How to get with the programme

Living with someone with an alcohol problem, whether on or off the wagon, is a tough job. So what's the best way for both of you to survive?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

One of the more unpleasant experiences of my life was sitting on the end of my mother's bed one Sunday afternoon years ago, listening to her protesting that she hadn't touched a drop of alcohol all week. She was a vaguely yellow colour.

One of the more unpleasant experiences of my life was sitting on the end of my mother's bed one Sunday afternoon years ago, listening to her protesting that she hadn't touched a drop of alcohol all week. She was a vaguely yellow colour.

When she staggered to the loo I found I was sitting on a hard lump. It turned out to be a bottle of gin. On opening her wardrobe, I found more bottles. Behind it, more. Under it, more. Suddenly the whole room was alive with bottles, behind the curtains, under the bed... It was like suddenly discovering all the hidden goblins in a child's picture-puzzle book.

Poor Alex Best, George's wife, has probably been having similar experiences. In early July, 18 weeks after being told that if he had another drop of drink he'd die, George went on a binge. The Sun published a poster for bartenders showing a picture of him, underneath which was written: "Don't Serve Him!".

His doctor, Professor Roger Williams, urged publicans not to sell drink to the ex-footballer; according to one newspaper report, his friends, Rod Stewart and his girlfriend, and Phil Neville - Manchester United's defender - and his wife, deliberately avoided Best on holiday in Spain, in case their drinking would influence him to have another.

And poor Alex was vilified for knocking back the booze in front of him. Then, after a period of staying dry, reports last week claimed George had hit the pubs again, and Alex had chased tearfully round town trying to find him.

All these friends, doctors, any bartender who refused him a drink, and the columnists critical of Alex simply haven't a clue about how the mind of a person with an alcohol problem works. If someone has given up drink they can swim in an ocean of vodka without letting a drop pass their lips. Indeed, even if they swallow some, it won't have any effect.

If they haven't given up drink, they can be incarcerated on a desert island and somehow they'll manage to bribe a passing whale to bring them a bottle of brandy.

So how should someone whose partner has an alcohol problem, behave?

It's important to clear up a few myths, first. He (because it usually is a he) isn't drinking because of anything outside himself. He's not drinking because of stress - loads of people have terrible stress, but they don't over-drink.

George Best isn't drinking, as some people have implied, because he's so upset about his mother who drank herself to death at 54. Most people who have alcohol problems begin to drink to dull pain or to give themselves confidence. They use alcohol as self-medication; often, to survive.

As time goes by, they become hooked on the stuff. Although it may seem as if they're drinking to destroy themselves, their original aim was to drink to live.

It's also useful not to label the person as an alcoholic, but rather as someone with an alcohol problem. They're easier to love.

And finally, like many others, I personally don't think that it's useful to consider that "alcoholism is a disease". The more you pity the person with alcohol problems, the more you demean him.

No one can force someone else to stop drinking, but they can help a tiny bit, whether to encourage them to get help or to help to push them into making a decision to stop, which is how the vast majority of people with drinking problems resolve their problem.

But there are some things partners can do that make the problem worse. For instance, pouring the contents of all the bottles in the house down the sink is, beside being a waste of good booze, totally pointless.

I once spent a fruitless night hiding all the bottles of alcohol around, in the bottom of the garden, concealing the car keys, and stealing my partner's credit cards to stop him going out drinking. Granted, it worked, but only for a night. Giving up drinking is a completely internal decision, and throwing away the drink will just add to the resistance of the person with the drinking problem.

And it's ridiculous for a partner to stop drinking as well. It only makes the other person feel guilty, as if she's saying: "Look at me, how easy it is!" And a partner should never, never, put her hand over her partner's glass as the wine bottle passes by, saying: "None for him." When treated like children, we all behave like children, usually rather badly.

Most people who live with people with alcohol problems have been bamboozled by them saying that they'll promise to cut down. They believe it themselves. But it's highly unlikely to work. Probably the only path to moderate drinking, which can be a real option, is to stop drinking for at least six months and then start again slowly.

Obviously, partners want to broach the subject of drink, but if they do it when they're angry it won't have any effect. Similarly, it's pointless approaching someone on the subject when they're drunk - only when they're sober. And it's folly to imagine there'll be sympathy from his drinking friends, who often, irrationally, associate the capacity to drink with masculinity, and would feel dreadful wimps if asked to suggest the drinker cut down.

And while sensible partners always read as much about the subject as they can, they should never leave hinting literature around the house - stray pamphlets about AA in the loo will only, understandably, enrage the drinker.

And yet it's a mistake to be too direct about it all, because criticism can just make a person with a drinking problem feel awful, and then he feels resentful. The secret is to make him feel frightful without attracting any blame. A moral tone is hopeless.

It's worth trying something on the lines of: "I love you, and I'm only upset because I hate to see what you are doing to yourself. You are so lovely, clever, terrific, sexy, attractive, etc, and when you're drunk, suddenly all that goes down the drain, and you become embarrassing to be with, which is such a pity." Appealing to concerns about his health won't make a blind bit of difference, by the way. Unless he's already got health problems, he'll always be droning on about his grandfather who drank four bottles of brandy a day and lived to 100.

If he refuses to admit he's got a drinking problem, he's not "in denial". He knows perfectly well he's got a problem, and it absolutely torments him. But for the moment, he's just deciding not to do anything about it. So it's worth enlisting the help of a close friend or work colleague and asking them to mention the problem to him. The remark will burn a hole in his brain, and it'll all help him make up his mind not to drink again.

If all else fails, a partner should hit him where it hurts. Most people with drinking problems are very dependent; some suffer from panic attacks or phobias; they're vulnerable and often terrified of being alone. Threatening to leave can have an amazing effect on someone with a drinking problem, particularly if the suitcase is physically hauled out from the attic. They can be reduced to gibbering wrecks, full of promises to give up. Sometimes they can mean it, too.

I see 12-step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous as just one of the many options open to people with drinking problems, but there's no question that Al Anon (a similar 12-step programme), for partners and friends of people with drinking problems, can be enormously helpful if only because it's always good to meet other people in the same boat. Al Anon also encourages its members to realise that their partner's drinking habits aren't their problem, which can be an enormous relief.

But if the worst comes to the worst, it may be that the partners of people with an alcohol problem just have to come to terms with the fact that these guys would rather have a short life with drink than a long one without. It may be that their life without drink is really unbearable, in a way that we can't understand.

And if so, that's their choice.

 

Where to get help:

Drinkline (0800 917 8282): National Alcohol Helpline for anyone wanting to know anything about the problems of drinking in themselves or a relation or friend.

'Alcoholism: the facts', by Donald W Goodwin (Oxford).

'Rational Recovery: the new cure for substance addiction', by Jack and Lois Trimpey (Simon and Schuster); available at www.rational.org/recovery/ or, alternatively, from the publishers.

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