Aside from addicts and alcoholics themselves, nobody suffers more than those forced to watch a loved one suffer. They sometimes blame themselves for their loved one’s disease, especially if they can identify past enabling behaviors. Such people experience constant fear, depression, self-pity, and quite often resentments. They lie on behalf of their beloved addict or alcoholic. And when they aren’t trying to protect their loved one, they’re praying for this person to get better. At other times, they may lash out due to frustration. Chapter 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous (“To Wives”) speaks directly to those who understand such struggles.
“To Wives” doesn’t address wives alone, acknowledging that many husbands, parents, and other family members are all too familiar with the pain of watching a loved one struggle against the crippling disease of addiction. Such people often suffer from isolation due to the fear of inviting friends over to witness a potential substance-fueled outburst. They often lack financial security, especially when the addict or alcohol shares fiscal responsibilities within the household. But more than anything, they must contend with constant disappointment when their loved one tells them that they are absolutely done using—only to resume their habits within a few weeks or even mere days.
Many spouses in particular struggled with distrust, especially when the addict or alcoholic was guilty of infidelity. A fair number of those to whom “To Wives” is dedicated find that they even start drinking or doing drugs themselves out of sheer desperation to either mask their emotions or relate to their addicted loved one. But this behavior never felt quite right. So how do the loved ones of addicts and alcoholics cope with the disease and foster an environment of recovery? There’s no perfect answer, but “To Wives” covers a number of themes that just might help. We suggest reading the chapter in its entirety, but you’ll find some of the more important points below.
Identifying Addiction in Four Categories
Some who read “To Wives” might be put off by the following passage:
“Try not to condemn your alcoholic husband no matter what he says or does. He is just another very sick, unreasonable person. Treat him, when you can, as though he had pneumonia. When he angers you, remember that he is very ill.”
This puts some people off because they fail to see the number of qualifiers used in these sentences. “To Wives” isn’t saying that you should tolerate an angry and abusive Hyde simply because a loving Jekyll might be somewhere underneath. The message is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, the chapter clearly states that truly ill-intentioned addicts and alcoholics should not be enabled. If you truly feel that there is no better person underneath the drunken stupor, it’s best to remove yourself and your family from the path of destruction. But how do you know whether the addict in your life is truly good inside? There may be no perfect answer, but you can at least identify which of four categories describes them best and go from there.
The first category is the heavy drinker (or heavy user, in the case of drug addicts). Heavy users sometimes learn to use moderately, or even stop altogether. When they first start, they don’t quite fit the description of a true addict or alcoholic. Some only drink in certain situations, such as business conventions or dinner parties. But when they start, it’s difficult for them to stop. Even if they don’t drink every day, their drinking tends to have a negative impact on the family bank account.
The second category extends beyond the heavy drinker to those who cannot moderate at all. This is not to say that they never try to stay sober for various periods of time. But they continue using, losing friends and possibly even business in the process. Even users of this sort may be worried about their own habits, but they remain convinced that they can moderate. They feel awful about their substance abuse, and profess that they wish to stop. Nevertheless, they usually hop back off the wagon within a short time. Some people in this category might be functioning addicts and alcoholics, but they are most certainly in trouble if they don’t seek help.
The third category tends to spring from the second. “To Wives” notes that these people often lose the majority of their friends, and perhaps even spend some time in the hospital. There is still some hope for this person, especially when they hit rock bottom and realize how desperately they must cease their substance abuse. But until they reach this point, their substance abuse will continue to reap major consequences for addict and family alike.
The fourth category of addicts and alcoholics is the most tragic. These people can be violent, and often come across as quite mentally ill. These are the people who may suffer from delirium tremens or other major symptoms of alcoholism. When they call the family from jail, it might be tempting to simply leave them there. In some cases, this might even be the right course of action. The ill-intentioned husbands mentioned in “To Wives” often fit this category. But many good people descend to this point in their addiction as well. Only the family can determine whether or not addicts and alcoholics in this category deserve the tolerance required of anyone who chooses to let such addicts continue playing an active role in their lives.
It’s not always easy to determine precisely which of these categories suits your situation best. Nonetheless, anyone reading “To Wives” should give the matter some thought. After all, you need to know which category describes your loved one’s situation before deciding how to move forward.
Appropriately Handling Each Category
The heavy drinker may not be an alcoholic—but if they are, then getting them to stop can prove surprisingly difficult. Not only will this person fail to see the problem with their drinking or drug abuse, but you might even enjoy their company when they’re somewhat moderated. The key here is to be patient. Don’t push the subject too strongly, or your loved one may use this as an excuse to drink even more. But if the subject comes up naturally, perhaps mention the AA Big Book and the chapter on alcoholism. Don’t accuse your loved one of being an alcoholic, but rather suggest that they read up on the subject. Perhaps your loved one truly can learn to moderate. If not, hope that their research into addiction will lead them toward this premise. When it does, you can move forward from there.
If your loved one fits into the second category of the four above, you should again wait until after a serious binge to approach the topic. When doing so, don’t pressure them to give up substance abuse for your sake. Instead, ask whether or not they think that they might like to break the cycle of their self-destructive habits. Again, you might try showing your loved one a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous, or at least the chapters defining alcoholism (“There Is a Solution” and “More About Alcoholism”). Even if they struggle with a substance other than alcohol, they might see some similar behaviors in their own habits. If they don’t accept your help, drop the matter for the time being. They may come back to it on their own. If they don’t, then you must decide how to move forward from here.
The third category in “To Wives” might actually present an easier solution. This is because addicts and alcoholics in this category often find themselves wishing that they could stop. Because of this, it won’t take as long for your loved one to bring up the topic. You can then present them with a copy of the Big Book, or even suggest considering addiction treatment. If you feel that you have reason to worry about your loved one’s reaction to this suggestion, you might allow someone from outside of your household to bring up the topic.
Loved ones in the fourth category can be quite similar to those in the third, with some exceptions. “To Wives” notes that some people in this category are tragically beyond help. Still, many can and will recover if they see the need to do so. Things become more complicated when co-occurring disorders accompany your loved one’s addiction, but even people with other mental illnesses have recovered in the past. The only time that you should leave your loved one’s side is when they make it clear that they will never show any interest in recovery. If they become dangerous to you or the rest of your family, do not sit idly by and wait for them to change.
Whether or not your loved one chooses to enter recovery, things do not end there. Wives, parents and other family members suffer greatly when exposed to alcoholism and addiction. For this reason, “To Wives” discusses the need for some family members to make a new life for themselves. But those able to stick by their loved one’s side may still experience some difficulties in recovery. These are covered below.
Continuing Your Support During Recovery
For those with loved ones who truly want to recover, a bit of patience goes a long way. Do not demonize this person when discussing them with the rest of the family. Don’t embarrass them or cause undue harm to their reputation, as they are sick and simply need help. Instead, try to embrace the spiritual principles of recovery. “To Wives” notes that a transformation by one family member sometimes inspires the addict or alcoholic in their lives. Seeking self-improvement as a loved one seeks sobriety just might bring you closer together than ever before. But if your improvements do little to sway the habits of an angry and abusive loved one, then you may need to pack a bag and get out. Patience isn’t worth sacrificing your own safety.
If your loved one does enter recovery, try not to resent the time they spend away from the family. It may be disappointing to get someone back only to feel as if you’re losing them again, but “To Wives” states:
“You have been starving for his companionship, yet he spends long hours helping other men and their families. You feel he should now be yours. The fact is that he should work with other people to maintain his own sobriety. Sometimes he will be so interested that he becomes really neglectful. Your house is filled with strangers. You may not like some of them. He gets stirred up about their troubles, but not at all about yours. It will do little good if you point that out and urge more attention for yourself. We find it a real mistake to dampen his enthusiasm for alcoholic work.”
The solution is, once again, to pursue the same principles you wish for your loved one. If the person is your spouse, try talking to other spouses in groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. As for parents with addicted children, you’ll find many fellow parents in these groups as well. These groups will also help you overcome the pain felt after years of struggle. Sometimes you won’t trust your loved one, or you might find old resentments bubbling back to the surface. The people in these support groups know precisely how you feel.
One issue remains to discuss, which is relapse. Say that you decide not to abandon your loved one, maintaining faith in their recovery. But just when things are going well, you catch them drinking or abusing drugs again. What now? Do you maintain your patience, or do you decide that they never truly wanted to recover? “To Wives” suggests the former. Families find it difficult to watch a loved one relapse. But nobody feels worse than the addict or alcoholic who feels like a failure in sobriety. Support their efforts to regain their footing. They might just learn something from this setback that actually serves to enhance their recovery in the long run.
“To Wives” reminds wives, as well as other family members, that recovery takes time. Don’t be too skeptical every time there seems to be a lack in progress. By the time everything is said and done, you might hardly recognize your loved one as an addict or alcoholic. This is a truly amazing experience. If you want more information about how you might see these changes through treatment and the services we offer our patients’ families, contact Amethyst today.