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The questions we ask ourselves when we’re alone and fed up can eat away at us.
Sometimes they are thoughts like: “How can I separate the man from the alcoholic?” “Should I even be trying to change him?” and “When is enough, enough?”
Other times we ask ourselves: “How can I help?” “What do I need to do to be more supportive?” and “Will it help if I try to be more positive?”
While we tend to have these thoughts when we are alone, it is important to remember that we aren’t alone, not really. There are a lot of women in our shoes. We have all been through it in our heads, over and over, because he’s drinking, again.
Mind Over Matter
Drinking is portrayed in diverse ways and it saturates our pop culture. As such, we all may know that James Bond prefers his martinis “shaken, not stirred”, and that Don Draper of Mad Men prefers “fancy cocktails” while Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw prefers a cosmopolitan for her drink of choice. Ultimately, while Hollywood has a habit of portraying drinking, drug use, and smoking as glamorous, there can be a much darker side to drinking, something many of us women know all too well.
Within Georgia, as of 2012, over 50% of adults in Georgia had reported regularly consuming alcohol. 16% of those adults reported binge drinking within the last year. The reality is over 70% of the population regularly drinks and, of that group, 10% tend to drink in a problematic manner. Out of the people who have an issue, most change their behavior once it becomes problematic. But, as we’re all too familiar, some don’t. And what do you do when it’s your loved one that’s stuck in a battle with addiction?
Remembering that there is a person behind every statistic is crucial when it comes to things like alcohol abuse. No one plans to have a problem with alcohol. It may have started out as a way to relax, or deal with social situations.
So maybe the problem we should be looking at isn’t the act of drinking, but more so the “why” behind it.
When it comes to looking at alcoholism, it is important that we recognize how it fits in with mental illnesses, trauma, and stress. Current research confirms that there is often a relationship between alcohol use disorders and mental illnesses1.
For example, those who are drinking more excessively are also more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder. Also, somewhere between 10-30% of adults with Alcohol Use Disorder have a panic disorder, and around 20% of individuals with anxiety disorders abuse alcohol.
It is likely that he drinks as a way to deal with his feelings. So, what may have started out as his “weekend habit” has turned out to be something more. He may not drink every day but when he does… it’s clear there is a problem.
We all know the stereotype of the “strong silent type” and this perpetuates the stigma around men’s feelings in general. This can also lead to an inability to cope with the stress that can come from a personal history of trauma or underlying mental health issues. He may be feeling like a burden or a failure, and that can prevent him from opening up.
It can be hard for us to be a mind reader, though. Not knowing why can leave us feeling lonely and like we’re waiting for him to finally open up, even after all this time. It feels like being at a crossroads with no signs on where to go. How many times will we be stuck feeling like we’re at the end of our rope, either the alcohol goes or he goes? But then how many times do those disagreements end in silence and a trip to the bar, while we find ourselves staying yet again?
We hear about the guilt felt by those with alcoholism, but what about the guilt felt by those who love someone with alcoholism? As the wife of someone struggling with alcoholism, how many times has it felt like it’s your fault that things aren’t getting better? We get stuck feeling that if only we did more, if we were sterner or laid down better ground rules, then things would change. At the same time, every time we tighten our grip… he pulls away. It can be hard to open up how we feel to him without it becoming a blow up, and then he closes off.
If you’ve ever felt this way, you know, It’s important to remember that we matter too, and again, we are not alone even when it feels like it.
Keeping all this in mind, we need to try to be positive and understanding of the mental aspects of his drinking that are taking place behind the scenes. When it comes to entering treatment, about two-thirds of those going into treatment have symptoms that resemble anxiety disorders.
That being said, there are some expectations that we can have in mind when it comes to our loved one needing and getting treatment.
A study2 on the effects of alcohol and family relations found that the issues caused by alcohol abuse can cause suffering to family members. This often contributes to high levels of arguments, potential domestic violence or child abuse, and negligence. It can also cause financial and legal difficulties. But we knew that already… that’s why the cycle of drinking and empty promises of change can be so exhausting.
It’s always “just a few drinks with the boys” or “the last time” for the umpteenth time. Then he’s passing out on the couch again in front of the kids, late for work, or, the worst, he gets angry and violent. He swears he loves me, but is this how someone acts when they love you? It’s like he’s two different people, the loving husband when he’s not drinking, and the monster when he is.
And sometimes, somehow, we manage to succeed and get him to stop… for a time. Or maybe we even get him into a rehab, but it doesn’t seem to stick.
This is known as chronic relapse. It is a genuine and not uncommon aspect of alcoholism. When it comes to relapsing, much of it comes down to the brain and how it’s been impacted. Research3 shows alcohol-related changes in your brain, and the increasing desire, motivation, and craving to drink are related to relapse risk.
Chronic relapsing is problematic because we never know if this is the last time, or if he’ll just start back up again like he always seems to. We think, “How can I trust him? Every time he’s a bit late, is he at the bar? When he disappears into the basement for hours at a time, is he sneaking drinks? It can be so hard to learn to trust again.” If we don’t give him the benefit of the doubt, what’s the difference between when he’s drinking and when he’s not if we act as if he is every time? Yet, he’s broken our trust so many times before with the lies, the cheating, the sneaking drinks when we’re not looking.
This mistrust, combined with his own feelings of shame, guilt, and failure, often simply perpetuates the cycle. It’s important to understand that all of this really isn’t about the drinking though. It all connects to something deeper, something that’s at the root of his drinking.
Earlier, we talked about the occurrence of mental health issues and trauma as potential factors that shape our loved one’s usage. This makes even more sense when we start to consider the underlying factors and drivers of addiction. A common misconception about addiction is that the desire to drink is simply a product of pleasure produced by alcohol in the brain or some genetic predisposition, but this is only part of the story.
In reality, most of what drives these behaviors and addictions is the inability to connect with others. If it were true that we only become addicted to substances because they make us feel good, by increasing our “feel good” hormones like dopamine, then why do less than 10% of those who drink or use potentially addictive medications ever have an issue with them?
Scientists have known about our need for connection and trust since the 1950s and now they are finding out that the desire to have interconnection is part of the driving force behind addiction.
So, if we keep letting the cycle repeat without seeking help or providing a sense of security for our loved one, then it will never get better. He will be stuck feeling like the failing drunkard that is a victim of alcohol. And let’s be clear, this inability to connect often has deep roots in one’s past. This is not the time to blame ourselves for an “inability to reach him.” It’s about a long history of trauma or mental health issues that started way before we ever entered the picture.
We know that alcoholism without treatment and support can impact us deeply by taking a toll on family life, adding additional stressors at work, culminating in feelings of failure, and more.
It’s time to get help, so what comes next?
Our Words Matter
Finding a way to help our loved one through this is about more than simply doing a Google search for locations near us. Supporting someone in recovery requires:
- Open and honest communication
- Respect and patience
- Stepping back, so they can face their underlying problems
- Avoiding attitudes, hurtful remarks, negative reinforcement
- Working with professionals and people that have been there before
- Hoping for the best, but also learning how to protect ourselves
This is not always easy. Sometimes, it can feel like we come second to the drink. Sometimes, it may seem like we are always overreacting. It can wear everyone down, but adopting a positive and healthy way to address our mistrust, protective nature and personal feelings can help us to better help those we love.
If you’re looking to find out more about how you can best support your loved one, you should read our next article on getting a loved one into treatment.
1. Boden JM, Fergusson DM. Alcohol and depression. Addiction. 2011;106(5):906-914. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03351.
2. Reinaldo, Amanda Márcia dos Santos, & Pillon, Sandra Cristina. (2008). Alcohol effects on family relations: a case study. Revista Latino-Americana de Enfermagem, 16(spe), 529-534. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-11692008000700005
3. Sara K. Blaine, Rajita Sinha Neuropharmacology. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 Aug 1. Published in final edited form as: Neuropharmacology. 2017 Aug 1; 122: 136–147. Published online 2017 Feb 1. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2017.01.037