Although alcohol addiction primarily affects the addict themselves, it often has a profound impact on the lives of loved ones - many become co-dependent. Life coach Julia Kessler explains what you can do to better deal with the addiction of someone close to you.
It doesn't matter whether it's your own father, boyfriend or best friend: anyone who has anything to do with alcoholics quickly becomes co-dependent, usually in the hope of getting those affected to stop. In an interview with ntv.de, life coach and author Julia Kessler explains why that usually doesn't work and what relatives can really do to help the addict.
ntv.de: Why is codependency very problematic for relatives?
Julia Kessler: The problem is that the whole thing creeps in first. You don't become an alcoholic overnight. It can take a long time for family members to speak the truth and admit that the person is an alcoholic. Until then, you are usually completely enmeshed in this addiction system. The fatal thing is that you try to control the addiction of the other. But as long as you try, this addiction will control you more and more because you are trying to control something that is uncontrollable. Unfortunately, if you get rid of problems, adapt completely and apologize to the employer, the addict usually does not come to an understanding. On the contrary: the system, in which he can continue to drink comfortably, is kept running and the relatives lose themselves more and more.
What concrete consequences does this have for the codependent?
Most people just sit at home and no longer dare to go out and meet up with a friend. They keep asking themselves questions like, "What if I'm not home, I leave the kids with him, or he gets in the car drunk?" This means that sooner or later, as a rule, life is completely stopped and everything revolves around the other person. "What should I expect when I hear the key in the lock and he comes home? What if I'm planning a family celebration now and the person is already unconscious in the corner at 11 a.m.?" It also comes with a lot of shame and unpredictability. Even when you go to bed, you don't know if that person will get up in the night, get drunk, and cause a fiasco. Many alcoholics then disappear and the relative gets a call from the police because the person was picked up somewhere and is in the drunk tank. There's a lot of drama going on there.
Are children of alcoholic parents automatically co-dependent and how does this affect family life?
Absolutely. The problem is that children tend to blame themselves innately and then they start trying to make the relationship with their parents work because of course they depend on them. This means that the children adapt to the system and learn how to behave so that dad doesn't drink so much or what they can do to prevent an argument from escalating. They take on a responsibility that they cannot bear. As a result, the children often behave in a supposedly inconspicuous and conforming manner so as not to make things worse. This often gives the impression that the whole thing is not so bad.
That is why it is very important not to leave the children alone. If a parent drinks, then the children are co-dependent on the drinking parent, but also on the co-dependent parent. Because if dad is drinking and mom is obviously suffering, the child is likely to try to relieve her of some of the burden and try to do a lot more on his own. The child does everything to make it bearable at home. It is therefore very important that the children are ideally provided with professional support.
Many people who deal with an alcoholic try to show them again and again how much they harm themselves and others with their drinking. They hope that this will come to light. What do you think of this strategy?
When I'm in this parenting position and telling the other what to do, the eye level is destroyed more and more. This even increases the likelihood that the addict will use his addictive substance to bring himself back on an equal footing. You often hear sentences like: "You don't tell me when I drink a beer and when not". It's a dynamic that doesn't get you anywhere. On the one hand, these discussions take energy and on the other hand, they only give the addict fodder to dismantle their own self-esteem. You then often only devalue each other or make yourself small in your insecurity. This often goes on until the family member gives up because he realizes that he is on a lost path. He doubts his own perception and the addict can use exactly this discussion as ammunition to continue not to take responsibility.
How do you get out?
You could put the blame back on the alcoholic and say, "We've been arguing about your drinking for years. You say you don't have a drinking problem and you've got it under control, and I'm stepping in and patronizing you. I've been trying to get you tell me what to do. I'll stop now and I won't look for any more bottles. You're an adult and you can decide for yourself whether you drink. You don't have to do it secretly. You alone know what's best for you and how you want to deal with it. But I don't see it that way. I see that you're an alcoholic and I'm really worried. It's really bad for me physically and mentally and as long as you drink, I'll take the consequences."
So does that mean you capitulate to the addiction of the person concerned?
Family members need to realize that they cannot control another person's addiction. There are cases where someone is in an expensive private clinic and drinks cleaning supplies. Someone who wants to drink will drink and there is nothing you can do about it. It is therefore important to assign responsibilities correctly. It is also not your fault that the other person drinks or that something happens to him while he is drunk. Responsibility should be given back to the alcoholic. That means you don't count and look for bottles anymore, but give him back the responsibility completely, with all the consequences. Conversely, you also have to take responsibility for yourself and your codependency. You should do everything you can to regain your strength and focus on resources that lie outside of this relationship. You can dare to go to sports alone or go on vacation alone. This is how you break this vicious circle.
But that will certainly be very difficult for the relatives to simply leave them to their own devices.
That's hard too. But you can only find support by letting it go. As long as I stick to it, I keep the system running. People need to understand that all their attempts to help so far have not resulted in improvement. It often gets worse. The feeling says that it is the right thing to do, but the facts speak a different language. So there's no point in sticking with the strategies when you can watch the whole family go down the drain and get sicker and sicker. Then it's more of a proof of love when you manage to let go, for everyone involved. It's the only way. Of course, this is not easy and that is why it is important to get professional support. Otherwise, the manipulation of the addict always leads back to the guilt and fear.
Is there even a higher chance that the addict will show insight and change their behavior when they let go?
This is the only chance. If I sit at home all the time and do everything I can to keep them drinking as comfortably as possible, why should they have any motivation to stop drinking? Of course there is no guarantee. But there's a guarantee that I'll go down with the addict if I don't let go. Many clients have already experienced that this is exactly when the dynamic changes.
Where can family members turn to make the leap out of codependency?
The first step is to accept the truth and then join a self-help group, for example. Just go and try it. There are also codependency Facebook groups where you can connect with others. A book is also a good starting point for dealing with it quietly. You can see a therapist or get a coach to help you. Ideally, the topic should be approached at different levels.
Isabel Michael spoke to Julia Kessler
(This article was first published on Friday, May 27, 2022.)