There’ve been plenty of times in my life where I wished I’d been born into a different family. My longing had nothing to do with not getting the brand-new car I wanted for my 16th birthday or for being the only kid I knew that hadn’t been to Disney World. But it had everything to do with the unfortunate fact that my parents were alcoholics.
Growing up, I didn’t have access to many sane or sober people to be able to understand and process my parents’ addiction. There are many things that I wish I’d known back then, that I only have access to now as an adult. I can’t help but imagine that if I’d had the support I needed, that maybe my relationship with my family wouldn’t be as compromised as it is today.
Whether you were born to alcoholic parents, married an alcoholic, are a parent to or a best friend of, loving an alcoholic can be challenging and feel, at times, impossible. Here are 12 things, I wish I’d known about loving an alcoholic.
It’s Not Your Fault
As a kid raised by alcoholic parents, I believed that their addictions were completely my fault. I believed that if I was smarter, prettier or quicker at memorizing the multiplication table, that they wouldn’t have a reason to drink and their problems would fade away. I carried this ridiculous belief with me well into my adulthood and my self-esteem took quite a beating because of it.
It wasn’t until I realized that their problems were firmly in play long before I was even born, that I was able to see that my parents were responsible for their life choices. It wasn’t until I honestly believed that their addictions weren’t my fault or my responsibility to fix, that my own recovery could begin.
You’re Not Alone
Learning that your daughter, husband, cousin, brother or best friend is an alcoholic can leave you feeling isolated. And the newfound shame and embarrassment that you experience as a result can prevent you and your family from reaching out for the support you need.
According to NCADD, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States; 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence.” So when you consider that 17.6 million people suffer from alcohol abuse and then you think about the number of people, just like you and me, who are negatively affected by that abuse, you have to ask yourself, how alone in the world of addiction can I really be?
Education Is Key
The more you know about addiction, the more confident and empowered you will be when dealing with your loved one. Knowing the right questions to ask when considering the best course of treatment, dealing with your insurance company or taking care of your own needs can bring order and balance to a situation that feels chaotic and out-of-control. The more you know, the better.
You May Not Be Ready to Forgive and That’s Okay
Addiction wreaks the most havoc on the relationships it destroys. Even though you may desperately want your loved one to get sober, sobriety doesn’t guarantee that your relationship will be healed and all the bad will be forgotten.
Even if your loved one is sober, you may not be ready to forgive them for lying to you, possibly stealing and for breaking promises that at the time felt genuine and sincere. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay if you’re not ready to forgive. All you can do is try to remain open to the idea of forgiveness, express your disappointment, be honest with what you’re feeling and in your own time, in your own way, you’ll find it.
You May Be Angry and That’s Okay, Too
Don’t beat yourself up if you feel anger towards your newly sober (or still using/drinking) someone. It’s only natural, as you work towards mending your relationship, to feel conflicted over what happened in the past and all that’s waiting to be discovered in the future.
Stuffing away your anger or shaming yourself for how you feel only delays your recovery. If your anger becomes too overwhelming you can always work through it with a therapist or someone you trust. But whatever you do, don’t deny it and don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to feel it.
Learn the Difference Between Enabling and Detaching With Love
One of the most difficult challenges we face as loved ones of alcoholics is knowing the difference between enabling and detaching with love. When we enable the addict in our lives we become obsessed, at the cost of our sanity, with cleaning up our loved one’s messes. No one wants to watch someone they love drown their potential and their future in a bottle of booze. But when we consistently step in and shield someone from the consequences of their actions, we delay their progression towards recovery. When we detach with love, though, we create boundaries that respect our own emotional and mental well-being, while allowing the alcoholic to continue to make their own choices, whatever they may be.
Boundaries Are Necessary; Get Help Creating Them
One of the best ways to keep your enabling reflexes in check is to learn how to create boundaries with your loved one. Boundaries, although challenging to enforce, will aid you in defining exactly the behaviors you are willing to tolerate as well as what you’re not willing to put up with. If you’re having difficulty with the idea of establishing boundaries with someone you love, reach out and get help in figuring out what yours should be and how to set them up.
Practice Getting Comfortable With the Unknown
Life with an alcoholic can be disruptive and unsettling. You just never know what kind of drama will be waiting for you on the other side of your front door or on the other end of your phone. And this constant anticipation of what may or may not happen next can leave you mentally and emotionally exhausted. That’s why it’s worth it to practice getting comfortable with the unknown. Accepting that you can’t control or predict what might happen next will free up your mind and create time for you to sort out your own recovery.
Your Recovery Is Just as Important
With so much attention placed on the alcoholic, we can easily forget that we have our own recovery to tend to. Whether you join forces with a therapist or raid the list of self-help books on Amazon, it really doesn’t matter. Just find some form of recovery that works for you. And never forget that your needs are just as important as the alcoholic’s.
There Will Be People Who Just Don’t Get It
Friends and family who have never been directly touched by addiction may not be able to understand or relate to what you’re going through. Although some may want to offer their support, they may be hesitant to bring it up or just not know how to approach the subject with you. And then there might be an unfortunate few whose knowledge of addiction is guided entirely by stigma, myth and misconception. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do for people who aren’t willing to open up their minds to new ideas about addiction. But what you can do is find people through community groups, 12-step meetings and even on social media, that do get it and lean on them for support when you need it.
Don’t Let Stigma Keep You Silent
It’s unfortunate, but there’s no denying that addiction comes loaded with stigma. Stigma triggers shame and shame leads to silence. And silence keeps us trapped in our darkest secrets.
If you find yourself buckling under the weight of stigma or the fear of what people may think about you if they find out that your husband, daughter or mother is an alcoholic, remember that stigmas are nothing more than old, worn-out ideas about addiction. There will be people who judge you unfairly; there’s no dodging it. But their judgment says more about how little they know about addiction than it does about you and your situation.
There’s Always Hope
Finally, it’s time to talk about your most consistent ally in the world of addiction and that ally is hope. Depending on what’s unraveling in your life, you may not feel hopeful 100% of the time and that’s okay. Look for inspiration from your support group, connect with people and listen to their stories. It can be very therapeutic to realize that you’re not alone in what you’re going through. And for the times when you really just can’t shake that hopeless feeling, simply try to roll with it. The feeling will pass and when you’re ready to come back to it, hope will be there waiting for you.