Living with an alcoholic – Biology


Living with an alcoholic places stresses on our biology because the alcoholic’s symptoms cause terrible behaviour, which we react to with fear and anxiety – stress.
Trying to help an alcoholic and their alcohol dependence, cause alcohol related problems, not just to the alcoholic but to those around them.

As Bruce H Lipton PhD explains in The Biology of Belief, in stress situations the adrenal glands enact the body’s fight and flight response and release the stress hormone cortisol, which causes blood to divert away from our gut and into the arms and legs.

In this situation the nourishment and nutrition provided by the visceral organs is switched off in preference for running and speed of action.  The immune system is shut down too.  We are designed to deal with short term stress.  When a stress situation continues long term (when we live with an alcoholic), the immune system is not properly functioning which lets in viruses and opportunistic organisms.  The build up of  stress hormones such as cortisol can lead to organ damage and even tumours.

Physical Effects Of Living With An Alcoholic

Deepak Chopra in his book “Creating Health” explains the chronic fatigue that results from long term stress.  Anxiety neurosis shows up as nervousness, depression, loss of appetite and sexual drive, irritability and inability to concentrate.  Strong emotions like anxiety can trigger the release of cortisol and adrenaline which leads to an accumulation of toxins.  Toxins cause fatigue, physical weakness, inability to act, confusion and exhaustion.

When problems in our lives (or more importantly our attitude towards them) become intense and persistent when living with an alcoholic, the symptoms of fatigue show up as a means of self preservation.  They carry the message that something deeper is wrong.  The mental effort required to repress our intuition and keep our ideas and problems under wraps requires mental effort or “psychic energy” and that leads to fatigue.

Our bodies come under extreme pressure that mounts over time and our ability to look after our own best interests both mentally and physically becomes depleted.  We become overwhelmed.

In some people, neurologists have found that codependency is an addiction because it is a form of behaviour that leads to the release of dopamine in the midbrain that makes us feel better.  Our need to care for, rescue and control others and to help the alcoholic, starts to take priority over everything else.  We believe that our actions are needed for our survival (but more importantly, because we are codependent, the survival of our partner alcoholic).

This is because our midbrain is now taking control over our conscious frontal cortex.  We lose the ability to partake of normal pleasures because our highest priority is for rescue and control.  Like addicts, our midbrain is telling us that the wellbeing of the alcoholic is paramount to our survival.  Like other addictions, there is a process we need to go through to heal our minds.

This is why we need help and support and it is crucial that we get it.  The things that you can do will be explored in a further article but first lets look at the alcoholic’s condition so that you can see it is not your problem, you did not cause it and you cannot cure it.  All you need is compassion for the alcoholic which is very well illustrated in Renate Van Nijen’s book, Cheers, the hidden voices of alcoholism and to love and care for yourself.

When another acts in a way that you consider to be against their and your best interests because they are harming themselves with alcohol, harming you and everyone around them, do you ask “What can I do to change this person to make them see sense?” or “How can I control this behaviour so that it does not hurt me and those close to me?” “How can I help an alcoholic”?

If you do ask such questions then you may be like many others who have gone down that well trodden road, it is called co-dependency.1

By asking such questions you are taking on your partner’s behaviour as your own problem.  It is not your problem it is theirs.2

It also means that you believe there is something that YOU can do.  There is nothing that you can do to change or control another person and above all, an alcoholic.3   An alcoholic will stop drinking alcohol when they want to, not when you ask, beg or plead with them to do so.  Their alcohol abuse is their problem.

Living With an Alcoholic – What Questions Should You Ask?

When you are living with an alcoholic, the most helpful question you can ask is “what can I do to best care for myself, what do I want and need?”

Melody Beattie in her excellent book “Codependent No More – How to stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself” puts it very well as follows:

“Some of us may have entered an adult relationship with our emotional security intact, only to discover we were in a relationship with an alcoholic.  Nothing will destroy emotional security more quickly than loving an alcoholic, or anyone who has any sort of compulsive disorder.  These diseases demand us to centre our lives around them.  Confusion, chaos, and despair reign.  Even the healthiest of us will begin to doubt ourselves after living with an alcoholic.  Needs go unmet.  Love disappears.  The needs become greater and so does the self-doubt.  Alcoholism creates emotionally insecure people.  Alcoholism creates victims of us – drinkers and nondrinkers alike – and we doubt our ability to take care of ourselves.”

This is not, however, just a problem about our emotional well being.  It also starts to damage our physiology as our time living with an alcoholic continues.  Living with an alcoholic is extremely stressful as anyone who has tried it will know.  The next Article discusses dangers to our physiology being an issue when living with an alcoholic.

Mandy Shanks

1.  Co-dependency is a type of behaviour where you take on another’s mood, so you try to fix their mood to reflect the better mood you want to feel and in doing so lose your self and own power because another can now control you through their own moods. Alcoholics are masters of manipulation and control so you will always lose.
2.  As rescuers and caretakers codependents are enablers which is a destructive form of helping. Any act that helps an alcoholic to continue to drink or prevents the alcoholic suffering consequences is enabling. It prevents the alcoholic’s potential for recovery.  It involves doing things you don’t want to do, saying yes when you mean no, doing something for them when they are capable of doing it themselves, meeting people’s needs without being asked, doing more than your fair share of work, fixing people’s feelings, thinking and speaking for others, suffering other’s consequences, not asking for what you want and desire and solving other people’s problems.
3.  The only one thing that will change an alcoholic is when they decide they want to change by taking steps to stop drinking.
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