Choosing to Forgive an Alcoholic

Choosing to forgive an alcoholic…

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Choosing to forgive an alcoholic – is it possible? how does one do it?

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).

 

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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  1. Thanks for the blog post.
    Yes, treating alcoholism or addiction like a desease comparable to diabetes or something like that is very difficult. But, as I’ve learned along the way it is mostly about trying to find commonalities and not the differences.

  2. Let an alcoholic witness a hospital patient in the last stage of the disease. It will scare the …. out of them, perhaps enuf to wake em up.

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  4. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily to loved ones who have been left feeling derailed by the disease. It takes time and support. My feeling is that forgiveness is a process and is much more likely to be achieved with the support of Alanon/Alateen and the guidance of a good sponsor.

    • AlAnon and Alateen (and Nar-Anon) are hugely helpful for millions of family members. And I agree – forgiveness doesn’t come easily, and it does take time because there is so much to learn and process – both in terms of what’s happened to a loved one and to oneself. One of the big helps is to understand the disease for what it is and then realize your loved one is NOT their disease, rather a person with this brain disease. Thank you for your comment!

  5. It’s been 18 years of living with a alcoholic husband. Me and my kids can’t take it anymore. He always says it’s the last time. I love my husband but I just can’t live with it anymore. I hope someday I can forgive him.

    • Oh Pamela – I’m so very sorry. The pain of what you’ve been going through these past 18 years, as well as that of your children and trying to help them, is huge. If you ever need to talk with someone, feel free to call me at 650-362-3026 (no charge) – that’s my office line so I may not answer but will call back when I can. I don’t know of you saw my books list on the website, but you may find my book, “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!,” and my ebooks, “Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn’t” and “Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking: a Phenomenon That Affects Millions,” helpful. They’re all available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble….

    • I spent 20 years in a alcoholic marriage. It wasn’t until my father passed that my own pain was no longer ignorable. I needed my husband in a difficult time and realized how I felt truly alone. I was just too tired to be the enabler another day. It was a painful relief when he walked out on my teens and myself. Two days later, once sober, he wanted to come home. I said no. I have to find a way to forgive myself and him for what my children experienced.

      • Hi Susan,
        I’m so sorry to hear all you’ve been through… I thought I’d share this post of mine, “Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic,” to share what I found helpful as I went through my forgiveness process. Feel free to call me anytime (no charge) – 650-362-3026. Lisa

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