Detaching with Compassion, issues associated with alcohol in our society today are well documented and so, why do those living with a loved one’s drinking problem often keep quiet about it and don’t seek help?
There still seems to be a stigma attached to having an alcoholic in the family and much shame is felt. Drinking alcohol is such a major part of our social culture: it’s legal, fun and makes us feel good. If someone points the finger they can be seen as a killjoy forcing others to look at their own consumption. Even now, we conveniently forget it’s a drug.
Many of the family’s woes can be projected onto the problem drinker making the person a scapegoat so the rest of the family can pretend they are okay. Outside opinion often tacitly blames the family too. Consequently, it is easier to keep it a private problem, attempt to hide it and try to manage it within the unit, continuing the denial and containing the shame but at such a cost to all the individuals concerned. I know; I lived with my partner’s active alcoholic drinking for five years. During that time I turned into someone I didn’t recognise anymore.
I met my partner in the local pub, soon after moving over to Ireland from England, thirteen years ago. Not knowing he had a problem, at first I just thought he drank more than I did but then, gradually, I found I was drinking more and more often than I really wanted to. I put it down to the continued holiday feeling, of being in a foreign culture. But after a while it became obvious and my friends probably wondered why I didn’t leave him. I wasn’t financially dependent on him and there were no children and so, why did it take me a whole five years to recover my life?
Firstly, I made two classic and quite arrogant mistakes. I thought I knew all about the effects of alcohol as my father had worked in the ‘booze trade’ and I grew up with my parents’ social drinking. My partner had a fairly miserable Irish childhood; his father was a raging alcoholic and he is visually impaired: a degenerative condition, incurable at present. As a couples counsellor, I reckoned, if he understood at a deeper level why he chose to drown his sorrows as a way of coping with his life, he could choose to change his behaviour. It was also a very stressful time as his mother was in the protracted process of dying and naturally he was upset. This together with his lack of eyesight meant I made excuses to myself and others when he got drunk on a regular basis. Ethyl alcohol is a very subtle drug. Every family is hoodwinked in its own way and makes excuses for the drinker’s behaviour whilst categorically believing them to be true.
He was often contrite, promising to cut down and so I encouraged him, reasoned with him and was nurturing only to criticise, reproach and nag him with the next breath, feeling very angry and resentful when yet again he was staggering about, wetting the bed and obviously completely sozzled. As everyday life felt ever more chaotic, I started to try to control his drinking even thinking I could cure it if I racked my brains enough and expended enough energy to come up with a solution. I managed all the difficulties that cropped up, monitored where he was, what he was doing and the more incapable he became, the more capable I was. I took on responsibility for what belonged to him in the mistaken idea that I was doing the right thing. He was obsessed with alcohol and I was obsessed with him to the detriment of my own interests, my own well-being and my own health. Confusingly, it wasn’t all bad; there were happy times, he could be charming and attentive, allowing me to hope that all would be well but, really, keeping us both locked into dependency.
After we confronted his problem, he made several attempts to dry out in the local psychiatric hospital, and attend residential rehabilitation courses always appearing to recover but returned to drinking immediately.
I still thought if he truly cared about me and really wanted to stop, he could. I didn’t understand the word compulsion. The dictionary describes it as ‘an irresistible urge to a form of behaviour, especially, against one’s conscious wishes’. Perhaps unless you experience it you can never really understand?
As he was now unable to drink in front of me, the deceit and lying escalated and his condition got worse: the quantity increased, with spirits being a stronger and quicker way to do the trick and bottles were hidden everywhere. I thought I was going mad and just the same as him, I upped my defensive behaviour. Miserable and despairing, frustrated and depressed, too often I said I couldn’t go on living like this and that we had to part but reneged every time, fearing being alone and feeling guilty in rejecting him. Eventually, when the constant adrenaline overload created enough health issues (panic attacks, irrational fears, exhaustion), I became focussed enough to start to unglue myself from him and begin the tentative detachment.
I started by gathering information about the physical and emotional effects of the drug, risked taking small steps in not doing for him what he could do himself and concentrated on staying in the present to avoid anxious fantasies about the future whether it was in half an hour’s time or ten days. It was very, very difficult as it meant fundamentally changing my natural habits.
Finally, I told him I cared about him but didn’t want to see or talk to him until he had decided to stop drinking. Knowing he might never be able to stop and therefore was likely to die from blind actions if not organ failure, why did I mean it that time? The only explanation I have is, although I knew intellectually that I cannot stop anyone from drinking if that is what they wish to do, I had not inhabited that thought. It was a whole body understanding that it was the right and only possible decision if I wanted to recover my own well-being. It is no coincidence that when I eventually managed to cease trying to stop him from drinking, he stopped.
With loved ones, detaching goes against the grain giving the impression one doesn’t care about the other. Feelings of guilt can mean we sabotage our best efforts reverting to normal behaviour too soon. The drinker certainly won’t like any change in the status quo and it’s all too easy to detach with indifference, rejecting the person. Remember that no one came out of the womb thinking ‘I know what I’ll be when I grow up, I’ll be an alcoholic’. The loved one is ill not a bad person. Often those who become romantically involved with a problem drinker are people-pleasers or rescuers and become co-dependent. Innate caretakers find it very difficult to detach from other people’s business in general. Caring for someone infantilizes them, caring about them doesn’t. Detaching with compassion allows someone to act in an adult way. I have found that when I change my attitudes I am better able to change my behaviour and when I act in a different way, I often change my feelings toward the other person. Sadly, some alcoholic drinkers do not recover but many, many do. They need space to experience the consequences of their actions. We need to feel the fear of what may happen if we don’t ‘pick up the pieces’.
Bringing the focus back to oneself and changing oneself instead of trying to get the other person to change can bring up strong feelings of resentment. Resentment is really only self-pity because our expectations haven’t been met. Along with facing the reality of the situation, we may have to face the fact that our expectations are not realistic and be willing for our hopes and dreams to be met by ourselves. We can look to other ways in which we can feel fulfilled with friends, interests and activities.
It’s of paramount importance to ask for help; to talk to someone who is experiencing the same problem (friends mean well but probably don’t understand) and then we won’t feel so alone and isolated. By externalising our feelings, we take the first step away from denial and shame towards health, recovery and hope for the future.
My partner acknowledges he probably always knew that he had a problem; he drank alcoholically long before I met him. I displayed ingrained traits belonging to me and my upbringing which enabled him to carry on drinking and get progressively worse. I am not alone in this behaviour, most family members do the same in the mistaken hope that they are helping when they are hindering the possible recovery of the addict. The longer I prevented him from being responsible for his thoughts, feelings and actions, the more I added to my own distress and ill-health. The more I tried to control him because of my fear of loss of control, loss of safety and security, the more I added to it. The longer I tried to rescue him thinking that if I was needed I would be loved, the less I felt loved.
It is said that alcohol addiction is 10% physical and 90% psychological. Now that he is sober, my partner is examining the reasons behind his decision to deal with his emotional issues through alcohol. He is doing much better than I, since he hasn’t had a drink for eight years whilst I, daily, have to remember to mind my own business, not to interfere in his or anyone else’s life, not to give advice unless it is requested and to let others be.
Anne Morshead is originally from Marlow, Buckinghamshire in England and currently living in Ireland. She is a Couples Counsellor and the Author of Blind Drunk – Light at the end of the tunnel for anyone living with a loved one’s alcohol problem.