IS SOMEONE YOU LOVE HOOKED?
Frequently asked questions about addiction
Note: This is the first of three columns on coping with an alcohol or drug abuser. The gender identifications in the following are a matter of convenience, rather than an indication that one sex is more prone to addiction than the other. Both men and women succumb all too frequently and all too readily. Other troubling addictions include gambling and sex.
First, to be able to cope with a person who is abusing alcohol or drugs, you need to understand the signs and symptoms...
The following question-and-answer series is typical of numerous discussions I've had with individuals who are searching for ways to engage with a loved one who abuses alcohol or drugs.
¶ Q: Over the years my husband's troubles have gotten to the point I feel overwhelmed. For the last few months he's been drinking more than he should. Sometimes he's sullen and mean, but more often he just seems so depressed he doesn't care about anything -- about himself or the family or his job. Is he an alcoholic?
A: Overindulgence -- whether alcohol or drugs are involved -- comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the sign of transitory stresses, sometimes it indicates underlying psychological problems. Often, though, the alcohol consumption or drug use itself becomes the primary problem. Whether he's a bona fide alcoholic or not, he -- and the family -- need help.
¶ Q: I've tried to talk to him about it, but he claims he doesn't have a drinking problem. How can I be sure that's the problem?
A: Most people who use alcohol or drugs to excess fail to see they have a problem. They say things to themselves (and to others) like, "I can handle my drinking. It's not that bad. I don't have trouble with it very often. I get things done. I'm just keyed up and need something to help me relax."
These kinds of thoughts prevent accurate assessment of the alcohol or drug usage. If you observe that he runs into difficulties which he attributes to other causes, never to drinking, that's good evidence he has a problem that is out of control.
¶ Q: Why does he fail to see he has a problem?
A: Many people think of alcoholics as people who live like bums on skid row and of junkies as people in shooting galleries. In reality, probably no more than two or three percent of alcohol and drug abusers fit those images. Ninety-seven percent of the 30 million Americans who are alcoholics live with families in homes like yours and mine. But, not being bummed out on the street enables them to deny they have a problem.
¶ Q: He says he drinks because I nag. He says I am the cause of his problem? Is that possible?
A: Certainly many alcoholics and drug users find that day-to-day irritants serve to intensify their craving for a drink or a fix. But irritants are inevitable in life -- at work, at home and at play. Unless you pour alcohol down his throat, you aren't causing the problem.
It might be a good idea, though, to ask yourself whether you nagged before he began drinking to excess. If so, he may have legitimate grounds for requesting a change in your behavior. Nagging is irritating. At the same time, keep in mind that if his drinking is causing problems, you also have grounds for asking him to change.
On the other hand, if what he calls "nagging" stems from his drinking, and the primary subject matter has to do with alcohol, it would be a good idea to work out some different ways of communicating your feelings to him.
¶ Q: Is it possible I'm contributing to the problem in other ways without being aware of it?
A: Yes. There are two main ways family members and friends aid and abet excessive consumption of alcohol and use of drugs:
First, by supporting the user's illusion that there is not a problem. One way this happens is by agreeing with and thereby reinforcing the alcoholic's notion that the problems which lead to drinking are caused by others.
Second, by taking care of whatever troubles result from alcohol excesses or drug use. An example would be to call the boss and explain your husband has the "flu" when he is actually hung over. Another would be to clean up the mess when he drinks so much he becomes sick. Such efforts to "help" actually serve to assure the user that the alcohol consumption or drug use is acceptable.
¶ Q: What is the most constructive thing I can do to help?
A: Glad you asked. I'll discuss how to intervene in the next two columns.
If you want more information on coping with a person who seems to use alcohol or drugs to excess, take a look at these follow-up columns...
Copyright 1996-2006 William W. Snow