A very poignant comment to my article last month, Please Do Disturb: Creating Change in an Alcoholic Family, from H. Hall, really struck a nerve. Again, I am very grateful for feedback of any stripe.
In regard to my suggestion that the spouse of a person with addiction begin to change his or her way of living (i.e. by seeking counseling and other forms of support), I might have overlooked a crucial point that these readers thankfully pointed out. I implied that when one family member changes, the entire family “system” must change. Reader H. Hall wrote to say that things did change in her situation; she ended up leaving a husband who refused to stop drinking.
This may seem like a bitter victory. Sure, things changed: first a husband with an addiction to alcohol, then no husband at all.
The sad fact is that sometimes a partner doesn’t change. I know of no hard and fast statistics; my own therapeutic experience is that most of the partners or family members of the people I work with do attempt to stop or curtail their drinking or using when confronted with the possible loss of a relationship.mental illness because I don’t believe a person who is sane or balanced would make such a choice. Sometimes people get so lost in the fog of using that they become unwilling or unable to accept help from anyone.
It reminds me of the story from The Little Prince, in which the prince encounters a man with a drinking problem. The man says he drinks because he has a problem—the problem is that he keeps drinking.
Here, in this type of situation, is when the partner has to answer a difficult question. “What kind of life do I want to live?”
Some might say the marriage vow “till death do us part” needs to be taken seriously, in sickness and in health; because some believe addiction is a form of sickness, to leave one’s partner even in these circumstances would be unconscionable. Others might say, “I’m not going down with the ship. If he wants to drink himself to death, fine, but I’m not sticking around to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.” Such a person may decide that he or she wants to separate in the hope that this might help wake up the spouse with an addiction to alcohol, or that he or she wants to start over again in the hope of a saner, happier life. Neither seems “wrong” to me (assuming, of course, that neither the partner nor children are being abused).
However, I would argue that if someone decided they were going to stay—perhaps due to one’s own existential viewpoint or even financial considerations that make leaving impossible—then finding help and support is equally important as a case in which the partner leaves. Living with a person active in their addiction can be stressful. It can cause anxiety or depression. It can be infuriating. Feelings of grief and loss are often involved because the “good” part of the person with the addiction may disappear in a haze of alcohol, pills, or smoke.
If you do decide to stay, why not find an outlet for your stress and a way of supporting yourself in dealing with the day-to-day heartbreak? Otherwise, you might find yourself taking out your anger and grief on your co-workers, friends, or even your children. Or, just as tragically, you may start taking it out on yourself in a way that provides some temporary but ultimately harmful anesthetization of your own. This includes anger. Sometimes rage is easier to deal with than heartbreak or grief, but it can lead to harmful behaviors that may push loved ones away.
I would like to say that making changes yourself may automatically jolt the person with the addiction into action. But that’s not always the case. Still, in a miserable situation, something or someone needs to make the first move if there’s to be any hope at all of change.
Even if you find yourself in a difficult situation in which your partner won’t or isn’t ready to stop, I still believe you owe it to yourself to find some support. Even in the worst of situations, we all deserve at least a little bit of kindness, empathy, and warmth.
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