Living with someone with an alcohol addiction
You’re Not Alone
This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Start talking about how addiction in your family is affecting you, how you’re feeing and don’t let the feelings of shame, guilt and anger drag you down "
For Christmas 2015, there were no sleigh bells. There were no merry drinks with family. There was no exchanging of presents. Instead, there was the sound of an ambulance. There were empty bottles of wine in my mother’s unmade bed. The only exchange was my mother’s medical history with the paramedics. There was no Christmas dinner. Nor were there any presents tucked underneath the naked Christmas tree. On December 25th, I just found my mother lying at the bottom of the stairs with her ribs broken as a result from drinking too much alcohol.
My mother is an alcoholic, and has other mental health problems. I have mental health problems too. Most of us do. My mother has suffered from addiction for 8 years now. She is not a bad person. Now, I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m hoping to shine a light on what young people living with someone who suffer from alcohol dependency and addiction looks like, and for young people to know they are not alone. After all in Ireland alcohol dependency and abuse is an affliction that affects a lot of people throughout Ireland with alcoholic disorders accounting for 9% of admission in terms of diagnosis of first admission into psychiatric units and hospitals.
The need to drink outweighs everything
To understand someone who suffers from alcohol dependency and addiction we must understand what it is first. Leaving the psychobiological jargon behind, the pharmacological effects of alcohol support reward and seeking behaviour that involves a limited number of neurochemical systems and multiple receptor sites in the brain. The reward and pleasure centre of the brain sees an increase of levels of dopamine, which makes someone feel good.
Instinctively, alcoholics will continue to seek out the object of addiction to obtain the rewarding effects (stop feelings of depression, for example) In short, the need to drink outweighs everything. For depression and guilt, drinking allows for some form of positive reinforcement and escape. Eventually, alcohol acted as a chronic coping strategy for depression and had a tremendous hold. Sobriety was traded for a feeling of depression, guilt and anxiety. A cruel tit-for-tat. One that affected me too.
Christmas is never easy. This year, in particular, I found it tough. I refused to engage on social media; I stayed away. I avoided my phone. I disliked the sensation of bitterness that overwhelmed me, because for an irrational moment my friends, who I consider my family, disgusted me. Not for any reason, just because it made me feel sad. But, that being said people should post about their joy, gifts and mostly about gratitude. I understand that. But that’s just how it is. Group discussions about family, and events like Christmas make me uncomfortable. But I won’t ask people to stop, or start slamming them, for having perfectly reasonable discussions.
I also don’t want people to feel the need to avoid certain topics. That’s not my aim here. What I want is for anyone reading these words, who has a home environment affected by addiction, to know you are not alone. Being uncomfortable and sitting in silence with a sense of shame, because you feel you have a secret, is awful. I’ve experienced it too much. It’s a confusing feeling, an emotional and mindful paradox. Its one I know plenty of people who grew up with addiction around them feel. How did I solve it? By being open.
"I felt I had a terrible secret"
When I sat my Leaving Certificate in 2010, I got up, dressed myself, made my lunch and walked an hour to school to sit my exams. When the exams were over, I would walk the hour back home to find my mother passed out from abusing alcohol. After putting her to bed, I would cook dinner for myself, clean the house and study into the night and repeat the cycle all over again. The uncomfortable shame hung with me like a dark passenger right into college where I started to binge to cope. I felt I had a terrible secret.
Services are available for those who wise to speak about being an addict such as Alcoholics Anonymous. For those living with someone who suffers form alcohol addiction services exits such as Al-Anon. This space allows friends and family members come together and share concerns, stories and support. Like any mental health problem, a problem shared is a problem halved where talking about the problem becomes a cornerstone to improved, better mental and physical health. You can relieve that uncomfortable, invisible feeling of shame, anger and embarrassment before it manifests into something more.
Deciding to take a break from alcohol
Before I was open I was angry. I was depressed and used alcohol to cope despite the effect on relationships, work and college. Ironic for an Applied Psychology undergrad, if you ask me. Biological children of alcoholics are twice as likely to become alcoholics. Men are at greater risk to becoming heavy drinkers in young adulthood while leaving the large-effect “binge” drinking (consuming five or more drinks on one occasion). Before and during Christmas, I began to really binge again. I knew this wasn’t good. In January 2016 I decided to leave alcohol behind for the month, and stay stable. I wouldn’t use alcohol to cope.
There are abundant services available to help cope. But some of the best help is available right in your own group of friends and network. Blurting out what’s really going on can be terrifying, but boy does it feel good. You might cry, and that’s good too. SpunOut.ie have excellent resources on how to talk, and how to listen.
On Christmas Day 2015, I rang my friend and I explained what had happened. Until that phone call, I was angry and filled with such an immense sadness I was ready to explode. We talked openly about how I found my mother at the bottom of the stairs crying out in slurs to ring an ambulance and how I was feeling. After a while of opening up, my friend proceeded to talk about her day. I smiled at every moment. I felt better because the feeling of shame, anger and guilt were lifted. On December 25th, 2015 I was lucky to have the gift of friends who I could talk to. So, start talking about how addiction in your family is affecting you, how you’re feeing and don’t let the feelings of shame, guilt and anger drag you down – rise above them and take control.