Last week, my friend, El, over at Running From Hell with El wrote a blog post about walking away from a gin and tonic that she saw sitting in HER kitchen on the counter. It was a brave and honest post and I felt proud and happy for her in the end. I say in the end, because as I read the post the single thought that kept running through my head was this: “What in the hell was a gin and tonic doing on the counter in her kitchen?” As an alcoholic in recovery, I was angry for her, and at whoever had made the drink in HER kitchen and left it sitting there. I was so upset that I almost called her immediately and asked her the question that would not leave me, “El, what in the hell was a gin and tonic doing on your kitchen counter?” But, I didn’t. I didn’t want to intrude–her house, her family, her rules.
Today I gave El a call on an unrelated topic. We talked a lot about writing and then we hit the subject of blogs. It was at that point that I did ask the question about the gin and tonic. I asked because El is an alcoholic in early recovery, sitting at about six months, and I remember well what that period of time looks like and feels like. It is a vulnerable time where sometimes it feels as if you are staying sober minute by minute. Early sobriety looks and feels a lot different than five years of sobriety does, or ten, or twenty, I suspect. Early sobriety is a tight wire walk where balance is continuously being reevaluated and reestablished. It is a very selfish time in a great many respects, because in order to maintain the balance needed to stay sober, we need to ask for help from a variety of different types of people. The people who we will need the most help and support from are those closest to us…our friends and family.
This can be very hard for many of us to do—to ask for what we need during that first year. El told me that she didn’t want any booze in her house, but felt she might be asking too much to demand that alcohol not be present in her home. She is not asking too much. In fact, by not demanding that there be no alcohol in her house she is asking too much of herself, and too little of those who need to be supporting her. Alcoholism is a disease and yet so many people see it as weakness of will, or a character defect. It is a disease just like diabetes, or heart disease. Most of us would never dream of sitting down and eating a big bag full of candy in front of a friend newly diagnosed with diabetes, especially not his favorite candy. We would think that rude, lacking support, or just plain disrespectful of his battle, and his feelings.
Likewise, when a person is newly diagnosed with heart disease, the whole family makes changes. This was certainly the case when my father was diagnosed with heart disease. My mother kicked into high gear and changed what she cooked and how she cooked it, and she did not just make the changes for my father. We all had to make the same dietary changes. We loved him and wanted him to live, so we didn’t complain. We just did it. We didn’t care if we ate chicken every night of the week. We could get a hamburger somewhere else. We could not get another father.
Just like diabetes and heart disease, alcoholism, if not treated, is a progressive, fatal disease. People die every day from alcoholism and addiction. Also, just like diabetes and heart disease, alcoholism in a family member affects the entire family. Everyone will need to make changes to support the one who is working to stay well. Giving up cake, or steak, or a nightly drink is precious little to have to give up if it mean helping to keep someone we love well and making them feel loved, and supported during a time that is stressful by its very nature. Alcoholism is a chronic disease and anyone living and coping with a newly diagnosed chronic disease will grieve and move through many emotional phases as they find their center again. In turn, the entire family system will need to lovingly recalculate their choices, behaviors, and roles in the now changed family. Flexibility, understanding, and love is required of all those involved.
What can you do if you are living with someone in early sobriety? First off, you can and should give up your nightly drink and keep alcohol out of the house. If this is a change that you are not willing to make then you need to ask yourself if you might have a problem yourself, of if there is a rather ugly agenda underneath your unwillingness to give up your drink. It is not uncommon for a partner to miss drinking with his loved one and may, unwittingly or not, seek to have that special bond back. A relapse would do just that… That is selfishness and it is playing Russian roulette with your loved one’s sobriety and very life. Certainly, you would never force them to drink, but action do speak louder than words… Oftentimes, a family member may have a hard time dealing with the raw emotions of the newly sober person and might unconsciously want them to drink again so things will go back to “normal.” Examine your own feelings honestly. Of course, if an alcoholic really wants to drink they will find a way. I know I sure did, but why place temptation right on the counter?
Also, if you do give up that drink and get rid of the booze in the house, please don’t act put out, as if you’ve made some sacrifice akin to giving up a kidney for them. Do not talk about “the good times” you had drinking together, and don’t glamorize drinking, or talk about how much you miss booze. Take the time to educate yourself about alcoholism and addiction. Read all that you can, and if you need more help understanding, find an Al-Anon meeting and go to it. Get family counseling, and individual counseling. Denying this is big for the whole family is a big mistake.
Be respectful of what your loved one is going through–and this goes both ways–and forgive. Forgive your loved one for being an alcoholic and for causing you to have to give up things that you like, and times you cherished. Love each other. Rediscover each other. Move forward together, gently, respectfully, and with the greatest amount of love and understanding possible. Be a team because that is what families do.
I know better than anyone that no one ever poured a single drink down my throat when I was drinking, and I am not implying that it is anyone’s responsibility but the alcoholics to turn away from the drink, as El did. I am saying that if you can make changes that will make it less likely for a person new in their sobriety to have to walk away, then you should do it, and do it gladly, with no resentment. Over time, things will change and sobriety won’t be as brittle and thread-like anymore. When that time comes, everyone will know it, but until then, simple changes can make a huge difference, so please make them. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to create health for your entire family, and for generations to come.