Loving an alcoholic can be one of the most challenging and trying of relationship situations. You watch as your loved one transforms before your very eyes into someone you don’t know, and perhaps worse, into someone you may not want to know. You miss the person you once knew, or you pine for the person you know is in there if the alcohol (or drugs) would just go away.
It can leave you feeling very alone and utterly helpless.
In order to avoid that feeling of helplessness and the sense of loneliness, those of us who love an alcoholic will often dive right in to try to change things. We may do or say anything to get them to stop drinking; we will stop at nothing to set our loved one straight. We can devote hour upon hour, day after day, trying to orchestrate the outcome that is best for everyone involved: sobriety.
We may empty bottles and hide them in hopes that the alcoholic will stop. Some of us are willing to miss work, seek help, and stage interventions. Many of us worry 24/7. But the alcoholic doesn’t stop. The alcoholic finds alcohol; they find a place and a way to drink; they stop at nothing in order to do so. While in active addiction, an alcoholic’s number one priority is alcohol.
Unfortunately, those of us who care about alcoholics cannot change that through our actions, thoughts, worry, or words. We cannot change it with love. Trying to cure a loved one who is fighting the demon of addiction when that person is refusing outside help will hurt you more than it helps the alcoholic and will only chip away at the good that is left in your life.
I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the aisle. I have been the alcoholic who others wanted to help, and I’ve soberly loved an active alcoholic, wanting to heal him when he was not ready to receive help.
When I find myself wanting to make my own feelings of helplessness go away and when I find myself wishing I could rescue my loved one who happens to be addicted, I remind myself of the following things, which I’ve learned the hard way. Maybe these will be helpful to you, too:
1. Addiction is a disease of the mind, the body, and the spirit.
No matter how hard we work to fix a person who is addicted, we can’t. The disease of addiction is a disease that affects the mind, body, and spirit. The addicted mind tells the alcoholic that they can control their drinking. “You can just have a few and stop,” lies the addicted mind, and the alcoholic believes it. Believing the lies of one’s own mind is central to the addiction. Meanwhile, the addicted body screams out its need for alcohol. “We HAVE to have it,” it cries.
In the absence of alcohol, the alcoholic body gets physically sick, experiences heightened anxiety, excessive sweating, nausea/vomiting, and uncontrollable shaking. The central nervous system becomes overactive and needs the alcohol (a depressant) to calm down. With just a few sips of alcohol, all of these symptoms go away. So just as the alcoholic’s mind is lying to its victim, saying “its’ okay, and you can have just one,” their body is craving it in a way that is undeniable. “We NEED alcohol,” says the body.
And in the later stages of alcoholism, this is literally true. An alcoholic can die without alcohol, which is why medically supervised detox may be necessary for some. And if that weren’t enough, the spirit of an addict is empty, broken, and dark. No human power and no amount of love can compete with the hold that the disease of addiction has on its prey. Do not fool yourself into thinking you can make your loved one stop. You can’t. You can hide every last drop, take away the keys, and lock them in a room, but they will find a way to drink if they want to, if they believe they need to (and in some cases a person really will need to).
2. Al-Anon is a good first step.
Why should you go to a meeting when they have the problem, right? You shouldn’t have to take time out of your busy life to attend these meetings when you don’t have a problem? This is a very normal reaction. At first, it is even a valid reaction. But Al-Anon will put you in a room full of people who also love an alcoholic, people who have driven themselves bonkers trying to support and help their loved ones, and people who, like you, are sick and tired of the chaos that accompanies loving an alcoholic. You will share stories and find support. You will feel at home. Most importantly, you will learn how to love an alcoholic and also remain detached from the disease and put yourself first.
You can live your life, love and care for yourself, while still loving and supporting an alcoholic. It takes practice and time, but it can be done. You will receive guidance on how to set boundaries and stick to them and how to be sure you are not enabling an alcoholic. Let others show you the way. If you want to put an end to the chaos and the feeling of helplessness, Al-Anon is the good first step. You do not have to be miserable and worried all of the time. It is not your job to fix anyone other than yourself.
3. The person you love is still in there.
It can feel like the person you knew and loved so much before the alcoholism began (or got worse) is gone forever. It’s as if they are a stranger and their entire personality has changed. They are no longer reliable, dependable, honest or fun to be around. But the person you knew is still in there. Under the booze and the many negative consequences, lies the person you miss so much. They are suffering too, and no matter what they might say or do, there is a part of them that would like to be able to live without alcohol. Alcoholics don’t believe it’s possible to live a life completely abstinent from alcohol. Know that the alcoholic is not living this way to hurt you, and know that in their haze, they still believe they are the person you remember them to be.
4. It is not your fault.
You did not cause the alcoholism. You just aren’t that powerful. Neither is the alcoholic. Look at this disease. Look at the power it has over your loved one and your family. This is the fault of no one. There is nothing about their upbringing, or the last fight you had, or the daycare they attended as a child that made them get this way. This is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit, and it is greater than any human power. So stop thinking you could have prevented it. You couldn’t have. Nor can you cure it. But alcoholism can go into remission. An alcoholic can get sober, which brings us to the last point.
5. There is always hope.
No matter how dire your situation feels, there is always hope that your loved one can get and stay sober. Sure, the statistics are scary, but don’t let those statistics or the severity of someone’s drinking allow you to believe sobriety isn’t an option. Sobriety is always an option. It’s always a possibility. If you are having a hard time believing this, I suggest you find an AA meeting. There are specific meetings that are open to the general public; you do not need to be an alcoholic to attend these meetings. Go. Sit down. Look around the room and listen. Keep going and keep listening, and before you know it you will find plenty of people who used to be just like your loved one and are now sober.
The stories you hear might resonate with you. They will inspire you. You may be floored as you look around the room and count 10, 20, 50 or more people who are sober. These sober alcoholics have loved ones who wake up every day, filled with gratitude that recovery is possible. Not only do they have their loved one back, but chances are they got a new and improved version. The best chance of sobriety is when the desire to stop comes from within the addict. Chances are, if you are sick and tired of their drinking, they probably are too and that becomes the beginning of the end for the addict. Never lose hope.
When I was in the throes of alcoholism, I was drinking around the clock, I had lost custody of my children and was unemployable. Alcohol remained my number one priority despite the many powerful negative consequences it brought into my life. The one thing that helped me to remain hopeful and to keep trying to stop and stay sober was compassion and unconditional love.
One person in my life always said to me, “I love you whether you keep drinking or you stop. I understand if you continue to drink. I can only imagine how hard it is for you and I’m sorry that you have this disease and you are struggling with it every day. I support you no matter what and I’m always here to help.”
If in doubt, be that person, say those words, and act from a place of love and compassion.
I have been sober for 4.5 years and my loved ones thank God everyday for my sobriety. As do I. Love the unloveable and keep the faith.