I met my husband in the fall of 1996. We were young. Very young. (He was 11 and I — six months his senior — had recently turned 12.) And we were innocent. Life was carefree. But over the years, things changed. We changed, and the boy I met in art class became an alcoholic. A drink ‘til you pass out or blackout alcoholic.
Make no mistake: He was functional. During this time, he held down numerous jobs and received several promotions. He completed an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree and graduated from both programs with high honors. And we got married. During these years, we welcomed the first of two children. But he lost days and weeks to his disease.
He became hollow, and I shut down. In an effort to save myself and our marriage, I shut up and checked out.
The good news is that (eventually) he dried out. He sobered up and got help. And, God willing, this September we will celebrate five years sans booze. But over the course of our 20-plus year relationship I’ve learned a few things about loving an alcoholic, and since alcoholism affects more than 15 million Americans each year, these are lessons that should be shared.
Before I get into nitty gritty, let me say: whether the alcoholic in your life is your mother, your father, your spouse, your child, or a dear friend, their illness is not your problem. It is not caused by something you did or did not do, and it is not your fault. It is also not a reflection of the alcoholic’s feelings towards you, i.e. too often those left in the wake of addiction think “if he only loved me enough” or “if we only had enough.” But stop. That line of thinking is toxic. Your partner and/or loved one’s inability to stop drinking has nothing to do with you — or how much they love you — and succumbing to those beliefs will only harm you.
It will destroy you in the same way liquor is destroying your loved one.
So keep yourself healthy by considering these facts and by remembering that — in spite of their illness — you can (and should) put yourself first.
1. Alcoholism is a disease, not a choice.
I know what you’re thinking; you just said that, and you’re right. This piggybacks on my previous point, but it bears repeating. Why? Because alcoholism is a complex disease. It is a confusing disease, and it is a painful disease. But most importantly? It is a disease, one which your loved one cannot will their way out of.
2. Don’t accept unacceptable behavior.
We’ve all said or done things we regret while under the influence. I have cried and screamed about nonsensical bullshit. On numerous occasions, I’ve demanded a divorce. But that does not mean you should allow yourself to be stomped on or beat up. You shouldn’t be a proverbial punching bag or doormat, and being victimized on a regular basis — physically, mentally, emotionally, or verbally — is a problem. Full stop. So set boundaries because YOU ARE WORTH IT.
3. Put yourself first.
Focusing on your health and well-being may seem counterintuitive, especially when the alcoholic in your life is so very sick; however, it is imperative you take care of yourself. I mean, you can’t pour from an empty cup, right? Also, addicts and alcoholics thrive on codependency, so if you want to help your loved one, help yourself.
4. Ask for help.
I know, when I said “help yourself,” you were wondering how. And I get it. I’ve been there. It seems like there are endless resources available to (and for) alcoholics, but those in relationships with addicts or alcoholics seem to be left behind. But fear not, there really is help — and hope. Al-Anon, a program for those “worried about someone with a drinking problem,” hosts meetings in all 50 states and dozens of countries. Substance abuse counselors can be found in Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Africa and online support groups are accessible to anyone with internet access.
5. Find “your line” (and draw it in concrete).
Boundaries are important in every relationship, but they are particularly important when you are dealing with an addict or alcoholic. Addicts are master manipulators, after all. Of course, only you know what your limitations are. (I stayed in spite of verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse, but you don’t have to.) Decide what you are willing to handle and/or can handle and then set hard, fast lines, i.e. “I’m not going to drink with you… or buy drinks for you,” “I’m not going to give money to you,” and “I’m not going to live with you unless/until you get help.”
6. And finally, remember “The Three Cs.”
You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. Period. End of freakin’ discussion.