DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend has had a very hard time with the pandemic. He is a social guy and the isolation has been hard on him. But for the past several months, during Zooms with friends or our weekly date night, I've noticed his drinking has snowballed to the point where he will blackout and become belligerent and mean. When I talk to him about it, he gets really defensive. He thinks that because he is not drinking every day and “can stop whenever he wants to” that he doesn't have a 'drinking problem' but I beg to differ. What should I do? —Concerned Partner
It's no secret that right now people are using, and abusing, alcohol to try to numb their feelings, manage stress, relieve boredom, and cope with mental health struggles like depression and anxiety. A Nielson survey found that alcohol sales rose 54% at the start of the pandemic in early March and a Blue Cross Blue Shield survey found that overall consumption has gone up by 23%. Researchers also note that alcohol use is up in binge drinkers, in particular.
And when it comes to binge drinking — defined as drinking that brings blood alcohol levels to .8 (usually five drinks for a man and four for a woman) — it can be especially tricky to get your partner to agree to treatment. Too often I hear people with this issue say exactly what your boyfriend says — that because sometimes they are able to have only a drink or two, or that they don't 'need' a drink every day, there isn't a true problem. I don’t have to tell you this but it is indeed a big problem. Living with someone with a binge drinking problem is like waiting for a time bomb to go off.
You can split hairs about the difference between alcohol abuse, dependency, and alcoholism, but in my opinion, it's a waste of time. When you have someone who is getting blackout drunk and is being told by someone who loves them that they have a problem, it's time for help.
Here, some advice for talking to your partner, resources that can help them get them the help they need (including virtual resources), and how to protect yourself in the process, too.
Have a Serious Conversation with Your Partner About Their Drinking
The first step if you think your partner has a serious problem is to sit down for an equally serious conversation about their use.
When someone is in denial of their problem, there isn't a lot you can do to break through their denial and defensiveness. What you can do is express your love and care for them and let them know how their drinking affects you and the relationship.
I always recommend the sandwich technique: start and end with the positive. When you address his drinking, talk about how it impacts you, which is hard to debate. For example, “When you drink so much that you black out it scares me and makes me worry that you will start a fight or that you will drive drunk and end up dead. This fear creates a lot of anxiety for me.”
Encourage them to get the help they need, through AA, an addiction therapist, or even rehab.
One thing that's very important to know is that it can be extremely dangerous for those who are heavy daily drinkers to go cold turkey. Sudden withdrawal can result in shakes, hallucinations, seizures, and even death. Detox must be done under medical supervision. If not doing a medically supervised detox in an inpatient facility, it is a good idea to get some guidance from an internist.
Here, a few of the resources out there for your boyfriend to get the help he needs:
1. Join Alcoholics Anonymous. The greatest success I see is working with a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous. (Although AA is the original, there are also 12-Step-based programs out there for other addictions, such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.) AA is free and there are meetings around the clock and around the world. In the pandemic, virtual meetings have popped up that allow people to attend meetings safely from home.
2. Find an addiction therapist. Another option is working with a therapist who specializes in addiction. It can be helpful to have a guide to deal with feelings and issues as they come up. Typically, once a substance is removed, all of the feelings that have not been dealt with — like trauma, childhood pain, and resentments — rise to the surface, so most people are highly emotional in the beginning of sobriety. It can feel vulnerable, like walking around without skin, which is why it's important to have support during this time. If your boyfriend is unwilling to go to a 12-step program, working with an addiction therapist could ultimately help get him in the door to a program like AA.
3. In-patient rehab. In-patient rehab may be a good option when the pandemic is over. Most use a 12-step model and can supervise a detox. It's important to note that while it can provide a great foundation for sobriety, many people, especially binge drinkers like your boyfriend, are unwilling or unable to take 30 (or 60 or 90) days away from work, and it's often prohibitively expensive, even when insurance covers a portion.
Examine your own role in encouraging the behavior — and get outside help to break the cycle.
Addiction occurs in a system and, as your partner’s significant other, you are part of that system. That means while your partner's behavior isn't your fault, it is important to look inward to see how you may be inadvertently enabling the behavior.
Enabling behavior can take the form of making excuses for the drinker, covering for him, ignoring dangerous behavior, not expressing your true feelings, putting his or her feelings first, or blaming other people or situations for the drinker’s behavior.
There are a few things you can do to break the cycle. First, you can attend Al-Anon meetings. Al-Anon is a free program for people who have a partner, relative, friend, or loved one that has an addiction and can offer tremendous support for people in your position.
It may also be helpful to seek out therapy for yourself. If you come to the conclusion that dating destructive partners is a pattern of behavior rooted in a feeling you don't deserve a great partner, your therapist can help provide support to help you break the cycle. A professional can also help provide support to walk away from the relationship if your boyfriend's behavior doesn't change.
If your partner is in denial and has refused help, you may need to stage an intervention.
People often have the misguided belief that an intervention is where friends, family, and loved ones come together and threaten or shame the substance abuser. That is not the case. When done correctly, it's a loving act to save someone’s life — and not meant to humiliate them.
An intervention should be about bringing together the people he or she loves, cares about and respects; those who have the most influence on them. Each person tells the alcoholic things that they love about them, shares meaningful stories, and talks about how the addiction has harmed the relationship. Afterward, each person must let the alcoholic know their “bottom line” — what they will do or stop doing if they do not get help. (For example, “Kevin, I love you too much to watch you self-destruct. If you do not get help, I will not let you crash on my couch when Jodi kicks you out of the house for drinking,” or “Susan, if you do not get help, I can not let you spend time with your nieces anymore.”) These need to be meaningful losses. Sometimes that can mean stepping away from the relationship until he or she gets help.
Having an experienced interventionist to help you through the process can make things go more smoothly, but you can also do one on your own. In order to be prepared, check out this guide for how to do an intervention or other resources like Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention.
The Bottom Line
They say in AA that alcoholism is a “progressive disease.” In other words, if someone with a drinking problem does not get help, it will escalate.
That means making sure to protect yourself from your boyfriend's self-destructive behavior. Keep in mind that if he gets violent with you during his blackouts, you must walk away for your own safety — that is non-negotiable.
On the other hand, if your partner recognizes the problem and actually gets help, this could deepen your relationship. The men and women who I see who struggle with addiction and get help are some of the most insightful, connected people I see; ultimately, being able to work on your stuff, whatever it may be, is a great quality in a partner.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
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