Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three…

Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three...

Behind Every Addict / Alcoholic is a Family Member or two or three…

We often forget that behind every alcoholic or drug addict is a family member — often several family members — spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

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The light in his eyes was gone – blind fury stared forth. Alex* was no longer there. I felt terror like I’d never known but knew I had to break his death grip on my throat and hang on to the balcony railing over which he had me pressed – my daughters needed me. Their tear-strained, hysterical, panic-filled screams pierced my soul and gave me the mama-bear strength to physically break loose.  Unfortunately, it would take many, many more years before the journey to emotional freedom began. And it was that journey that has finally set me free.

How ‘Rational’ Can You Be? (Excerpts from a journal I kept – notice how close the dates [same year] are in these entries.)

April 14 You came home and said you were going to go on a controlled drinking program for the rest of your life – only 4 drinks per day.  You said that you probably wouldn’t do it if it weren’t for us…that if you were alone, you would probably go on as you had been, but that we were too important – you had to do it.

May 21 You played golf and came home drunk.  Insisted that _______(a child) should learn what a tape measure “really” does and how to use it.  Ended up in the back yard with her counting dead snails (killed by the snail bait).  You were doing the “high five” hand slap with her and hit her so hard, tears sprung to her eyes…blamed me for it because I exclaimed… “Why’d you do that?” You said it hadn’t hurt her until I’d said that…You started yelling the usual…said you were leaving… Didn’t come home until the next morning after I’d gone to work—never did call. That night, when I got home from work you said, “I’m sorry about last night, I overreacted a bit.”  I said, “Overreacted???!!!???…and the fight was on.

Sadly, there was so much I didn’t know back then. I didn’t understand the science behind alcohol-induced blackouts, that they were real, not convenient excuses (no one did). I didn’t understand alcoholism as a chronic, often relapsing brain disease (no one did; it hadn’t been discovered, yet). I didn’t understand why I tolerated the years of verbal and emotional abuse but latched on to physical violence as an “acceptable” last straw.  I didn’t understand it wasn’t ‘them’ – it was their disease; they didn’t want to be in this nightmare any more than I.

Today, most of society still does not understand what happens to the family members behind the addicts/alcoholics. Just as the overwhelming stigma and shame continue for addicts and alcoholics in recovery or still grappling with the disease, so too is there huge stigma and shame for the family members. The latter is often centered around the misinformed belief that there is something the family member can be doing to make the drinking or drug abuse stop and that once it’s stopped, all should be well for them, too.

Take the intervention-type programs on television, for example. These shows present the stories of the years of anguish family members experience in their lives as a result of a loved one’s substance abuse and addiction. And, then, after an emotional intervention session, the addict/alcoholic goes off to treatment, but rarely do we then hear, “Gee… now how are we going to help all of these other people still sitting here in this room who’ve been so traumatized?”

My Bottom as the Family Member

One would have thought that the balcony experience would have done it. But, no… unfortunately, I didn’t understand the disease. The relationship with that particular Alex* did end, but I continued to battle insanely with other Alexes who also had the disease. Fortunately, for me, Alex finally entered a treatment program in 2003, which plunged me into a whole other world – a world that included terms and concepts like codependency, adult children of alcoholics, 12-step programs, co-addictions, dual diagnosis and the role a family member has in the denial that protects a loved one’s drinking. It was a world I found confusing and overwhelming.

At the time, after an accumulated decades of coping with various loved ones’ drinking behaviors, I was one angry, frustrated, resentful person. For over the years, the more Alex drank or broke his promises not to drink or to cut back on his drinking, the more vigilant I’d become. I knew the next “fix” would be the one that would finally work. When that didn’t happen, I would step up my efforts – admonishing, nagging, pleading, arguing, crying, pouting, ignoring, and so on. My common theme was, “If you loved me, you’d stop!”

I honestly believed and figured that if I just managed our household more efficiently or did a better job of scheduling activities or _______________ (fill in the blank, I’m sure I tried it), then Alex would quit drinking so much and our lives would finally be happy. And, when I couldn’t control his drinking, I’d step up my vigilance to manage the next inevitable crisis as a way of wresting control of the situation – and in a complex life of jobs, children, friends and family, there was an endless source and variety. Little did I understand that focusing on the next crisis was a way of trying to control some aspect of my life, but in fact, it often created problems of a different nature (like my daughter setting aside her own needs in order to make me happy when she sensed I was upset with Alex, for example).  But, as long as I focused “over there,” I didn’t have to face the underlying problem right in front of me – alcohol – Alex’s use and my reactions to his use.

For you see, unknowingly at the time, I was living in the dangerous world of “enmeshment” – the place where I had absolutely no concept of boundaries. I didn’t know where “I” ended and “someone else” (Alex, for example) began. In my world, the “I” and the “someone else” were one and the same. My identity was thoroughly entangled in the notion that it was my job to make sure that others were happy, that they toed the line and succeeded at work, in school and life in general. It was my job to see the world as others saw it or to make sure they saw it the way I did. I’d reduced my world to rigid absolutes – good or bad, right or wrong, the truth or a lie – because with absolutes, there was a target, an objective, something that could be argued and fought for until a “winner” and a “loser” could be declared. And, by gosh, I was going to “win” this battle over Alex’s drinking or the next crisis because my whole being was caught up in what others thought of me. If “they” (whomever “they” were) thought I was good or right, then I was good or right.

It took Alex entering treatment for me to finally give up. I was beaten. I was tired. I was desperate. My insides churned in the righteousness of my anger. I decided to do whatever anyone in the treatment recovery world told me to do to make my life somehow feel better.

My Journey to Emotional Freedom – Recovery

True to my nature, I began my quest for deeper understanding in the same way I’d approached my other published books and articles. I immersed myself in research, intent on learning as much as I could about the subject – in this case alcoholism and treatment programs – and then all of the other issues that emerged as I tried to understand why a loved one drinks too much and why someone like myself puts up with it for so long. I started attending Al-Anon meetings and doubled my individual therapy sessions with a therapist who specialized in the family disease of addiction. (Therapy lasted for three years.) Additionally, I was extremely fortunate that Alex had chosen a treatment program that had a family-help component as part of its effort to help the alcoholic. Fortunately that program was led by the most amazing, compassionate family therapist who really understood “us” and helped us to find our voice. I took part in their weekly family group sessions and added additional weekly sessions, as well. I still attend their first Saturday of the month family group session.

In time, I learned that alcoholics cannot stop their “problem” drinking as long as they consume any amount of alcohol. I learned that as long as they even think they can drink successfully at some time in the future, there is no amount of willpower nor good intentions in the world that can help them avoid a “next time.” [The same is true with drug addiction.] I learned about a whole other “stage” of drinking called alcohol abuse, that alcohol abuse was where it all started, that it didn’t matter if it was alcohol abuse or alcoholism – the drinking behaviors were the same: countless broken promises to stop or cut down, DUIs (driving while under the influence), arrests, health issues, financial problems, lost friendships, bankruptcy, “disappearing acts,” insane circular arguments about what constituted “excessive drinking,” verbal abuse and even physical intimidation and violence. [To better understand the distinction, watch this short video, Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.] I learned there is a considerable difference between an addict/alcoholic being sober and being in recovery.

Most importantly, I learned alcoholism (like other addictions) is a brain disease. It is chronic; it is often relapsing. It is complicated; it is a developmental disease. It is NOT a lack of willpower. It is NOT a choice. I could finally forgive Alex; I could finally forgive myself; I could finally understand and appreciate that Alex was as much a victim of the disease and the stigma and shame as I. Finally, I could let go of trying to control him and focus instead on figuring out how to live my life. One of the most significant findings was that the family member experiences brain changes as a consequence of the stress involved in trying to control that which is beyond their control – namely, their loved one’s drinking behaviors, something I call, Secondhand Drinking/Drugging.

Keeping the focus on myself in this manner keeps me from unraveling as my life continues to take new twists and turns. Now, it’s different. I still experience anger, shock, fear and disbelief and can go down paths that aren’t very productive, but now, in these times, I am also armed with knowledge and a sense of self I’d not previously had. In these times, I know that the only person I can truly change is myself, and the only person who can truly change my situation is me.

I hope that by sharing what I have learned through the work I now do through BreakingTheCycles.com, others – whether a parent, friend, sibling, spouse or child – will find the tools they need to live their lives. I share this information because I wish I had known it, that it had been openly and freely talked about, long before I’d spent decades grappling with my loved ones’ drinking. And while the variety and depth of the books and research  can feel overwhelming sometimes, it’s worth it to figure it out, because no matter how much you love someone whose alcoholism  (or other drug addiction) is affecting your life, nor how much they love you back, love will not and cannot make them stop. The good news, however, is that it’s possible for you to truly enjoy your life regardless. For today, I can honestly say I’ve never been happier, more fulfilled and more at peace with myself.

It may not seem like it now, but I promise you things can and will change…I invite you to keep learning and exploring your options because life – your life – really can be better. Perhaps this post, “First Things First – When Recovery Feels Overwhelming Difficult, Keep It Simple,” can help you get started.

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*Alex is the name I’ve assigned to represent any one of my family members and friends who abuse or are dependent on alcohol or who are in or not in recovery, so as to protect their anonymity. Alex is not one particular person, but rather represents their collective behaviors rolled into one. I use the pronoun, “he,” for simplicity’s sake.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author Speaker Consultant Owner at BreakingTheCycles.com
Author of nine books and hundreds of articles, Lisa Frederiksen is a national keynote speaker, consultant and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more then a decade researching, writing, speaking and consulting on substance abuse prevention, mental illness, addiction as a brain disease, dual diagnosis, secondhand drinking | drugging, help for the family and related subjects – all centered around 21st century brain and addiction-related research. Her clients (some as far as Kenya, Slovenia and Mexico), include: individuals, families, military troops and personnel, U.S. Forest Service districts and regions, medical school students, businesses, social workers, parent and student groups, family law attorneys, treatment providers and the like. Visit www.BreakingTheCycles.com for details. Please feel free to call Lisa at 650-362-3026 or email her at lisaf@breakingthecycles.com.

29 Responses to Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three…

  1. Sandi (Benner) Tinsley says:

    Lisa – you are such an inspiration to not only me, but thousands of others.

    I am honored to call you my friend.

    We experienced so much of the same things with our loved one(s). The main difference is that you took the high road & I took the low road. That’s ok though, as that time in my life has made me who I am today.

    Yes, you do have a very full life & 2 beautiful daughters whom I just know adore their mother.

    I am making it my goal to purchase all of your books, read them & pass them on to others who I know will benefit from them.

    Thank you for your willingness to reach out & help pave the way for so many.

    With much love & respect,

    Sandi

    • Sandi – thank you SO MUCH for this. It is wonderful of you to take the time to write and let me know. Trust me – I was on a low road many times, myself. We often don’t realize how much the family member’s craziness contributes to the overall craziness and just how hurtful and entirely unhelpful our nagging, shaming, blaming can be. I so believe this is a family disease and as society sees and treats it as such, others will be better able to find the help they need and break the cycles in their families once and for all. And, once we can all view addiction as we do other diseases, treatment will be sought earlier and prevention practices will be embraced before it even starts. I’m honored to call you my friend, as well, Sandi, and congratulate you on making your way through and out of this disease.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    You have really lived through the depths of the emotional trauma. I can so relate to not knowing much about the disease, where to turn or truly understanding what was happening. My situation may not have been as dramatic as your describe, but that feeling of sinking into the black abyss was probably the same. Out of control and feeling helpless leaves anyone stressed and shattered.

    It is amazing how far you have come. You have lived through some horrific events and are using your experience to help others. Your strength is amazing.

    It has been great to know you and call you my friend. Our paths have crossed for a reason. Take care.

    • Cathy – you and I have traveled quite the road through this family disease, and as you’ve said, our paths have crossed for a reason. I so enjoy our conversations and sharing of experiences, strength and hope, and I love working with you to spread awareness about this brain disease and its impacts on the family. Your blog (treatmenttalk.org for those who are not familiar with it) is such a gift to family members – especially parents – who are struggling to help their loved ones who in turn struggle with their disease. I’m so glad to call you my friend, as well, Cathy. Take care and thank you.

  3. Martha Giffen says:

    What a great post! Yes, there are plenty of family members, but the ones living in the house sometimes are the last to “get it.” I was clueless about drug and alcohol addiction before the “crazies” came into my home. (That what I call them). What I didn’t understand at the time was that our son’s addiction was changing our family unit as we knew it. Thankful for Ala-non and what it has meant to us. Keep sharing . . .

    • Martha – the “crazies” describes it perfectly! And I agree with you – the ones in the home are often the last to “get it.” There’s a description of this that I’ve heard and can certainly relate to: it’s like a frog who’s placed in the pot of water before the burner is turned on – it never jumps out because it’s acclimated to the changing water temp as the heat rises (icky thought, I know, but I do appreciate the concept). As you said, it’s so strange to look back at your family and see just how much the unit changes as we all dance around each other, each of whom is dancing to a separate tune around the addict/alcoholic (or substance abuser, for that matter) and yet to another tune around the other family members’ ways of coping with that person. It is totally crazy!

      Al-Anon was a life-saver for me, too, although the first time I tried it (many, many years before the second time), I didn’t get it. I worked all the steps (without a sponsor – after all, I didn’t need help :)!), read all the daily readers like chapter books, and thought I had it down — in just 4 short months. I walked away shaking my head, “what’s wrong with them? They didn’t cause it, they can’t cure it, they can’t change it.” That was my take-away. Nice take-away, but I was missing the part about, “and now, what are YOU going to do?” As they say in the rooms, “keep coming back” and keep trying meetings until you find one(s) that works for you. Although to be fair, Al-Anon is not for everyone, and there are certainly many other ways of finding and maintaining sanity. (If anyone reading this is interested in others, just send me an email, and I’ll send you information and links.)

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Martha!

  4. Olga Hermans says:

    I think I told you already that my sister was an alcoholic; we always had alcohol in our home. It was as normal a drinking coffee really….it is an easy substance to get addicted to. I am glad I kicked it in the but, I now drink occasionally which is a good thing.

  5. One family member is now into alcohol as a release. Before that it was bulimia. It is a pretty known fact that when addictive people get rid of one addiction they often pick up a new one. This is where she is now, totally in denial… but always doing things that involves alcohol. This was a great post… Thanks! x0x

  6. This is such an important subject. Whether it is friends or family, alcohol and drugs are part of the world today. And because of that we all have to deal with how they touch us.
    Thanks so much for reaching out with your web site and giving guidance!

    • You are so right, Barbara! Regardless of whether it impacts us personally in our homes, another person’s substance abuse or addiction health- and emotional-related changes or a family member’s stress-related coping patterns for dealing with their loved one’s substance misuse are carried into the workplace, our schools and society at large – we all have to deal with it. And, then, of course, there is drug-related crimes, drunk and drugged driving catastrophes…. Hopefully as people come to understand this science, they’ll appreciate the importance of educating adults and children – it’s not just about prevention classes in middle and high school or only treating the addict/alcoholic. Thanks so much for adding your comment!

  7. Sherie says:

    Lisa, wow…this was such a powerful post…it brought tears to my eyes for all that you have endured…and look at how far you have come…amazing! Sharing your story and experiences will help SO many people who are still stuck in the struggle…

  8. I teared up reading about the pain you and Alex and other family members endured, knowing how much suffering goes on daily in the lives of the alcoholic and family members. Then the thought came in — without that suffering would we be the people we are today?
    You are amazing and the work you do/who you are touches so many lives.
    I am so glad we are fb buddies and that we are in each other’s virtual lives.

    • I’m so glad we’re FB buddies and in each others virtual lives, too, Meryl! And thank you for your heartfelt comment – I really appreciate it. Like you said, all of those experiences, though, are what make us who we are today.

  9. What a very kind woman you are to bear your soul and share all of this. Yo7u will help others find a way out. Thank you. I deal with so many marriages in trouble due to problems like this. It’s not just a problem for one it’s a family problem. Thank you Lisa!

    • Thank you, Barbara – I really appreciate your comment. And as you say, alcohol misuse is a problem in so many marriages. I recall a session Alex and I had with a therapist who suggested he consider not drinking for a while because it seemed to be part of so much of what we talked about in our sessions, and Alex replied, “Well what’s she going to give up?” The therapist convinced him that that wasn’t the point, so he agreed to do it for two weeks. During that time he hardly spoke to me, “communicating” through indirect comments to others, with whom he was nice and friendly and talkative. I raised this point and reminded him our therapist wanted us to engage to see if his not drinking would make a difference but was met with a cold stare. When we returned to our therapy, he said, “Well, I did it, and it didn’t change a damn thing. She still nagged me.” So we cobbled together another “agreement” that involved some level of drinking.

      As I think back on all of this and share it, it sounds absolutely absurd (thankfully!).

  10. Estelle says:

    thanks for this awesome share and the reminder that it is a disease of the brain – and the body, mind and spirit – not something someone chooses to or not to do, but an illness that needs to be managed.

  11. Your description of what happened to you is so powerful Lisa because it shows the horror of living with an alcoholic. Terrible things happen but they become a ‘normality’ within the family. Yet those situations aren’t normal!
    Anyone who has an alcoholic within their family network will be able to relate to your story and I gain strength from your strength.
    Brilliant post Lisa!

    • Thank you so much, Carolyn!! I know you know exactly what this is like. And you’re right – the absurd behaviors and the verbal and emotional exchanges are “normal” for us, which is how we lose our ‘selves’ in the process and continue to participate in these kinds of unhealthy relationships with new Alexes until we get our own help. It’s also why so many children of alcoholics go on to become alcoholics or drug addicts or substance abusers, themselves, or to marry them — they are “comfortable” in heavy drinking/drugging situations, engaging in circular, inane conversations and rationalizing the unacceptable as acceptable to maintain the relationship. Their brains were wired to do it during their brains’ developmental years from birth – early 20s. Thank goodness science is also showing how the brain can heal – it can change and of course, recovery for all concerned is possible. And, of course, people have been in recovery long before this new brain science, but the science, for me, helped – it gave me the visual ‘proof’ (through brain scans) and the scientific explanations of why. This helped me to believe it was possible and worth the fight (the fight for emotional recovery). Hopefully as we tell our stories from both sides of this family disease, others can see a way out. And our stories help others appreciate there is no one or right way to do it. So, thanks, again — I’m so glad our paths have crossed, Carolyn, and so glad to call you my friend.

  12. So great to see attention focused on the people behind the addict! Good for you and you are doing amazing things.

    Thanks for sharing so much of yourself.

  13. Rita Malie says:

    Powerful article about all those in the family touched by alcoholism. Once again, thank you Lisa Frederiksen!

  14. [...] Behind Every Alcoholic is a Family Member or Two or Three from Breaking the Cycles.com: [...]

  15. Sharon O'Day says:

    I realize as an adult how blessed I was to grow up in a family where alcohol was not an issue. Then, having one serious relationship with an addict taught me that it was one area where I was not strong enough to make a difference … because it was not about me. Thank you, Lisa, for being willing to share your story. Your writings have shed a totally different light on addictions.

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