I read a statistic recently that said that up to 42% of American adults have been directly effected by alcoholism. Nearly half. I think about this number sometimes, when I'm sitting in a crowd of people. I look around and think: nearly 1 out of every 2 of these people have been hurt somehow by this disease.
It is true that most people suffering from active alcoholism need help to stop. It is also true, I believe, that nobody can make someone stay sober - it is an inside job, and to achieve any sort of longer term sobriety the person has to want it for themselves. So what to do?
For me, the critical moment was when my husband and family intervened. My husband arranged for my parents and sister to come to our house, surprise me, and sit me down to talk about my drinking. It was a moment I had feared would come for a long time. As my drinking got worse, my primary motivation for trying to hide it was that I knew if it got bad enough my family would try to make me stop - something I didn't want to do at all. The baffling thing, though, is that as my drinking spiraled out of control I also thought to myself: God, I wish someone would stop me.
On some level I knew I wouldn't be able to stop myself. I had tried everything - I would tell myself I would only drink on weekends, only have two, only drink wine or beer, only drink after 5pm. The sad reality was that once I had one drink I was no longer in control of how much I drank. And I wanted, so badly, to be able to have just one. Every time I picked up a drink I would tell myself: this time it will be different. It never was.
So my family had an intervention. They called me on it - told me that I was destroying myself and my family. That my children weren't safe with me anymore. That I had to get help. I told them I would. I remember thinking to myself: I don't think it is going to work but I'll give it a try if it will make everyone happy. At this point I didn't care enough about myself to get sober for me.
It didn't work, not right away. I went to a ten day outpatient clinic, and drank the day after it ended. I was sent to a ten day inpatient program. I sat in the front row of every group, I took notes, I told myself: I never want to come back here, this has got to work. I drank within three hours of coming home. I thought to myself, as I left to go buy alcohol, that I had learned so much, had been sober for ten whole days, that I had to be able to have just one, that I wasn't as bad as the other patients at the rehab. I was wrong.
So what changed? My husband, when he came home that day and knew I had been drinking, had finally had it. He drove me back to the treatment center for a 30 day stay, and as he dropped me off he told me he was done. That if I wanted to destroy myself, that was my choice, but that I wasn't going to take the rest of our family down with me. If I didn't get sober and stay that way he was leaving and taking the kids. He meant it. I was on my own. I finally, finally, got good and scared. I had no self-esteem, no sense of self-worth, so it wasn't possible for me to get sober for me. His ultimatum, though, gave me another reason to try: I didn't want to lose my family. Up until this point, I didn't truly believe that I would lose my family - I always assumed in some vague way that we would always be together, no matter what. Wrong again.
After the 30 day stay, I still wanted to drink, badly, but I knew what would happen if I did. If I didn't want to lose my family, I had to give recovery a try. Looking back on it now, I feel this way about everything: my husband's ultimatum got me to stop, and now I keep myself stopped. It was months before I began to want sobriety for myself. I slowly regained a sense of self-worth. I surrendered to my disease; I finally believed that I could no longer have one drink in safety. But in the early days, it was the knowledge that I would lose my family that kept me from drinking.
I love the show Intervention (A&E, Monday at 9PM EST). What is powerful about the show, I think, is that the addicts and alcoholics featured know they have a problem. They have agreed to be in a show about addiction; they don't know their family will be staging an intervention. They are in the end game: they aren't in denial about their problem, but they still can't stop. I watch each show, fascinated, listening to how the interventionist advises the family members. It is acknowledged that nobody has any control over the addict's behavior. Nobody can force the addict to get help. The focus is on what each family member does control: their own actions. The root question is this: what are you willing to do, what consequences can you put into play in the addict's life? Whatever you decide to do you have to follow through no matter what.
There is no guaranteed happy ending. Not all the addicts featured on the show make it, although many of them do. There is no way to determine, at the outset of the show, who will make it and who won't based simply on the addict's story, or how far down their disease has taken them. What matters most, I think, is whether or not the consequences are meaningful enough, and whether or not the family members follow through on them. Even when they do follow through, there are no guarantees that the addict will get sober. Watching the show, though, it is clear that when family members put up boundaries and stick to them, the chances the addict will seek help improve.
I don't mean to put the responsibility for someone's recovery on other people - as I said, it's an inside job, and the addict has to want recovery for it to work. Loved ones of alcoholics feel powerless in so many ways, and for good reason. Nobody can make someone stop or control someone else's actions. But we can control our own actions. Sometimes what feels like the harshest action is actually the most loving. It may just give an addict a reason to try recovery. What happens after is up to them.
You can view episodes of Intervention at A&E's website here. One story in particular, Leslie's story, touched me deeply. I had the honor of meeting her and her family last month, and they are incredibly honest, brave people.