There’s not a more frustrating relationship on the planet from my perspective than a relationship with an addict and alcoholic.
You rack your brain to try to figure out how to save this person’s life. Ultimately that’s really what’s at stake at the end of the day. You want to learn how to fix this. You want to learn how to get your loved one back.
If you could shake them awake you would. You know they’re in there somewhere. And you just believe that if you could say the right thing or do the right thing you’d wake them up from this nightmare. You’’ get through to them and get them back and your family can be fixed and everybody can come back together again.
I know that feeling firsthand extremely well.I know that feeling of looking over at your loved one feeling like they’re lost and just wanted to call them home.
I get it and I want to tell you you’re in the right place to learn how to deal with this situation in your life because likely what you’ve been doing you’ve been doing out of love out of concern and care. But it’s crazy making because it’s not working.
I’m going to give you some tools to deal with the addict or alcoholic in your life.
I’ve been an expert in the field of codependency coaching for a long time and on my journey, I served as head faculty at one of the world’s leading drug and alcohol treatment centers. I did that for about eight years before I transitioned into owning my own personal development company.
As faculty, I co-created and facilitated a family program.
And every single month hundreds of families came through that program, raising their hand, telling the stories about what they would do to try to control their alcoholic or addict’s behavior.
Whether it was a spouse or child or parent, they discussed hiding alcohol, cancelling parties, hiding and doling out pills, and researching “How to detox somebody”. Essentially, they were working harder on somebody’s recovery than the person who needed to recover.
I understand this completely and I want to discuss the impact of these behaviors on your loved one and the impact on you if you continue these behaviors.
And then,, I want to offer a better way to help you and your entire family.
I remember the first time thinking that I had some kind of control over my dad’s drinking.
He was an alcoholic. My parents were divorced and my dad would pick us up every other weekend. I was 5 or 6 when we first started going for weekends with my dad and I remember feeling terrified.
My dad never drove anywhere without a beer between his legs. Whoever called shotgun would sit in the front seat and there’d be a six pack on the floor next to your feet. He’d reach over and grab that cold wet beer that grazed your leg and then all Hell would break loose.
He’d take his eyes off the road for as long as it took to down that beer. To a five year old, it felt like an eternity.
I just remember being paralyzed with fear thinking “we’re going to die today”.
I grew up in the Backwoods of West Virginia/ Pennsylvania in coal country where there were windy roads on hill tops without guardrails. I remember thinking, “He’s not partying attention!” I thought we were going to wreck.
I needed to take control. That’s when I invented a little game. I never called shotgun. I would sit right behind my dad so I could see right over his ear. I had a little imaginary steering wheel, a little break and a gas pedal from that backseat. So, when my dad would take his eyes off the road and I’d be hyper-vigilant, take over with my imaginary steering wheel and save us all from impending doom.
Because it worked (we never wrecked), that instilled in me this codependency control pattern which is one of hyper-vigilance.
If you grew up in a family of addiction or dysfunction or abuse you know this hyper-vigilance extremely well. It’s a belief that you can control the toxic or dysfunctional person in your life if you just say the right thing or do the right thing. You’re always on guard, always seeking the “right strategy”.
I tried other things to control my dad’s alcoholism.
My dad used to hide vodka in the toilet tank. So I would take it out of the toilet tank dump the Vodka down the drain and put the bottle back thinking he would know it was me that did it and he’d feel so guilty and shame stricken that he’d quit drinking then and there.
Sometimes that would work. And other times, I would go back in there be a brand new bottle would be there. Then, I’d feel like a failure and resolve to try harder.
I would have conversations with him thinking maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’d save the empty beer cans and pile them up as proof to help him come to his senses.
As a kid of an alcoholic or addicted parent, you truly believe the drinking is your fault and that you can fix it. And as adults, if we’re still locked in a toxic pattern of codependency, we continue to believe this lie.
We lecture, pointing out how much they’re drinking having these exhausting conversations with them. We dump out the alcohol. We avoid social gatherings. We go to restaurants without bars. We lock up the medication.
But what of none of that is working?
What if we have no control?
If you love an addict or an alcoholic, the only thing that you can decide is how you’re going to choose to experience your loved one’s addiction.You decie how you participate in the dysfunction.
You come up with, and learn to set and hold your boundaries. I used to confuse boundaries with ultimatums.
An ultimatum is a desperate plea, a manipulation to try to get somebody to change their behavior. IE “If you drink on Thanksgiving, I’m never letting you come over again and I will be devastated.”
Alcoholics don’t drink to ruin your Holiday because they don’t love you enough. They drink on thanksgiving because they’re actively alcoholic. I used to say things like that to my dad thanksgiving and then I would be full of resentment, anxiety and pain and confusion when he drank anyway. I’d wonder where I went wrong or why he didn’t respect me.
A boundary is for YOU. It’s a warning to others what they can expect from you when they violate what you’re available or unavailable for. IE: “Dad if you come over and your drink on Thanksgiving, you will be asked to leave or I will leave.”
I remember telling my dad at one point “I love you so much but when you drink I feel really uncomfortable and triggered and it makes me feel super anxious. So if you’re going to drink or I notice that you’re drunk, I will be leaving.” And then, when he drank, I left. I’d say, “I love you and I am leaving now.”
I wasn’t looking for a fight, for justification or rationalization. I was looking out for myself.
So, how do you start to set and hold boundaries with an addict or an alcoholic versus trying to control their behavior?
The first step is awareness. How are you trying to control your loved one’s addiction?
The second step is to get help. Al-Anon is a great free resource.There are online and in-person support groups where you can feel heard and know you are not alone. But if you want step by step guidance and strategic advice, consider reaching out to schedule an appointment so we can look at your unique situation and figure out what to do next.