The Ripple Effect of Loving Someone Who Drinks Too Much

by The Discovering Alcoholic on July 2, 2009

Thank you author and speaker Lisa Frederiksen of Breaking the Cycles for this regular series sharing her decades long experience of dealing with family alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Click here to see the rest of the series.

Breaking the Cycles at The Discovering Alcoholic

Much of the focus on alcoholism and alcohol abuse – with regards to treatment, education, prevention, public policy – is on the alcoholic or alcohol abuser. I’d like to draw our attention to those who are deeply effected by a loved one’s drinking (which I’m labeling “codependents” for simplicity’s sake) and the impact of that effect on the lives they touch (teachers, friends, fellow students, co-workers, extended family…).

In my post, “Codependents Have a Brain Thing Going On, Too,” I stated, “The repeated surges of adrenaline required to keep you safe in a dysfunctional home — always on high alert in order to uphold the family rules — cause your brain to eventually REACT without THINKING to hundreds of situations. What might trigger the alcoholic’s (or alcohol abuser’s) negative behavior one time, for example, doesn’t trigger it the next, and eventually, just about anything might trigger it. What worked to keep the children safe or calm or directed last year, no longer works this year. So a new approach is tried and then another and another. This constant high alert level of reactivity eventually becomes a chronic state of hyper-vigilance. This causes the codependent’s brain to become comfortable with a heightened level of adrenaline (and other related neurotransmitters and hormones) and angst. That comfort level then becomes “grooved,” if you will (because the same communications networks are used over and over again), and allows a codependent to experience the unacceptable as acceptable.”

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In our relationship with the alcoholic or alcohol abuser, we hone our senses of sight and sound in order to “read” the alcoholic and the other family members so that we might protect ourselves for what may happen, next. For example, we listen to the sound of the key in the door or the tread of footsteps to assess how drunk our loved one may be. We seek their eyes to see if the lids are drooping or look for the licking of the lips that signifies they’ve stopped for a “few” on the way home. This helps us prepare for what we intend to do to “keep ourselves safe.” Or, our children may watch our body language. We may tense up and move quickly, maybe slam cupboard doors or respond in terse, clipped sentences to queries because we are mad or worried about the alcoholic/alcohol abuser’s behaviors. Our children “read” this as “stay out of the way” or “now is not the time to ask Mom if I can borrow the car.”

What happens, then, is we take this heightened sense of hearing and seeing into the work place, classroom or relationships with friends and extended family, and “read” their reactions, too. Except we’re reading them from a place of heightened anxiety and sensitivity; from a place of self-defense/preservation, and thus we’re likely reading things into a look or tone of voice that may or may not be there. This “reading” we do causes us to react in ways that causes problems that likely would not be there, except for our reaction. OR, we may allow unacceptable treatment by a boss or peer or relative or friend because we are so used to walking on eggshells to make sure the alcoholic / alcohol abuser doesn’t drink or one of the codependents doesn’t get more upset, that we have no real concept of what is or is not acceptable behavior.

More than half of all American adults report having a close relative who has a drinking problem and one in four children will experience familial alcohol abuse or alcoholism or both before the age of 18. In other words, a great deal of the population is affected by a loved one’s drinking. Clearly, we must start to not only educate society about the disease of alcoholism but the condition of codependency, as well.

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