Initially Seeing the Signs of an Alcoholic Family Member
Alcoholism is often called a family disease. So why is this? It’s referred to as a family disease because alcohol addiction affects everyone in a family unit. It doesn’t just affect the person with the disease. If you’re the child of an alcoholic, the spouse of an alcoholic, or the sibling of someone who struggles with alcohol use disorder, you likely understand how true this rings.
Alcoholism is viewed as a progressive disease. It begins with milder symptoms in the early days and overtime as a person’s alcoholism progresses, the symptoms can become more pronounced and noticeable. It can be very difficult to distinguish the signs of problematic alcohol use from the signs of drinking in normal situations in the beginning.
What happens in families where there are signs of an alcoholic family member, however, is that there will be covering up of the symptoms. Family members will often want to conceal their loved one’s alcohol use, and they are in denial as much as the person who’s drinking.
This is a disservice not only to everyone in a family, even if it’s well-intentioned but to the individuals struggling with alcoholism as well. Not recognizing the troubling signs of an alcoholic family member can allow the disease to further progress, and its effects become more severe.
Some of the effects of alcoholism on families and home life can include:
- There is often a sense of secrecy and if someone is honest about a problem existing it may be met with anger or hostility
- There can be an atmosphere of fear in a home with alcoholism. For example, the child of an alcoholic parent may be fearful of that person when they’re drinking or afraid to approach them.
- There is a situation called role reversal in many homes where there’s an alcoholic parent. This means that the child can take on the parental role.
- Most homes where an alcoholic is present are defined by a sense of chaos, particularly emotionally.
What Are the Earliest Signs of an Alcoholic Family Member?
We naturally love our family and want to protect them, but that protection can become enabling. By recognizing the early signs of an alcoholic family member, whether it’s the signs of an alcoholic father, the signs of an alcoholic mother, or the signs of an alcoholic sibling, you may be able to do something early on to help them get treatment.
Often some of the earliest signs of alcoholism that become outwardly apparent include:
- Extreme mood swings or irritability
- Experiencing blackouts because of drinking
- Making excuses for drinking—for example, one of the signs of an alcoholic parent might include blaming drinking on having a stressful job
- Choosing to drink instead of doing other things
- Drinking alone or becoming secretive about drinking
- Isolating one’s self from friends and family as a result of drinking
- Regularly spending time with a hangover or feeling sick when not drinking
- A person has a tolerance for drinking and needs larger amounts to feel the effects or become intoxicated
Since alcoholism is medically defined as a progressive disease, the more someone continues to drink the more visible the signs can become, and also the more severe.
How Do the Signs of An Alcoholic Parent or Family Member Change Over Time?
As alcoholism progresses, the signs can start to be more outwardly obvious. The middle stage of disease progression can be the point when a real problem starts to be recognized by loved ones and even friends and coworkers.
An example of some of the signs of an alcoholic in the middle stage of the disease include:
- Drinking at times when it’s inappropriate or dangerous—for example when taking care of one’s children
- As an alcoholic’s disease progresses, he or she may become more defensive and combative toward the people around them, particularly when they’re approached about their drinking
- Physical symptoms and signs of an alcoholic family member can start to appear at this point, which can include redness of the face, bloating in the abdomen, and either weight gain or weight loss
Late Stage Alcoholism: When the Signs of An Alcoholic Mother, Father or Family Member Are Most Obvious
During the late alcoholic stage, it would be nearly impossible for people not to notice. During this late stage, an alcoholics’ appearance will likely have changed significantly. Someone who’s in late-stage alcoholism will usually start to have serious health problems as a result.
There may be problems including cirrhosis of the liver, and symptoms of dementia can start to appear. Late-stage alcoholics may have other mental health issues, such as paranoia.
If someone is a late-stage alcoholic and they try to stop drinking without professional treatment, they may experience hallucinations or tremors. Even though this can be a scary time, it’s important to understand that the signs of late-stage alcoholism can still be treated.
The Challenge of Recognizing the Signs of a Functional Alcoholic
For some families, the signs of alcoholism may not be as apparent, but that doesn’t mean a problem doesn’t exist. There are functional alcoholics, and the signs of this disorder can vary somewhat from the symptoms of more severe alcoholics.
When we think of alcoholic family members, we often think of the most dramatic situations. This can include someone who’s unable to hold down a job or function in daily life. There tends to be the misconception that if a person is functioning and is productive in their life, then they don’t have a drinking problem. However, it’s estimated that around one-fifth of people who have a diagnosable alcohol use disorder can be characterized as functional alcoholics.
The signs of a functional alcoholic, even when it’s your own mother, father, or family member, can be much harder to spot and much easier to deny. A typical functional alcoholic is someone who has a good, thriving career and a family. Many functional alcoholics personally don’t feel they have a drinking problem. Since they’re doing well and seemingly managing their life well, it can be much easier to deny there’s an issue. With functional alcoholics, there is often a sense from family members that it’s normal behavior.
Some potential signs of a functional alcoholic can include:
- Someone who’s a functional alcoholic often has a high tolerance for alcohol, and even though they might drink large amounts, they might not get drunk or appear drunk
- Hangovers and withdrawal symptoms can occur in functional alcoholics
- Functional alcoholics will usually drink more than they meant to on a regular basis
- Alcohol is used as a crutch or a way to unwind and relax
- Someone’s day might be planned around their drinking
- If you have a functional alcoholic in your family, they may justify their drinking as a way to reward themselves
- There are often jokes or flippant comments made about drinking when someone is classified as a functional alcoholic
Why Do Families Hide the Hidden Signs of An Alcoholic?
At the start of this article, the idea of alcoholism as a family disease was introduced. Many times along with being significantly affected by a loved one’s alcoholism, this also means that families will hide the signs of an alcoholic mother or the signs of an alcoholic father. A family might even try to conceal the signs of an alcoholic child. Families do this for many reasons. It may be because they are in denial as much as the person struggling with alcoholism. They don’t want to believe their family member has a problem, so they will try to keep the signs hidden, or they will make light of the situation. There’s also the sense that it can be embarrassing for a family or something to feel shame over. Sometimes if a mother or father in a family unit is an alcoholic, the other parent will cover for them. They may think they’re protecting everyone including the children in the family, but this concealing of the signs of an alcoholic family member is a form of enabling that can often lead to further progression of the disease.
How Do Families Enable Alcoholics?
Even when the signs of alcoholism in a parent or family member are very apparent, there can be a struggle between trying to help that person and enabling them. An enabler can be the other spouse in the family, the parent of a child, or the child of a parent who’s an alcoholic.
The following are signs of an enabler and these can often occur in families where an alcoholic is present.
- Minimizing or ignoring the signs of an alcoholic parent or family member is a sign of enabling. This is particularly true if you’re not only ignoring the signs of an alcohol problem, but you’re also ignoring potentially dangerous behaviors that are going on. For example, you may overlook drunk driving.
- Enablers, particularly when it involves family members, will put the needs of the alcoholic ahead of their own. Often enablers become tired and worn down because they don’t take care of themselves—they take care of the alcoholic first and foremost because they see that person as needing or depending on them.
- It’s difficult when you’re an enabler to say no.
- Enablers will frequently find that they’re making excuses for the person’s behavior who has an alcohol use disorder.
- Blaming yourself for what the addicted person does can be a warning sign of an enabler. For example, if you see the signs of an alcoholic child, you might tell yourself that if you had been a better parent to them, they wouldn’t be in this situation.
- Providing financial support to someone with a substance abuse problem is something many enablers do.
Enablers are well-intentioned, and they want to help someone who’s dealing with alcoholism. Despite their best intentions, however, enablers are not helping their loved ones nor are they helping themselves with these behaviors.
After You’ve Identified the Signs of An Alcoholic Parent or Family Member—How Can You Help?
Maybe you’ve seen the signs of alcoholism in your parent, your child, or another close family member. Maybe you’ve even seen signs of enabling in yourself. So what’s next? How do you address the signs of an alcoholic family member in a way that’s not going to enable them but is going to help them?
When you see the hidden signs of an alcoholic, it’s difficult and overwhelming to know what your next steps should be. There’s often the fear that if you approach a family member after seeing the signs of alcoholism that they will become angry, defensive, and lash out. This may be the case, but it’s still important to address the signs of an alcoholic family member directly. The best chance you have to help someone is to try and get them treatment as soon as possible before the disease progresses to later stages.
Create a Plan
When you see the signs of alcoholism in a family member, you should try to create a plan. You don’t want to address them without a solid plan in place. You may plan a formal intervention. Your plan for doing so should include having a treatment option ready, getting other loved ones together who will be part of the intervention, and then participating in the treatment process. An addiction treatment professional can be an excellent resource if you are going to talk to your loved one about their drinking or stage an intervention.
Any intervention or conversation should not take place when the family member is intoxicated. For this reason, you may have to speak to them first thing in the morning before they have had a drink. During an intervention, the behaviors that have hurt you and other loved ones will often be discussed. The conversation shouldn’t feel like an attack, and the person with the alcohol use problem should feel free to share their thoughts as well.
The Role of Family in Addiction Treatment
Once you’ve identified the signs of an alcoholic mother, the signs of an alcoholic father, or the signs of an alcoholic child in your family and you’ve spoken with them, they may be ready to go to treatment. There are many different treatment options available for people with alcohol use disorders. Your family member may opt for an inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment program. Regardless of the particular program they participate in, family plays an essential role in treatment and recovery. During the treatment process, family members can provide emotional support, but they can also address the effects their loved one’s addiction has had on them. Treatment and recovery can be times for families to learn how to better communicate with one another and to function in a healthy way.
If you would like to learn more about recognizing the hidden signs of an alcoholic, or approaching a loved one with a drinking problem, contact Amethyst Recovery. We can provide you with the resources you need as well as treatment options to help you help your loved one.