An article in the Guardian (17 January 2014) by Patrick Strudwick entitled If You Want To Know How To Help An Alcoholic, You’re Asking The Wrong Question provided a moving description of how hard it can be to deal with a loved one who is caught up in addiction. The article claimed that it is just not possible to help an alcoholic, with the author suggesting it is like trying to water a dead plant. Patrick Strudwick recommends that the question should not be ‘how to help the loved one’ but how the person in this position can help themselves.
Alcoholism is often referred to as a ‘family disease‘. This is because having an alcoholic in the family typically means suffering for everyone in the home. This type of addictive behaviour is closely linked to domestic abuse, and children growing up in this type of family can end up being deeply traumatised. There is plenty of help for the person caught up in the addictive behaviour, but others impacted by the addiction are often ignored.
There are groups as Al-Anon that provides support for families caught up in this type of situation. This fellowship is a good resource, but it is not something that suits everyone. The problem is that Al-Anon is based on the 12-Steps. AA doesn’t work for everyone (success rates may be as low as 5 per cent) and neither does Al-Anon.
One of the main arguments in the article by Patrick Strudwick is that the families of alcoholics are out of their depth when it comes to facing this situation. They are just not qualified to deal with the problem so more needs to be done by doctors and the NHS. The problem is that the while the medical profession is quick to boast about the latest cures for addiction, they are not doing enough to push alcoholics into getting help. This is a fair point, but the reality is that nobody can force an alcoholic to get better – even if this person is hospitalised against his or her will.
There is not much that can be done to help a person who does not want to quit drinking. In this situation, loved ones need to put their own needs first. Removing the alcoholic from the family is often referred to as an example of tough love, but it is often the only way loved ones can look after themselves. Being kicked out of the home might not cause the alcoholic to hit rock bottom, but it can mean the family suffer less in the future.
Some would argue that supporting the alcoholic while he or she is still drinking is a form of enabling. This is because the family ends up protecting this individual from the consequences of their behaviour. Some people need to suffer a great deal before they become willing to stop, but when the family enables the individual then they may be preventing this person from hitting this rock bottom. This means the family is not only continuing to suffer because of the behaviour, but they may also be helping to prolong it.
Nobody ever plans to become an alcoholic, but the individual has to take responsibility for escaping the condition. There are plenty of effective recovery resources to choose from, but the affected person has to be willing to make use of these. The best that a family can do is support a loved one who is ready to break free of addiction – until this day comes though, there isn’t much else for them to do.