I can’t imagine too many things more difficult than loving an alcoholic–except maybe loving an alcoholic who has acknowledged his problem but isn’t yet ready to do anything about it. At least, that’s what I tell my non-alcoholic friends when they suddenly find themselves faced with friends, family members, or partners who are clearly destroying themselves with booze.
I have had more than a few non-alcoholic friends tell me in recent years they finally realize the problem in a relationship with either a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, or lover is deeply rooted in alcohol abuse. Their descriptions of their alcoholics, and the issues they face are uncannily targeted and similar.
These poor souls almost always begin with a description of what a good, kind, hardworking, and “otherwise loving person” their alcoholic is. I place “otherwise loving person” (OLP) in quotation marks because my first question to the unsuspecting non-alcoholic friend is, “And how often is he ‘otherwise’ these days?” My family served up the same kind of alibi for me long after alcohol’s deleterious effect on my life was painfully apparent. “He’s really a kind and loving boy,” they’d say. “He just needs to learn to drink more responsibly.” Or, at least responsibly enough to stay in a marriage or at a job and out of jails, hospitals, and institutions.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) says, “No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows.” True enough. But have you ever noticed the lengths to which our loved ones will go (and often for a rather extended period of time) to help us deny we are damaged goods (i.e. bodily and mentally different from our fellows, or, more bluntly stated, ALCOHOLIC)?
It is usually at this point—early in our discussions—that my non-alcoholic friends try to make excuses for their OLP’s increasingly demonic behavior. “She just went through a really yucky divorce.” (More than 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet 50% of the adult population is not alcoholic.) Or, “He’s having financial difficulties.” (Really? Who isn’t?) Or, “She’s under a lot of stress at work.” (Many would say she’s lucky to have a job!) Or, how about the one I latched onto for nearly 10 years after the fact: “He just lost his father. It’s been hard on him.”
When my friends’ excuses for their OLP become too much to bear, I find a spare Big Book and point them to the passage that says, “Job or no job—wife or no wife—we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God. Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” (98)
Once we’re passed the rationalizations and excuses, the brutal truths are usually quick to surface. My friends acknowledge that, whatever the cause of the excess, their relationship with their OLP will never improve and may very well end if he or she doesn’t stop drinking completely. By the time they’re desperate enough to talk to me about the problem, they usually know in their hearts their OLP’s condition is hopeless. They know instinctually they love someone who will never drink normally again. It just takes them a little while to admit it out loud. Sadly, they also begin to share descriptions of their OLP’s Jekyll-N-Hyde-like behavior. Deeply remorseful every morning-after, their OLP quickly becomes defensive (if not abusive) at the first suggestion they actually do something about the problem (like enter treatment, or God forbid, go to an AA meeting). Or worse, their OLP turns the tables and becomes accusatory, suggesting my non-alcoholic friend and his or her role in the OLP’s life are the very reason they drink so frequently and excessively.
Possibly the saddest part of every encounter I have with friends who don’t understand alcoholism is their willingness to entertain the idea that they are to blame for their OLP’s drinking problem. “Maybe if I acted differently when he promises to stop, he’d be more successful.” If they only knew how absurd that notion is (and if they get help, one day they will know), they might understand why I have the audacity to laugh when I hear them try to blame themselves for outcomes over which we are all powerless. But more often than not in these situations, laughter is scarce, so I reach again for my spare Big Book and point them this time to the chapter titled More About Alcoholism. “Please,” I tell them, “Keep this copy. The first one-hundred-and-sixty-four pages might help you … a lot.”
Until recently, my point of view in these discussions has almost always been that of recovering alcoholic sharing his experience, strength, and hope about the future. I dodge, respectfully, most requests for advice or direction. That is the job of professionals, I tell my friends, or the job of potential comrades at an Al-Anon meeting should they choose to “go there.” Generally, I try to be honest about how formidable, but also how wonderful, it can be to trudge the road of happy destiny if only their OLP can find a way to hop on the path.
That’s usually my tune. But a few weeks ago, when I was contacted by a colleague’s sister—whom I’ve never met and who was struggling with her partner’s alcoholism—I found myself saying, “I know how you feel,” almost as often as I said, “This is what he’s up to.” At some point in our email exchange, I suddenly realized that I’ve spent a good portion of my life on both sides of the fence. From my father to various women I’ve loved to friends who have walked in and back out of the doors of recovery to a life of active use and abuse, I’ve had my fair share of OLPs. And, yes, even with all I know about my own condition, I’ve still found it possible to say things like, “Well, she’s drinking again, but I’ve never really seen her drunk.” Or, “He may drink too much at times, but he certainly isn’t as bad as I was at his age.” Or, best of all, “Maybe she came to AA at a bad time in her life, but now she’s able to handle it.”
And then it really hit me … the reason we make excuses, the very simple reason none of us wants anyone to be bodily or mentally different from their fellows: None of us wants to believe that any substance, alcohol or otherwise, could mean more to someone we love than we do. And maybe the admission is even more painful for those of us who once lived years and years of our lives knowing full well that nothing—and certainly nothing human—could mean more to us than alcohol once we’d taken the first drink.