Dealing with Addiction
Mary’s husband Bill likes to drink red wine at night—several or more glasses. At family gatherings, dinners out, and at home, he often has “several too many”. After dinner, he is likely to fall asleep in his chair. Other times, he can become angry or hostile. When Mary brings it up, he becomes aggressive—“You’re so judgmental! You’re not perfect either!” he quips.
End of conversation.
His adult children have said something too. Usually they plead with Dad to “slow down” on the wine. Sometimes he might, but mostly he doesn’t. This has been going on for years.
Sarah and Jim, in their 60’s, have an adult daughter who is 35 years old who is living with them “temporarily”. She lost her job and she can’t seem to get back on her feet. The problem is that she has a prescription drug problem—she gets narcotics from several different prescribers. She won’t acknowledge that she has a problem.
And she seems to be going nowhere fast.
Talk to your friends. You will be surprised at how many have a story to tell about a friend or a relative with a drug or alcohol problem.
With over 22 million Americans (2006 stat) suffering from substance abuse or dependency, there are probably 60 million or more family members who are impacted by their relative’s substance abuse.
Family and friends feel shame, anger, frustration, embarrassment and helplessness. One acquaintance told me about his addicted-mother’s head falling onto her plate of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. There was dead silence around the table. No one knew what to say or do.
With the holidays around the bend, many family members fear the worst for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They aren’t hoping for a new MP3 player. They are praying that their father or mother won’t get drunk.
It can be easier for family members when the problems are more severe and result in drunken driving, loss of jobs, legal problems, or serious dysfunction. Healthy spouses may just call it quits. After all, who wants to be married to a drunk?
But there are many more “functioning” substance abusers who don’t drink or take drugs at work. Their workplace may never know they have a problem. They have learned not to drive when they drink, so they have not had any legal consequences of alcohol abuse. It is their family that suffers. When they are sober, they may be wonderful individuals. But when they are using, they are either absent, unavailable, or impaired.
It is this group of substance abusers that can be the most challenging for family members. Mary doesn’t know what to do. She can’t seem to get through to Bill, who is in denial. But she loves him. And after 23 years of marriage, she does not want to leave him. She hopes and prays that someday he will realize he has a problem. At times she feels angry and frustrated. At other times, she feels sad and discouraged. She lives with a layer of chronic tension at home—always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So what can family members do?
Stop hiding the problem. This is a recipe for misery. Come out of the closet and talk about it with friends, family, clergy, and your health care provider. These individuals can be sources of support and help.
Don’t try talking to the person when they have been drinking or using drugs. This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many times family members start arguing with a drunk. It never goes anywhere.
When the family member is sober, let them know how their behavior affects you, and be specific. Mary can tell Bill that she feels lonely and disconnected from him when he falls asleep in his easy chair after dinner. She can also tell him that she feels embarrassed and humiliated when he becomes loud when they go out to dinner. Be kind, clear, and firm.
If they try to turn the conversation back on you, firmly but patiently focus on the behaviors that cause you distress. Stand your ground without becoming aggressive (very hard to actually do!).
Get help. This is most important! Talk to a chemical dependency counselor or mental health professional. Some chemical dependency professionals can orchestrate and lead an “intervention” where family and friends meet with the alcoholic as a group. Join Al-anon (a free program for family members of alcoholics). Learning how to cope with this problem is very complex. Help is needed. Check out http://www.snohomishmedical.org/mentalhealth.htm for resources in Snohomish County.