The Emotional Impact of Alcoholism on Families

Alcoholism devastates lives. But it is not the alcoholic alone who is affected. Loved ones are also put through the ringer, and the emotional impact of alcoholism on families can be powerful, debilitating, and overwhelming. Fortunately, treatment for alcoholism works and can improve the lives of everyone who suffers from the effects of this terrible disease.

Nearly 17 million American adults will suffer from an alcohol use disorder in any given year, which makes alcoholism by far the most prevalent form of chemical dependency. Addiction of all types induces a rang7e of troublesome emotional responses, all of which can erode a person’s sense of empowerment and self-worth.

But the suffering caused by alcohol abuse does not end with the abusers. The collateral damage associated with alcoholism includes the psychological distress and emotional pain experienced by family members and close friends, who are trapped in a web of misery that they did nothing to provoke or deserve. Alcoholics suffer but so do their loved ones, and that gives alcoholism a social element that should not be overlooked.

Alcoholism Risk Factors

The emotional roots of an alcohol use disorder can often be found in the past, most often in a troubled childhood. Many alcoholics were subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in their youth, while others were neglected or abandoned by one or more of their parents. Still others were bullied or ostracized by peers, which is yet another type of abuse that is known to be a risk factor for alcoholism.

Exposure to childhood trauma is common among people with alcohol problems, but trauma or abuse that occurs later in life can leave just as great a mark and increase the odds of an alcohol use disorder developing. Being a victim of violence at any stage of life can predispose a person to alcoholism, as can the sudden loss of a spouse or child due to death or desertion.

Loneliness and social isolation can boost the risk for drinking problems, especially if it is accompanied by some form of mental illness. Suffering from any type of mood or anxiety disorder is a well-established risk factor for alcohol abuse, and in fact up to 40 percent of people with substance abuse problems have some previous history of mental illness.

The cyclical nature of alcohol abuse has often been noted, as having a parent with an alcohol problem can significantly raise the risk of alcoholism in adulthood. This is often attributed to genetic factors, but at least part of the connection is environmental and a sign of the confusing emotional baggage carried by men and women who were raised in alcoholic homes.

The Emotions of an Alcoholic

People often turn to alcohol to escape unpleasant memories, or to hide from disturbing emotions. But alcoholism is a potent purveyor of self-inflicted emotional abuse, and those who drink to forget are actually setting themselves up for a tsunami of suffering. Excessive drinking can magnify the intensity of pre-existing emotional problems and create additional turmoil and distress for those who realize the damage their drinking is causing, to themselves and others.

Some of the strong and unpleasant emotions experienced by alcoholics include:

  • Shame. Alcoholism is a humiliating problem, and alcoholics will go to great lengths to hide the truth from others to prevent being embarrassed.
  • Guilt. People with alcohol problems frequently mistreat or abuse others, and when they’re sober they’re often plagued with guilt as a result of these actions.
  • Anxiety. Substance use disorders generate constant fear and anxiety—fear of being discovered, fear of the consequences if discovery occurs, and even a fear of death.
  • Sadness. It can be incredibly difficult to stop drinking when chemical dependency has developed, and repeated failures to do so can leave alcoholics feeling depressed and miserable.
  • Anger. Alcoholics are angry with themselves because of their weakness, but they frequently project their anger outward onto others, including those who they love the most.
  • Frustration. Alcoholics have lost control of their lives and their fates, which motivates their frustration and profound personal dissatisfaction.
  • Discouragement. Over time, those with ongoing alcohol problems begin to doubt that things will ever get better, which reflects their disappointment in their own behavior.
  • Hopelessness. Some alcoholics completely lose hope, and when their chemical dependency reaches this stage it is vital they seek treatment immediately, before their drinking spirals even further out of control.

Alcoholism destroys a person’s sense of self-confidence and erodes their self-esteem, and it leaves them with deep emotional scars that only complicate their previous emotional fragility and instability.

When conditions like depression, social anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or PTSD are present, alcohol abuse can make the situation far worse. It can cause a dramatic increase in the intensity of certain mental health symptoms, and can put people at risk for a potentially fatal overdose if they mix pharmaceutical medications with alcohol.

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The Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Family Life

The statistics on alcoholism in family life are eye-opening:

  • 43 percent of American adults have a parent, sibling, child, or spouse who has suffered from an alcohol use disorder.
  • 18 percent of adults grew up in a household with one or more alcoholic parent.
  • Approximately one-in-eight Americans who drink will struggle with alcohol dependency.
  • There are tens of millions of adult children of alcoholics in the United States, and they face four times the risk for alcoholism in adulthood as those without such a background.
  • More than 90 percent of domestic abuse cases involve alcohol abuse on the part of the perpetrator.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse are involved in about 40 percent of all child abuse cases.
  • Nearly one-third of all traffic fatalities are linked to drinking and driving, and family members are often the victims in these tragic occurrences.

People who live with alcoholics are more likely to suffer severe physical and emotional pain and injury form their exposure to problem drinking, and the stress and anxiety that result from the specter of alcoholism only contribute to the depth of their emotional suffering.

Alcohol abuse by parents is strongly associated with childhood abuse and neglect, and this type of mistreatment is a risk factor for every type of mental and behavioral health problem, ranging from mood disorders to anxiety disorders to substance abuse. And regardless of its other effects, alcohol abuse in itself is a form of child abuse, since children experience their parents’ intoxication as highly stressful and unpleasant, and as a threat to their emotional security.

For spouses and partners, having a significant other with a drinking problem is a source of constant stress and uncertainty. Even if the person is not violent or otherwise abusive while under the influence of alcohol, their drinking will still cause relationship conflicts and create an unstable, unreliable, and anxiety-inducing home environment that is stressful and unpleasant for everyone.

Alcoholism has a profoundly negative effect on the lives of everyone it impacts, and the only way to escape from the nightmare is for the alcoholic to stop drinking and make a firm commitment to sobriety. The chances of achieving sobriety are dramatically enhanced for those who seek treatment, preferably in a residential treatment program where the recovering alcoholic can concentrate completely on healing.

Treatment and Recovery From an Alcohol Use Disorder

Entering treatment is an essential step for an alcoholic ready to stop drinking, and treatment offers the best hope for everyone in a family stressed to the breaking point by a loved one’s addiction.

Residential treatment programs for alcohol dependency will usually begin with medical detox, which allows the patient to gradually reduce their alcohol use while also trying medications that can lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms. After a detox period of 7-10 days (approximately, it could be shorter or longer depending on the situation), the patient will move on to formal treatment, which will include a mixture of individual, group, and family therapy offered on a daily basis.

Family therapy is vital for alcoholics in recovery, who must honestly and fearlessly confront the damage their drinking has done to the people they care about—and it is just as vital for spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and others touched by the alcoholic’s drinking. The goal of family therapy is finding solutions, not providing an outlet for recrimination, and loved ones who’ve been divided by the destructive effects of alcohol can benefit greatly from cooperative efforts to find a better way of living and relating.

Medication may continue to be prescribed for patients undergoing inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment, along with complementary holistic healing methods and life skills classes that can prepare recovering alcoholics for the challenges they will face as they attempt to preserve their sobriety after formal treatment ends.

Aftercare or continuing care programs will be made available following the cessation of any residential rehab program, and such initiatives are critical since the risk of relapse for recovering alcoholics can remain acute for quite some time. Again, family therapy sessions will likely be included in the aftercare program, giving family members the chance to offer ongoing support even as they work through their own issues.

In virtually every community, peer support groups are widely available for recovering alcoholics (AA) and their family members (Al-Anon). These groups allow people impacted by alcohol to find others who’ve walked in their shoes and have valuable insights to share.

The emotional damage caused by alcohol abuse is real, but it doesn’t have to be everlasting if everyone is united in their determination to overcome its negative effects. Ultimately, it is up to the recovering alcoholic to do the hardest work, but with the loving support of family and friends their odds of success will be greatly enhanced.