Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Death of a Friend by Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Caused by Alcoholism

While I’ve had many friends and loved ones who have suffered from the disease of alcoholism, either as an alcoholic or a friend / family member of an alcoholic, I’d not yet had a friend’s death directly attributed to alcohol abuse until now. In fact, I had no suspicion she suffered from alcoholism. It never occurred to me that was the source of her health problems. But after I talked to her husband this weekend, it all made sense.

Sunday morning I received an urgent email from my friend’s husband asking me to call.  He tried to reach me by phone, but I had been visiting my parents in Indiana and discovered my cell service was not allowing me to receive incoming calls. When I called back, the story I was told was far sadder than the one I’d expected to hear or thought I knew. My friend of 22 years had told everyone she was suffering from celiac disease, severe gluten intolerance, and she’d told me she had late stage breast cancer. But, that wasn’t true. Instead, she was dying from a condition I’d never even heard about – Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – a condition directly caused by a thiamin deficiency linked to long term chronic alcohol consumption.  It is a type of brain damage that morphs into a psychiatric disorder with hallucinations, dementia, malnutrition, memory loss, and confabulation – imaginary experiences the person believes are true.

The diagnosis came after she fell when her femur spontaneously fractured. She was found on her deck in the fetal position. She had withered away to 100 pounds. At the hospital they conducted tests and found her liver was diseased with cirrhosis; her kidneys were bleeding. Her last days will be spent in hospice She is only 65.

Alcoholism is an insidious disease. It affects not only the alcoholic, but also all of those in the sphere of the alcoholic. While I mourn the loss of my friend, there is some relief that her suffering will end. And I feel great compassion, sympathy and empathy for her husband. Because I have been a member of Al Anon since 1993, I have some tools for dealing with my sadness, including an understanding that nobody had control over her life and decisions but the alcoholic. And when I say she has been a dear friend, I mean a friend who was with me during difficult times in Hong Kong when my first marriage was failing, who gave me refuge in her home when I felt my life was crumbling about me, who gave me love and support when I was climbing out of the abyss, who flew to Italy to celebrate my marriage to my current husband – a man I can only appreciate because of healing through Al Anon and supportive friends.  My heart is filled with sadness for a life cut short by this disease and for her husband who loved her and endured hell for the last few years – because it is hell to live with an active alcoholic. Maybe now they both will find peace.

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