It had been several years since I had seen her, but I recognized Sheila immediately. Shoulders hunched and eyes darting about the room like a butterfly looking for a landing place, she stood in the doorway to my office not quite ready to come inside.
I’m not sure if you remember me, but I met you a few years ago at the company picnic. Do you remember? The picnic that my husband rather ruined for everyone by stumbling into the dessert table?
I think I need to talk to you. About my husband. He’s not a bad man, my husband. He just can’t seem to stay sober very long. And when he drinks, well, it usually ends up being a grand mess of some sort or another. When my adult daughter and I talk to him and try to get him to quit, he just gets angry.
Can you help me? Can you help me help my husband stop drinking?
Sheila joined millions of other wives, girlfriends, husbands and children who love someone who has an addiction problem. Alcohol, prescription drugs and street drugs, addiction is addiction, although some substances certainly cause more personal and family destruction than others. Approximately 17 million adults in the U.S. struggle with an alcohol problem. That’s about one in every 12 adults. And for every one person who drinks too much, there are family members who struggle to help them stop.
Addiction is one of those insidious things, telling the person addicted that there isn’t a problem. If you love someone who has a drinking problem, have you ever heard them say something like this?
- I can handle it!
- My family is exaggerating the problem. Good grief, everybody drinks!
- I have a really stressful job/life, and simply use alcohol to unwind.
- I can cut down any time I want to! Why just last week I didn’t drink at all. This week is my reward for good behavior.
- All my friends drink way more than me.
- Drinking is a normal part of my social group.
- I’ve never gotten in trouble for drinking – why are you bugging me about it?
If you love someone who drinks too much, there really are two separate problems. There’s the problem drinker – that person you would do nearly anything to help STOP the addictive behavior. Then there’s your own problem – your whole life may feel like its bound up in the alcoholic’s drama. Telling lies to cover for missed work. Covering up drunk behavior so the children don’t notice. Choosing your words carefully so as not to send the alcoholic off on another drinking binge. Your constant vigilance in looking for hidden bottles, smelling his breath and watching the money. You may have lost some friends, or have no friends left at all. You may blame his drinking on his friends and be absolutely certain that all would be well if he would only stop drinking. In fact, you may have threatened time and again, “If you don’t stop drinking I’m going to just leave!” But when it came right down to it, you’re likely still there. Bottom line, at your core, in your heart-of-hearts, you are sure that if you love him enough and find just the right words, he’ll stop drinking for you.
There is hope. There really truly is hope BOTH for the alcoholic you love, and for you. If you’ve been living with a practicing alcoholic for a long time, or if this situation has been creeping forward for years and just recently became “bad enough” that you are ready to seek help, that statement probably doesn’t make much sense. But trust me, there is real, tangible, honest-to-God HOPE.
If you want things to change, you need to change something, right? As I explained to my friend Sheila, that “something” to change is the tough part. Especially because it may not be the sort of change you wish could happen right away. But IT WORKS. That’s the important thing to remember. IT WORKS.
Here is a short list that will get you started when you love someone who drinks too much.
1. First off, unfortunately there is no magic pill or technique or way to ZAP! your loved one into recovery. So remember that as we go through this list of ways you can help. While there is no “zap” answer, there are millions of alcoholics who find recovery and millions of family members who are now living a life they could only barely imagine.
2. Begin by your determination to stop the cover up. You’re probably in the comfortable habit of making excuses, telling lies, adjusting your schedule, all based on if he (or she) is drinking and what mood he (or she) is in. Start noticing how often you do that. You may be surprised!
3. If your loved one drinks and drives, determine never again to ride in the car if they’ve been drinking. For some this one is easy, for others its very difficult. But it is super important.
4. Decide how badly you need your loved one to stop drinking. Do you need it badly enough to do whatever it takes? If you’ve been trying to convince them to stop for awhile and you’re not getting anywhere, now is the time to pull in a trained third party for an intervention. I strongly recommend not ever doing an intervention without trained support and involvement. Those caught up in addiction, as well as those who love them, are dealing with some of the deepest emotional issues it is possible to face. An intervention done professionally has a very good chance of succeeding, while one thrown together by a frustrated family will likely have the reverse affect.
5. Get help for you. While you may believe that all would be well if your loved one would simply stop drinking, it really is more complicated than that. While you’re trying to find ways to hold the alcoholic accountable and get his attention using a trained interventionist, your own needs must be addressed. YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Find a coach or therapist or group of others in a similar situation and begin the process of discovering a whole wonderful life that does not revolve around your beloved alcoholic.
Remember Sheila, the woman afraid to come all the way into my office? She finally did come in and we talked for hours. I shared with her the five steps above that would begin her family’s journey into recovery. And while she was afraid, overwhelmed and hardly daring to hope, she was willing to begin. In her case, stopping the cover-up resulted in her husband getting very angry. It took a few times of her walking home before he believed that she really truly wouldn’t ride in the car with him after he’d been drinking. And over a few months I was able to help her and her adult daughter put together all the pieces for an intervention that finally got her husband’s attention. He’s been sober six months now, and while life isn’t perfect, it is far better than anything either of them could have imagined for a really long time.
Where are you right now? Going into the holiday season, is there a place in your heart that aches, knowing that someone you love will drink too much? Do you worry about the arguments, wonder if this year he’ll get pulled over and go to jail, stress about what the neighbors think and if the extended family will even bother extending you an invitation this year? Do you sometimes feel angry, responsible, depressed and overwhelmed?
YOU ARE NOT ALONE! There is HOPE, and it really truly gets better. I know. I’ve been in recovery for over 20 years, and so have a number of my family members. I also know because I’ve helped literally hundreds of alcoholics and their families find hope and healing. There are dozens of support groups that help, the main ones being Alcoholics Anonymous for the alcoholic and Alanon for family members. Are you ready to begin? Is it bad enough? Are you out of excuses and really want to make that positive change in your family? Ready to do whatever it takes to get help for the alcoholic you love, to get help for you? The hole is only as deep as you’re willing to dig. How about now?
Reach out. To someone. If you’d like help from me, send an email to RJ@ronaejull.com. Right now, your new life is waiting! Can you see it?
About Ronae Jull
Ronae Jull writes from Hope Coaching with Ronae Jull at ronaejull.com, where she is a life coach for parents of teens and adult children, and individuals at all stages of addictions recovery. After more than 20 years of her own recovery journey, Ronae lives by the principles of joy, personal responsibility and insatiable HOPE. She writes from Washington State where she divides her time between graduate school and grandchildren, Skyping with clients from around the world, and where she remains ridiculously optimistic about the human heart’s potential for healing and HOPE.
Read more of Ronae’s story here or check out the video below.