How to Love the Alcoholic Without Losing Yourself

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When a loved one is struggling with addiction, it’s hard to stay calm. The chaotic life of addicts and alcoholics effect everyone around them. According to Al-Anon, a 12 step program for family and friends of alcoholics, an addict’s behavior directly impacts at least 20 people including family, friends and people at work. That’s a big impact!

When you have a family member who is addicted, forcing them into treatment usually doesn’t work. The alcoholic needs to choose recovery himself because when pushed into it, the motivation to recover isn’t there. In fact, the chances of them leaving treatment early is a pretty safe bet.

Because the addict’s behavior gets increasingly out of control, it’s difficult for outsiders to understand the hell you’re in. Family and friends urge you to kick them out, but it’s hard to let go. You live in constant fear of what could happen next.

In this blog you’ll learn how to navigate the chaos of addiction, love the alcoholic/addict for who they are now and still take care of yourself in the process.

Separate the Person from their Addiction

Though it’s not uncommon to judge the alcoholic’s behavior, it misses the mark. Addiction is a proven, medical disease. No one chooses to be an addict. Research supports a genetic component along with many different social factors that contribute to its development.

A common misconception is that if the alcoholic “really cared” about their loved ones they’d stop using. This kind of faulty logic becomes a painful lesson in powerlessness. Nothing matters to the addict more than using. They need substances to cope with life. Expecting them to stop implies a sense of control that, by definition, they no longer have.

The Difficulty of Understanding the Alcoholic

An addict doesn’t see their behavior as problematic. As the addiction gets worse, their brains are hijacked by the substances they crave. Brain chemistry changes as they begin to rely more and more on substances to just to feel normal.

They will go to extreme lengths to keep their addiction secret. Sometimes, they will pick a fight with you to get the focus off of their drinking. This is not done out of spite but as a way to escape what’s happening and use again.

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It’s difficult for the non-addicted person to understand the addictive brain because they are sober! An alcoholic brain is a foggy brain which makes getting into recovery more challenging - and heartbreaking to watch. Family and friends need to consider what their boundaries are so they can face the long road ahead.

Learn to Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries with an alcoholic isn’t about giving ultimatums or threatening to leave them. You can’t make them want sobriety but you can take care of yourself around it.

Boundaries show you how to do that. You get to choose what to participate in and when to remove yourself from a situation. They are not about getting the addict to change. Boundaries clarify what you’re going to do. Putting yourself first isn’t easy but setting boundaries can alleviate much of the overwhelm. Click here to learn more about boundaries.

When starting to set boundaries, it helps to practice detachment. This does not mean that you stop caring! Detachment is a choice choice to let go of the addict’s problems. It's a chance to step back instead of rescuing them. Experiencing their own pain helps the alcoholic hit an emotional bottom and hopefully start recovery!

An Alcoholic’s Bottom

The term “hitting bottom” applies when the alcoholic admits that he needs help. He realizes that he can no longer manage his own life. Unfortunately, an alcoholic’s bottom has to be severe enough to get their attention. Tragically, this could even mean incarceration or even death.

Letting go of the addict can feel like you’re giving up on them. But at some point, when you love an addict, it becomes futile to keep helping them. Gently get your focus back on yourself rather than worrying about them. By not participating in the addict’s chaos, you create a healthy separation between what you can and can’t control.

Stop Rescuing the Alcoholic and Save Yourself

The hard truth is that you can’t get the alcoholic sober. Think about it this way; say you need to lose weight. When someone tells you to eat less, do you change your eating habits or wait until it hurts? It’s human nature not to seek help when we don’t see a problem.

The best thing you can do for the addict is to get into recovery yourself. There are codependent patterns embedded in alcoholic relationships that need to be addressed. The addict is not the only one who needs recovery. For more on codependency click here.

Look for ways you might be contributing to their chaos. Are you making excuses for them or making it easy for them not to take responsibility? Family and friends need to accept their own powerlessness over what’s happening to the addict - and learn how to cope. Recovery teaches you how to cope when there is addiction.

What You Can Do

Learn about the disease of addiction. Attending Al-Anon meetings provides helpful literature about the disease concept. Understanding the addiction helps to remove the judgment. Addicts aren’t bad people, but they lack the skills to cope with life on life’s terms. For instance, many alcoholics report that taking that first drink made them feel normal. Imagine not feeling normal without a drink!

Because the non-addicted person can’t relate to this, they start to feel “better than” the alcoholic which creates more tension. Having realistic expectations can minimize conflict too.

Have More Realistic Expectations

Because an addict’s life revolves around the substance, they don’t have much capacity to be emotionally available. Being vulnerable and open in relationship takes a sober mind.

When dealing with an addict, having realistic expectations is key. This is also referred to as practicing acceptance. Instead of fighting what is happening, you learn to accept it. You may not like the addiction, but you are powerless to change it.

Practicing acceptance with an addict means not expecting them to be different than who they are.

For instance;

  • When they are unreliable - don’t expect them to follow through.

  • When they aren’t emotionally available, don’t expect them to be supportive.

  • When they are dishonest, don’t expect them to tell the truth.

  • When they can’t show up for you in a crisis, stop expecting them to.

  • When there is a major family event, don’t expect them to be sober. 

Being able to accept the alcoholic for who they are today can preserve the relationship and keep the connection that you have together. Acceptance allows you to enjoy the precious moments that come and detach when you need to take care of yourself.

Get the Right Support

Because family and friends don’t often understand the nature of addiction, their advice is well-meaning but inaccurate. While they may be a listening ear, ask for what you need directly - to avoid unwanted advice.

When dealing with addiction, Al-Anon gives you that much needed support. It’s a free 12 step support group for friends and families of alcoholics. They have mentors known as “sponsors” to help you learn how the program works.

These groups have no leaders but they do follow group guidelines to keep meetings equatable and safe. Everyone is there for the same reason - to learn how to cope with the effects of addiction. They are an amazing lifeline for those needing comfort instead of direct advice.

When to Seek Professional Help

Another option is to work with an interventionist, a person trained in addiction that helps the family express their concerns and boundaries to the addict and offer treatment. This is not a tough love approach but a chance to express concerns for the addict to get help. Hiring a professional to guide the process keeps everyone focused on the goal.

Despite whether the alcoholic gets sober, the family is strongly encouraged to enter recovery. Attending Al-Anon or individual therapy provides invaluable support to handle the ups and downs of addiction. A family’s recovery can also help the alcoholic hit bottom but sadly, there are no guarantees.

Final Thoughts

As family and friends begin to let the alcoholic experience their own consequences, a natural balance is restored. Doing less for the alcoholic and more for yourself makes life a lot easier to manage.

Focus on getting your own life back on track because spending all of your time and energy on the alcoholic doesn’t leave you much left over.

Many people in Al-Anon use the serenity prayer as a reminder of where you have control and where you don’t.

“God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When it’s about the addiction, the alcoholic can’t be rational. Looking to them to fulfill your needs when they can’t take care of themselves is a set up for resentment. Realize that you can't control or change the addiction. The addict is the only one with the power to change their own circumstances. All you can do is lovingly detach and find your own recovery.

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