Usually when we talk about symptoms we think of a disease, but how do the symptoms of the alcoholic affect the biology of the partner? To suggest that alcoholism has certain symptoms can lead to the conclusion that alcoholism is an illness.
Alcoholism is also described as AUD, alcohol use disorder. However, opinions vary and some say it is a disease whilst others argue it isn’t. I don’t really want to discuss this in this blog, but I will explore the symptoms in the literal sense of the word.
Symptom: an indication of the existence of something, especially of an undesirable situation.
Those who live with an alcoholic are well aware of the general symptoms, such as drinking large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time and the difficulty to cut down. Other signs can be making excuses for their drinking, for example they need to drink to relax, irritability, rather extreme mood swings, etc. Often alcoholics isolate themselves from friends and family members and prefer to drink alone (all of us have found the empty bottles in the strangest places).
Some physical signs are trembling when not drinking, but also something you don’t read much about are patches of eczema, often at the back of the neck and head or elbows, and the fact that alcohol can affect the nervous system, which, among other things, can cause a numbness in the feet (an addiction care worker I interviewed for my book called this ‘duck feet’ as the nervous system in the feet doesn’t work as it should anymore and they cannot feel them well, which causes the alcoholic to walk with the feet slightly outwards, walking like a duck. My ex-alcoholic partner had all of these ‘symptoms‘.
But reading the often heartbreaking, some hopeful and for me very recognisable stories on social media sites such as supportive Facebook groups makes me think that there are more ‘symptoms’. In fact many alcoholics show the same behaviour on top of the above mentioned.
The blame game
It is very common for the alcoholic to blame those close to them. They are very good at finding the exact words that are most hurtful. My ex used to tell me that I was a useless artist and that nobody would ever love me, to name but a few. He blamed me for everything. Him getting drunk, him missing an appointment because he was drunk…. he cleverly twisted everything so it turned out to be my fault.
Looking for a fight
My ex was also always looking for something to fight about. The silliest thing could turn into an argument, leaving me baffled about what I had done wrong again this time.
My ex used to run away quite often. He went out for a walk to not come back for hours or sometimes the entire night. When I phoned him he would put the phone down on me. I couldn’t do anything but wait and pray that he was OK.
I did start doubting myself, I did start blaming myself. When I thought he was lazy and unreasonable, even without telling him, he told me I was lazy and unreasonable. I had moments of total confusion and many moments of ‘I wish I had not told him to…. asked him to… begged him …. cried … at least then everything would have been fine’.
I dare say these are the ‘symptoms’ of partners of the alcoholic. Trying to find solutions, self-doubt, feeling unworthy, false hope, defence mechanism that kicks in when others tell you to leave, lying to family and friends, because you don’t like them judging your partner, seeking isolation in order to avoid having to explain…
I’m convinced the ‘the blame game’ of the alcoholic is mostly projection. The alcoholic feels bad about him or herself, but cannot look at their own behaviour so they see it reflected in the behaviour of those close to them. Although knowing this doesn’t make it much easier when you are in the middle of a blaming episode, it can help you to start looking at your own behaviour and get out of the vicious circle of letting the blame affect you.
What does the alcoholism of a loved one do to the biology of the partner.
Mandy Shanks, who herself was married to an alcoholic wrote: ‘Living with an alcoholic places stresses on our biology because the alcoholic’s symptoms cause behaviour, which we react to with fear and anxiety – stress. ‘
I have often felt that society is getting this totally wrong. How often do you see documentaries and programmes where they suggest alcoholism affects a relatively small section of society.
If you take all the isolation, the shame, the not talking about it and all the partners, children, etc. who live with the alcoholic into consideration then you just know that this is far from a small group. It affects a very large section of society.
We all know that stress is very bad for us and many are convinced that it can cause terrible diseases such as cancer. But if the partner is too afraid and ashamed to speak out when visiting a healthcare professional these statistics remain unknown.
‘Trying to help an alcoholic and their alcohol dependence, cause alcohol related problems, not just to the alcoholic but to those around them. 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.’
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.
By asking such questions you are taking on your partner’s behaviour as your own problem. It is not your problem it is theirs.
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. An alcoholic will stop drinking alcohol when they want to, not when you ask, beg or plead with them to do so.
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?”
Symptoms may be helpful to recognise a certain situation, but once you’ve established that you are recognising the symptoms of an alcoholic in your partner or the symptoms of codependency in yourself you could ask yourself “what do I really feel? How can I make the situation better for myself and – if you have children – for my kids? What small steps can I take to move into a different direction? Most of all, know that you are not to blame. In other words, taking the focus away from the alcoholic and focus on you. Because you are really worth it!
My name is Renate van Nijen. I am a Dutch born, artist and writer living in Southern Spain. On my website, www.renatevannijen.com you can find more information about my books, including about Cheers, the hidden voices of alcoholism, and my art. If you are affected by the drinking of a loved one please feel free to subscribe to my blog and you will get instant access to two chapters from Cheers!