When Someone You Love Drinks Too Much

While our society knows a lot more about the dangers of excessive alcohol use and the disease of alcoholism than we did thirty or even twenty years ago, it can come as a shock when you realize that someone close to you may have a drinking problem. Here are some reactions that many people experience.

I must be imagining it.
How can I have been so stupid?
I'll make him stop!
If she really loved me....

Unfortunately, none of these responses, natural and normal as they are, will have any impact on the problem. If you've already tried confronting your hard-drinking loved one, extracting promises, threatening to leave, taking control of his supply of booze or keeping an eagle eye on her behavior, you know that these measures fail sooner or later.

Why don't these things work? For one thing, an alcoholic's drinking is compulsive. Most alcoholics eventually reach a point where once they start, they can't stop. Don't conclude, though, that your loved one has no problem if this isn't so, or if it happens only some of the time. Alcoholism is idiosyncratic: each case is a little different.

Second, the major symptom of alcoholism is denial. This is true not only for alcoholics but for those around them as well. Here's the conversation you dream of having with your loved one:

"Honey, you've been drinking a lot lately, and I'm worried."
"I'm glad you spoke up. I've been worried too, and I'm going to get help."

And here's a conversation you're far more likely to have:

"Honey, you've been drinking a lot lately, and I'm worried."
"That's ridiculous. So I have a beer or two on the weekend. Don't you have anything better to do than nag me?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to nag."
"You know it riles me when you treat me like a kid. You sound just like your mother."
"I'm sorry. I know my mother can be very controlling, and I'm really trying not to be that way. Do you still love me?"

Then you shove down the voice deep inside you that's saying:
"What just happened here?"

And you fail to shove down the voice that says:
"Am I going crazy?"

You may even ask your loved one:
"Do you think I'm going crazy?"
"Gee, honey, you have been a little jumpy lately. Have you thought about seeing a therapist?"

Once again, denial on your part and the drinker's deflects the conversation from the real problem: your loved one's drinking. And that's the end of it until the next time he or she passes out, or embarrasses you in public or turns into someone so different from the person you love--so cold, so sarcastic, or so violent--that you know there must be something wrong. If everything you've tried doesn't work, what can you do?

First, you've got to understand the problem well enough to separate yourself from it, no matter how much you love your drinker. In Al-Anon, the self-help program founded 65 years ago by the wives of the men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous--and like AA, still going strong today--they talk about "the three Cs":

I didn't Cause it.
I can't Cure it.
I can't Control it.

Neither medicine nor psychology nor any other discipline, with all its scientific knowledge and its continuing controversies about alcoholism and addictions in general, disputes these simple statements. The causes of alcoholism include genetic factors, upbringing, psychological makeup and culture--but not the fact that you didn't love or please or bully someone enough.

So far, there is no cure for alcoholism. The proponents of abstinence-based treatment, including AA, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and most professional addiction specialists, believe that alcoholism can be arrested on a daily basis, as long as the alcoholic abstains from drinking. Those who disagree promote a philosophy of harm reduction, believing not only that there is no cure but that lifelong abstinence is an impossibly ambitious goal for certain alcoholics. And, as you know if you've tried everything, your efforts to control someone else's drinking behavior are futile in the long run.

Is there anything you can do? Luckily, there is. Here are some actions you can take.

Don't enable. In the world of addiction treatment, enabling means inadvertently helping to keep the drinking going. We do this by our efforts to rescue and control, so our love and concern itself is twisted to serve the disease. Denial is only one of the alcoholic's defenses. The others include rationalization, minimization and rage, so the alcoholic can lay the blame for his continued drinking on you--your nagging, your tears, your exaggeration, your anxiety--instead of taking responsibility and admitting there's a problem. The way not to enable is to do nothing to change the alcoholic or help her escape the consequences of the excessive drinking. Contrary to what those who wear the tee shirt believe, "I drink, I get drunk, I fall down" is not "no problem"--unless an enabler covers up or takes away the problem so the alcoholic can continue to deny it

Take good care of yourself. Living well, sometimes called the best revenge, is also the best treatment for excessive preoccupation with someone else's drinking. In your desire to help the alcoholic, you have probably been neglecting yourself and your needs until it's hard to say what gives you pleasure or what you as an individual want out of life. You'll be helping both the alcoholic and yourself by getting, or getting back, a life.

Have a Plan B. How many times have you made a plan, only to have it shattered because your alcoholic didn't call, didn't arrive, didn't keep a promise or follow through on a responsibility? How many times have you made yet another plan, hoping in vain that this time would be different? Instead of basing your actions on what someone else should do, you can take charge by deciding beforehand on an alternative course of action in case the alcoholic lets you down. If you're stood up on Plan A, go to Plan B--a movie, the company of friends, a luxurious bubble bath-and enjoy it.

Go to an Al-Anon meeting. Seek out the support of people who understand both your pain and your anger, because they've been there too. Learn some simple but powerfully effective tools for living, not only with an alcoholic, but with yourself.

Get professional help. Find a therapist who understands addictions and get help, not for the alcoholic, but for yourself. When one person in a system--a group or family--changes, everybody has to change. Many alcoholics have gotten sober when those who loved them best stopped enabling and started taking care of themselves.

Not every alcoholic will get sober, no matter what you do. And sobriety is only the beginning of the journey toward physical, emotional, and spiritual health for a recovering alcoholic. But whether you leave or stay, whether your alcoholic's story ends in tragedy or happily ever after, your story can be one of personal growth, fulfillment and, yes, happiness.

©2001 Elizabeth Zelvin.This article first appeared on Here2listen.com.