The harm that alcoholics do to themselves is obvious. It is easy to pity them and see them as helpless victims of trauma or bad genes. Indeed, many alcoholics view themselves and explain their behavior in precisely those ways.
As a person who has loved and depended on alcoholics, as well as struggled with my own addiction, I can say that this perspective is only partially true. It leaves out a huge part of the story, which is the devastating effect of alcoholism on loved ones.
It may seem to those inexperienced with problem drinking that the alcoholic is alone in the world with only a barstool and a few bottles to comfort him. It is easy to perceive alcoholics as weak and helpless: We are so pitiful, so pathetic as we stagger around saying crazy things. Many of us feel terribly sorry for ourselves.
If only we were pathetic pariahs. The fact is that most alcoholics do have people who love and depend on us. Our isolation is usually self-imposed and intensified by the antisocial effects of our chosen drug. Far from being impotent, alcoholics wield plenty of clout in our relationships. People care about us. We have the power to hurt others, knowingly or not, and we are experts at wounding.
Another myth is invisibility: Alcoholics believe that we don’t matter to anyone and that nothing we do, however reckless and inconsiderate, is noticed. This is a dangerous form of low self-esteem. The truth is alcoholics are highly visible. Loved ones worry about us constantly.
Alcoholics don’t leave other people alone. We depend on others and allow others to depend on us. In our desperation and loneliness, we learn to manipulate people into taking care of us, although we almost never reciprocate their love.
One of the most difficult aspects of recovery is not only facing the emotional pain we have been trying to mute but also realizing that using alcohol as medicine turns us into dreadful human beings. Alcohol in large doses induces depression, rage, cruelty, violence, poor judgement, and lack of impulse control. The misery that we try to mask with liquor is agonizing for us. So is the fact that abusing alcohol tends to repel the very people we might turn to for love and help.
When we are not raging, we tend to be so passive and withdrawn that we become useless lumps of humanity, taking up space on a couch. How can we be a reliable part of family or community life when we wobble between the paralysis of hangover and the craziness of inebriation.
The good news is that as soon as we stop medicating our pain with alcohol, and start getting help from sobriety programs, our relationships tend to improve. With better relationships the temptation to drink diminishes. Life spirals upward instead of down.
Although I am relatively new to recovery, I know this much: There is nothing shameful about feeling emotional pain or experiencing difficulties. There is no crime in wishing for support or relief during tough times. Even dreaming of a magical panacea is human. Our hearts go out to people in pain and most of us want to help friends who are suffering.
The mistake is thinking that liquor is the magic. Alas it isn’t. Although it may seem like an idyllic escape at first, alcohol betrays us in the end and makes matters much worse. We become nightmarish to ourselves and to others.
Dealing with life’s dark corners and obstacles is hard enough. We don’t need to combat our problems by turning ourselves into monsters.