What I Want You To Know About Living With An Alcoholic

alcohol drink picI have read several excellent pieces in regards to addiction in the recent aftermath of  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. And while they are all well written and give  a real and terrifying glimpse into the mind of addiction, I can’t help but feel that there is a voice that is missing in this dialogue. First let me say, recovering alcoholics have my utmost respect.  Alcoholics that have humbled themselves, worked the steps, made amends, and have sweated and strained and figured out sobriety are my heroes. Over the years I have read a lot of memoirs from the alcoholics perspective. I read them because it gives me hope that one day my boy’s dad will find his recovery. I read them because it gives me  a better understanding of their battle; from a distance. Two of my favorite writers are recovering alcoholics, Anne Lamont and Glennon Doyle Melton.  Not only are they my favorite writers, but I kind of feel like they are my BFFs. I am just patiently  waiting for them to realize that  they are not being very good friends. I am a little perplexed why Anne hasn’t invited me to take a walk with her and her dogs up her mountain, or why Glennon has not met me at the yoga studio so we can lament about coughy smelly guy  together.  I mean really, what kind of friends are they anyway? But enough about that.  I want you to know there is another side to this whole alcoholic/addict thing.  Those of us that have lived with them and loved them have a story to tell too.  I do not want to take anything away from the addicts’ suffering and struggles; and I certainly  do not want to disrespect anyone fighting the disease. But, I want to give you just a glimpse of what living with an alcoholic is like.

Evidence is pretty clear that alcoholism  is a disease.  And just like some forms of cancer and diabetes the disease is many times, but not always,  a result of personal choices. As a disease, it is treatable, has real physical implications, is progressive, and many  times has a genetic component. But, for me, that is where the similarities end. See, I have yet to find a book to help the  Adult Children of Diabetics. There  is a reason for that.

The disease of Alcoholism impacts a family in ways that other diseases do not.

You know that feeling you get when you are in the doctors office and he says, “I have some bad news for you.”  Or the feeling that comes when you have a huge  test that you haven’t studied for. Or, you know that  pit in your stomach right before you drop from the height of the roller coaster. Or how about the feeling that strikes when you slam on the brakes to avoid an accident and all the feeling goes out of your legs.  Yea, that feeling. That is what you feel like all day, everyday you live with an alcoholic. The churning stomach, the antsy, anxious, I want to run out of this place feeling. The what am I going to find when I open this door feeling. The who will I be living with today feeling. It didn’t start out like that.  It’s just that you have learned to react that way after countless episodes and events that are out of your control and scary and maddening.  It started out like, let me  help you and let me fix it and I love you and  I am scared. And it progressed to I can’t fix it and I’m helpless and how do you love someone that keeps hurting you and I am still scared. It started out like walking on eggshells. And it progressed  to tip toeing on shards of glass. It started out like, I can handle this, it will get better, and I’m not giving up. And it progressed to how do I protect my boys from  the drunken tirades and  I can’t handle this anymore and  I don’t know how far down his rock bottom is from here, but I can’t let this disease take us any lower.  It started out as I know you are sick and  struggling and suffering. And it progressed to your actions are destroying each and everyone of us. It started out as let me rescue you. Let me pull you into this life boat with the rest of us. And  it progressed to I have to keep this boat upright and you continue to capsize it.

Russell Brand said in a recent post,”The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction and unless they have structured help they have no hope.” And I believe that. But where does that leave those of us who are trying to live a sane, safe, and secure life with an addict? Cancer and Diabetes don’t behave irrationally. Those of us that are left in the wake of an addicts’ irrationality suffer.

Somehow we are left to figure out how to think and respond rationally to irrational behavior that we cannot control nor understand.

Russell Brand describes it this way and much better than I can:

“A friend of mine’s brother cannot stop drinking. He gets a few months of sobriety and his inner beauty, with the obstacles of his horrible drunken behavior pushed aside by the presence of a program, begins to radiate. His family bask relieved, in the joy of their returned loved one, his life gathers momentum but then he somehow forgets the price of this freedom, returns to his old way of thinking, picks up a drink and Mr Hyde is back in the saddle. Once more his brother’s face is gaunt and hopeless. His family blame themselves and wonder what they could have done differently, racking their minds for a perfect sentiment; wrapped up in the perfect sentence, a magic bullet to sear right through the toxic fortress that has incarcerated the person they love and restore them to sanity. The fact is, though, that they can’t, the sufferer must, of course, be a willing participant in their own recovery. They must not pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time. Just don’t pick up, that’s all”

Russell Brand wrote that. I Know, right? Russell Brand. Who knew that “Arthur” could express himself so eloquently. But he describes so perfectly  what it is like for  those of us that have lived with an alcoholic. In the beginning, the first couple of tries at sobriety bring hope.  You reopen your heart and release the hurt and disappointment, only to have that glimmer of hope drenched by their next  drink. When that happens over and over again, month after month, year after year, there is real hurt and damage.  And that is why there are books about adult children of alcoholics.

Because those, especially children, who have loved an alcoholic have hoped and been disappointed and been scared and have felt powerless time and time again.

And so you go to Al Anon and you learn that you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it, and you can’t control it.  And you hear that you need to detach with love; what ever that looks like. And you hear they need to reach their rock bottom before they are willing to get help; however far that is. And they tell you not to enable the addict; however you are supposed to do that. Then someone else tells you you need to raise their bottom;whatever that means. So all you can do is the next right thing. That is all you have control over. And as much as you want someone to tell you what that next right thing is, they can’t. It’s your next right thing.  It’s the next right thing for your kids. It’s the next right thing for your sanity and safety. And hopefully your next right thing will somehow lead them one step closer to their sobriety. But maybe not.

Russell Brand also said this, (and by the way, if you told me one day I would be quoting Russell Brand in a blog, I would have checked to see if you had been drinking.)

“It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict/alcoholic who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?”

Certainly not cancer or diabetes.  Cancer doesn’t hide and lie.  Diabetes doesn’t destroy trust. Cancer doesn’t emotionally abuse you.

These diseases don’t say and do hurtful hateful things. Alcoholism is a disease of lies, lies they tell themselves and lies they tell those caught up in the chaos of their disease. The lies make you feel like you are the crazy one as you know that you know that you know that they have been drinking again and yet they stare you down and insist in the most insistent way that they have not been drinking and how dare you accuse and doubt?  And yet, they have been drinking. Again.

You learn about boundaries.  And each time they cross one you have to create another and another. And with each boundary that is crossed, the wall of protection around your heart grows higher and stronger. Russell Brand  goes on to say,” If you regard alcoholics and drug addicts not as bad people but as sick people then we can help them to get better. By we, I mean other people who have the same problem but have found a way to live drug-and-alcohol-free lives. Guided by principles and traditions a program has been founded that has worked miracles in millions of lives. Not just the alcoholics and addicts themselves but their families, their friends and of course society as a whole.”  And I agree.  But it took me years to understand that I cannot make the addict well.  It took me years to understand that even though it feels like if he loved me he would stop drinking, it really isn’t about whether you are lovable or worthy. They are sick.  With a disease. But its not cancer or diabetes. That would be so much simpler.  You could hold their hand during chemo.  You could bake sugar free brownies. But addiction isn’t simple. And the only thing you can do is the next right thing for your well being.  Go to AlAnon. Find a good therapist. Read a book about addiction. Go to yoga. Show up for your kids, and help them do the next right thing too. Cling to your faith. I don’t know what your next right thing looks like, but I know if you keep doing it, you will eventually keep your boat steady amidst the storm of addiction. 

PS.  If you want to read Russell Brand’s whole article here it is.  It’s really quite good. I have always liked his accent, now I like him even more. Of course it wasn’t me that was impacted by his disease so it’s a little easier to welcome him into my sphere of imaginary BFFs. Welcome Russell, meet Anne and Glennon.




About splitpease

I am a mom of three teenage boys who used to be a teacher, who became a personal trainer, who had to sell my share of a personal training studio, who had to take a job running a swim and racquet club, who hopes to one day be able to do what I love and still keep a roof over my head.
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16 Responses to What I Want You To Know About Living With An Alcoholic

  1. This is great. I also have been hurt by Anne and Glennon’s neglect. I’d like to add Heather Kopp in there. Maybe you and I can be BFFs and make THEM jealous? 🙂 This disease has impacted my family for generations. It is evil, filthy and infuriating. And so so sad. I used to pray for the alcoholic in my life to die- to end the misery and let us hold on to the good memories while we could.

    • splitpease says:

      Thanks for reading and your comments. We can certainly add Heather Kopp in the group, though since she was gracious enough to post my piece, I feel like she is being a better friend than the others 🙂 The disease does make you think those thoughts, doesn’t it? so hard!

  2. Ellie says:

    Fantastic article. Thank you for your courageous vulnerability. As an alcoholic in recovery… Who recently relapsed after six years of sobriety but whose relapse only lasted a week I because of the immediate response of family and friends who told me on no uncertain terms that if I didn’t go to long term treatment right away I would not be welcomed back into my life in any form…. I can attest to the power of slamming the door on an active alcoholic who won’t get help. I have great sympathy for how hard and destructive this course of action is to families, and I do not mean to imply that ANY option is ‘simple’ in the face of this disease. I only share that the fact that my family offered me unconditional love but another unconditional acceptance saved my life.

    Your words are powerful and I am so grateful you shared how it feels to love an alcoholic. This disease hurts everyone around it.

    -Ellie from One Crafty Mother

  3. Weeping Oak says:

    Beautifully said. I spent many years trying to save my alcoholic husband. I realized I had to save myself and our children. I wish it had not taken me so long. Damage was done to all of us.

  4. Meredith W. says:

    I’m sorry, but you are SO wrong about diabetes. I can’t speak to living with an alcoholic, but I have lived with an insulin-dependent diabetic for 20 years now, and it’s not the piece of cake (no joke intended) that you imply it is. I suggest doing a little more research before you blow it off and not having an effect on the whole family, and I’m not talking about sugar-free brownies.

    • splitpease says:

      Meredith, thanks for your comments. I didn’t intend to imply that living with a diabetic is easy, nor am I clueless enough to think that baking sugar free brownies will make everything all better. It was my (apparently poor) attempt at a metaphor for not being helpless in dealing with a sick loved one. A metaphor for being able to do something tangible that will make a difference in the sick person’s life. It’s ironic that my attempt to validate those living with an alcoholic has done the opposite for you in your experience with a diabetic, and for that I apologize. I actually considered expanding on that point to comment on the fact that I am not in anyway insinuating that loving someone with cancer and diabetes is easy or simple, just that alcoholism impacts the family in ways that cancer and diabetes doesn’t. Thanks again for your input

  5. Meredith W. says:

    *as not having an effect

  6. You NAIL it! As someone with over 40 years experience coping with various family members and friends’ alcohol abuse and alcoholism, it struck me deeply – all of it, but especially this part, ” Cancer doesn’t hide and lie. Diabetes doesn’t destroy trust. Cancer doesn’t emotionally abuse you. These diseases don’t say and do hurtful hateful things. Alcoholism is a disease of lies, lies they tell themselves and lies they tell those caught up in the chaos of their disease. The lies make you feel like you are the crazy one as you know that you know that you know that they have been drinking again and yet they stare you down and insist in the most insistent way that they have not been drinking and how dare you accuse and doubt? And yet, they have been drinking.” Thank you so much for putting words to the insanity of loving / living with someone with the untreated disease of alcoholism when you have no idea of what it is you are really dealing with because you have no understanding of the nature of this particular disease.

  7. This is is beautiful and heartbreaking and real. This is an important piece. Gorgeous writing and a truly brutiful voice. What a blessing to meet you at the conference. Keep writing. Your voice matters!

  8. Karen Crick says:

    Thankyou for letting me find someone I can connect with. I have been watching a few different documentaries made by Russell Brand but have found them lacking in discussing the impact the alcoholism has on families. I am the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, married to an active alcoholic and with an alcoholic sibling. At times I feel like how do I keep going. Despite knowing that it is a disease there are times when I can not sustain my compassion and erupt in frustration and anger. I am guilty of verbal abuse as much as the alcoholics in my life. I have questioned my sanity and had it questioned by the alcoholic. I have felt shame and guilt as if it were my actions that caused it and I have felt the sensitivity that you described to subtle changes in mood, the dread of anticipation of a binge or argument. More than anything I have felt the fatigue of living my life constantly with alcohol and it’s impact. Thankyou for reminding me I am not alone.

  9. Cheryl says:

    Thank you for putting into words feelings and thoughts that I have never known how to express. Still trying to escape the chaos.

  10. K.Rose says:

    You have narrated my life in such a way that I know it’s real. The man in my life minimizes the effects of his alcoholism although the children and I are waking on egg shells and now at the point where we are afraid to even walk.
    I’m definitely going to find a support group as mentioned. Thank you so much for allowing me to see the chaos from the outside in.

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