Helping an Alcoholic

I’ve virtually been a shut in now for the better (better?) part of six weeks. Even cleaning the dog poop from the back yard has been challenging because of the uneven ground. Now the foot is actually approaching being truly healed. I suspect that’s the most vulnerable time for a sprain, so I’m being cautious. I’m pretty sick of it, though. I’ve even passed the point where I miss taking out the dogs — I look down the alley at the golf course and points beyond and it just seems so far away. Meantime, the Bike to Nowhere and I have gone on some brammer rides in European mountains. It’s not the same as walking out in the world, but it’s been OK.

A friend of a friend has been struggling with alcoholism. Well, he hasn’t been struggling. He’s fine, anesthetized and numbed. His friends have been struggling. He’s lost his apartment. A posse of allies moved his stuff into storage for him and then there was, “Where does he go now?”

Naturally no one wants him to live with them. The man is at the point where it’s literally quit or die. He’s physically disgusting and unable to care for himself. The talk was “Assisted living” “Rehab” “the hospital.” He did go to the hospital yesterday after the social worker and his friends staged an intervention. The hospital treated him, but released him. There is no room in hospitals for alcoholics. “He needs to go to a shelter,” said the nurse/doc someone. Naturally, his friends were outraged at the hospital, but where else would he go? Then my friend learned that all the detox facilities connected to the hospital are full. The hospital had no where to send him but the shelter.

It hurts so much to learn that the “system” doesn’t (apparently) care for the person who means so much to you. It isn’t immediately obvious that the “system” is overburdened by substance abusers. Hospitals don’t have beds for alcoholics. Hospital beds are for sick people or injured people. People who can be helped.


My friend is naturally outraged that the “system” doesn’t step up and save her precious friend. Because the users have abdicated the use of their rational mind and are in the power of whatever substance drives their lives, to the experienced eye, users are not fully human. That sound horrific, doesn’t it? But daily life logic and rationality don’t exist in alcoholic reality. A rational mind would say, “Whoa, my drinking caused me to lose my apartment. I’m up shit crick. I’d better stop drinking.” Some alcoholics might immediately make this connection; some won’t. Who knows? In my experience, as soon as the alcoholic sincerely moves toward sobriety, he/she reassumes their full humanity and thousands of hands reach out to help them.

It’s the saddest thing I know. Keeping my brother housed was a constant concern for me. In the early 90s, he got married to a girl who’d loved him since high school (some 20 years earlier) my mom said to me, “I don’t know. Do you think we should tell her?” meaning should we tell her that sooner or later the bubble is going to burst and all hell will break loose? We’d both suffered that with him. We decided not to say anything. Who could say but what all my brother needed was a good woman, a nice house and life in California? I didn’t think his wife would believe us, anyway, love being blind and all that. What we really felt was that — for however long it lasted — my brother was somebody else’s problem.

My own personal experience trying to rescue my brother taught me a lot of hard lessons, and the biggest lesson I got from it is that the alcoholic might be suffering but his/her suffering is NOTHING compared to the suffering of those who love him/her and want to save him/her. Even if the alcoholic goes into detox and rehab it doesn’t mean he/she will stay sober. The family/friend’s hope soars and then? My brother was in three serious residential rehab programs — for which I paid (and yeah, I resent that) — and ultimately he died of alcoholism.

For more than a year I worked with a friend — former junky — counseling families of users. Over and over I experienced how it’s almost impossible for the sober person who loves the addict to wrap their head around the reality that no one can do anything until the alcoholic/addict makes a sincere effort to do something on his/her own behalf. You KNOW that alcoholic/addict is incapable of making decisions, and his/her life is totally out of control. How can he/she do anything? You — the sober person — MUST do it for them but wait…

It’s not your job to live their lives for them. We are all compelled to live with the consequences of our choices. Why not the addict?

That serenity prayer is right on, more for the friends and family than for the alcoholic, maybe, especially at first.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 The wisdom part is the key, especially for friends and family. While I was attempting to help my brother, I dismissed this prayer. “Yada yada,” but then one day I paid attention to it. “The wisdom to know the difference.” Damn. Since then, it’s been one of the guiding principles of my life. “Can I change this? Is it my job?” is a useful question.

It’s so hard to let go of wanting to control the outcome. There’s this completely unreliable (and needy) person in front of you, someone you love, and, at a certain point, to a large degree, you have to let go and let the unreliable person blunder through the darkness. And you just pray he moves toward the light of a sober life and all the things that offers, means, one of which is…

You. ❤

You really want your friend back. It hurts that he/she might not want you as much as he/she wants booze. In a way, it is that simple, yet far more complicated. The alcoholic has a relationship with alcohol that’s become almost symbiotic. Alcohol becomes a kind of entity preying on the alcoholic, and the alcoholic lives for the numbing effects of alcohol — a kind of demonic possession that ultimately kills the “host.”

In my recent, temporary, house-bound life, I’ve been alone most of the time. I’m mostly OK with it. In going out with the dogs, I always saw and talked to people, or I saw and (talked to) the river, the mountains, the birds, whatever was there. We yearn for the companionship of others and the outside world. I might yearn for that less than many other people, but I can feel the absence of it after nearly two months of semi-isolation. Isolation can do weird things to your thoughts.

My friend’s friend is alone. I don’t think that’s his optimal living situation. I don’t know him well, but he seems to me like the kind of guy who would like to be part of a partnership, a guy who’d probably do better with people around him. Loneliness + alcohol = kills a lot of people. I hope my friend’s friend finds a community to help him. And, strangely, that’s one of the purposes of shelters.

It’s just fucking sad.

29 thoughts on “Helping an Alcoholic

  1. How sad. The system is infuriating. Although it’s not the same, this smacks so much of what I went through trying to get my autistic son a place in a specialist school that could help him. Again, it felt most of the time as though he’s just a (very small) number and that no-one cared. I had to fight tooth and nail for him and in the end I won, but it was no thanks at all to ‘the system’. They were letting him down, as they do countless others, children and adults alike. There’s so much that needs to change.

    • I honestly can understand why the system might not care about another homeless drunk. There are just too many — but when it’s something like your son I don’t understand the values of “they system” at all. The same friend who’s trying to help this alcoholic man has a developmentally disabled son, now in his 30s, and her life has been a fight to make sure this guy gets all that he deserves and needs from “the system.”

      Sometimes I think the “system” is just overwhelmed and ignorant, not malevolent. It seems to be “one size fits ‘most'” and those who aren’t ‘most’ have to struggle. The “system” did so much to help my brother, but certain things had to happen for that to begin — he got the best help when he was picked up for urinating in public — a crime. Then he “belonged” to the system and they did not let go until he’d gone through rehab.

  2. A friend died a couple of weeks ago from alcoholism. He was a good artist, he didn’t seem to be alcoholic. He decided to stop drinking on the Wednesday, he didn’t seek help on how to stop. His body shut down and he died on the Saturday. He was a lovely person. I shall miss him.

  3. Rehab, best wishes, friends’ help, family help….ALL that support is worth nothing IF the addict doesn’t want to change. The ADDICT (of whatever substance or habit is their addiction) has to want to sober up, stop abusing themselves, stop the ones they supposedly care about being hurt over and over…if the addict doesn’t, nobody can save them. No matter how much help is proferred. That might sound harsh but it’s true. I don’t have any solution to the problem of what does one do when the addict has hit rock bottom (to everyone but the addict apparently). I wouldn’t take such a person in. I wouldn’t give them a dollar. I WOULD ask them bluntly to tell me why they wanted to die so badly and maybe tell them to take a long hard look at themselves. I’m judgmental about the subject though. I’m an addict myself and that’s what I’ve had to do. I’m sorry for the families and friends of the addict too. But that addict isn’t their loved one. Not any more. That person is an addict.

    • Exactly. This is what I had to learn from years of trying to rescue my brother. I, also, would leave an addict to his/her own devices. If I’d learned that lesson earlier, I’d have had an easier life and my brother (maybe? who knows?) might have wised up while he still could. And you’re totally right. The addict is NOT their loved one any more. That addict is whatever substance they’re hooked on. BUT just like you can tell the addict over and over to stop doing whatever you can’t make an enabler/rescuer believe this until they’re ready to hear it. I really appreciate this comment, Melanie. ❤ And all the people (and I know it's a lot!) who fight to recover are my Gold Star heroes.

  4. Addictions, and impacts on family members of addicts, is a huge issue in family law. No easy or quick fixes, as you point out, despite court orders for evaluations and treatment. Children are horribly impacted. Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned, working such cases, is that most addicts will relapse, especially when they don’t have a social safety net when they leave rehab. They may relapse many times before finally becoming sober (if they don’t die). Rarely does one stint in rehab work long term. Unfortunately, relapsing keeps family and loved ones on an emotional roller-coaster until they burn out & decide they will no longer take another ride with the addict. If/when the addict finally does get sober, many family bridges are burned and relationships can’t be rebuilt; the trust is gone. As you said, it’s just fucking sad.

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca. I ended up “breaking up” with my brother when I realized he didn’t even know where I lived (nor did he care). That’s what it took. Saddest day of my life, worse than the day I learned he was dead. ❤

  5. I understand completely what you are saying and was recently reminded about that part of the serenity prayer. It hit me up the side of the head that I was taking on something I shouldn’t. It was painful to watch, especially knowing the consequences to the others involved, and at the time it made me sick, just sick. I said something and now am the outsider. The person involved holds grudges so I’m not sure when I’ll be forgiven, if ever. Time will tell. That was lesson number two – even at your most concerned upset worried state, say nothing! The problem isn’t yours, it’s theirs. And though you watch with pain and a mix of anxiety and hope, ultimately the solution and the problem aren’t yours.

  6. Yes it is just fucking sad. One of my alcoholic friends died. Another sobered up and seems ok now. Another is still chugging it down.

  7. Your’e so right about having to let go and the alcoholic either recover or die. I just ended my relationship with an alcoholic who was psychologically abusive when he was drunk. His life is spiraling down so far. It’s been the hardest thing I have ever done, to let go. It’s like they are a vortex and everyone who comes close gets sucked in to. I have a blog about toxic relationships.

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