If you’ve been living with an alcoholic, you are probably well-acquainted with moodiness and erratic behavior. You may have tried everything you can think of to help them quit drinking – from dumping their stash of alcohol to threatening to leave if they don’t quit. But nothing seems to work, at least not for very long.
So what options do you have living with an alcoholic? How do you remain in this relationship, despite feeling helpless, exhausted and frustrated?
First, remember that it’s not your fault – it’s not even theirs. No one is to blame for addiction – it’s the consequence of many determinants that include genetics, circumstances, and emotional health. To get any better, they’ll likely need professional help.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
According to NIAAA, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”
Alcohol may not cause significant harm in moderation, but many people who struggle with AUD regularly drink much more than the recommended limit of seven drinks per week for women or 14 drinks per week for men.
High-functioning alcoholics may drink in secret and do their best to hide the extent of their disorder from co-workers and friends. But it’s nearly impossible to conceal it from those who live within the same household. Because only about 1 in 10 individuals addicted to alcohol seeks help for their condition, many families are left to languish along with their loved ones.
During their lifetime, an alcoholic may incur a myriad of health problems ranging from digestive issues to high blood pressure and stroke. Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., killing an estimated 88,000 people each year. In 2015, nearly 37,000 people died from alcoholic liver disease alone.
Drunk driving is yet another dangerous and potentially fatal consequence of heavy alcohol use. There were more than 10,000 drunk driving fatalities in 2015 to account for a death every 51 minutes throughout the year.
People suffering from an AUD typically have intense cravings when they aren’t consuming alcohol, and find it challenging to stop after they’ve started drinking. Over time, they will develop a tolerance to alcohol, a condition which requires them to consume an increasing amount in order to achieve the same results.
In addition to the aforementioned symptoms, alcoholics may:
- Drink by themselves to conceal their addiction
- Experience blackouts
- Drink at scheduled times and become agitated/irritated if they can’t access alcohol
- Store alcohol in unusual, secretive places, such as their vehicle
- Drink solely to get drunk
- Experience relationship, employment, financial, or legal troubles
- Experience a loss of interest in activities once deemed important or enjoyable
How an AUD Can Damage a Relationship
While your spouse or loved one may be a kind and considerate person when sober, drinking may turn them into a completely different person. Unfortunately, emotional or physical abuse can (but not always) accompany a person’s intoxicated state. Indeed, of all the reported alcohol-related occurrences of violence, two-thirds happen among close relationships.
This fact means that partners and children who are living with an alcoholic are at heightened risk of witnessing or becoming victims of a violent crime, such as abuse or assault. If your loved one is not physically or emotionally abusive when intoxicated, they may still cause harmful in other ways, such as spending too much free time at bars, frequently missing work or school.
Become able to recognize the signs of a dangerous living situation if it occurs. If you are living in the same home as an alcoholic, ensure you and others in the house are safe and do not tolerate verbal/emotional or physical abuse. If this occurs, either you/your family or the alcoholic needs to leave the situation.
Living with an Alcoholic: Consequences for Children
Estimates show that 11 million children under age 18 have at least one parent with an AUD. While children who grow up living with an alcoholic are known to have an increased genetic risk of developing the disease themselves, many also grow up experiencing serious emotional consequences from their childhood, such as issues with intimacy and trust.
Children of alcoholics may also experience difficulties later in life such as:
- Problems maintaining stable, close relationships
- A desire for constant approval
- Self-loathing and harsh self-judgment
- Lying for no apparent reason
- Impulsive behavior without consideration of the consequences
Taking Care of Yourself, Your Family
Remind yourself that you can’t blame yourself for your loved one’s problems and behavior. Be gentle with yourself, as you are probably hurting, and have a lot of anger and resentment as a result of years of disappointment and broken promises.
Once you ensure your family is safe when your loved one is drinking, then consider seeking support in the form of therapy, counseling, or group support. If you have children or teenagers, make sure they have someone outside the family to confide in, such as a counselor. And because their other parent isn’t able to meet their emotional needs, it’s critical that you are willing to listen without judgment.
Stop enabling and set boundaries. Enabling is a common occurrence among family members and friends of those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Enabling activities include giving money to the alcoholic to buy drinks, buying them for him or her, or even sitting idly by while they drink to dangerous levels.
Unconditional love is a good thing, but if you cater to their desires by purchasing alcohol or ignoring the issue, you aren’t helping anyone, and certainly not helping them get better.
Instead of enabling, firmly set boundaries and stick to them. You don’t have to be insensitive or give ultimatums, but you do have to do what’s right and let the person know that your intention is to stop enabling them out of love, not punishment.
Finally, do not allow the person suffering from addiction to blame you for the things they have done. Maybe you need to leave the house to avoid a confrontation, or maybe you have a friend on the ready to take your loved one to a safe place to “sleep it off.” Just find out what works best for everyone, and be consistent.
How to Confront an Alcoholic and Intervene
When confronting an alcoholic or staging an intervention, choose a time when they are sober (if possible) and do not threaten them. Focus on your personal feelings and concerns and express them in a tone that is compassionate and without judgment.
Initially, many alcoholics will deny their problems and resist attempts to talk about their condition, and may even try to shift the focus of the conversation to you. Be prepared for this and remain calm. Denial often precipitates recovery. Remember, right now you are planting the seeds of change, and you may have to allow time for them to take root.
When staging an intervention, it is best to have a bag packed for your loved one and an addiction treatment center in mind. This way they are less likely to back out after agreeing to go. It’s also beneficial to have a professional counselor or therapist present, as well as a few close friends who will not overwhelm or judge them.
During an intervention, be succinct in your statements and don’t lecture. Be prepared to answer questions about the treatment process. If they are not yet willing to go, don’t force them. Treatment is most effective when the person goes willingly. In time, you can always try again.
Treatment for Alcoholism
If you loved one agrees to treatment, detox is often the first step in the process. Next, clients participate in an inpatient, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment program. All three formats include evidence-based, proven approaches to the treatment of alcoholism, such as behavioral therapy, counseling, and group support.
Our center employs professional medical and mental health staff who provide clients with the knowledge and tools they need to achieve sobriety and enjoy long-lasting wellness and recovery from alcohol or drugs. Addiction is a disease that can last a lifetime, but no one should have to suffer in silence or fight it alone. We can help!