What to do when someone in your family has a drinking problem
Problem drinking doesn’t just affect society, it also affects people at a more personal level – at home – and can create serious emotional problems for all family members.
Maybe you’re reading this because there’s an alcohol problem in your family. If so, you’ve taken the first step in helping yourself.
Let’s look briefly at what can happen in a family when one member of the family has a drinking problem.
- Usually, the alcohol problem is creating a lot of stress in the home.
- Maybe the person with the alcohol problem isn’t doing their share of taking care of children or paying bills.
- Maybe they’ve lost income because of drinking.
- Maybe they’ve gotten in some legal trouble because of their drinking or,
- when drunk, they’ve embarrassed you.
Any or all of these things can be happening.
Your family is coping with this stress as best it can.
Each family member will cope in their own way.
- One member of the family might become a peacemaker, always trying to resolve conflicts between other family members.
- Another person might try to cover up for the problem drinker by phoning in sick for them at work and lying about the problem to employers and friends.
- Perhaps a son or daughter is getting into trouble or even over-achieving, giving the family something else to focus on.
- Some people in the family might just withdraw into their own world.
All of these roles are just ways to cope with a really stressful situation. But, in the long run, they’re not really helpful because they avoid the real problem and, in some cases, allow the problem to continue.
Everyone in your family, including you, may be having a lot of feelings –
- hopelessness, and
These feelings are normal. But in families where alcohol is a problem, these feelings are often not talked about. In fact, family members might go out of their way not to show these feelings.
There are three unspoken rules* in these kinds of homes:
- Don’t talk – families learn not to talk at all about what’s really going on or to call the problem something else, e.g., calling a hangover the flu, calling a drinking binge stress release.
- Don’t trust – children and other family members learn to be always on guard for the next crisis or “scene.” Promises are broken and responsibilities abandoned, e.g., meals aren’t made for children, bills aren’t paid, promises to stop drinking are not kept. Family members, especially children, learn to “look out for themselves” and don’t trust that anyone will “be there” for them.
- Don’t feel – in order to survive what’s going on, family members often “turn off” their feelings. Sometimes, people in the family don’t believe their feelings are real and are afraid they will be made fun of if they share their feelings. Often, they don’t trust that anyone will listen or care about how they feel.
Living by these three rules is harmful to everyone, especially children.
People in your family probably spend a lot of energy focusing on the person with the drinking problem.
The family constantly adjusts its behaviour to try and control the behaviour of the problem drinker. So, people in the family learn to ignore their own needs in favour of someone else’s.
- you stopped seeing your friends because you don’t want them to know that your husband or wife, son or daughter has a drinking problem.
- Maybe you’ve stopped saying anything about the drinking because you’re afraid of making the problem worse.
- Maybe you’ve taken a second job to make up for the money lost because of drinking.
All of these things do nothing to help you; they only make it easier for the problem drinker to drink.
I know all of this – what can I do?
If there’s an alcohol problem in your family, some of what you’ve read here might sound familiar. But you want to know what to do. It’s very important that you’re asking this question. Your decision to ask questions and read this brochure – to get help – means that you want to start doing things differently. And that’s the only way to begin recovery – for you and your family.
Here are some things you might want to consider:
Reading this is one way to get information about an alcohol problem in the family.
Other sources of information include videos, books and other websites.
You might want to visit your local alcohol and drug office for information and resources.
Talking to other people who are in or have been in your situation can also help a lot. There are 12-Step support groups like Al-Anon, Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), and Codependents Anonymous (CODA) which welcome anyone who has a spouse or parent with an alcohol problem.
As well, group and one-to-one counselling is available from many counselling agencies.
Remember, you can get help even if the person with the drinking problem isn’t getting any help for themselves.
Find someone to talk to about what’s going on in your family
Too often silence is the main thing that maintains the status quo. Talk honestly about what’s going on with a friend, another family member, someone in your spiritual or religious community, a counsellor, or a support group.
An objective person can really help you get perspective on your situation and talk out some plans.
Having someone to talk to is particularly important for children. Even if one parent has a serious problem with alcohol, the other parent or another significant adult, like a teacher, aunt, or uncle, can really counterbalance the negative effects the problem drinker may be having on them.
Stop doing the “dance”
Many people talk about being locked into unhealthy situations with others as being in a “dance” with them.
Stop the dance by taking care of yourself and your needs. Often even changing one behaviour can stop this “dance” and begin recovery.
- If you’ve stopped socializing with friends because of the problem drinker, re-establish those friendships.
- If you’ve covered up or made excuses for the problem drinker to friends, family, and employers, stop doing it.
- Take responsibility for yourself.
You can get help doing this from your doctor, clergy, a therapist, addictions counsellor, and/or a support group. Don’t accept the blame for what’s going on in your family, but do accept the responsibility of changing what you can.
Set your bottom line
Ask yourself: “What am I willing to live with?” Set your bottom line and stick with it.
Don’t make threats you’re not going to follow through on. For instance, if you tell the problem drinker that you’re going to leave if they drink again – you’d better be prepared to do just that.
Only you can say what you’re willing to live with. The choices you make to take care of yourself will certainly help you, but they may also help the rest of your family, including the person with the alcohol problem.
If the family member with the alcohol problem does choose to seek help or treatment, it’s important not to expect miracles.
Just because the drinking has stopped, doesn’t mean that the problems in your family are suddenly fixed.
Generally, recovery – for everyone in the family – is a long, rocky road with places you might get stuck for awhile.
Relapse is an understandable part of recovery and it’s very important not to be discouraged by it.
You’ve taken a step towards recovery, you’ve made a choice to try and live a different way.