Dear Dr. T - Help! What Are My Options for helping my husband with his alcohol problem??
Dear Dr. T.,
I could really use some help with my husband. On July 18th, 2013 it was our 18th anniversary. We have been dealing with his issues for 13 of those years on and off. First it was no self-control with food. Then it went to pot. Then it was alcohol. Then back to pot. Now back to alcohol. I removed him from our home once 4 years ago.
He went to AA for a few weeks but said it was full of people making excuses about addiction being a disease. He says it’s a choice. Fast forward to three days ago. He got really drunk, so I took my daughter and left. He wasn’t violent and I have not returned to our home again. Help me get him to understand he needs help. He thinks everyone is against him and that his choices are just fine and that no one has the right to tell him differently.
In response to Sue’s letter, we gave her a call and did an interview to get more information.
What is Jeff’s drug of choice?
Currently he smoking pot and drinking beer. In the past he’s stolen pain medicine from me, even when I locked it away. He says he’s currently buying 8 g of marijuana a day. He uses it at the job and on the way home. I won’t let him drink or smoke inside the house. Recently I imposed a “three beer limit.” As a result, I think he’s leaving the house and drinking secretly. He’s agreed to not drink over and over. But then he goes back to it. He checks out emotionally. He’s been suspended from his job because of smoking pot.
Does Jeff have any additional mental health issues (depression, bipolar, anxiety, etc.)?
Jeff has been treated for depression for 8-9 years with medication. But he’s never tried any psychotherapy or counseling.
Does Jeff have any current legal issues?
No legal issues yet. Says he’s driving stoned, but hasn’t been caught yet. I’m worried about that.
Has Jeff ever been in treatment before?
He did AA for a month but dropped out. He says he didn’t like the “lack of control” part. We went to couples counseling in the past, but the therapist wasn’t helpful. Jeff currently refuses to go to any counseling.
Would Jeff want his treatment to include religious/spiritual aspects?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, he recently walked away from our church that we’ve been members of for many years.
Has Jeff ever been violent toward anyone inside the family, including you?
He has a temper, but had never done anything threatening until last weekend. At that point, he broke some things and scared me. But he’s never been aggressive towards me or controlling, he can just be pretty mean.
What has been the impact of Jeff’s use on you and your family?
He makes me wonder why my daughter and I aren’t important enough. And why I love him more than he loves me. I’m scared to leave. Financially we’d lose everything and so would my family, because of the loans that they’ve given us. We can’t pay our bills even, because of his drug use. I also feel isolated from people because it feel like I can’t talk about what’s happening with Jeff. I don’t know, I just feel like I need to protect him and I don’t want to ruin his reputation. Sometimes I feel like an idiot for staying.
I feel like I’ve lost all trust in the relationship. I can’t rely on him. I feel like I’m the only adult in our family. I never know if what he’s saying is true. I need to constantly walk on eggshells. Our 15 year old daughter has wanted us to leave him for 3 or 4 years. She would rather be broke her homeless than yelled at. She doesn’t trust him either. She’s tired of being lied to. She’s become suicidal at times, and I think it’s because of him.
What have you tried to help?
I’ve tried to explain to him all the costs that we’re paying for his actions. I tried showing him the bills we can’t pay. I’ve tried to encourage him and begged him to talk with friends who’ve had addiction issues in the past. I’ve gone to all kinds of websites, printed out literature for him to read. I conducted research after research.
I’ve made bargains agreed that if he kept it to 3 beers, I’d figure out a way to put money aside to do something he liked.
The only seem thing that seems to make any difference is that if I don’t comment about his drinking or drug use at all, he’s less cranky. He argues with me less and he’s more energetic. But if I don’t ever talk about it, I don’t how he’s ever going to get better.
How do you hope Jeff will get help?
I keep hoping that something I say will get through to him and that he’ll want to make it better. He’d get some treatment or figure out what’s making him so frustrated or angry with life that he needs to be drunk or stoned.
I feel like I’m the only one who is trying to make our family work. I’m the only one trying to make it that way. My only other hope is that he says he wants to leave the relationship. At least then I could move on.
What are you hoping to see change? Are you OK with Jeff continuing to use, but in a reduced amount or safer way? Or do you want him to completely stop?
Ideally, I would like him to stop completely. I don’t think he has any self-control.
How much energy are you willing to put into changing the situation?
I would do anything I could possibly do.
My heart goes out to you and your daughter; it sounds like an incredibly difficult situation. I appreciate how hard you’ve worked to help your husband overcome his addictions, and I hear your frustration about trying so many times and him failing to maintain sobriety. I also hear your love for him and your determination to help him. Your love and determination have given you the strength to stay in this marriage and I suspect that you will need to continue to use those resources as you move forward with this difficult and complex problem.
The first point I’d like to make is that in situations like yours I always start with having us evaluate your & your daughter’s safety. I really commend you on not taking this lightly, even though Jeff has never been physically violent, it was a wise move to not take any chances and leave when he started to break things and scare you. If you continue to have concerns about your safety, please visit the resources page on our website that are designed for someone in your situation.
As you know already, you can’t force your husband to stop drinking and he sounds pretty convinced that his drinking isn’t a problem. This does NOT mean that there isn’t hope or there aren’t things you can do to help your husband. There are many options to help your husband, but I’d like to focus on two methods that I’ve successfully used with clients who were in situations similar to your own: getting support and learning helpful skills
These methods can be combined, used in any order, or you can pick one and stick to it. There is no right way, you will need to try them out, alter them, or use part them. What matters is finding the way that works best for you and your family.
First off, let’s talk about getting support.
One of the things that often happens when a loved one is addicted is that their family starts to withdraw from friends or family. Sometimes it’s because the family feels embarrassed about their loved one’s use. Sometimes it’s because the family has reached out to others in the past only to hear things like, “you should just leave him!” or “I don’t understand why you’re still with him.” Other times it’s because the family just doesn’t have the time or energy to reach out or there aren’t any accessible support people or groups where they live. . The result is that families end up feeling isolated, alone, and helpless.
From our letter Sue, I really get a sense this has happened to you. The costs of Jeff’s drinking and marijuana use are really wearing you down. There is so much stress that comes with handling the issue of addiction. As you mentioned, you have the stress of the financial impact of his addiction, of trying to trying to convince him to stop, over-and–over-and-over, without any sign that he is ‘getting it.’ There’s also the major stress of feeling like you are alone in this – that you are the only adult in this family.
Sue, the result is that you really need some support right now. You’ve tried many things to help your husband, survived 13 years of his addiction, and I suspect, you’re doing most of the heavy-lifting in your marriage and raising your daughter. You’ve been doing a lot! I’d like you to consider the idea that you don’t have to do this alone; perhaps you could get some help with all the things, emotions, and thoughts that come along with living and loving someone with an addiction.
Most people need support during times of high stress or living with chronic stress (living with someone with an addiction can result in chronic stress). Sometimes people are afraid to seek support because they’re afraid they’ll appear weak to others. I like to flip this on its head: seeking help is a sign of STRENGTH, not a sign of weakness. You’ve already started the process of seeking support by writing to me, and I think getting even more support and more regular support could be very helpful. There are many different types and sources of support. I’ve outlined a few ideas for how to start getting more support here.
Now, let’s talk about skills.
You need some new skills to help you help your husband and your family. The question is, what skills should you learn?
An approach called CRAFT is based on learning practical skills to help your loved one stop or decrease their drinking (or drug use) and to help you take back your life from Jeff’s addiction. If you were my client, the first thing we would focus on is getting a better understanding of your husband’s drinking. We would develop a “road map” of his drinking; this map would include his triggers for drinking (e.g., what time of day does he typically drink), the positives he gets from drinking (e.g., perhaps his drinking helps him relax), and the negatives of his drinking (e.g., he doesn’t get to do positive activities with your daughter).
Once we have a better understanding of your husband’s drinking we would work together to develop strategies to counteract the triggers (e.g., scheduling a sober activity at the time when he is likely to drink), to generate sober activities that give him the positive effects he gets from drinking (e.g., your husband would get a massage as sober way to relax), and to create opportunities for your husband to gain access to the things he’s lost due to his drinking, but only when he is sober (e.g., scheduling a positive activity with your daughter only when he is sober).
Additionally, we would work on ways to help you stop protecting or reducing the negative effects of his drinking. Sometimes when we love someone so much we inadvertently do things that make it harder for him to fully experience the negative effects of his use. Unfortunately, these protective and loving behaviors make drinking a little easier for him. For example, I’ve had family members who make excuses for their addicted loved ones when they don’t show up to social events (“oh, he’s just not feeling well”).
This kind of action, which is probably based on love and trying to avoid embarrassment, makes it a little easier for Jeff to keep drinking. In this situation, it makes drinking easier for Jeff because he doesn’t have to face the disappointment of others that resulted from his choosing drinking over them. Some of the family members I’ve worked with will stop making excuses when their loved ones don’t show up to social events or may refuse to call friends or family to cancel an event on behalf of their addicted loved one.
Although this may seem like a small thing, finding safe ways to stop protecting or minimizing the negative impact of Jeff’s use, over time, can have a big impact and may help motivate him to consider treatment. CRAFT also includes other skills that you can use to help motivate Jeff in a positive way to want to seek treatment and to stick with treatment, but I won’t go into detail on those here. If you want to learn more about CRAFT, here’s a few ideas for how to get started.
Sue, I hope that the information I’ve provided in this letter is helpful to you. You and your daughter are in an incredibly difficult situation. By reaching out, you have taken the first step to free your family from addiction, and my wish is that you continue on this journey and that you and your family can find peace and happiness.
With deep respect,