Today in the United States more than 15 million people struggle with alcohol use disorder and more than 65 million report binge drinking in the past month. However, fewer than 8% of these individuals receive any kind of professional treatment for alcoholism. With those numbers the chances are high that either you or someone in your family or friend group is struggling with alcoholism. Whether it be a parent, a close friend, or a significant other, loving an alcoholic can be an emotionally and even financially draining prospect.
One of the most toxic aspects of having a relationship with an alcoholic is the development of what is called “codependency.” This is a psychological term for a set of behavioral characteristics usually found among people who have close relationships with alcoholics. It can be extremely useful for people within these relationships to learn specific coping mechanisms and ways of looking at things in order to best live their lives and not be negatively impacted by their loved one’s addiction. Here are 5 tips for healthy ways to love an alcoholic.
Don’t Take it Personally
Never blame yourself for your loved one’s drinking. Alcoholics often blame the world for their drinking, for example, “I drink to take the edge off”, “I wouldn’t drink so much if you weren’t nagging me”, or “I only drink because I’m stressed from work”. The truth about alcoholism is that they were going to drink no matter what you did.
It’s not your fault that someone has this disease and nothing you can do is going to change that fact. Similarly, you can’t take it personally when your loved one seems to choose alcohol over you. Alcoholism changes the brain and turns loved ones into people that they are not. It is difficult to accept but alcoholics are not in control of their own decision making when under the influence.
Learn and Live the 3 C’s
You probably wish to help or convince your loved one to seek alcohol rehab treatment, but there are a few things you need to know about helping an alcoholic.
You didn’t cause it
You can’t cure it
You can’t control it
It’s simple, but let’s reiterate. You didn’t cause it. It’s not your fault that someone has the disease of alcoholism. You can’t make someone drink and you can’t cause someone to have a drinking problem. You can’t cure it. Science is still working on this one. As far as we know there is no known cure for alcoholism, but many individuals have found success by entering rehab, working the 12 Step or similar programs and through the continued support of friends and family. You can’t control it. This one is the most difficult to accept. Think of it this way— you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. In other words, you can drive someone to rehab, you can offer a couch to help them get on their feet, you can pay for someone’s treatment but at the end of the day nothing you can do will control the disease of addiction.
You may even think that without you, your loved one will wind up in a crisis situation. When an alcoholic winds up at a crisis point sometimes that’s when they finally admit they have a problem and reach out for help. If friends or family members rush in and “rescue” the person from the crisis situation it might delay the decision to get help.
Don’t Accept Unacceptable Behavior
This is an important rule to remember for your own physical and mental health. When dealing with a loved one who is an alcoholic you must be able to set clear boundaries and enforce the consequences for breaking them. Any flexibility with your boundaries simply informs the alcoholic that you are someone who can continue to be manipulated. Sometimes love is tough.
As master manipulators, alcoholics are generally skilled at getting their loved ones to do what they want. You will need to learn how to create boundaries and make sure that the addict does not cross the line. You can even learn assertiveness techniques to help you put your foot down. Some boundary examples to start out with could be: “I’m not going to lend you anymore money”, “I’m not going to spend time with you if you’re actively drinking”, or “I’m not going to live with you until you get help”.
Place Yourself First
A critical lesson for people in relationships with alcoholics is learning to practice self-care. Alcoholics pull on our heartstrings and can influence the way we feel, think, act and speak. If you become tied to the wellbeing of your alcoholic loved one, you become dependent on an unhealthy person to be healthy. Known as codependency, this type of relationship occurs when both individuals become reliant on one another to feed their addiction. The sober person typically feels the need to be loved or needed by the addict to feel good while the addict continues to feed their addiction thanks to enabling behavior from the other individual. If you want to help your loved one, you need to help yourself first. From there you can help the alcoholic from a distance where they cannot violate your boundaries or influence your wellbeing.
Join a Support Group
Friends and family members of alcoholics often find that joining a support group can help alleviate stress, inform the recovery process and overall make it easier living and loving an alcoholic. In the Al-Anon program, which is based on AA’s 12 Steps, those who live with another person’s alcoholism learn how to relinquish their obsession with the alcoholic’s behavior, let go of attempts to control or influence them and allow themselves to live happier more manageable lives. Don’t delay in finding a support group like Al-Anon. It’s free to attend and participants are not required to share if they don’t want to. Millions have found serenity within the walls of Al-Anon and many more join every day sharing stories and healing the wounds of alcoholism.
If you’re struggling to cope with a loved one who has an addiction to alcohol these tips can help guide. It can be tempting to turn a blind eye to alcoholism and try to work around the wreckage it causes but alcoholism is progressive and it will only grow worse over time if it is not addressed. No matter how dire your situation is it is never too late to get help from alcohol rehab centers. There is always hope that your loved one can get and stay sober.
Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a drug and alcohol rehab center. He has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years with a new emphasis on recovery. Before his ventures into healthcare, Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After Duke Matthew went on to work for Boston Consulting Group before he realized where his true passion lied within Recovery. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment, and intervention.