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Helping an Active Alcoholic.

5 June 2012

I’ve been pondering about what to write on this topic for a while. I’ve written about it before, though not for a very long time. It’s difficult to write about this, because I like my blog to be hopeful. I like to talk about my gratitude and my progress, and my service. I like to write about science and engineering, and I even like writing about grants and publication, despite the fact that they make me want to tear my hair out.

Helping an active alcoholic is not a happy topic. Because most of the time, it goes badly for everyone. Most of the time, alcoholism is a fatal disease. And before it kills the sufferer, it destroys their family. Sunders youth and vigor. Lays ruin to finances and ambition. It leaves us broken, bitter, vicious, defensive. And it does all of that too to those we love. There is much wisdom in Alanon’s description of alcoholism as a “family disease”. The alcoholic isn’t the only one who suffers. The alcoholic isn’t the only one who needs recovery.

Now: I do not diagnose anyone as alcoholic. I also, however, do not take the hard-line position that some in AA do (and please remember, I cannot speak for AA, nor can any other one person) that only an alcoholic can diagnose themselves. There are diagnostic criteria. But I am not a mental health professional. And I think that for recovery’s sake, self-diagnosis is the one that matters. But here is the description that I use:

To be an alcoholic, it does not matter how much one drinks (though it will likely be more than other people know), nor does it matter how often (and it may not even be missed when absent). What matters is, when a person drinks, can they reliably know, prior to the first drink, how much they are going to have? And can they choose to stop, and succeed at stopping, and not be unhappy about stopping, prior to inebriation, most of the time when they drink?

I was a daily drinker. Not all alcoholics are. But there were days that I didn’t drink. They were few and far between (maybe 3 days a year, towards the end). And there were days that I had only one or two drinks. But I was never happy. I did not have the capacity to have one drink, stop, and be happy. That was beyond me. And I still don’t have that capacity. And I never will. As I’m fond of saying: if I could drink normally, I’d get drunk every day. Because normal drinking doesn’t make any sense to me. I have no need for it. I don’t want normal.

So now I’ve written another long preface about recovery. What I’m trying to write about here is about the active, unacknowledged alcoholic, and how to help them into recovery.  But the truth is, you can’t. There is no way to make an alcoholic want sobriety. Alcoholism is a disease of an isolated soul. It is a disease of the writhing pit of hellish silence that every alcoholic I know carries inside themselves, of hate and shame and fear and endless, crushing loneliness. Even in a marriage. Even in a family.

And the only thing that treats that condition is pain.

We drink because it allows us to exclude from our consciousness all these grueling miseries we cannot bear. But the terrible thing is that eventually, it stops working. We can’t drink enough to keep the wolves at bay. And when we have had enough, when we reach the point that we cannot imagine life without drinking, and we cannot imagine living the drunken life we’re living anymore, some of us, sometimes, make a decision to change.

Hitting bottom is a cliché. And it’s one badly represented in the media, and in fiction. The famous bottoms involve sleeping in gutters and going off on incredible benders. And a few people’s bottoming out looks like that. But there is no rule except this: we reach an intolerable state of spiritual, or psychic, desolation which cannot be borne any longer. A lot of alcoholics choose this moment to die. Because the choice between sobriety and death is not an easy one.

The alcoholic is on their own journey. Few of us return from it. I don’t know the prevalence of alcoholism. I know that the prevalence of sustained remission, of recovery, is rare. The only thing I know of that can help an alcoholic towards that road is to be forced to choose: life and love and hope and sobriety, or misery and shame and isolation and alcohol. But make no mistake. Most of us will choose the latter.

And it’s nothing to do with strength. Nothing to do with character. Far, far better men than me have died miserable alcoholic deaths. We can only recover through surrender. As long as we battle, alcohol will win. And because it is a family disease, because the alcoholic isn’t the only one who suffers, so many of our loved ones try to help us. Reason with us. Threaten us. Enable us. Surrender applies to them as well.

Alcoholism cannot be defeated. It can only be surrendered to. For the drinker’s loved ones, as well as the drinker. And it’s cold comfort, I know. Because a loved one in the grip of active alcoholism will probably die of it. And if you want to help them, save yourself. While an alcoholic drinks, while they do not acknowledge their problem, while they continue to seek the solution to their psychic agony in the bottle, there is only one help for them: help them to the bottom.

And I promise, if they do find recovery, they will eventually thank you.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 June 2012 11:43

    So powerful. Thank you for writing this.

  2. 6 June 2012 14:23

    I could not Imagine a day go by that I wasn’t grateful to help the alcoholic/addict that is still sick and suffering. I work on a daily basis with individuals who need treatment and I love what I do. It keeps me sober. I help people on a daily basis get into treatment facilities, If you are ever helping someone and feel you cant handle it please for their sake refer them to my website.

    Thanks for the chills I got as I read this. Sober for years and love remembering where I came from. Staying green is where I need to be on a daily basis!

  3. furtheron permalink
    10 June 2012 11:08

    It is difficult isn’t it – so many enable the drinker to carry on even if only by passively helping it through not doing somethings and doing others.

    It is awful also when the alcoholic does start to recover as they want to help but seldom can directly, they can be a support but can’t understand why others can help where for years they “failed” – I think that is a hard lesson for loved ones to go through

  4. Ferrous permalink
    1 March 2014 01:17

    My marriage failed because of his drinking. He was a successful doctor, we had a million dollar home near Aspen and a townhome in Sonoma, Ca. Today, 4 years later, he lives in a sparce 3rd level apartment alone with our cat and digs fracking trenches for a living. When he can, he spends time with our daughter under my constant supervision. He’s probably very physically ill and has recently divulged that he drinks a liter of “Brown” per day. Although I harbor incredible anguish, resentment, and real sadness, if he would reach out, I’d be there in a second. Though, I believe this is his own death row.

    • 4 March 2014 07:23

      I’m so sorry to hear this. I hope for the best of all possible outcomes.

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