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.
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.
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.
*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.