The Effects of Living With an Alcoholic

The effects of living with an alcoholic are comprehensive and profound. They affect the mental, physical, and financial health of everyone in the household, and they cause interpersonal conflicts that are unpleasant and stressful for all. Treatment for alcoholism is necessary for people with drinking problems, but a successful recovery will bring a new lease on life for each person the disease has affected.

Alcoholism is a disease that impacts entire families. At its worst, it can be a living nightmare that leaves loved ones desperate to escape.

The collateral damage of alcoholism can be immense and long-lasting, leaving scars that may never truly heal.

As a compulsive condition with an unpredictable outcome, alcoholism brings chaos, fear, and confusion.

Problem drinkers can find lasting sobriety through treatment, but if they wait too long to ask for help the consequences for everyone may be too severe to overcome.

The Effect of Alcoholism on Spouses and Children

The close family members of alcoholics share in the disease and in the pain it causes.

Spouses or partners experience a vast range of emotions, as they continually grapple with the complexities and feelings of vulnerability that alcoholism brings to their lives.

As the disease progresses, they will likely experience anger, frustration, disappointment, and discouragement, as promises to stop drinking are repeatedly broken and the consequences of alcohol abuse continue to escalate. At times they may even blame themselves for the situation, wondering what they did wrong or failed to do right. They may push the alcoholic to seek help, to the point where the relationship becomes fraught with conflict, or they may cope by retreating into denial, enabling irresponsible behavior despite its devastating effects on the integrity and happiness of the family unit.

For children, the safety and stability they need to thrive will be missing in a home where alcoholism prevails, which can cause great anxiety that can stay with them for the rest of their lives. If the parent with the drinking problems becomes physically or emotionally abusive while under the influence of alcohol, the stresses will be magnified many times over and can cause damage that will take years of therapy to heal.

Unfortunately, many children of alcoholics grow up to become alcoholics themselves, creating a cycle of substance abuse that can visit suffering and sorrow unto multiple generations. Anxiety and mood disorders are also common among this group, starting in childhood and extending into adulthood. The chronic lack of self-esteem that plagues people who grew up in alcoholic homes can leave them vulnerable to eating disorders, self-harming behavior, relationship problems, and other troubling conditions as well.

Health Difficulties Caused by Alcoholism

The list of potential physical health effects associated with alcoholism is long. It includes:

  • Liver disease
  • Cancer (of the mouth, stomach, esophagus, colon, rectum, or liver)
  • Digestive problems (heartburn, ulcers, gastritis)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Poor immune system functioning, vulnerability to infection
  • Nutritional deficiencies caused by inefficient metabolism
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Brain damage, reflected in memory loss, cognitive difficulties, lack of motor coordination, etc.
  • Alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal

Many alcoholics suffer from pre-existing mental health conditions, and the relationship is certainly not coincidental. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and that can make it attractive for people experiencing symptoms of anxiety. At the same time, it can also produce euphoric effects, at least in the short-term, and that is why many people with depression turn to alcohol to self-medicate.

Needless to say, watching their loved ones battle such conditions in addition to alcoholism is highly stressful for family members. Spouses and children may eventually develop a range of physical and emotional health problems themselves, as a result of the constant stress and uncertainty they’re forced to live with.

Some stress-related conditions experienced by family members of alcoholics include:

  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic attacks
  • Headaches and muscle aches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Stomach problems
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome

Children may also develop behavioral problems related to their exposure to parental alcohol abuse, and when they grow up their vulnerability to mental health disorders and substance abuse will be heightened.

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The Financial Impact of Alcoholism

Alcohol is not overly expensive, which makes alcohol dependency an easy addiction to indulge. But alcohol abuse can still be costly because of its impact on health, judgment, work performance, and the ability to manage daily affairs.

People who abuse alcohol make mistakes in every area of their lives, including those related to financial management. Even if they’re able to hold onto their jobs—which is far from a certainty when someone is abusing alcohol—they are more likely to spend foolishly or recklessly when their judgment has been impaired by chronic drinking.

Alcoholics are prone to impulsive behavior, which can cause them to make rash investments or purchases, or to trust the wrong people with their money. If others are taking advantage, they may fail to notice and allow the financial malfeasance to continue.

Gambling, which is a risky and compulsive behavior under the best of circumstances, is particularly common among alcoholics. In two separate studies, 19 percent and 16 percent of people seeking treatment for alcoholism reported issues with gambling—and gamblers who’ve been drinking often experience severe losses, which can severely endanger their family’s welfare.

Possibly the biggest source of financial loss for alcoholics relates to their health. Unfortunately, health care is expensive in the United States and people who experience the ill effects of alcohol abuse often run up huge medical bills seeking treatment for the conditions they develop.

Regardless of the source of the expenses, alcoholism can take a heavy financial toll that affects everyone living in the household, including young people who must depend entirely on their parents to care for them.

Living in an Alcoholic Household: Work and School Performance

A report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 17 percent of unemployed workers were struggling with substance abuse issues, which is a rate twice as high as the general population. Employees with alcohol use disorders are unlikely to perform their work duties in a satisfactory manner for long, and if they don’t step forward and admit they have a problem their alcohol problems will inevitably be exposed, possibly after they’ve suffered or caused an injury on the job.

Unstable job prospects bring financial uncertainty for families affected, and the possibilities of long-term unemployment if the substance abuse problem isn’t treated is very real. This puts extra stress on spouses or partners who may have to carry the financial load, and children will sense the anxiety in the household as well and suffer because of it.

If the alcoholic is attending school, academic performance will likely decline, and that can lead to low grades or dropping out. This can be yet another source of tension in the home, as loved ones who get frustrated with the situation may demand the alcoholic child or partner do something about their substance abuse problem. This may lead to serious arguments if the alcohol-dependent person is still in denial about their addiction, making a tense home environment even more difficult to endure.

Alcoholics frequently show poor judgment and a lack of impulse control, and that often lands them in trouble with the law. They may collect DUIs (and drive drunk many times without being caught), endangering the lives of family members and friends along with those of other drivers.

As a result of their impulsivity or constant need for money, they may become involved in incidents of violence, theft, drug dealing, trespassing, or resisting arrest, all of which can bring great embarrassment to their loved ones. Sometimes family members become the victims of the alcoholic’s misdeeds, which can cause enormous hurt and feelings of betrayal—and those feelings are completely justified.

Many alcoholics won’t seek help for their drinking problems until their troubles with the law forces them to do so, and that can provide an opening for loved ones who want to contribute to healing and recovery in any way they can. Alcoholics who have the support of the people they care about have a better chance of overcoming their addictions, although family members often have a lot of anger and resentment to work through as the process unfolds.

Recognizing Alcoholism and Asking for Help

Oftentimes, family members and friends affected by an alcoholic’s drinking are unsure if chemical dependency has developed. They know the drinking is problematic, and is adding unwanted stress to their lives, but they aren’t certain if treatment for alcoholism is really required.

The telltale signs of a true alcohol use disorder include:

  • A pattern of excessive drinking that exceeds the original intent
  • Multiple failed attempts to stop drinking
  • Enormous amounts of time spent drinking or recovering from alcohol’s after effects
  • Physical and psychological cravings
  • Neglect of occupational, educational, or home responsibilities
  • Drinking continues despite recurrent interpersonal or social conflicts
  • Previous activities neglected because of the influence of alcohol
  • Drinking continues despite the development of physical and/or psychological health problems
  • Hazardous alcohol-related behavior (repeated episodes of drunk driving, for example)
  • Growing tolerance for alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms experienced within a few hours after usage stops

Alcoholics will likely try to hide the truth and may even lie when doing so, but observant family members should be able to detect at least some of these signs, which are used by medical experts and addiction specialists to diagnose an alcohol use disorder.

Inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment programs that include individual and group therapy, medication, and alternative healing methodologies are the most promising options for alcoholics. In addition to their other benefits, these programs usually offer family therapy sessions that let everyone contribute to the alcoholic’s ongoing regeneration.

Treatment is highly effective when people struggling with alcoholism are truly committed to recovery, as are aftercare programs that will continue the healing process for as long as necessary. While recovering alcoholics can find valuable support through 12-step programs like AA, their loved ones can continue receiving vital support through participation in Al-Anon, or similar programs, that specifically address the concerns of family members swept up in the net of alcohol dependency.