Living with the consequences of someone else’s addiction or alcoholism can be devastating. We stand on the sidelines watching someone we love destroy themselves and are powerless to stop it. We can feel alone, isolated, frightened, angry, bitter, ashamed and hopeless with no idea what to do next. Please be reassured that you are not alone that many people have experienced what you are going through. Alcoholism can touch anyone regardless of circumstances. What is important is that you don’t go through this alone and access help and support wherever possible.
Alcoholism is an illness not a life-style
My belief is that alcoholism is a chronic and fatal disease. Caused by genetic, environmental and social factors. The main component of alcoholism is the spiritual component, which I discuss at length in my book ‘Why you drink and how to stop.’
All human behaviour is a manifestation of how someone feels.
So to put this in context of your loved one, their behaviour may have been outrageous, annoying, inconsiderate, hurtful, stupid or unmanageable but the reason that they behaved in any of these ways was because of how they felt at any given moment. Their behaviour (drinking) was the best way they had at that time to deal with how they felt. Often they felt so bad that they were just anesthetising their feelings because they couldn’t bare it any longer.
So your loved one isn’t a bad person they are simply a sick person who needs treatment. It isn’t their fault they became an alcoholic or addict but it is their responsibility they do something about it.
Coping with active addiction
It’s probably true in many cases that were it not for the love and support of families, many alcoholics and addicts would be dead today. There is a point however, when the balance tips towards enabling rather than helping.
As family members we do what we feel is right, though often we sense that in trying to help, we only make matters worse. It is so painful watching a loved one suffer that we are prepared to do almost anything to relieve their pain. In doing so we may inadvertently prolong the suffering for everyone.
In order to really help the person we love we may need to make some changes in how we are dealing with the problem, remember your loved one isn’t wrong or bad. They are ill; they are unable to comprehend fully what they are doing or the consequences of their behaviour. You can help support them by learning a different approach to dealing with the problem.
Boundaries are vital in all relationships; they protect us and other people. We are responsible for putting down our boundaries and protecting them, people will naturally push against them but it is our job to keep them. Boundaries are the ‘line in the sand’ that we use to decide what is unacceptable or acceptable for us. When dealing with a person we love who is in active alcoholism we often move our ‘goalposts’ or ‘line in the sand’ and will do things we don’t want to do because we think it’ll help the other person. However what usually happens is we end up angry or resentful because they have hurt us again.
Keeping your boundaries means not agreeing to do something that feels uncomfortable or ‘wrong’ to you no matter how hard the other person is trying to persuade you.
A good example of this would be calling in sick for your loved one when they are too hung over to go to work (again). By doing this you would be violating your own boundaries and values and would inevitably feel resentful for being put in this position. But you would probably feel you were helping your loved one by doing it, which is how you justify it to yourself, and hence the ‘goalposts’ get moved.
In reality you are taking the consequences away from the alcoholic. If they are left to deal with the consequences of their actions then they may find the motivation to get the help they need.
Make your feelings clear as simply as you can to your loved one, let them know how their behaviour makes you feel. Try to do this without anger or resentment but consistently let them know that you felt hurt, confused, let down by their behaviour. Be consistent in letting them know that you love them but that their behaviour affects you so badly that it is difficult for you to continue your relationship with them whilst they are still drinking.
Communicating how you feel is much more effective than being angry or resentful.
e.g. “I feel hurt and disappointed when you behave like you did last night, I love you but your behaviour is unacceptable to me, I’d like you to get help”
Repeat this message consistently.
Blame serves no one; it punishes people and drives families and relationships apart. Blaming yourself for your loved ones problems is a very punishing thing to do, this is very common if the alcoholic is your child, parents tend to blame themselves. Accept that you have always tried to do your best and no-body is a perfect parent, everyone makes mistakes. Take responsibility by getting help or support and making necessary changes but stop beating yourself up.
Put your oxygen mask on
When you fly in an aeroplane the air stewards will normally give a demonstration of what happens in the event of an emergency, they will demonstrate how to apply an oxygen mask in the event of air-pressure in the cabin dropping. Whilst demonstrating this they often instruct passengers that if they are sitting next to a small child or elderly person to put the oxygen mask on themselves before helping the person next to them.
Often when we have been in a relationship with someone in active alcoholism we are busy taking care of their needs and not our own. We worry and fret about them and all our thoughts and conversations are taken up with their issues, we end up neglecting ourselves.
This is very simple you need to take care of yourself before you can help the people you love.
Try and identify where you need to do this and make the necessary changes, this isn’t selfish, this is self-preservation.
Imagine that you were on the aeroplane and you were running around putting on oxygen masks on everyone else before yourself, eventually you would run out of air and pass out and then what would happen? In order to serve, assist and love the people who matter to you, make sure you are taking care of yourself first.
Take one day at a time
If your loved one gets the right kind of help then they have a strong chance of getting well and living a healthy productive life. Accept it’s up to them to do the work, not you. You can help and support within your boundaries but this really needs to be their effort. Don’t project about the future, we have no idea how that is going to work out all we can do is try our best and take life one day at a time. That’s all that is required of you.
Finally if your loved one is entering a treatment facility then the following do’s and don’ts might be helpful:
• Don’t send him/her money, gifts; cigarettes directly; always refer these via the clinical team.
• Don’t accept phone calls during the first week, however much you or the children miss him/her. This is a life and death illness and the focus needs to be on treatment not what’s happening at home.
• Don’t arrange visits until you are sure that the clinic has authorised them. Don’t take his/her word for it.
• Don’t take everything he/she says at face value; always verify facts with the clinical team. Alcoholics often tell their families they are being treated badly and that they want to come home. Usually, all they want to do is get away so they can drink/use again. Sometimes they will engineer conflicts to justify leaving.
• Don’t take any drastic action without first talking to his/her counsellor: never arrange to collect them from treatment without speaking to their counsellor first.
• Don’t be taken in by allegations that the treatment centre are forcing religion on them. This is a common excuse for getting out of treatment, though it’s unjustified. The12-step programme involves simple spiritual principles, not religious dogma. If in doubt, speak to a counsellor who can explain things further.
• If your loved one tells you that treatment is not suitable for them but they still want to get clean or sober just not in treatment don’t be hoodwinked. Ask why and speak to a counsellor. Alcoholics are brilliant liars and manipulators; they have had to be to survive.
• Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by your loved one, either physically, emotionally or verbally; its time for things to start changing.
If this all sounds harsh, as if treatment treats your loved ones like naughty children please be assured that anyone who enters treatment is always afforded the respect they deserve for taking such a courageous step. Practically all staff in 12-step treatment centres are in recovery themselves, they know from personal experience how to manipulate and get our own way, no-body could be better equipped to deal with them!
• Do get on with your everyday life as much as possible. Try to carry on as normal.
• Do read the chapters ‘To Wives’ and ‘The Family Afterward’ in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. A counsellor will tell you how to get hold of a copy (it’s available on Amazon.com)
• Do attend Al-anon or Families Anonymous meetings. You will find people in exactly the same situation as yourself at these meetings; search the web for meetings in your area.
• Do stand up for yourself. Your loved one may have become accustomed to having things their own way. You matter to, be assertive.
• Do make sure that there is someone you can talk to about how you are feeling. If there is no one suitable, speak to one of the counsellors at the clinic.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to all the problems you may encounter as a family getting into recovery it is meant as a starting point to enable you to gain a wider understanding of the problem you are dealing with.