during their last family trip.

I have been an alcoholic my entire adult life. At least the last 27 years or so by my counting. Great swathes of memory over my life are gone because of it.

Three years ago, today, I stopped drinking. I hit my rock bottom and knew I was going to either die or lose my family and everything else.

I was starting between 5:30 and 7 in the morning on my days off, and as soon as I got home on workdays. To oblivion. After blacking out and trying to walk a few blocks back home, regaining consciousness laying on the sidewalk behind my apartment, covered in leaves and twigs, vomit and urine, realizing I’m surrounded by EMT’s and a pair of bicycle cops, everyone shielding my son from seeing me in that state as my wife brings him home from school. That. That was my stopping point.

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My wife had the same problem. It never kept her from doing her job. It never prevented her from caring about Dante or myself. It never kept her from caring about other people. It did keep her from saving some of that love for herself. It did keep her from seeing the love that everyone had for her. It did keep her from being able to admit there was a problem. She never hit that bottom.

It did NOT make her a bad person.

My drinking calmed when I moved here from Louisiana. Because I was happy. I’d finally found my own little family. I’d finally found where I belonged. It was beautiful and the demons in my skull shut their mouths.

We never stopped caring for each other, we didn’t stop caring about our son, we didn’t stop caring about our friends and family, we just forgot how to care for ourselves.

I know nothing of her drinking history before we met. I do know that when we met, it was purely social. The entire first three years we rarely if ever drank at home. Usually champagne on New Year’s.

In May of 2014, Heather had gastric bypass surgery. When they’re done with you, your stomach is the size of a hard-boiled egg. So many things she couldn’t eat anymore, so many things she couldn’t drink anymore. By the next year, she had dropped 110lbs. She looked fabulous and felt even better.

A favorite of hers, on the times we went to karaoke when I first got here, was bourbon. About a year after her surgery, she tried it. With her tiny stomach, she immediately got violently ill. Part of the trial and error of what you can and can’t do after gastric bypass. By the end of 2015, she tried out red wine, and it didn’t make her sick. By Halloween 2016, she was downing a pint glass of wine before we walked out the door to take Dante trick-or-treating.

A lot of wine, every night, put the weight back on her. She felt disgusted with herself and entered a depression she never fully came out of. The disappointment in gaining the weight back after all of that work, the wine, and the depression, all fed off of each other. Each increasing the other. She estranged and distanced herself from friends and family.

If you have gastric bypass, your body has to work harder to process what you put into it. Within roughly 6 years, her body could not handle any more. The liver gave out and the brain bled. If you drink, your blood is thin and doesn’t want to coagulate.

Being at ground zero, instead of facing it head on and trying to do something about it, I decided to just numb out. I increased my own drinking to match and got myself right back where I was before I left Louisiana. And it led me to my rock bottom. She put out a prayer request on facebook that night. It was because of me.

Why am I telling you this? Why am I putting this out there? BECAUSE. If just one person reading this, just one, just maybe somewhere someone can get the little idea bulb above their head and say “Holy shit. Maybe I should pump the breaks before I fly this car right off the fucking road.”

Maybe that someone is you? Maybe it’s someone YOU care about? Maybe. Maybe I don’t want you to feel this. Maybe I don’t want you to leave this feeling for someone else. Maybe I don’t want YOU to have to sift through years worth of memories, knowing you’ll never be able to make new ones.

Or maybe it’s all just the desperate hope of a grieving mind.

It never kept her from caring about other people. It did keep her from saving some of that love for herself.

By all accounts and reckoning, she should still be here. With all the drunken damage I’ve done to my body over almost 30 years, I should not. There is nothing you can say to make me think otherwise.

There was enough of the real us, enough of the optimism from when we first got married, left to make us feel like “This is just a bump in the road, we’ll be fine like we always have been. Christ, how old will we be again when Dante graduates high school?”

Even when things were weird and off-kilter, we told each other “I love you” every. single. day. We never stopped caring for each other, we didn’t stop caring about our son, we didn’t stop caring about our friends and family, we just forgot how to care for ourselves.

I made it out and she didn’t. And I have to sit with that for the rest of my days.

You can read Heather’s 2015 AMPLIFY Q&A here.


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