When Someone You Love Is an Alcoholic or Addict
What to do if you're living with substance abuse
Posted Aug 03, 2017
Living with an addict can be a living hell. Unpredictable and dangerous, yet sometimes exciting and romantic. Never knowing when we’ll be blamed or accused. Not being able to dependably plan social events. As the addict becomes more irresponsible, we pick up the slack and do more, often becoming the sole functioning parent or even the sole provider; yet we’re unable to lean on our partner for comfort or support. Meanwhile, we rescue him or her from disasters, medical emergencies, accidents, or jail. We make excuses for no-shows at work and family gatherings, and patch up damaged property, relationships, and self-inflicted mishaps. We may also endure financial hardship, criminality, domestic violence, or infidelity due to the addict’s behavior.
We worry, feel angry, afraid, and alone. We hide our private lives from friends, co-workers, and even family to cover up the problems created by addiction or alcoholism. Our shame isn’t warranted; nonetheless, we feel responsible for the actions of the addict. Our self-esteem deteriorates from the addict’s lies, verbal abuse, and blame. Our sense of safety and trust erodes as our isolation and despair grow. Alcohol is a drug. I refer to alcoholism, but many of the feelings that partners experience are the same, regardless of the type of addiction.
Addiction is Considered a Disease
Alcohol is a drug, and alcoholism is a disease. Like other addictions, it’s a compulsion that worsens over time. Drug addicts use and drink to ease their emotional pain and emptiness. They often try to control their drinking or using and may be able to stop for a while, but once dependency takes hold, most find it impossible to stop using or drink like non-alcoholics. When alcoholics try to curb their drinking, they eventually end up drinking more than they intend despite their best efforts not to. No matter what they say, addicts aren’t drinking or using because of you, nor because they lack morality or willpower. They drink and use because they have a disease and an addiction. They deny this reality and rationalize or blame their drug use on anything or anyone else. Denial is the hallmark of addiction.
You may be wondering whether someone you love is abusing or dependent upon alcohol or drugs. The most recent fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labels excessive drinking an “Alcohol Use Disorder.” It refers to an alcoholic as a person with an Alcohol Use Disorder. (Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified according to the substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.) It's a disorder if there’s a pattern of use that causes impairment or distress manifested by at least two of the following signs within a year when the person:
1. Drinks alcohol in greater amounts or for a longer period than was intended
2. Has a persistent desire or has made failed attempts to reduce or control drinking
3. Spends great time in activities to obtain or use alcohol or to recover from its effects
4. Has a strong desire to drink alcohol
5. Fails to meet obligations at work, school, or home due to recurrent drinking
6. Drinks despite the recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or worsened as a result
7. Stops or reduces important activities due to drinking
8. Drinks when it’s physically hazardous to do so
9. Drinks despite a recurrent physical or psychological problem caused or worsened as a result
10. Develops tolerance (needs increased amounts to achieve desired effect)
The “Family Disease”
Addiction is “a family disease.” It’s said that at least five other people experience the effects of a drinker’s alcoholism, coined “secondhand drinking,” by Lisa Frederiksen. People close to an addict try to control the situation, the drinking or drug use, and the addict. If you live with substance abuse, you’re affected most, and children severely suffer because of their vulnerability and lack of maturity, especially if their mother or both parents are addicts. For more on the immediate and lifelong effects on children of substance abusers, see "The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics."
It’s painful to helplessly watch someone we love slowly destroy him or herself, our hopes and dreams, and our family. We feel frustrated and resentful from repeatedly believing the addict’s broken promises and from trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Denial affects the family as well as the addict. In time, family members become as obsessed with the alcoholic as he or she is with alcohol. As stated in Al-Anon Family Group’s “Understanding Ourselves,” their attention "becomes directed at what the alcoholic is doing or not doing and how to get the drinker to stop drinking.” They may look for him or her in bars, count his or her drinks, pour out booze, or search for bottles.
Hope and Recovery
Family members easily become codependent with the alcoholic. Without help, that codependency follows the same downward trajectory of alcoholism. There is hope, however, and there is help for the addict and for family members. The first step is to learn as much as you can about alcoholism and codependency. Many of the things people do to help an addict or alcoholic are counterproductive and actually can make things worse. Listen to the experience, strength, and hope of others in recovery. Al-Anon Family Groups can help. There are meetings for friends, relatives and children of alcoholics. There is also Nar-Anon Family Group meetings for friends and relatives of drug addicts. You will learn:
• Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people
• Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another’s recovery
• Not to do for others what they can do for themselves
• Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink, or behave as we see fit
• Not to cover up for another’s mistakes or misdeeds
• Not to create a crisis
• Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events*
©Darlene Lancer 2014
*Reprinted with permission of Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.