I’m taking a small break from a forum I am usually an active reader/poster on for people living with people who are addicted to alcohol (I am not currently; but I have in the past, and as a dyed-in-the-wool co-dependent I find the tenets of recovery apply to just about everything else in my life).
Everyday there are new posters who come looking for help in making their husband, sister, child, parent, etc. stop drinking. Many of them are on their last shred of hope for a happy outcome. Most are in huge denial about the scope of their loved one’s illness. Almost every last one thinks their alcoholic is different than everyone else’s.
Each newbie is typically welcomed to the site by whatever regulars happen to be around at the time, praised for reaching out for help, asked to read the stickied posts on the front page of the forum, and assured that they are not alone.
The ensuing responses range from the very gentle (“I am so sorry you are going through this”) to the incredibly tough (“Do you realize you are being abused?”). Posters are encouraged not to give advice (almost impossible sometimes) but rather to share their experience, strength and hope on threads (“When i was in a similar position, I did this…”) and hope the thread’s original poster can gain something from that. Mostly, though, people who have been there and done that give a lot advice that is spot-on 95% of the time, and it can be incredibly hard for those newbies to hear (especially the bits about alcoholism being a progressive disease, not being able to have any control over what the alcoholic does, and that most of our stories are essentially exactly the same). Most want a happy ending but they are not in a place where they can perceive a happy ending as anything other than things going back to how they were pre-alcoholic progression.
There is often a fair amount of pushback when it is suggested that the poster themselves are part of the problem. I know I certainly never wanted to hear that — I wasn’t the alcoholic! But I was engaging in the merry-go-round of denial and enabling that accompanies alcoholic behavior. So many people think they are helping their loved ones by denying them the very consequences by which we learn to make better choices, and so many believe that love is enough to conquer anything.
Lately I have been perceiving every single newbie post through the same lens: Neither the poster nor the alcoholic love themselves enough to feel they deserve anything better from their lives. The alcoholic engages in self-destructive behavior despite the negative consequences it has on his or her health, relationships, and responsibilities, and their loved one continues to try to save the alcoholic from him or herself, even at the expense of their own health, relationships, and responsibilities. I find myself trying over and over again to convey this idea — validation comes from only within, no one else is capable of making you happy, the more you focus on taking care of others the less you are able to take care of yourself, put your own damn mask on first, just like on the airplane. And on and on.
This is what happened to me: I grew up with an alcoholic parent and was in such deep denial about it that I didn’t even realize they were an alcoholic until a sibling suggested it when I was 19. Even then it took reading a book about Adult Children of Alcoholics for me to recognize what was going on. I just always thought that parent was always angry.
Having recognized my Big Life Issue at the ripe old age of 20, I promptly determined I was done. I had everything figured out. The reason my family was so dysfunctional was because of this this and this, and having named it, I could forget about and be happy forever and ever.
Wow was that wrong.
When you are five, and your parent is angry, and you don’t know why, you do not have the tools to do anything but assume that you are the cause of that anger. By the time you are eighteen it’s an inarguable fact that everything that ever went wrong in the world is your fault. In the intervening years, however, you do everything that you can do to fix it. You get good grades. You sing in the play. You play Little League and win a spelling bee. You are certain that one day you are going to figure out what will fix your family…and you are equally certain that if you can’t, your failure will be so epic you can’t even dare visualize the consequences. Other family members reinforce this fact, though never directly. You hear from A that B was disappointed about this choice you made, and you accept that as fact because B couldn’t possibly be manipulating A to distract C, D, and E from B’s own very bad behavior. Remember B’s epic screaming fit from two nights ago? No? That’s because everyone’s focused on you. Also the next morning everyone pretended it never happened.
Living in a house with one alcoholic parent and one codependent parent was a recipe for believing I was worthless. And it didn’t end when I left home. I brought it into every single relationship I had from there on out, culminating in an truly spectacular implosion at the age of 32, when I basically ripped my own really nice life to shreds because I couldn’t reconcile the fact that it was happening to someone so unworthy.
I got into therapy. I stayed there for five years. I also stopped having romantic relationships (I admit this was not an actual decision I made so much as the natural consequence of radiating an “I am not well” vibe). For three years, I had only myself and a small group of very close friends to find myself among.
Since then, I advise everyone I know who is undergoing a break up to consciously decide to spend a significant amount of time alone. Almost no one follows this advice, and they all end up in a relationship exactly like the one they just left. C’est la vie. Let ’em learn the hard way.
For the first year I just had to make sure I could do it. I had been in steady relationships for so long I wasn’t sure I knew how to remember to pay the mortgage, keep the dog alive, and still have time to maybe enjoy myself once in a while. Once I proved all that was possible, I started doing shows again. I wrote a novel. I danced in the living room. I engaged with life and somewhere in there I stopped trying to fix everything for everyone else. I stopped trying to be perfect and I started being just me. Without realizing it. one day, for no particular reason, I started being enough for me. My worries over who I would spend the rest of my life with ceased. I accepted that I might never meet anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and that was okay — I’d spend it with me. I was pretty good company.
That was about when other people started being interested in dating me again. 🙂
I admit that I made a terrible choice of first boyfriend right out of the gate. He was an alcoholic and I knew it. The relationship lasted ten months and then I ended it without hesitation. Early on, my therapist said to me. “All you’re really doing is keeping yourself from meeting someone who isn’t emotionally unavailable”, and I got so angry at her. I felt she was being judgmental. Had I but listened — not to her words but to the heat of my own immediate reaction — I’d have saved myself some trouble. I’d have never let him move in when he screwed up and lost his job. I’d have never excused the lack of rent payments (despite the fact that he seemed to be able to afford new $145 sunglasses?). I would not have accepted the abusive and embarrassing behavior both at home and in public. I cannot for the life of me figure out why I put up with it, though part of me suspects I was curious, and needed to prove one last time that I really didn’t have the power to make another person happy enough to stop drinking, and that my parent’s alcoholism wasn’t my fault.
Anyway, when I find myself trying to tell another person over and over again that they deserve better than what they are getting, and yes, I know you love him and you are sure he loves you too, I think it’s time to take a step back and remember my own journey out of denial. If I have to say it more than once, I’m probably saying it for myself and not for the other person, who isn’t ready to hear it. One day they will be, and then we’ll talk some more and that will be awesome. But instead of judging someone in terrible pain for not being able to learn from MY experience I should remember compassion, and kindness.
Kind of a theme this week, I guess.