By Lea Loeb
Loving someone with alcoholism is one of the hardest things I've ever done.
There’s a strange stigma around loving an alcoholic because people who haven’t loved an addict don’t understand what it’s like.
I don’t remember when my ex-boyfriend’s drinking became a problem. To be honest, it probably always was. For the first few years of our relationship I was the happiest I’d ever been, but somewhere down the line things changed. Although our relationship ended badly, I still love him very much and hope he gets the help he needs.
It has been half a year since we broke up, but somehow it feels both like just yesterday and an eternity ago. Over these last six months, I’ve spent time focusing on my own mental health and emotional healing. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned some valuable life lessons from this experience.
1. Being an addict does not make someone a bad person
The first thing to realize is that alcoholics are good at being alcoholics. They sometimes hide, they lie and they deceive. They often put alcohol before anything and anyone else. But that doesn’t make them bad people—it's all a part of the illness. I was with my ex-boyfriend for four years. He was an animal lover who had a passion for motorcycles. He was the life of the party who made sure everyone got home safely. He was studying administrative justice and he hoped to make the world a better place. He was gentle, kind and caring. He was a good person, and he was an alcoholic. It would have been easier to end things with him if he had been terrible, but he wasn’t. He had a terrible illness that caused him to make terrible decisions that hurt me in a terrible way. But he was not terrible.
2. Sometimes there is nothing you can do
It wasn’t my fault, but I blamed myself. We take responsibility for our loved ones and that makes us feel like we are to blame when things go down. I felt like there was always something I could have done or something I could have said that would have changed the situation. I beat myself up about it way more than I should have, because I thought if I was the perfect girlfriend he would quit for me or magically no longer have a reason to drink. In truth, there is really nothing we can do to control another person’s actions. It was hard to admit that I had no power to fix his illness. He was an alcoholic before I came along and he will continue to be an alcoholic now that I’m gone.
3. Getting trashed is not normal
We as a society have created a culture that jokes about alcohol abuse and glorifies excessive drinking. But where is the line between fun, recreational use of alcohol and addiction? How many drinks are okay? What is normal? I wasn’t sure and it was hard to tell. My ex-boyfriend and I were in our 20s and lived in a house full of college students. Alcohol was everywhere, all the time, and getting wasted seemed normal. Finding beer cans in the bathroom, drinking before noon, hitting the bars almost every day after work, getting blackout drunk on a regular basis, drinking to get drunk, needing alcohol to function—none of these things are normal.
4. You can’t make someone want to get better
There is truth in the saying “You can’t help someone who doesn't want to be helped.” I watched my ex-boyfriend lose friends, burn bridges and deteriorate his health. It was painful to see him suffer, even more so because it was all his own doing. I desperately tried to get him to stop drinking. I begged, pleaded, cried and threatened but nothing worked. It is an awful, helpless feeling to want your loved one to get better when they do not want the same thing. An addict will only recover when they are ready to recover.
5. Doing damage control doesn’t help the person
I would pick him up from the bar when he called at 2 a.m. even though I didn’t want to. I would wash the vomit out of his clothes and fetch him glasses of water. I would mop up the spills, recycle the beer bottles and nurse his hangovers. I did these things because I loved him and wanted to be a good girlfriend. I cared about his health and safety and thought I was helping. I was constantly cleaning up his mess, because who else was there to take care of him? I unintentionally became an enabler because I felt like I was abandoning a loved one if I didn’t.
6. Boundaries are important
I know they say “Love knows no boundaries,” but in a healthy relationship boundaries are vital. With my ex-boyfriend, there were no boundaries and it allowed for his alcoholism to destroy me. I would do anything for him and he knew that. Learning to detach with love has been the hardest part of my healing process, but it's an important boundary I have set for myself. I will no longer shoulder the burdens of others or try to fix all of their problems and I am so much happier now because of that.
7. Some people just won’t get it
Some friends, family and coworkers won’t understand and things will be awkward. They won’t know what to say so they’ll say nothing. Or worse, they’ll say something that is totally off-base and offensive. because their only knowledge of addiction is stemmed from misconceptions and stereotypes. Some people will feel sorry for you in a weird pitying way and others will blame you and berate you for being an enabler. Things will feel strange for a while but it will get easier to deal with over time.
8. You’re not alone
Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, one in every 12 adults suffer from alcohol abuse. Statistics and support groups like Al Anon remind us that we are not alone in this experience.
9. You don't owe anyone anything
You are not obligated to stay in a bad situation for any reason. You do not owe anyone anything if your safety and well being (both emotionally and physically) are at risk. People have asked me how I could “throw away” four years’ worth of time, energy, work and love. You are not required to stand by someone just because they are your family, friend or significant other. My ex-boyfriend helped me through some of the darkest times in my life. He was there for me when I needed someone the most, but his drinking put me in danger, so for my own sanity and safety I had to leave. It was hard to let go but it was what I needed to do.
10. A solid support system is necessary for survival
Break ups are bad, but break ups with addicts are worse. They either choose to get help and begin recovery, or they choose their addiction and continue to hurt those who love them. Most of the time the only option is to remove yourself from their lives. Cutting the cord with someone you love for your own health and well being will leave you feeling angry, raw, hurt and betrayed. I have no idea how I would have gone through this journey without my tribe. I have been blessed with a circle of strong, compassionate and caring friends who have helped me more than they know. This was the first time I leaned on others for support and in that process I learned that it is okay—and sometimes necessary—to ask for help. If you don’t have family or friends you can turn to, many cities have local support groups through churches or community centers.