By Keith Berger, Coordinator of Family Integrated Services

During my nearly three-decade career in substance abuse and mental health treatment, I’ve frequently heard family members (and clients) insist that “Alcohol isn’t his/her/my problem – drugs are!”, “Alcoholism isn’t his/her/my problem – addiction is!”, “My loved one doesn’t have mental health issues –  s/he just engages in self-harming behaviors!” as if the same principles of recovery from chemical dependency don’t apply to any dysfunctional situation where alcohol either isn’t present or isn’t present enough to be identified as the primary drug-of-choice. The same is true even when no chemicals are being used or abused and the dysfunction in question is strictly related to untreated mental health challenges.

When I hear these assertions, I usually ask families to consider three things – 1) alcohol is a mood-and-mind altering chemical, therefore it is a drug; 2) alcoholism is addiction to alcohol, therefore alcoholism is addiction and 3) it isn’t about what a person is using or how they’re behaving (whether it’s a chemical addiction or a process addiction such as codependency, gambling, food addiction, sex addiction, etc. or other unhealthy behaviors related to an untreated mental health challenge) – it’s about why… and why one is unable – or unwilling – to stop engaging in self-destructive behaviors even though one’s life is falling apart as a result of those choices.

For families and loved ones who try to apply logic to the insanity of #3 (“The answer is so obvious – why doesn’t s/he just stop doing these things and everything will get better???”), confusion, frustration, resentment and desperate attempts to control the uncontrollable usually follow… and those maladaptive patterns of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results can also be described as insanity.  It has been said that “the alcoholic/addict gets drunk on alcohol and other drugs; their loved ones get drunk on emotions”.  I have heard countless family members of alcoholics/addicts/those with other mental health challenges describe experiencing “emotional hangovers” after bouts of fear-based reacting with efforts to control people and situations.

The insanity of the family disease of alcoholism/addiction/untreated mental health challenges is contagious and though it may present with seemingly different symptoms depending on who is affected – one person uses alcohol, another uses other drugs, and another tries to control the others – each affected person experiences their own unmanageability as a result of trying to control some person, place, thing, situation or feeling that cannot be controlled.   A key component of recovery is relinquishing the illusion of control and choosing instead to live in faith that everyone will find their own way with the support they choose rather than the interference some of us insist on imposing.

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.  When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.” – Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book”, 4th edition, page 417

If you love someone who identifies as struggling with alcoholism/addiction/other mental health issues, the same principles of recovery that apply to them apply to YOU.  Those lifesaving principles are waiting for them for free in the rooms of whichever community-based support network they find support and comfort in (AA, NA, NAMI, DBSA, etc.) and, as families and loved ones, yours are waiting for you in whichever organization you choose that fits your needs and circumstances – here’s how to find your support, serenity and solutions:


Al-Anon or Alateen Face-to-Face, Phone, or Online Meeting

“Alcoholism is a family disease. This means ‘…the alcoholism of one member affects the whole family, and all become sick.  Why does this happen?  Unlike diabetes, alcoholism not only exists inside the body of the alcoholic, but is a disease of relationships as well.  Many of the symptoms of alcoholism are in the behavior of the alcoholic.  The people who are involved with the alcoholic react to his behavior.  They try to control it, make up for it, or hide it.  They often blame themselves for it and are hurt by it.’” – Paths to Recovery—Al-Anon’s Steps, Traditions and Concepts (p. 8)

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