Loving an alcoholic can be crazy-making because so little is really understood or acknowledged about the impacts on the family member or friend who loves someone who drinks too much. Yet it is the family member or friend who is on the receiving end of the drinking behaviors, in other words, on the receiving end of secondhand drinking. Family members and friends are also assigned labels – labels such as enabler or codependent. And as with the terms, “alcoholic” or “addict,” it’s difficult to really decipher what’s meant by the label. So, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the term, “codependent,” in this post but urge readers not to get hung up on the label – rather focus on the fact that something does happen when loving an alcoholic.
Loving an Alcoholic – Codependency – Codependent
Codependency and codependent were very difficult concepts for me to grasp – especially as they related to my loving / living with various family members and friends who drank too much (which was as far as I was willing to label them). And for the longest time (like more than 3 decades as of 2003), I didn’t even try because I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. But for those of you who’ve read my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, and “met” Alex, you know it was Alex’s 2003 admittance to a residential treatment program for alcoholism that turned my life upside down.
You can imagine my reaction when the family therapist at the treatment center suggested I get help. “Me? Why me? He’s the alcoholic!” I’d argue — sometimes rather hysterically. She’d patiently explain that my getting help would not only help me, but it would also help him. “That’s all fine and good,” I’d argue, “but I don’t have time!” I was already juggling life “outside,” while he was in residential treatment doing yoga, journaling, attending meetings, “doing his program,”…. The last thing I wanted was to have to “do one more thing to help him. I’d been doing that for years!” I’d screech.
So, I continued to resist her gentle suggestions for weeks, until desperate, I finally took her advice and started attending Al-Anon meetings. I doubled my weekly individual therapy sessions with my therapist (a therapist who specialized in addiction, by the way) and forced myself to find time to attend additional family group sessions at the treatment center. And, as a writer and researcher, I also buried myself in books, conversations with others in my situation, and websites addressing alcoholism, alcohol abuse (excessive drinking) and addiction. It was during this search that I learned the name of my “condition” — a condition commonly referred to as “codependency,” and a label for people with my condition – a label commonly referred to as “codependent.” [I've given this term a new twist - Secondhand Drinking.]
It may be hard for you to accept this right now, but I can tell you that coming to grips with codependency gave me back my life. And believe me, I completely understand if the very thought of labeling yourself “codependent” makes you want to close this page and never return to the website. I didn’t like the word “codependent,” either. But please know there is no need to label yourself or put yourself down for something called codependency, especially if you are in the middle of an entanglement with an alcoholic or alcohol abuser; it’s how you’ve survived. At the same time, if you want to unravel that entanglement and take steps to move forward in your life, the following information can help.
Finding YOUR Sanity When You Love an Alcoholic
- Alcoholism doesn’t just strike one day, like waking up with the flu. Instead, it ekes and creeps and slowly crawls forward because alcoholism is a developmental disease. This means it starts with alcohol abuse (the kind of drinking that causes drinking behaviors, like fights, DUIs, verbal/physical/emotional abuse of loved ones, missed work/school, wanting to drink more than 1 or 2 at most events and on most days), which is what sets up the chemical and structural changes in the brain that makes a person more vulnerable to his/her five key risk factors (genetics, social environment, mental illness, childhood trauma, early use). Assessing your loved one’s risk factors can help you appreciate how they came to cross the line from alcohol abuse to alcoholism. This short video provides additional explanation, Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.
- In order to accommodate and survive the progression of the alcoholic’s disease from alcohol use to alcohol abuse to alcoholism, the people who love him (or her) have had to adapt and change their thinking and behaviors and join in the denial that’s protecting the drinking. In other words, they’ve had to adopt their own version of denial that supports the notion that it’s something else that’s contributing to the person’s decision to drink during the alcohol abuse stage (like work, the kids, fights with the spouse, a bad boss), not the person him/herself. Once the drinking has progressed from alcohol abuse to alcoholism (addiction), it’s the brain disease of addiction that further compromises the person’s decision making ability. Understanding that alcoholism (just one of the diseases of addiction) is a disease – a brain disease – can help you let go of the blame. It can also help you understand that all the promises in the world to cut down how much they drink cannot work. Once a person has crossed the line from abuse to dependence (addiction), they cannot consume any amount of alcohol – to do so only triggers the embedded brain maps surrounding their disease. This short video provides additional explanation, Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.
- Through all of this adapting and accommodating of the alcoholic’s and/or alcohol abuser’s drinking behaviors, family members unconsciously collude to make the unacceptable acceptable. (1) Just as the alcoholic or alcohol abuser is focused (dependent) on alcohol, the family members’ lives are focused (dependent) on trying to stop the alcoholic/alcohol abuser from drinking so much — they are “co” – “dependent” with the alcoholic/alcohol abuser on his or her addiction to or excessive drinking of alcohol. Check out this post, “Detach. Detach With Love. You’ve Got to be Kidding!“
- This is why alcoholism is often referred to as a “family disease”(2) and why codependents are often referred to as “enablers.” It’s also why a codependent’s denial-type behaviors are often called “enabling” (enabling the alcoholic/alcohol abuser to continue the denial that protects their drinking by making or agreeing with one excuse after another that the excessive drinking was “because of ____________” or “I’ll never do it again” or “I’ll only drink on the week-ends and holidays but never more than 3 at a time”). Check out this post, The Dance of the Family Disease of Alcoholism
- Compounding the problem for everyone concerned is society’s inaccurate view of alcoholism as a problem that results from a shameful lack of willpower. This assumption — which is wrong — drives the alcoholic and his or her loved ones to continue making one Herculean attempt after another to battle the disease in isolation. And it drives the alcohol abuser and his or her loved ones to find ways to excuse the alcohol abuse for fear it might be labeled “alcoholism.” Check out The Addiction Project’s explanation of Addiction Cravings to better understand what the alcoholic is up against. This information by NIDA on the brain disease of addiction (remember, alcoholism is one of the diseases of addiction), Drugs, Brains and Behavior: the Science of Addiction, is also helpful.
- Additionally, society is even more silent about what life is like for the family and friends who love the alcoholic or alcohol abuser and presumes that if the individual stops drinking, then all should be well with them, too. This is another gravely destructive assumption. As I’ve mentioned, I had been living with alcoholics, alcohol abusers and the family disease of alcoholism for decades by the time I finally admitted, “I need help!” It wasn’t until the course of my own recovery work that I finally admitted how many intimate relationships in my life included alcoholics/alcohol abusers — talk about DENIAL! Check out this post, Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three”
For a More Comprehensive Understanding
You may want to read my latest book, a short eBook (just $3.99), titled: Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence. In just 80 pages, it covers all of these concepts and more.
And please know that while I’ve written about alcohol abuse and alcoholism in this post, the same applies to drug abuse and drug addiction — addiction is addiction regardless of the substance of choice. Addiction is a developmental disease. It is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It starts with substance abuse, which is what sets up a person’s chemical and structural brain changes, the brain changes that makes a person’s brain more susceptible to his/her risk factors.
(1) Brown, Stephanie, Ph.D. and Virginia M. Lewis, Ph.D., with Andrew Liotta, The Family Recovery Guide, A Map for Healthy Growth, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2000, p. 3.
© 2013 Lisa Frederiksen