Supporting an Alcoholic Loved One

Gillian May

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Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

In my family, alcoholism goes back several generations. There have been many deaths and many disabilities due to the excessive consumption of alcohol. As far as I know, I’m the only one who ever got sober and stayed sober for a reasonable length of time.

As a former nurse, I also know about health conditions and how alcohol affects the body and emotions. For this reason, I try to impart knowledge about the physical and mental health effects of heavy alcohol use. Sadly, knowing these things still didn’t stop me from being an alcoholic for almost 20 years.

Loving someone with an addiction is like being on a boat while your addicted loved one is out struggling in the ocean. Some of us throw a life preserver and drag them along, while others dive into the sea and almost drown. It can feel like we are always put in situations that seem impossible and hard to bear.

I watched my father succumb to alcoholic liver disease several years ago. Figuring out how to help an alcoholic loved one is difficult because I’m not so sure any of us could have helped my father to be honest. I do get a lot of desperate questions from people about how to help their alcoholic loved one and it’s always a tough question to manage.

My heart aches for all the people out there who have watched someone they love destroy their one precious life. More so, loving an alcoholic often means your own life is significantly impacted by the addiction.

But as I listen to the desperate pleas of families and recall my father’s struggle, it occurs to me how closely tied these feelings are with grief. Alcoholism is a lot like dying before you actually die. For me, I’ve often felt that I’ve lost many family members before they ever left their physical bodies. The grief is enormous and feels as vast as the universe.

If you look at the stages of grief as outlined by Kubler-Ross (see image below), we could easily place the path of family alcoholism within the model. As a nurse, I have used the Kubler-Ross model to comfort families going through the death of a loved one. But in an article by Dr. Christina Gregory, she mentions that this model could be applied to addiction as well.

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Image created by author using Canva. Based on the Kubler-Ross Model as outlined by Dr. Christina Gre

And as with traditional grief, some of us may remain in one stage for a long time while others move forward to acceptance. Of course, the stages of grief never tell you what you should do in each stage — they only validate all the various feelings. Nonetheless, this validation offers insight into the profoundly human experience of loss that often accompanies addiction.

Denial

Many families remain in the denial phase. This is where we lie, pretend, and manipulate things just so we don’t have to look at what’s happening under our noses. The alcoholic is the elephant in the room that we never mention. The unspoken family rule is that no one can call “alcoholism” by name, no matter what the cost.

Anger

Others get stuck in the anger phase, where they try harsh interventions, including threats to cut the person off if they keep drinking. Many people resort to control and manipulation because they’re so angry and desperate for change.

Bargaining

And many of us get stuck in the bargaining phase, where we wonder, “if only I do this or say that, then maybe they will stop drinking.”

Depression

The depression phase is tricky because it can look a lot like acceptance. But we’re weighed down by our grief and we lose our sense of well-being. We say things like, “oh well, I guess this is just life then.” Essentially, we become engulfed by our grief.

Acceptance

As with traditional grief, the only phase that may offer some solace for families of alcoholics is acceptance.

However, there is no right way to move towards acceptance. And the decisions made from a place of acceptance depend on each unique family structure and all the mitigating factors that uphold the life of that family.

One person’s acceptance, and the resulting choices that it brings, will look very different from another person. For example, acceptance for one person may take the form of choosing to continue living with a beloved alcoholic, but creating boundaries that are supportive and protective. Another person’s acceptance may take the form of cutting ties with the alcoholic to save themselves. Still, others may choose to put physical distance and boundaries between them and the alcoholic, but not cut them out of their lives completely.

Either way, acceptance underlies each different choice, with the common outcome being an increase in family members’ wellbeing. Let me emphasize the importance of well-being — because I think that’s really the goal to work towards. Indeed, that is the goal behind the Kubler-Ross model as well.

In my opinion, it’s futile to spend our lives trying to figure out why someone drinks so much that they hurt themselves. There are many complex factors that contribute to addiction. However, knowing these factors won’t help you “fix” the person you love.

Let me tell you, I spent far too many years trying to fix my father. Meanwhile, I was hiding my own troubles with alcoholism. I’m sure you can imagine what a slippery slope I lived on. Fighting the urge to “fix” has been a lifelong battle for me.

What I do know is that with acceptance comes clarity and presence. I think the only way to make good choices (and ensure wellbeing) is from this place. Because, without clarity and presence, we get caught up in fear and risk becoming reactive, becoming the “fixer,” and losing sight of our life force.

So what does acceptance of an alcoholic feel like? Again, this is different for everyone, but the common denominator is settling into the fact that we are all autonomous beings. Therefore, we can accept that the alcoholic we love is on their own personal journey. They have to make their choices like any other human.

I understand that this may not sound helpful. It sounds a lot like standing on a boat watching a loved one possibly drown when you think you can easily swim out and save them. You may mistake your feelings for being selfish and uncaring. But this is not true.

Whether you choose to stand by them as they splish-splash through life or you decide to jump on a new boat, one thing is for sure — you’re allowing that person to be a fully autonomous being on a journey that you really know nothing about. Also, you’re taking responsibility for yourself by valuing your own life.

When it comes down to it, we each have a unique path. It may even be embedded in a mysterious force that we’ll never understand on this earthly plane.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9.

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