Living with addiction can be a stressful, confusing experience, where the abnormal becomes normal and everyone loses sight of what healthy behaviour looks like. Partners and children tiptoe around the addict or alcoholic, trying not to rock the boat. Families begin living a double life, attempting to manage the unpredictable behaviour of the addicted individual whilst hiding the problem from friends and relatives.
Christmas is likely to put these relationships under even more pressure. During December, alcohol consumption in the UK increases by 41 per cent. Drinking is embedded in our culture and, during the festive season, there are many more social occasions where people feel the pressure to drink.
The problem of alcohol dependence is often denied, not just by alcoholics, but by their loved ones too. It’s a condition that is difficult to understand or put right; it creates havoc and destroys lives; families experience stigma and a vicious circle of shame and guilt. Addiction is paradoxical - attempts to help can exacerbate it. For instance, if you help an alcoholic cover up the aftermath of a drinking bout, the unspoken message is that someone else will always clear up and the alcoholic doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions
One of the most crucial elements in how we deal with living with someone addicted to alcohol or drugs is our coping strategies. The more we can identify what’s helpful and what’s not helpful, what works and what doesn’t work, the more resilient we will become in the long term.
Stress and worry have the capacity to stop us from functioning. Coping strategies give us the opportunity to take responsibility in difficult situations by either:
• changing the nature of the situation being experienced e.g. taking ‘time out’ or
• changing the way we deal with the situation e.g. setting a boundary.
Boundaries are limits, dividing lines between different territories. They are the limits we set in relationships to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed or manipulated by others. They make it possible for us to separate our thoughts and feelings from the addicted partner or relative, and to take responsibility for what we do.
We can’t change other people but we can change how we respond. Think of a tennis court – we have control of our side of the court, right up to the net, but we can’t jump over the net (the boundary) and control what happens on the other side.
Healthy boundaries allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate, and to maintain our distance when it might be harmful to get too close. Good boundaries can also help us respect other people’s boundaries.
In relationships emotional boundaries allow us to:-
• Maintain a clear, stronger sense of our own identity/feelings/needs.
• Protect our space physically and emotionally.
• Stop being taken advantage of.
• Clarify what is acceptable and what is not.
Some boundaries, however, need to be rigid - because:
• No-one deserves abusive treatment.
• No-one deserves to be betrayed or lied to.
• We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Other boundaries may change with different situations and can be flexible as well as healthy, for instance boundaries vary between loved ones, friends and strangers.
When setting firm boundaries you have to let go of the outcome and be clear about what you need and what the consequences will be if the other person continues with unacceptable behaviour. You will need to be realistic and mean what you say to carry it through - there have to be consequences for actions.
According to Al-Anon Family Groups, there are things you can do to help improve the well-being of the family and to look after children in an alcoholic environment:
1) Practice you own self-care. Being a good parent means looking after your own physical and mental health
2) Maintain routines for children. Regular bedtimes ensure they get enough sleep – they’ll be less likely to be irritable the next day.
3) Plan alcohol free activities – children can learn that socialising need not include alcohol.
4) Listen, and talk to your children. Help them learn how to communicate difficult emotions, instead of hiding them
Action on Addiction provides family support at all its treatment centres to family members who are receiving treatment. In addition, our Moving Parents and Children Together programme (M-PACT), is delivered under licence, all over the UK, by practitioners who are trained by Action on Addiction’s experts. The programme provides a safe space for children and young people to talk about the impact of living with a family member who has an addiction. Al-Anon Family Groups, which includes Alateen for teenagers, provide support to anyone affected by someone else’s problem drinking.