Choosing to forgive an alcoholic…
Depending on how long you’ve been living and/or coping with a loved one’s alcoholism, this can be one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, let alone embrace – choosing to forgive your alcoholic. I’d repeatedly been told that alcoholism was like any other disease, and I wanted to (and sometimes did) shout back, “No it’s not! Diabetics don’t lie. They don’t drive impaired and risk my life and the lives of my children. They don’t constantly flip the point of the argument [their drinking] to be something I’ve done and put me on the defensive.” No, I’d think and/or say, “Alcoholism is not like any other disease.”
I was wrong, and I was right.
Alcoholism is a Disease
It’s true – alcoholism is a disease. It is one of the brain diseases of addiction.
It is chronic (long-lasting, recurrent), it is relapsing (happens again and again, even after a period of not IF the substance is used in any amount), and it can result in death or other compromised body organs and/or bodily functions. It is also entirely treatable – a person can treat and recover from alcoholism (or drug addiction, for that matter). These are some of the characteristics of a disease – any disease.
So “they” were right, it is a disease. But, then, I was also right — at least in a way. Alcoholism is not like any other disease (with the exception of those, like mental illnesses, that also cause chemical and structural changes in the brain and impair a person’s ‘thinking’) because of the behaviors in which a person with the disease of alcoholism engages. Theirs are some pretty rotten, nasty behaviors; behaviors unique to their disease because of the way it compromises brain function; behaviors that, in turn, are so very destructive to the ‘thinking’ of those who love them but don’t understand the disease.
Why is this?
It’s because alcoholism is a brain disease, and the brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do through neurons (cells) in the brain talking to one another and to and from other neurons throughout the body via the nervous system.
How is it a brain disease?
By its simplest definition, a disease is something that changes cells in a negative way. Addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) changes cells in the brain communicate with one another, and it is those brain cell changes that change a person’s behaviors. The behaviors of a person addicted to (or abusing) drugs or alcohol are not the “person” – rather they are the result of the behavioral changes that are caused by the chemical and structural changes that result when alcohol or drugs are abused and change the way the brain works. Whew! No wonder it takes so long to believe it’s a disease – right?!
This link shares some of this research: Addiction and the Brain, as does this one: Drugs, Brains and Behaviors: What is Drug Addiction [yes, alcohol is considered a drug]. And, for more on the overall concept of alcoholism as a brain disease, check out The Addiction Project, a collaboration of NIDA, NIAAA, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO.
Choosing to Forgive an Alcoholic
For me, choosing to forgive my alcoholic loved ones was much easier to do once I finally understood what had happened to their brain as a result of their addiction, and it was hearing a definition of “forgiveness” that made sense to me.
The definition was something along the lines of: “forgiveness is when we quit hoping for a different outcome.”
If you love and/or live with an alcoholic, understanding the disease of alcoholism and the impact of alcohol abuse/alcoholism on the chemical/structural make-up of the brain, and accepting that while your loved one is/was drinking, it will be impossible for them to ‘think straight’ and avoid those drinking behaviors that are so, so nasty, can help with the process of forgiveness.
The best part about forgiveness by this definition, for me, was finally being able to let go of the anger, the fear, the frustration, the hurt and the shame that centered around my belief that somehow I, our relationship, our life wasn’t good enough, important enough, to make them want to stop.
By understanding the disease of alcoholism for what it is – one of the brain diseases of addiction, I could honestly let go of hoping for a different outcome.
I now know my loved ones (some of whom are in recovery and some of whom are not) couldn’t/can’t behave any other way. They had/have the untreated disease of alcoholism. As long as they drank or drink any amount of alcohol, their brains would/will continue to be deeply compromised, and they would/will continue to be unable to ‘think straight.’ But – and here’s an important, “but” – I don’t have to try make sense of it (their nasty, hurtful behaviors) because that is a part of their disease.
Armed with this information – some of it only available in the recent 10-15 years, thanks in large part to advances in imaging technologies that allow scientists and medical professionals to study the live, human brain in action, over time, under development, with mental illness or addiction, after treatment and more – I can now separate my loved one from their disease. I can separate them (the core, the good of their person) from their disease of addiction just as I would separate them from their disease of cancer or diabetes.
Armed with this information, I can choose to forgive my alcoholic loved ones, for they, like I, did not / don’t understand the nature of their disease.
For Visual “Proof” of Brain Changes Associated With Alcohol Misuse
To see what the brain of someone who abuses alcohol, but is NOT an alcoholic, looks like (in other words, to see what alcohol abuse does to the chemical and structural make-up of a person’s brain), click here.
Why show alcohol abuse vs alcoholism? Because this is where it starts. Alcohol abuse causes chemical and structural changes in the brain, which can make a person’s brain more susceptible to his/her risk factors for developing the disease of addiction (aka alcoholism).