As I talked to a form three student who had been out of school for four months for being an alcoholic, her tragic story unfolded. I discovered that she was the daughter of a single mum who’d left the country for a business trip for six months when she was five years old. She was left under the care of an uncle who raped her severally, and their house help’s boyfriend sodomised her as well. She was threatened with death at the time if she mentioned any of these incidents to her mum.
By the time she was ten, she had become a lesbian, and her partner was a house help. She hated men so much, since her father had abandoned her, her uncle had raped her and the house help’s boyfriend who visited them had sodomised her. When her mother came back, she didn’t mention a word because the rapist was mum’s best brother. She hid her pain in alcohol especially during her teenage years when she could fully understand what ‘all that had happened in her past’ meant. Such cases happen to children world over, including those with both parents.
The fact that there is some painful event in the past often shows up as a reason why some people became easily dependent on alcohol than others. Other reasons include, starting to drink at an early stage and disorders such as antisocial behavior or depression. Genetic makeup is yet another reason and it is observed that there are families that have very many addicts. In these cases, anyone who starts drinking alcohol just goes on and on and won’t stop. If one observes this kind of situation in the family, it is safest to never start as you may never stop.
As family and friends of loved ones who have a drinking problem, there are lots of things that can be done to help including:-
1. Deal with the societal myths and attitude that alcoholism is simply personal misconduct, moral weakness and sin. It has been said that one has to hit rock bottom in order to wake up to the reality of stopping, or better still there is nothing family can do. Whilst responsibility is indeed incumbent on the alcoholic, there are other factors for alcohol dependence as we have seen. Even if starting to drink was indeed by choice, it may not entirely be ones choice to get hooked. It would be encouraging to view the situation as them being a sick person needing help.
2. Check where it all began. If your loved one wasn’t always an addict, then it would help to seek to understand what was happening at the time they started drinking more alcohol than usual. Was there a trigger? The death of a loved one, loss of property or job, an accident or traumatic event, divorce or separation perhaps? This will help you understand the genesis of their addiction.
3. Do not shield the person from the consequences of their behavior irrespective of how much you love and care for them. If they are stealing or being violent, let them face the law. Shielding them simply is ‘enabling’ them to continue with this trend.
4. Separate the person from the disease. Check for their strengths when not drunk. Alcoholics generally have low self-esteem and self-image. Validating them on their areas of strength can be a good strategy towards their recovery. Make a deliberate effort to appreciate them for what they do well.
To help, family does not have to wait until a member gets addicted to alcohol. Intervention i can be done way before then. If it is observed that a family member’s intake of alcohol is beginning to affect work, health, relationships, social functioning, self esteem and self respect then yes, there is need for family to be concerned and to step in to help.
How can family be of help to an alcoholic?
1. Be honest – admit at an individual and family level that there is a drinking problem of with your loved one and that they are an alcoholic.
2. Recruit other members and maybe friends who are not alcoholics to help – do not go it alone. Have as many members of family as possible see the problem. The family may need an addiction counselor help to draw lines between the do’s and don’ts and the language to speak to the alcoholic member.
3. Adopt the use of non-judgmental statements – let the affected member feel cared for and loved, as opposed to feeling condemned and controlled. Alcoholics have low self esteem and judging them might just ‘throw them into defense mode’. That said, alcoholics are good at recruiting support for their alcoholism and family can easily find themselves wrapped up in the habit. Listen for half truths and exaggerations but remain firm, for example where alcoholics talk of being held up by police or sick needing help, or robbed, one has to verify the truth before sending any monies or finding them rescue.
4. Create moments to talk to the alcoholic as family – this is time where both the addict and the other members are all sober and have good time to dialogue so it shouldn’t be a family lecture. The addict may be defensive or violent. The family needs to have put mechanisms ready to protect themselves from physical harm.
5. Commit to change – don’t be swayed by false promises of cutting down alcohol or even stopping. Joining a support group of recovering alcoholics can be helpful. If a person is resistant, look for and contact a rehabilitation centre for a planned intervention.
6. Stay the course – getting your loved one to therapy, rehab or a support group is not easy all. The family needs treatment too. Its very important for the person undergoing treatment to know the family supports them will help with other responsibilities like the children, home and work so that they do not worry while getting better.
7. Be patient – If the member relapses (going back to the old habit) be patient and continue with support but still acknowledge that it is the member who has to make the critical decision to be well. It is also important to note that change may not be drastic, may take sometime, or take longer than expected.
8. Do not become co-dependent – Do not allow yourself to be wrapped up in the alcoholic and their challenges that you forget your own self. This is a very real danger that family members need to be cautious about.
9. Get help as a caregiver – It is quiet draining to help an alcoholic. It would be wise to get a support group for families with recovering alcoholics or a counselor to help you remain stable.
10. Learn as much as you can about alcoholism – there is no end to discovering different aspects of alcoholism, ways to help and ways to keep going in spite of the challenges.
How do family members of an alcoholic identify if the stage at which their loved one has reached emergency proportions?
1. Violence or threats of suicide or homicide are extremely serious and should be reported to the police
2. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is also very serious and the alcoholic should be taken to the doctor since it may result to death.
Some signs of withdrawal include:
• Agitation and anxiety
• Hallucinations and illusions
• Problems with sleep
• Increased shakiness
• Nausea or vomiting.
• Seizures or convulsions
• Difficulty in breathing
• Problems thinking clearly
The reality is that alcoholism is a family disease. A family member with a drinking problem poses a concern for everyone around them. Recognizing what to do and what not to do is an important and empowering aspect for family members. Knowledge is the first step towards intervention and support, and every family member is encouraged to take each day at a time and handle matters arising as they come to avoid being overwhelmed and helpless.