How to Help the Family of an Alcoholic – Part 1

How to Help the Family of an Alcoholic - Part 1“Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic. The entire family is, to some extent, ill.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 122)

Most people are acquainted with at least a handful of people whom they suspect may have a severe drinking problem. Without realizing the gravity of alcoholism as a disease, we often fail to take into account how badly the family of the alcoholic may be hurting or struggling. Without being asked, we can reach out and be profoundly helpful to a family who often cannot, because of shame or fear of repercussions, voice their needs and struggles.

Alcoholism is not an individual problem or merely a family problem. Alcoholism impacts everyone and everything it touches. Anything you can do to ease the burden of the alcoholic’s family contributes to the health of the community at large. Here are a few practical ways you can show love, solidarity and support to the families of alcoholics.

Don’t Moralize or Advise

Any non-alcoholic can plainly see the destruction and devastation that alcoholism dumps into the life of a family. It is wrong, even unjust and immoral. Surely you can see this and would like to communicate it to the family. But understand that they already know—they know it not as a passing consideration, but rather a 24-hour-a-day reality. Alcohol is ruining their lives, and the life of the spouse or parent they love. They are overcome with shame and embarrassment. They are hardly blind to the situation.

As much as you may want to help them see the error of their ways and offer advice, try to be understanding of their very difficult situation. Yes, they want a solution, but moralism is never the answer. For most families, the course of action is acceptance and waiting. Allow them the dignity to work through the situation on their own timeline.

Empathize

Many spouses and children of alcoholics suffer in silence. They believe there is no one who will understand and no one to whom they can turn to pour out their tragedy and release the pressure valve. They live in a state of constant and unimaginable stress. They desperately need to open up and share. You can be the listening ear.

It is a challenge to begin this conversation, but empathy is always a winning approach.  Do you have experience with an alcoholic family member? Without being overt or pushy you may, from time to time, express that you “know what it’s like” to deal with alcoholism. Often people in need are more likely to open up and share freely when they believe the other person has a framework for understanding their plight. Tell the spouse or child of the alcoholic that you imagine their situation is very difficult and if they would ever like to talk about it—openly, confidentially, and without judgment—you are available.

The non-alcoholic family member isn’t expecting you to fix the situation or provide solutions. They know that nothing other than a miracle can save their alcoholic. But they desperately need emotional care and simple human understanding. Don’t underestimate your ability to provide this.

Don’t Blame the Victim

You ask, why doesn’t she leave him? Or you think he is a glutton for his own punishment. Reconsider these thoughts. In today’s society, marriage appears to be a fluid arrangement, but many took the vow “in sickness and in health” in earnest. The spouse is gravely ill to the point of handicapping the entire family, but despite this, the non-alcoholic spouse may still love the alcoholic deeply, and may be committed to keeping the vows taken during fairer weather.

Others may be too co-dependent to leave an abusive situation. This too is an illness that is often beyond one’s control. Please do not blame the victim for not breaking up the family or for wanting to hold out hope that the situation may improve. Many alcoholics do recover and many marriages have been saved. It is a dream worth fighting and praying for.

The alcoholic’s actions are wholly his/her own. A spouse or child has no ability whatsoever to influence the course of the alcoholic’s disease. You may wonder why the non-alcoholic doesn’t do more, but unless you have lived with an alcoholic, you have no way of understanding the hellish circumstances that comprise their home life. Give them the benefit of the doubt by believing they are doing all they have the power to do at this time.

Part 2