An Alcoholic in the Family—What Can You Do?
STAGGERING, he just barely makes it home after a night’s drinking and passes out on the living-room floor. His wife is hurt and upset. Nevertheless, she struggles to pick him up, cleans him up and puts him to bed. Her husband is an alcoholic.a
The next day he promises it will never happen again. Sometimes he has no memory of the night before. But she remembers! ‘I don’t dare say anything about it,’ she says to herself, fearing that if she did, he would get so upset he would start drinking again. Since he is in no condition to go to work, she calls the boss to make excuses for him.
She hopes against hope that he will drink less. In fact, she desperately tries to control his drinking. So she hides the liquor or throws it away.
She limits their social contacts, fearing the embarrassment that his drinking causes. And she doesn’t socialize without him, for fear he will become angry and drink even more.
And yet, despite all of this, he continues to drink! Why? Isn’t she doing all she can to help him? Actually, without realizing it, she has made recovery more difficult. It is not just her husband that needs help—she does too!
Does the above describe a family you know, perhaps even your own? If so, you may be wondering, ‘Why do you say the spouse may also need help?’
Impact on the Family
Alcoholism has a tremendous emotional impact on the entire family. The spouse, for instance, often is a mirror image of the alcoholic.
For example, a common symptom of alcoholism is denial that a drinking problem exists. However, often family members also deny the problem, perhaps because they fear disgrace. So if your mate has a drinking problem, do you find yourself coming up with “reasons” for each drinking episode?
That is not all. As your efforts to control your mate’s drinking meet with repeated failure, perhaps feelings of inadequacy and anxiety are growing within you. Or even worse—is resentment and bitterness building up inside you? “Many times I wished he was dead,” confessed one desperate wife.
Thus, it is no wonder that you may be suffering from the same negative feelings and emotions as does the alcoholic—anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, nervousness, frustration, tension, low self-esteem. Yes, often the spouse needs help too.
What about the children? It is heartbreaking to consider the lasting emotional scars they may get. Notice what some children of alcoholics told Awake!
“I was always in the middle. One time, when I was about nine years old, Mom had been drinking and she and Dad had a big argument. Mom started to walk out. I got hysterical, and grabbing hold of her skirt, I pleaded with her not to go.”
“Everyone knew. I can remember walking to school and hearing the boys laughing and shouting, ‘Your father’s a wino!’”
“I developed an inferiority complex. I blamed myself.”
“I still have a great sense of insecurity, doubting my ability, belittling myself, getting disgusted with myself.”
It’s easy to see why such children may become nervous, withdrawn and not very talkative. They will often suppress and deny anger, fear, frustration and loneliness. Otherwise it just hurts too much. Yes, the children may also need help.
Thus, you—the family member—may need help (1) to maintain your own emotional health and (2) to learn the best approach to the alcoholic.
Learn the Facts
Start by informing yourself about alcoholism. The local library or an alcoholism information center may offer helpful material. Talking to others who have faced a similar problem may provide you with practical suggestions on what to do.
Perhaps the biggest question in your mind is, ‘What can I do to help the alcoholic?’ But before you can help the alcoholic you may need help to recover from your own negative feelings and emotions. So first learn how the alcoholism has affected you. Otherwise you likely will not reach the alcoholic!
Next, learn the best approach to the alcoholic. Perhaps you initially reacted like the wife described at the outset. But such efforts often contribute to the progress of alcoholism rather than to a recovery. Why? Because it hinders the alcoholic from seeing the reality of his (or her) situation. He is hidden behind a huge wall of denial. So shielding him from the consequences of his drinking usually enables him to continue denying the problem and continue the drinking.
Guiding the Alcoholic to Help
Although you can’t force an alcoholic to go for treatment, you can make him want help. But how?
Basically, there are two approaches: (1) allow him to experience the consequences of his drinking and (2) confront him directly with the facts about his drinking. Even at his sickest, the alcoholic can accept some portion of reality if it is presented to him in a receivable way!
However, before we discuss each approach, a word of caution: Such intervention requires that you be informed about alcoholism and have the emotional strength to apply that knowledge.
Now, what does it mean to let the alcoholic feel the consequences of his drinking? It does not mean punishing him, but it does call for being firm. To illustrate, let’s refer to the wife described at the outset. Notice what Dr. Winnie Sprenkle, director of counseling at a successful alcoholism treatment center, recommended in an interview with Awake!
● What could she do when her husband passed out on the floor? “In general, it’s very important for the family not to mask over the problem so that the alcoholic doesn’t know what’s gone on. So if he passes out on the floor and wakes up the next morning in his pajamas in bed he will never know what happened.” Hence, depending on the circumstances, she could let him sleep it off right there. The next morning, as he wakes up on the floor, he would be presented with the reality of his situation.
● When he can’t recall his behavior of the previous day, what could she do? “Be honest with him, but not in an angry way. ‘Here’s what happened last night and here’s the effect it had on me.’” Even though he may get angry, she is thus helping him to see that his behavior does not occur in healthy families.
● What about isolating herself? “I think the most important thing is for the family simply to go about their business of living in the healthiest way they can. The alcoholic more and more gets confronted with how big the contrast is between him and the rest of the family. Often that will result in his finally saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem and I need to get some help!’” Thus, if she socializes without him, she could kindly let him know that she wished he could join her, but that his drinking problem prevents it.
What about the second approach—confrontation? In I’ll Quit Tomorrow, Vernon E. Johnson recommends the following:
Those confronting the alcoholic should be the most meaningful persons in his or her life. With the help of a qualified counselor, each one prepares a list describing in unsparing detail the alcoholic’s behavior. A date and time are set when the alcoholic is likely to be sober. Then, in a way that reflects their deep concern, each one reads aloud his list. Though the alcoholic may at first be defensive, they firmly continue. The goal is to enable the alcoholic to accept enough reality to see the need to get help.
Where Can Help Be Found?
Some family members, along with the alcoholic, turn for help to an alcoholism treatment center, where the family also may be enrolled in a program of therapy. How can this help? Until now, family members may have repressed painful memories and feelings. Not being in touch with their own feelings makes it hard for them to understand the alcoholic’s. So, often the basic goals of therapy are: to recognize and accept one’s own feelings (to overcome negative feelings you must first face them); to understand the feelings of the other person and how one’s actions affect him or her emotionally; and to apply this insight, thus learning how best to act.
‘But what if the alcoholic refuses to go for help?’ you ask. Whether the alcoholic does so or not, you may need help to face and overcome your own negative feelings. For such help, some families turn to local groups made up of family members of alcoholics. Such groups attempt to provide understanding and insight into the problems of living with an alcoholic. Of course, such groups do not exist in all parts of the world.b Others, realizing their emotional need for help, turn to another source.
“Knowing the truth from the Bible is what helps me to cope,” says Ann, who has lived with an alcoholic nonbelieving mate for 30 years. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she regularly studies the Bible and strives to apply it to her own situation. While this doesn’t remove her problems, it does help her to be happy despite them. And it can help you too. How?
For one thing, applying Bible principles can help you to overcome negative feelings and emotions and thus cause you to be happier despite your situation. However, to do this calls for strong faith that God will do what he has promised. (Hebrews 11:1, 6) Consider some examples.
Anxiety: Do you face financial problems due to your loved one’s drinking and are you extremely worried about how you will make ends meet? “Stop being anxious,”c counsels Jesus about life’s necessities. “Your heavenly Father knows you need all these things” and he can and will provide for those who make his worship a chief concern in their life. (Matthew 6:25-34) Jesus then gives a most practical suggestion for defeating anxiety—live one day at a time. Why add tomorrow’s anxieties to today’s? Besides, as one Bible scholar put it: “The future of reality is seldom as bad as the future of our fears.”
However, just knowing Jesus’ words will not relieve anxiety. You must apply them, and that is where real faith comes in. God’s ability and promise to provide for his servants are sure. The only question is: Are we absolutely confident that as long as we diligently work to do our part God will do his part?
Guilt: Have negative feelings and attitudes made you feel guilty? True, you have your imperfections and God does not condone wrong attitudes. Yet the Bible warmly assures us: “If we confess our sins [to God], he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins.” (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13) Is there really any reason to believe that God will not do that in your case, provided you do your part? God will do as he has promised. But you’re not going to feel better unless you firmly believe that.
The study of God’s Word can also put you in line to receive the help of God’s holy spirit. And that spirit can adorn you with positive qualities, such as ‘love, joy, peace, kindness, mildness and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22, 23) What a powerful aid in overcoming negative feelings! However, you must “keep on asking” God for his spirit. (Luke 11:5-13) And, here again, it calls for firm faith. As Jesus said: “All the things you pray and ask for have faith that you have practically received, and you will have them.”—Mark 11:24.
Would you like to learn how to acquire that kind of faith? Jehovah’s Witnesses will gladly help you. You may even find that among them are persons who have endured the same problems as you and who could therefore provide understanding help from the Scriptures. Keep in mind that verbalization tends to reduce negative feelings. So by discussing your feelings openly with someone who understands your situation can be a big help.
If you are already associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses and you need assistance to strengthen your faith, why not ask a Christian overseer for help? Such devoted men are ‘willing’ and ‘eager’ to help their fellow Christians in whatever way they can.—1 Peter 5:1-3.
a Of course, the alcoholic is almost as frequently the wife. But we use this situation as an example.
b Whether to seek the help of such groups or not is a personal decision. Of course, a person who is desirous of living by Bible principles would want to be careful that he did not become involved in activities that would in any way cause him or encourage him to compromise the Scriptural principles he lives by. Also, a person who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses would first consult those in the Christian congregation who have spiritual qualifications to help in these matters.
c The original Greek word merimnao literally means “to have the mind distracted.” As used by Jesus, it refers, not to proper concern, but to worried fear that ‘distracts’ or divides the mind, taking the joy out of life.
[Blurb on page 17]
Shielding or protecting alcoholics usually enables them to continue denying the problem and continue drinking
[Blurb on page 18]
“I think the most important thing is for the family simply to go about their business of living in the healthiest way they can”
[Blurb on page 19]
“Knowing the truth from the Bible is what helps me to cope”
[Box on page 19]
If your loved one agrees to get help, how can you support the recovery?
Do . . .
● Be patient, kind and courteous
● Be cheerful and encouraging
● Allow the alcoholic to assume responsibility when he or she feels ready
● Be honest with your children about your loved one’s condition
Don’t . . .
● Bring up the past
● Hover over the alcoholic in a watchful way
● Try to protect him or her from drinking situations
● Panic if there is a relapse; your loved one will need your compassionate support
[Chart on page 20]
Applying Bible principles can strengthen and help you
If you feel . . . Then read . . .