Alcoholism is a family disease. It can have a devastating effect on each member individually as well as the family as a whole. It is particularly difficult for the immediate alcoholic family member living in the same household, though close friends and extended family suffer greatly as well. To friends and family of the alcoholic, you cannot control it. You need support too.
“The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead.”
Stability in an alcoholic household is often non-existent
Typical daily routines are interrupted as the alcohol problem worsens and the disease progresses. Responsibilities such as working and spending time with the family take a back seat to “the getting and using and finding the means to get more” of the drugs and alcohol. Selfish and inconsiderate behaviors become the rule rather than the exception in a home plagued by substance abuse. Life with an alcoholic can be hell.
Communication among family members breaks down as lying and manipulating is used by the alcoholic and family alike to avoid confrontation and keep the family unit intact. “Over any considerable period, things always get worse, never better.” Family members often engage in co-dependent behaviors such as bargaining and enabling the alcoholic, keeping the disease alive in spite of its adverse effects on both the family and the alcoholic.
Just as the alcoholic’s life is characterized by chaos, so too are the lives of those that love them most. As the alcoholic becomes psychologically and even physically dependent on alcohol and drugs, their priorities shift radically, and their lives spiral out of control. The worse their problems become, the more they turn to the drink or drug to help them solve their problems. Similarly, for spouses, parents, and even children of alcoholics, the worse the alcoholic gets, the more they try to minimize and manage the problems for them.
You have no control
In the beginning, you think that things aren’t that bad. You may question whether or not there is a real problem. You can handle it. Probably not. Family members would do well to realize that the harder they try to hold on and control, the more out of control things become.
Just as the alcoholic tries to control their drinking/using in an effort to prove they are not sick, those closest to them try to control the alcoholic to the same end; it is this obsession that perpetuates the dysfunction in their home and in their lives. The only thing anyone has control over is their own actions and the alcoholic doesn’t even have control over that when they are in active addiction.
Help for the family
Family therapy takes two different forms – there is therapy that may include the addict, and therapy designed for the family members of the alcoholic. Family therapy is usually the first step to seeking help; within that forum family members can express their concerns to their loved ones in a safe environment.
An intervention may be staged. Often, a family’s initial foray into therapy doesn’t begin with solely the alcoholic but as a group who, with the helped of a licensed chemical dependency counselor, intervenes on the alcoholic in the hope that they become open to discussing treatment options. Ideally, the addicted loved one will agree to seek help from a rehab center.
While convincing the alcoholic that they need treatment is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, the family need not wait for their loved one to admit their powerlessness over alcohol/drugs in order for them to admit their own powerlessness over other people and their actions. The family must accept responsibility for their own emotional and mental health just as the alcoholic must accept his/her drug and alcohol abuse as the symptom of a disease.
The family of the alcoholic has its own needs
So much focus is placed on the alcoholic and their needs, yet the family needs support and healing too. A family support group is a resource designed to support the emotional needs of the family. Support groups offer a safe place to discuss the feelings caused by their loved one’s addiction, such as embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, anger, and grief.
Support groups for families are usually conducted by an addictions counselor, psychotherapist or social worker. Families work together on the development of new coping skills and setting important boundaries with their loved one. Healthy boundaries support the healing process of both the alcoholic and the addict in their recovery.
There is a myriad of support groups for people to take advantage of. Those willing to step out of their comfort zone and seek help will find that they are not alone. The National Institute of Health estimates that there are over 15 million Americans who suffer from Alcoholism – that’s roughly one in every twenty Americans. If one assumes that those millions of alcoholics each have an average of just four family members who love them, there are 60 million other Americans suffering from the same dilemma. The disease is indiscriminate; people from all walks of life have this affliction so everyone can find someone they can relate to.
Where can I find a family support group?
Most substance abuse treatment centers offer a family support group. Generally, these groups are free of charge and open to the public, so anyone may attend. Ask about a family group when your family member enters into treatment.
National groups also exist to support families. Spouses and parents of alcoholics can find help for themselves in a variety of programs including Al-anon, Families Anonymous, and Nar-anon. Children of alcoholics can get support from Alateen and Adult Children of Alcoholics. Siblings and friends can seek relief from Co-Dependents Anonymous. All of these programs are 12-step based and follow the same fundamental principles and traditions as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous where countless have recovered from a seemingly hopeless condition.
The Arbor strongly advocates family healing and support as a critical component of overcoming addiction. If you’re in the Austin or Waco, Texas area, we offer free family support groups. Additionally, we offer a 3 ½ day intensive family program. Give us a call if you want more information on our programs.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 6: Into Action (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, New York, 2001) Pg.82
NA White Booklet, What is the Narcotics Anonymous Program (Narcotics Anonymous World Services, 1983) Pg.1
Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 3: How It Works (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, New York, 2001) Pg.30
or more information on The Arbor's Programs