Understanding a Family Member with Alcoholism

As a person who writes about substance use disorder, I consider myself especially lucky because I get to speak with clinicians in the field that I write about. Something that always comes up when I speak to experts in this field is the reactions of family members when a loved one of theirs needs treatment for a drug or alcohol disorder. As a person who tries to keep up to speed on the thoughts and feelings around alcoholism and drug addiction, throughout the year 2020 and 2021 we have seen an increase in people wondering how to relate to a family member with alcoholism. I have seen many people searching on the internet for information on alcoholism and how to understand a family member with alcoholism. So I will try to give my honest advice to people in that position. At the best drug and alcohol rehabs in Florida, including Florida Springs in Panama City, family members of patients struggle every day to try to understand the disease that their family member is fighting to survive.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

First of all, the thing we are always doing as humans is trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is a positive step towards understanding, generally speaking. As children, we all learn about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” as a way to understand that different people have different experiences, thoughts, and feelings. So, when it comes to the experience of a family member who might be struggling with alcoholism or developing an alcohol problem, we try the same things. This process is only made more difficult by the fact that people with alcoholism and addiction tend to hurt those people closest to them in the process of living with the disease of substance use disorder. Substance use disorder, including alcoholism, is a disease, but more on that later. If a person in your family or a close friend has done some harm to you while drinking, it becomes even more difficult to imagine their situation, because of the emotion around the situation and how it has affected you. Once you get passed the harm that has been done to you, and for some the harm has been great, we get to the point where we try to put ourselves “in their shoes.” Unfortunately, I am here to tell you that this is not an effective way of understanding the situation, and I will explain why.

How to Understand an Alcoholic Family Member

I have explained this thought experiment many times for people with drug addictions, but it will work the same way for a person with alcoholism, as alcohol is just another drug, possibly made even more difficult because of the legality and social acceptability of alcohol and drinking. Imagine that you, as a non-alcoholic, take your first drink of alcohol. Imagine you drink a little bit more than you should, and either have a bad time, or get sick to your stomach. As a human, you will forever connect alcohol to that bad experience and pain of that first time you drank. Now imagine for your family member it was quite different. Imagine they had some pain or depression in their lives, and that first drink made that pain go away, and in that moment, they realized that alcohol was the only thing they could turn to and easily get away from the physical or emotional pain they were feeling. Imagine even if they do not realize that they are having those thoughts, that is the cycle that is playing out every time they drink. They drink and they are able to avoid problems. Now imagine that this family member is your brother or sister. You have similar genetics. Think about your family medical history. If you recall that you have a grandparent who was an alcoholic, now you must begin to understand that you got lucky to avoid that being passed on to you. A big part of the difference in the way you and your alcoholic family member react to drinking is whether or not that alcoholic gene got passed down to you. If that is the case, you can begin to consider yourself lucky and you can also begin to understand the difficult predicament that your alcoholic family member was getting into when they took that first drink.

Rather than putting ourselves in our family members shoes, we must begin to understand what was different in our experiences and our reactions to alcohol. This makes it possible for us to begin to understand the genetic component that is so much a part of alcoholism and addiction. Now that we better understand the genetic component, we are ready to start thinking about the trauma component. People that have a history of childhood or adult trauma are much more likely to develop a problem with alcohol and other substances of abuse. If a family member of yours has alcoholism, and they had a childhood experience that was traumatic, we are now in a better position to continue to understand their disease. If a family member has an alcoholic family history, had some experience that was traumatic, or both, we now understand that those things are a major precursor to developing the disease of alcoholism. These traumatic experiences might have happened to you as well, but you do not suffer from substance use disorder. That makes things easier for you, but it is not a valuable lens through which to view your alcoholic family member. Nobody chooses addiction, but addiction does, in many cases, affect some people much more quickly or easily than others.

What Makes Alcoholism a Disease

When experts refer to alcoholism or addiction as a disease, we are speaking of substance use disorder. In the traditional medical model, a disease is any condition which is not usual and causes discomfort or distress to the person suffering from it. We can easily see that alcoholism and drug addiction cause great harm to many people. Let’s go further. Many diseases affect a certain organ or part of the body. With the disease of alcoholism, the brain is the main organ that is affected, and organs like the liver and kidneys can be greatly harmed by the disease as it progresses. I recently wrote about how the cognition, or brain function, of alcoholics is greatly affected by alcohol, and there are too many direct effects of alcoholism on the brain to even list in an article like this. Safe to say, if you do not suffer from alcoholism, and you have a family member with a drinking problem, you have probably seen some deterioration in their cognitive processes. If you and your family member get to a place where you can better understand each other, that is a more positive starting point for trying to get sober. Understanding is valuable, because addicts and alcoholics who seek treatment are often able to make a better future for themselves and their families, but they can never change what has happened in the past. If you or a loved one needs more information on the best drug and alcohol rehab in Florida, please visit the program page on this website for more information on the Florida Springs facility in Panama City, Florida.

By T.A. Cannon (Contact me at TACannonWriting@gmail.com)