It is not an easy task to understand drug addiction and alcoholism, especially if someone you love is slowly self destructing before your eyes. You just want to reach out and strangle them and yell at them to wake up, because how on earth can they not see that they just need to stop putting chemicals into their body? And yet they continue to self medicate while blaming others for their unhappiness. It is madness.
Yet I have been on both sides of the equation. I have been the alcoholic, and I have also been in recovery for 12+ years now, so I have struggled to help others to recover as well. I have experienced a bit of both sides, and that has been helpful in giving me perspective. So at the very least I can understand why some people are not able to surrender, even in the face of heavy consequences, and suddenly turn their life around. I can understand why it is so difficult because I have been there myself.
Why the alcoholic or drug addict cannot just stop and walk away from their addiction
Most alcoholics and drug addicts are very good at justifying their addiction and coming up with excuses. They are good at blaming others for their problems rather than owning responsibility for themselves.
So the question from the outsider looking in is, why can’t the alcoholic simply stop drinking in order to fix their problems? Why can’t the drug addict just walk away from their drug of choice? Isn’t this a simple question of mind over matter?
This was the view that I held when I was young and had not yet tried drugs or alcohol. I knew how my own willpower worked, so I figured that it worked the same way for addicts and alcoholics. I thought to myself “those alcoholics must just be lazy people or something. Maybe stupid.” Of course I was dead wrong in that idea because later on I became an alcoholic myself, being neither lazy nor stupid (at least I like to think!). But at the time when I was young and inexperienced I did not understand that addiction existed and I believed people to just be selfish in wanting to be medicated all the time.
So what is the bottom line then? Why can’t the alcoholic just stop cold turkey and walk away from the booze? Well actually they can, and some of them do this at times, but the results are usually not very good unless they get a lot of extra help with the process. This is because the alcohol is merely a symptom of something deeper going on, the addiction itself is the problem and the drinking and self medicating with drugs is but a surface level symptom of that addiction. So if you suddenly remove the alcohol but you do not change anything else, the alcoholic is still going to have major problems in life. They will find another way to self medicate. Their disease will find another outlet.
For example, just look at how many alcoholics attempt to “fix” their drinking problem by temporarily switching drugs. Maybe they will quit drinking for a while but smoke marijuana instead. This sort of thing is very common in addiction because it seems like a natural fix. It is also one of the “easy ways out,” even though it doesn’t really work in the long run. But to the alcoholic it seems like a great solution, they can avoid their real problem (alcohol) and continue to self medicate. They can still avoid reality and having to face themselves as they really are.
Ultimately switching from one substance to another never works. The only time it can help is under tightly controlled conditions (such as Suboxone maintenance for an opiate addict), but even that is only of limited value. In other words, the addict still has to do a tremendous amount of work in recovery in order to escape from their addiction. Taking a magic pill does not make an addiction go away, no matter how badly we want it to do so. Maybe some day this will be reality but it certainly doesn’t work as of yet.
No, the alcoholic who is struggling with their problem does not want to quit cold turkey. They don’t want to face reality. They don’t want to confront all of the fear that is baked into the sobriety equation. They don’t want to have to remove all of the armor that their drinking gives them. They don’t want to have to ask for help and become vulnerable and go to rehab. No one wants to do this if they can avoid it. It is a hard decision to make because the stakes are so high. The alcoholic is protecting their ego. They are running away from a fear that they normally will not even admit to having.
Ask any alcoholic why they are scared to go to rehab. This will likely start a fight. They will get incredibly defensive and tell you why they are not scared of rehab, but that they just don’t want to go for this or that reason. It is all lies though because deep down they are afraid. It is fear that keeps the addict from taking action and getting help. It is fear that keeps them stuck in denial and stuck in their addiction. But no one wants to admit that they are afraid. So they will twist it around and come up with some other reason why they cannot or should not go to rehab. But underneath all of their justification and their rationalizing it is always fear.
Why the alcoholic or drug addict will continuously lie in order to perpetuate their disease
When I became alcoholic and was hooked on drugs I started to lie to people.
Before this in my life I would not ever lie to anyone. I had no reason to lie. I was raised to be an honest person and I did not really want to lie to anyone, ever. But circumstances forced me to lie. My problem with addiction led me to lie against my own will.
This is not really an excuse. It is just reality. If you are addicted to drugs and alcohol then you will naturally start to lie in order to maintain that addiction. If you have people in your life who love you and care about you then you will lie to them in order to try to protect them. Because telling them the truth will hurt them quite badly.
I will admit that lying to your family is bad also. I will admit that this hurts them as well. But I am trying to help you to understand the alcoholic mind, and why the alcoholic would ever lie in the first place. They are making a choice.
When the alcoholic lies, they are choosing between two things:
1) Telling a friend or family member the painful truth.
2) Lying to cover up this painful true to try to spare someone the pain.
Of course some lies are more selfishly motivated than this explanation. I know some people out there are much more devious and malicious. Some people are really bad and they are creating real evil with their lies. But what I am talking about here is the alcoholic who is normally quite honest in life and their addiction is “forcing” them to lie to others.
When this happens the alcoholic feels trapped. They cannot imagine stopping the drinking for any reason. They feel like it would kill them from misery if they were to quit drinking. So they feel forced to continue to drink, and therefore they must do whatever it takes and jump through all sorts of hoops in order to smooth this decision out. Drink at any cost. Lie to cover it all up.
The alcoholic may feel like they have a choice between themselves and others. They can either choose themselves and drink to excess, or they can choose to make others happy and stay sober but be miserable. This is what the choice feels like. I realize that the reality is that the alcoholic should ask for help, go to rehab, and build a new life in recovery. That way everyone wins and everyone is happy. But the alcoholic who is stuck in denial cannot see that choice. They don’t believe that it applies to them, or that they could achieve that happiness. So they stay stuck. And they feel like they are trapped, and that they can either drink (to make themselves happy) or abstain (to make others happy).
Again, this is just how it gets framed in the alcoholic mind. It becomes a choice between their own happiness and someone else’s happiness. This is why they continue to drink but try to cover it up. They want to spare other’s feelings and not hurt them. At the same time they cannot imagine becoming sober without it absolutely killing them. They are trapped.
Why the alcoholic will stay miserable rather than to seek help
The alcoholic may admit at some point that they are miserable.
But they have established a mode of life where they drink their problems away. This is how they deal with reality. This is how they deal with stress and problems. They drink.
And they may have been doing it for years or even decades. This is all they know any more. They do not know of another way to live.
So their addiction is entrenched deep within their life. They are comfortable in their misery. They know how to manage their misery a bit, how to get through it, how to have a tiny sliver of happiness among the chaos. Even though the alcoholic may be miserable 99 percent of the time, they know that they can look forward to a brief moment of happiness when they are drunk.
Of course the problem is that this moment of happiness from being drunk gets smaller and smaller as their tolerance shifts. In the beginning of their drinking career the “drunk window” is quite large and it can last all night. They can be “happy” for several hours. But after a decade of addiction (or even less) their “window of happiness” gets smaller and smaller. Denial prevents them from realizing this. So they chase the buzz and they drink even more or they add in new drugs or they blame others for their misery. But in the end the alcoholic cannot get drunk or happy at all. They go from being sober and miserable to being totally blacked out, without ever having been “happy and drunk” in the middle. Where did all the fun go?
Tolerance is what removed the fun factor. Once you are addicted your body makes it all turn to misery. You can get the fun back for a brief moment by abstaining for a few days. Then drink again! You will notice that it is much better, you will be happy again. But then notice how short lived that happiness is. And realize that to get that same burst of “happiness,” you would have to abstain for a few days every time before you drink again. How much fun will that be? Not very much. This is the realization that eventually pushed me into recovery. I realized that it was no longer fun, and that it never would be again. The days when I could get loaded every night and truly enjoy it were long gone. My tolerance had shifted too much over the years. Alcohol had turned against me.
Again, it is all about the fear of sobriety, though no one will admit to this.
The alcoholic does not want to dive into sobriety and abstain from alcohol. It is just such a big step. It is such an overwhelming commitment for the alcoholic. To abstain completely. To give up alcohol entirely. It feels like a death sentence.
This is why the alcoholic will live through misery rather than facing the fear of sobriety. Because the misery is predictable, it is comfortable, it is known. Sobriety is scary. It is unknown. They would have to become vulnerable. They would have to ask for help. They would need direction from others. This is why the alcoholic prefers to stay stuck in misery. Because it is better than facing their fears head on.
How the alcoholic or addict can break through denial
How can an alcoholic break through their denial? What can they do in order to move closer to recovery?
My suggestion is that they start to measure their own happiness. This is the realization that led me to surrender. I had to really look at my own happiness and how drinking was impacting this.
The alcoholic must ask themselves every day: “Am I happy? Am I truly happy with my life and with my drinking?”
It takes guts and honesty to ask this of yourself each day. If you keep asking this question and answering it honestly then it will eventually force yourself to make a decision.
There is a balance going on between fear and misery.
Fear holds you back from sobriety.
Misery is pushing you towards sobriety.
If you minimize your misery and unhappiness then you will remain stuck. If you deny that you are unhappy then you will continue to drink.
The only way to recover is to surrender completely. In order to do that you have to accept the misery that is in your life. Don’t just admit to the misery and the chaos, but accept them as permanent fixtures. You have to realize that you will never escape this misery and pain if you continue to drink. Once you realize this on a deep level it will cause you to choose the path of fear. The path of sobriety. Facing the fear is not desirable, but it is better than facing a lifetime of pain and misery. The problem is that you have to realize this. You must accept it and admit it to be the truth. And you cannot admit to this if you are making excuses for why you are miserable, if you are making excuses for why alcohol is screwing up your life.
For example, saying something like: “Well I know I drink too much sometimes and that it gets me into trouble, but I have to do that because my darn family drives me crazy. Plus I have this ache in my side and the alcohol soothes it.”
So you are making an excuse for your drinking and you are avoiding the fear of sobriety. You justify your drinking to yourself and you minimize the damage that it causes. This is the perfect recipe for staying stuck in addiction.
What the friends and family of the alcoholic can do in order to move the person closer to surrender
What can you say to an alcoholic who is out of control and refuses to get help?
There are a few suggestions for friends and family members of alcoholics and drug addicts. Unfortunately all of the key action points are usually pretty indirect.
In other words, you are probably hoping that there is a way to push a certain button or pull a certain lever and cause the alcoholic to go get help in treatment. It doesn’t really work like that in my experience. Though there is one direct approach that seeks to do exactly this, we call that an intervention. This is essentially a direct plea to get someone into treatment, but the results of such an effort are usually mixed and they are definitely not the magic bullet that we all hope them to be.
Instead, we need to be a little less direct. First of all you should set some boundaries for yourself if you have an alcoholic or drug addict in your life that you want to see get help.
So for starters, don’t use drugs or drink with the person. Ever. Don’t ever drink or use drugs around them.
Don’t give them money, ever. Even if they need the money for something else (to feed their kids for example) you should not give it to them. This always turns into more drugs or alcohol. It is enabling them to continue to self medicate.
Communicate with them that you will help them get to treatment. You will help them find a rehab. And that is the only thing that you will ever help them with. If they are truly out of control then this should be your ultimate boundary. Don’t threaten them. Just tell them that you will help them go to rehab, and that you will not help them with anything else until they do.
Try not to react to the alcoholic or addict. Try not to fight with them. If they try to incite a fight then just walk away from it. Let them fight with themselves. If you make a big scene or argue with them then they take the focus off of themselves. They avoid having to look at their misery if they are angry at you. Don’t let yourself become a diversion for them in this way. Don’t set yourself up to be the object of their anger. If you state your boundaries clearly and then remove yourself from their life (stop enabling them entirely) then they will be forced to look at the truth, to look at their own misery. If everyone in their life does this then they will be forced to look at themselves. This is how the alcoholic moves closer to surrender.
If you really want to know how to help the alcoholic in your life then go to Al-anon meetings and share your story. Get feedback and advice for what you should do and how you should act. They can give you specific pointers as to how you should behave.
There is no magic wand that can lure someone into rehab, but you can definitely change your behavior so that you are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In the end, you probably cannot move them closer to surrender while also being their friend and having them like you. They will be angry with you if you distance yourself in the right way and stop enabling them. But then later when they sober up they will come back and thank you for behaving like you did, because it forced them to look at their misery, and this moved them closer to surrender.
What is your understanding of alcoholism? Are you on the outside looking in (friend or loved one), or the inside looking out (the alcoholic)? Or have you played both roles at one time or another? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!