Room in Our Relationship for Cocaine and Alcohol?

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Reader’s Question

I have this guy I really like; he’s my ex, and we went out twice. We broke up both times because of the distance and we didn’t see each other. I’ve been thinking about getting back with him, but a friend’s mother said that I should run far far away from the situation. (She has known him his whole life.) My sister said that I should just be distant friends with a person like this.

His father I guess beat him, had fights with girlfriends in front of the kids, did hard drugs, and definitely was an alcoholic. So when the guy I like got out on his own, right after he got out of juvy, he hit the drugs hard. He has done shrooms, cocaine, alcohol, and weed — that I know of. He has never had rehab that I know of. I have known him for at least a year now, and he drinks all the time. He will quit drinking for a few months (when something bad happens), then start back up again twice as hard. He has lived at 4 different places since I have known him. He has no job, but he says he is trying to get one and has had a few interviews.

I need help bad. I need to know if there is any chance possible in this world that I could stay with him. I love him unbelievably. And I know nothing about this kind of stuff.

Psychologist’s Reply

Knowing more about your boyfriend’s problems will help you decide, and so will knowing more about yourself.

The pattern you describe, of stopping drinking for a while when something bad happens, then starting up again even worse, is a common pattern in alcoholics. It is as if the addiction has been growing all along, like a cancer does, even though you can’t see it. Something has to happen to break the downward spiral, something that is big enough to convince the person that he really cannot drink, otherwise it just keeps getting worse. For some people it takes a bad accident, or getting arrested again, or losing something that is important enough to them to be a wake-up call, like a job they love, an important relationship, or their home. Some people have to have all of these things happen to them before they get it. The alcohol has become so important that they are willing to give up a lot in order to keep on drinking. One way they do this is by not seeing the connection between the drinking and the way that their lives are falling apart. This is what makes it nearly impossible for their friends or family to convince them that they have a problem.

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In fact, alcoholics sometimes get into relationships with people who, without meaning to, may actually help them keep drinking! Their wives or girlfriends may protect them from the cost of their drinking by giving them money for rent (so they can spend their own money on drugs), by calling in sick to work for them when they are hung over, by driving them around when they lose their licenses, and so forth. And they have friends who drink as much as they do so their own drinking does not look so out of control by comparison. They don’t listen to what sober people are saying, because those people are just dull, boring, party-poopers compared to their friends. So if you are not careful, your relationship with him can become part of the problem.

Research shows that we can inherit an addiction from our parents like we do our intelligence or our height. Being abused as a child can also make a person more likely to get addicted to alcohol or drugs. People with a family history of alcoholism can and do stop drinking on their own, and stay stopped, but it is hard. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches skills and gives people support for getting and staying sober. People abused as children will also find it a lot easier to stop drinking if they get some counseling to learn to deal with their feelings about it. One thing that alcohol does is numb feelings like sadness, hurt, fear, and anger, and people who have stopped drinking for a few months find that a lifetime of bad feelings can come back at them all at once. If they don’t know what else to do to stop being scared and hurt, or mad, they will drink again because they know that works for them.

Your boyfriend could improve the odds of this relationship working out by going to AA and getting into therapy with someone who is an expert in trauma and addictions. But whatever he does or does not do, you can learn more about alcoholism, and about how to take care of yourself if you do stay in this relationship, by going to open meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and by joining Al-Anon for yourself. Closed meetings of AA are for people who say they are alcoholics; open meetings are for anyone who wants to learn more about it. Al-Anon Family Groups are not just for family, but for anyone who is dealing with another person’s drinking. Getting active in Al-Anon will help you stay in the solution, and not become part of his problem (or let his problem become yours).

Learning more about your own feelings and motives can also help you decide what to do about this relationship. For example, what is it, exactly, that you love about him? What do you want from a relationship? Do you think that you can change him? Is this repeating any pattern from your own family history?

If you cannot make a good-sized list of traits you love about this fellow, it may not be love. It may be sex, or sympathy, or loneliness on your part, but not love. Love relationships are healthiest if they are between equals. That means that each of you should have some traits that the other can admire, some reasons that each of you can respect and look up to the other. Each of you should have some strengths that the other does not have, so that you make a stronger pair than you are as individuals. A relationship in which one person has all the strengths creates trouble. The person doing all the work eventually resents that, and the other person resents being treated like a child.

As for changing him, sometimes we try to form relationships with the person we think our partner could be one day, and not the person that he is right now. This is risky, because that possible person may never happen, and then you would be without what you want, need, and deserve in a relationship.

And sometimes, we form relationships that echo something from our own childhoods. It is as if we are trying to revisit unfinished business, only this time we think we are going to make it turn out differently. If this relationship looks at all like your parents’, if it feels familiar to you at all in any way, then some counseling for yourself might be really helpful in sorting out what you are trying to do here with this fellow.

Finally, it seems from your question that you are considering this as an either/or kind of decision. Does your decision have to be yes or no, right now? Maybe you could add a third possibility to your choices, that maybe you would be willing to consider getting serious with him when he has stopped drinking, gotten a job, and been in a stable living situation for longer than a few months. In the meantime, both of you would have had some time to go to some AA and Al-Anon meetings, and maybe each get some counseling for yourselves, and you would both be in a much stronger position to build a relationship on a better foundation than you have right now.

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