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Living with an alcoholic – advice and help

Living with an alcoholic means “constantly living your life in reaction,” says relationship coach Grace Chatting in her YouTube series

“More and more you’re not doing things that you would normally have done. The development of your life or the progression of your life is kind of suspended.

“You find yourself more and more preoccupied with where they’re going, what they’re doing, how long they’re going to be, what condition they’re going to come back in.

“They’re preoccupied with alcohol and you’re preoccupied with them and they become your addiction. When you’re living your life that way, you’re trapped, you’re stuck, your life isn’t your own.”

They are words that will resonate with many who have lived with or loved an alcoholic.

Illustration of an alcoholic man drinking alcohol sitting on a sofa

It can be a debilitating, heartbreaking, frightening and seemingly hopeless situation. But there is hope, there is a way forward and there are things you can do to improve your very difficult situation.

If you’re living with an alcoholic – you are not unusual

One of the most powerful things you can do initially when living with an alcoholic is work through some of the mental barriers they’ll need to break through before they can change.

The first is acceptance of the situation – realising they do have a problem and the denial and excuses are exactly that. 

The second, which is likely to be a huge challenge, is to know that you don’t need to be ashamed. 

You love someone who has an illness, someone who is in need of help and you are likely in need of help too. 

You may well be embarrassed about the situation you are in, you may be ashamed of the effects of that situation – such as financial difficulties or relationship problems. You may be embarrassed about the behaviours alcoholism leads to, both in your own reactions to certain events and to those of the alcoholic, but the situation you are in can and does happen to all sorts of people every day. 

You may find it hard to believe, but you probably know someone else who has first hand experience of alcoholism too – the statistical equivalent of more than one in every hundred people in the UK is alcohol dependent. 

The more people that manage to seek help and then speak up about what they have been through, the less shame there will be and the less likelihood of people continuing to suffer in silence.

Things you may be doing when living with an alcoholic

Whilst it may be hard to hear, there are a number of common behaviours that people living with an alcoholic are likely to either rotate through or become stuck in, which add to the problem.

You should not feel guilty if you recognise these behaviours in yourself. You’re not wrong to have responded this way – it means you’re normal. However, by recognising that this is what you’re doing, you can begin to see that a different approach may be needed.

People who live with an alcoholic may:

  • Deny there is a problem and hope it goes away.
  • Try to control the person with the issue by hiding or removing alcohol.
  • Unintentionally enable the problem by tolerating certain behaviour, paying debts, covering up for the person with the problem or driving them around when they are drunk.
  • Become defeated and feel there is nothing that can be done.

There are so many circumstances where the above behaviours would seem like the only option and finding another way can be extremely challenging, but with support, it can be done.

A lot of people who have begun to recover from the experience of living with an alcoholic and rebuild their lives, speak of ‘the three Cs’ and these can be a powerful mantra. Believing and accepting them is another big step, but can be incredibly freeing.

They are:

  • I didn’t cause it 
  • I can’t cure it
  • I can’t control it

Practical tips when you’re living with an alcoholic

There are patterns of behaviour and communication you may be caught in that are, again, extremely understandable but may be adding to the difficulty of your situation. 

There are a few things you can try – none of them particularly easy when you’re understandably feeling emotional and low, so don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go to plan. And some of these may be impossible, depending on the stage of alcoholism.

One of the key things is about communication and making your exchanges more positive with the person who is alcohol dependent.

This can include:

  • Spotting if there is a pattern to when arguments occur and trying to avoid repeating them. 
  • Trying not to raise the subject of their drinking when they are drunk and more likely to be volatile or not engage. 
  • Remembering to try to say something positive to them – tell them you love them, if you can. Thank them for something small they did.
  • Walking away when things become heated, explaining that you need to calm down and discuss it later.
  • Speak in ‘I’ statements focusing on how you’re feeling rather than risking accusations and blame. 
  • Try to have some happy moments together or moments of fun.

Taking care of yourself when you live with an alcoholic

Alcoholism can put individuals, families and partners in danger. There are the obvious risks of harm to the person drinking but also to those who live with them. 

People can be irrational, irritable and aggressive when drunk and all of those mean they may do things or take decisions that can put you or children in the house in harm’s way. 

As well as the physical dangers there are huge emotional dangers in terms of long term harm to mental health relating to self esteem, depression and anxiety. For children these harms can last well into adulthood. Research has shown, children who grow up with an alcoholic parent are more likely to become alcoholics themselves and are more exposed to risk of suffering depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies.

It’s vital to seek help for the sake of yourself, your loved ones and the individual who is an alcoholic and there are many places you can go to for advice.

Caroline Flint MP has spoken about the toll growing up with an alcoholic mother took on her.

She told Talk Radio how children blame themselves, feel the situation is their fault and have to deal with a lot of insecurity.

She said: “You go to school and don’t know what you’re going to come home to. You love this person but can hate them at the same time.”

When she reflects on her mother, she says: “More than anything there’s a massive sadness about this person, who I knew before drink was a problem for her, was a beautiful lovely, person, but once drink took hold you’d be on tenterhooks the whole time.”

Caroline maintained compassion for her mother, recognising now that her alcoholism was probably a symptom of both chronic low self esteem and a fear of not being able to cope. Summarising, in fact, why alcoholics everywhere deserve our compassion and understanding. It is a disease that almost always develops as a coping mechanism that goes badly wrong. Whilst we must lose sight of that, it is not to say you should ever accept having to suffer alongside an alcoholic due to their illness. 

You must do what you need to do to protect yourself and your own wellbeing even if that means showing some tough love and making difficult decisions and choices about whether you can continue living with an alcoholic.

They can recover and get well with the right support and you can rebuild your life too – either with them if they’re willing to change or, sadly, without them.

If you’re living with an alcoholic, contact Port of Call for confidential, compassionate, free advice and information.

Call today for free & confidential advice on 08000029010 (International: +44 161 674 9049)

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About the author: Martin Preston

Martin is our Founder and Chief Executive. Martin is himself in long term recovery and started Port of Call to help families navigate treatment options. In 2020 Martin will open Delamere Health Ltd, the UK’s first purpose built addiction treatment clinic.

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