“Get Your Loved One Sober” by Robert J. Meyers, Ph. D, and Brenda L. Wolfe, Ph. D.
(This article is the second of a two-part series on boundaries about how to stop enabling a loved one who struggles with substance abuse. The first article helps you understand how actions you take to help your loved one might actually encourage them to use. This article provides alternative strategies to get them to stop using.)
Encouraging someone to get sober can be agonizing. You scream and cry and beg, but nothing works. In the meantime, you clean up their messes to make life easier for yourself. Stop. The only way to help your substance abuser stop is by making it harder for them to use.
The authors of “Get Your Loved One Sober” suggest making a list of ways you have tried to do this in the past. Maybe you have threatened to take the kids away, called 911, or begged them to stop. As your loved one is still using, it is safe to say these strategies are not working. The authors offer replacement strategies for improving life with a substance abuser. Switching to these methods will be unpleasant at first, but, if you stick with it, it will pay off.
Stop Protecting Your Substance Abuser
As discussed in the first article, part of the reason you enable is because you feel mean when you do not help your loved one. Refusing to make things easier for a substance abuser is not the same as declining to help someone out of a jam just because you don’t feel like it. Scripture does not sanction selfishness, but it does sanction deserved consequences. “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:10-11 NIV)
Every time you clean up your drinker’s messes you eliminate an opportunity for the necessary and helpful lessons spoken of in Hebrews. You also make it easier for them to use. “If you want your drinker to change her lifestyle, you absolutely have to let her be responsible for it. It’s not easy, but in the long run it will pay off.” (115) If they’re old enough for a hangover, they are old enough to call in sick at work. Quit cleaning them up after they vomit on themselves. Don’t buy liquor for them to drink in the house. This part of steering someone to sobriety is hard because it means the consequences of substance abuse fall harder on you as well. Stay tough through it. You will crawl out of this valley eventually.
Stop Nagging and Fighting
Life with a substance abuser is painful. Their actions hurt you, so you try to get revenge with words. This does not help. Your guilt-trips and chastening will only drive them that much more quickly to the comforting bottle. Instead, remove yourself from the situation.
Picture in your head how the interaction plays out when your loved one comes home drunk and you scream at them. They probably start screaming back. You are trying to fight fire with fire, which makes the conflagration burn even hotter. You need to find a way to communicate your disappointment and refusal to associate with them while they are drunk without turning it into a fight.
For example, say it is 9 p.m. and your husband is finally home from going to the bar after work. Calmly tell him you don’t appreciate being kept waiting for hours. You and the kids have eaten, and you sent them off to bed. If he wants dinner, he can help himself to the fridge. You are going to bed. As the authors point out, this kind of reaction is more about communicating your feelings than attacking the substance abuser. You accomplish three goals: you let them know how you feel, avoid a fight, and do not give them an excuse to continue drinking. The authors do acknowledge it is possible the substance abuser will have another drink after this discussion, but it is more difficult for them to blame it on you when you have been so “reasonable.” (87-88)
Christian Counseling for Helping an Alcoholic
To achieve sobriety, the substance abuser isn’t the only one who needs to change. You do too if you have any hope of steering them away from using. It is like when Proverbs 27 speaks of how “iron sharpens iron,” our behavior toward one another shapes our characters. You have a much better chance of convincing your loved one to get help if you stop making drinking easy for them, and stop being one of their excuses for drinking. They can help you understand the differences Scripture highlights between charity and enabling. They can also suggest strategies for nudging your loved one toward sobriety.
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