Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My partner is an alcoholic
Monday 15 March 2010
My partner is an alcoholic who has been trying to give up drinking for years. He's been in a variety of treatment centres, and attends Alcoholics Anonymous.
He's twice been able to give up for a few months and then our lives are transformed – but he always goes back. I stick by him because I know that alcoholism is a disease and he's depressed and he cannot help himself, but I'm finding it very difficult. Should I give up on him if he can't give up the booze?
Yours sincerely, Helen
When I was young and my mother was drinking for Britain, I used to say to her: "Why don't you just stop?" But it didn't seem possible. Later, when I got older, I learned that alcoholism was a disease, that she was self-medicating her depression, that there was little hope for her except rehab (which she refused) and nothing could be done. I continued with this view until recently when I returned to my first instinct, which is now bolstered with experience.
"Why don't you just stop?" isn't a naïve and stupid question to ask. It's the only question to ask. And it's one that you must ask your partner. If he replies that he just can't, tell him that that's nonsense. Of course he can. Any of us can do anything even, if pushed, walk into the path of an oncoming truck. The reason we don't is, quite simply, that we don't want to.
Despite a huge industry set up to maintain the "alcoholism is a disease" myth – read Junk Medicine by Theodore Dalrymple if you don't believe me – the truth is that the vast majority of people escape addiction by simply giving up. On their own.
You say that he "can't help himself." Well who, might I ask, can help him if it's not himself? Who is the person who goes to buy the bottle? Who is the person who pulls out the cork and tips the liquid into the glass? Who is the one who lifts it to his mouth and swallows? It's not you. It's not society. It's not the spectre of a miserable past, guiding him with ghostly hands. It's him.
Deep down, you both know it's him. (All this talk of "denial" is just more language designed to infantilise the addict; he knows perfectly well what he's doing). After all, he's managed to give up for months on end, at times. He knows how it's done. He just doesn't want to do it.
It may be that he's been undermined by all the treatment he's had. He's been brainwashed into thinking he's "powerless" over alcohol. But he's not powerless at all. It's true that Alcoholics Anonymous can work wonders for some people, but not for everyone. Get him to read Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey, an extraordinary book that blows the cover of the whole idea of alcoholism as a disease. Tell him that if he really is depressed, the last thing he ought to be doing is drinking – drinking is a known depressant. Tell him, too, that if he doesn't give up – and give up for ever – you're going. If he cares about you, this knowledge might add a bit of muscle to his will.
Yes, he'll feel a bit edgy for a month or so, and yes, he'll probably suffer the temptation to drink all his life, now and again. But these will be momentary twinges – and nothing compared with the 24-hour stress and anxiety he's putting you through at the moment.
Are you addicted, too?
Helen has to decide if she will be happier on her own than she is with her partner and his drink problem. She might find that she has become dependent on the lifestyle of living with an alcoholic. Her partner does not seem to want to give up drinking, even though I have seen the most hopeless drunks suddenly stop if the really want to. She does not mention children, who put an extra dimension to the problem, but I think the biggest problem might be that she has become addicted to living with an alcoholic. This is something she must think about.
He needs tough love
Leave him. You've tried the supportive approach, it didn't work, so now tough love is needed.
Explain that you can't continue to stay with him while he is an addict, as he is ruining your life as well as his own. By continuing to support him, he has no reason to stay on the wagon, as he knows you'll always be there when he falls off. Make him aware of what he will lose, and if this isn't enough to make him stop, then move on.
As the daughter of a mother who stayed with an alcoholic father to the bitter end, ruining any chance she had of a happy life, I've come to realise that sometimes separation is the best solution.
I did it and so can he
You say your partner cannot help himself with his drinking. Sadly, he is the only person who can help. I would suggest that you find your local Al-Anon meeting, where you will meet a whole group of partners of alcoholics who will tell you about the futility of trying to stop someone else drinking.
If I sound harsh, I am speaking as a recovering alcoholic who made my partner's life a misery for several years. It was only when I faced up to the consequences of my drinking and took responsibility for my own actions that I was able to change. Alcoholics Anonymous were, and still are, a great source of support to me, but they could do nothing until I genuinely wanted to stop.
Only you can decide whether you are able to live with the drinking, but please don't be dragged into feeling pity or guilt. It is part of the alcoholic nature to try to blame everyone or everything but yourself for your problems. Good luck, Helen – just make the best choice for you.
Give him an ultimatum
I know being an alcoholic is a disease, but he's been in rehab and quit the booze. As you've said, he's been off the drink for weeks before. What he is craving isn't physical but mental. Has he had help after the detox? It's good the alcohol is no longer in his system but unless he's getting regular help for the cravings he has mentally then he will always go back on the booze.
If he's had help for both and still won't stay off the alcohol you need to ask yourself if he's ever going to change. There are only so many times he can get clean, then promise he won't drink again, and then drink again the next day. You need to give him a final ultimatum and stick to it, no matter how hard it is. Tell him you want him to get clean again, but before you do, make sure he has plenty of counselling ready for him after the detox as that's the hardest time. Tell him this is his last chance, and if after detox a drop of booze touches his lips you are gone – and you have to stick to that, otherwise he will just keep taking advantage of you.
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