Living with an Alcoholic is something you’ll never truly understand until you’ve been there. My father was an alcoholic as well as my grandfather and I have since met other generations of people who are addicted, so my experience of living with alcoholics is pretty thorough.
Although some are secret drinkers, many are known to their friends and families as being unable to keep away from the booze. This article explains the different types of behaviour demonstrated by alcoholics and the way it can affect the people they live with.
Living with an alcoholic can feel like living with Jekyll and Hyde: you never know which one you’ll get next. Most alcoholics will exert all if not a majority of the behaviours I’ll discuss in this article, some more than others.
Walking on eggshells
If you’ve ever had any experience of living with someone addicted to alcohol, you’ll understand this one straight away. Some days you end up feeling as if you are walking on eggshells just waiting for the next thing to make him or her turn into a rage. You might say the ‘wrong’ thing, or drop somethings, or perhaps a child may spill a little water on the carpet. Whatever it is (and it can be anything at anytime) you’ll find that a normal situation suddenly turns into a full blown and unreasonable argument.
So, instead, you do whatever you can to avoid a confrontation. You watch everything you do. You’re hyper-aware of everything you say. You begin to avoid situations ‘just in case’.
Unless you’re ‘lucky’ enough to live with an alcoholic who doesn’t have mood swings, you’re definitely be able to relate to this.
The Violent Alcoholic
Almost anyone with experience of Living with an Alcoholic experiences violence, whether it’s physical, verbal or mental. Even at the age of 37, I still have vivid memories of my father punching my mother in the face. I later have memories of my mother’s second husband throwing me across a room because he was jealous that I received a nice Christmas present when his were always rubbish as a child (no doubt one of the reasons he turned to drink).
In fact, as I’ve begun writing the article I can recall a number of incidents including my grandfather being violent, also. Such as the day he hit me for spilling some gravy on a chair, or the time he slapped me around the face for chewing my corn flakes too loudly (I was around 5 years old).
And that’s the problem with the majority of violent alcoholics – they’re cowards. They take out their anger on weaker people, women and children. You’ll rarely see an alcoholic pick a fight with someone they can’t beat (unless they’re in a drunken stupor).
The guilty alcoholic
Once the dust as settled and the hangover has set in, may alcoholic begin to experience guilt and there’s no one more ‘sorry’ than a sobering alcoholic. As the booze slips away, a the endorphins begin to reduce, the realisation of the alcoholics behaviour sets in and so does the guilt.
“I’m sorry, I won’t do it again” is usually the first apology, followed by a number of promises. “I can change, I’ll stop drinking” is another, along with “I wasn’t me talking, in was the drink”.
Whatever the excuse, you can be fairly certain the behaviour will return again, and probably bigger than the time before.
The lying alcoholic
Lies are a big part of an alcoholic’s life. Lying for an excuse to go for a drink, lying about having had a drink, or lying to engineer a situation which will enable them to have a drink. Whatever the example, an alcoholic is going to lie…frequently.
The secret alcoholic
I remember a family friend called Nick. He was a former Merchant Navy captain and used to sale ships out of Southampton. He often smelled of alcohol but no one ever saw him drink.
One day, I went out to speak to him. He was looking in the back of his van for some tools. I opened the front door and stuck my head in, only to see him panic as he tried to hide a bottle of strong cider from sight (he spilled it everywhere).
It turns out that Nick used to drink in his van and would hide his bottles of strong cider under dust sheets. He was a secret alcoholic who, at the age of 52, suffered a heart attack whilst out walking. The postmortem said the heart attack was caused due to an enlarged heart and that he had died before his head even hit the ground.
A friends mother was also a secret drinker. She would hide booze in small glasses all over the house. I thought it was just Ribena, but it wasn’t. She died of liver failure at the age of 62. In hindsight, I now know that she was drinking almost every minute of the day but no one ever actually saw her drinking.
Forgetfulness is a problem which effects many people, but which seems to be worse with heavy drinkers. The cause is two fold:
- They forget things they are told because they are under the influence when they are told, and;
- Alcohol damages the brain and makes it difficult for alcoholics to remember things (in late life it can develop into alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD))
Forgetfulness can lead to aggression, because when alcoholics are drink and you tell them they were told something which they have forgotten, they will swear blind that you never told them.
Most alcoholics will start drinking and manage to hold their work and personal lives together. These people are often referred to as a “functioning alcoholic”.
Other time, the person will become more and more unreliable. They’ll start missing important appointments. They may start turning up to work late (or missing work completely).
It make takes months, years or even decades, but sooner or later the alcoholic will become unreliable. Alcoholism is a disease and like all diseases it only gets worse over time.
Living with an alcoholic can be dangerous
If you’re living with an alcoholic and you or the people are vulnerable, you need to seriously consider whether it’s save to stay with that person.
I can recall numerous instances where the alcoholics I lived with did dangerous things when they were drunk. Not deliberately, but because they completely lost control.
For example, I can remember my grandad deciding to remove the back of an old tube TV and attempt to repair it. I walked in the living room at the age of 10 to see him swaying, with a metal screwdriver in one hand and the TV switched on with the back removed. He was trying to adjust the settings. If he’d touched the wrong part he’d have got a very serious electric shock.
I can also remember waking up in the morning to the smell of gas. He’d tried to make a bacon sandwich whilst drink and had left the hob on, unlit. Thankfully I noticed the smell of the gas and was able to open windows before anyone switched on a light. It could have blown the house up.
How to make living with an alcoholic easier
This is a question that anyone who lives with an alcoholic is going to ask, but the fact is that there are very few ways to making living with an alcoholic easier.
The first thing you need to understand is that you’re not qualified to give the person professional help. Whatever you might think you’re able to do, unless you’re trained in medical and psychological treatments for alcoholism, you’re not going to cure them.
The only person who can make living with an alcoholic easier is the alcoholic themselves. They need to want to stop drinking. Not because you have told them, but because they really want to. If they can’t stop drinking, how do you expect you’ll be able to stop them?
You can’t control them either, because they will do anything for a drink. It’ll just leave you feeling helpless.
There is help available, but you need to seek it out. First of all, it’s a good idea to discuss quitting alcohol with your doctor, because suddenly stopping alcohol intake can cause a number of negative side effects including convulsions, sickness and blackouts. A heavy drinker is likely to need medication to help them stop drinking.
Alcoholics Anonymous offer group therapy across may parts of the world and provide free telephone advice.
Although some people do manage to go ‘cold turkey’ when it comes to giving up alcohol, it’s not recommended and is unlikely to result in long-term abstinence.
No amount of pity is going to change them
Trust me – your pity is not going to help an alcoholic. Not in the short term, at least. Only once the alcoholic is seeking professional help can you truly help them. Until that point, your pity will only serve to provide them with more excuses to drink to excess.
If you cover up their addiction, you’re only making things worse. You’re only helping the alcoholic to hide the problem further.