Skip to main content

Alcoholism: from anger to acceptance

This creative piece I've written got me thinking more about my changing relationship to, and acceptance of, alcoholism.

First I wanted to elaborate to say that I know my moving on and acceptance is made easier by my Dad doing really well. Through the help of a brilliant therapist, he's mostly sober, with rare relapses. So I know my situation is a good one (though it hasn't always been that way), that I'm lucky - and that enables a healthier perspective.

Still, I feel like maybe sharing some of my thoughts around all of this may be helpful. It may also be infuriating if you're in what feels like a hopeless situation - and if that's the case I'm sorry, and I understand. Please read anyhow, I really hope you can take something from this.

See I remember on one of the few times I went to a support group, feeling such frustration at this phrase being read out: "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

I remember thinking, how could you ever accept this? How could this ever be ok? And so desperately wishing that was an option for me, but almost knowing it wasn't.

I held a lot of anger, and a frustration that no matter how understanding or compassionate I was (and truthfully at that time I wasn't - I couldn't be), it wouldn't be enough to end the addiction. The situation felt hopeless, and that was so hard to deal with.

What was also difficult was the idea of control and choice. As much as I tried to understand - the idea that it was him but not him felt unfathomable at times. It felt like there were other ways - if he could just put the bottle back, or call us, but he couldn't. And that was hard.

Even when I got to a point of understanding that drinking was never a choice but a compulsion that was so strong it drove away logic, a relapse would always feel devastating. The anger would resurface - I think in retrospect partly because of fear, of going back to that situation of lies and uncertainty.

What I wrote about here was how our situation would repeat. For a while we were stuck in a cycle of drinking and lying about not drinking, and big tense conversations around that. What also repeated was my reaction - although I'd been there before, I never seemed to learn.

Having some space, literally through living away, but also the space afforded by sobriety as relapses got further and further apart, I was able to understand the situation a little more, and to feel more accepting of it.

Then, this year I got to know Brené Brown's work - through video interviews and her books, and honestly I think she helped. Her research and writing must have seeped in, or maybe a sense of bigger picture perspective amidst other situations too.

One time after a relapse I could tell Dad was struggling with shame. He hadn't wanted to drink, nor to make things harder for anyone, and yet he had - and he felt awful about that. Having expressed some frustration but also a level of acceptance, I then came back and tried to say - please don't let this fester and drag you down, it's happened, it's ok - we can move on.

It felt different. I didn't feel angry, I felt like I was standing in front of my Dad who I love and respect, not just wanting him to get back up again - but actually, maybe for the first time, offering him a hand to do so.

Then, when I read Brené's Daring Greatly recently, she hit the nail on the head of where my thinking had been getting to:

"We live in a world where people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, it's dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don't find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all - there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behaviour. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive or hurtful behaviours than it is to be the solution."

Ironically, this sent a pang of shame through me. I knew that all the while I'd questioned and blamed, I'd been confusing accountability with accusation. I think I thought that if we didn't react strongly enough, it would all just carry on - the gravity of the situation wouldn't be felt. And maybe that's true. But it still wasn't helping anyone.

Brené's differentiation between guilt and shame is helpful too. Guilt being "I did something bad". Shame being "I'm a bad person". Two very different things.

We shame ourselves and we shame other people (especially when we're feeling it ourselves), and the only way out of that is empathy.

Things got a lot easier when I learned to listen without judgement. I used to be frustrated when things would go quiet, no explanations or apologies, but I was hardly a receptive audience. Now, we have good, healthy conversations - and I am so glad of that.

This animation adapted from the writing of Johann Hari is also really interesting in terms of shifting perspective:

The line "we put people in a situation that makes them feel worse and then hate them for not recovering" I found really powerful. In the context of the video, this is talking about prison, but I think this applies to reactions to the addictive behaviour generally and relapses too.

If you essentially tell an addict off, it won't deter them - it will fuel their shame. It is hard, people should know when they've caused hurt, but I think there's a way to do it - or maybe we don't do it at all (hard when you're feeling the impact of it all, but maybe that's why it's important).

I'm still trying to navigate all this, but I do know (with an awareness that this is hard) that it's important that we try to understand, and that we feel better when we do.

Read the poem I wrote that inspired this article here. I also wrote this piece on myths and truths around alcoholism last year.

Click here for some really helpful information on alcoholism and alcohol abuse including signs and symptoms, effects of alcoholism, getting help, and advice for when a loved one has a drinking problem. Addaction also have brilliant services for those affected by addiction.