Hugging a Cactus: Loving and Helping an Alcoholic

Sheri Hugging Her AlcoholicLoving an alcoholic is torture. Helping the alcoholic you love requires unexpected knowledge, uncommon mental toughness, baffling counterintuitiveness and faith that’s stronger than pride. It takes a hero to love and help someone struggling with alcohol. Most of the time, we get it wrong and the love we feel is overwhelmed by anger, resentment, shame and blame.


It is understandable, really. Those of us who suffer from addiction to alcohol are often intolerable. Our behavior makes us almost unhelpable. Our actions overshadow love.


When I was drinking, my wife, Sheri, and I did not fight all the time. We did, however, live in a constant state of uneasiness. Sheri was uncomfortable around me – never able to lower her guard and be herself with confidence because although our arguments weren’t ever present, the threat of a disagreement was. She never knew what would set me off. Rational behavior in an alcoholic is like a cell phone call in a tunnel – it flickers in and out unreliably and makes meaningful communication impossible.


When we would fight, we said vicious thing to one another. The vile name calling and hate-filled blaming was alcohol-induced and relentless. Booze removed my filter and made me evil. It forced me to say things I would never say when in a state of rational sensibility. When alcohol unleashed my monster, I aimed to hurt the one I loved the most. If it feels like I’m deflecting responsibility and blaming alcohol for my reprehensible words, you are right. I am. I’ll admit to every awful thing I did while in active alcoholism. But I know the person I am now in my third year of recovery. I am not that monster. Back then, that was the booze talking, and I’m ashamed of every word, but I’m not to blame. At the time, Sheri didn’t understand that.


Sheri’s return fire came from a place of defensiveness and pain. If you back a tiger in a corner, the claws are going to come out.


Our fights left us both reeling for days. We were hurt by the awful things said by each other, and equally ashamed of our own actions. The self loathing and spouse loathing made sincere reconciliation and the closeness required in a healthy marriage impossible. It was the definition of insanity, and healing was hopeless.


And this is why helping the alcoholic you love might be the hardest thing you ever do.


I have learned a lot, both through research and experience, about what is required for a person afflicted with alcoholism to recover. I have learned that the actions our instincts suggest when trying to help a loved one find sobriety don’t work and drive a wedge deeper into our relationships. Interventions, ultimatums, threats, blame and shame only send a person struggling with alcohol cowering back to the only medicine – the only relief – we know. More alcohol. Tough love gets a result, but it is rarely the desired outcome. Divorce, families ripped apart and spiraling deeper into the abyss of alcoholism are tragically common when we follow our instincts to treat the disease that causes us so much pain.


In my last years of active alcoholism, my wife threatened to leave forever if I didn’t stop drinking. My parents tried to arrange an intervention because they didn’t know what else to do. All of my family’s attempts to help filled me with resentment and made them feel like helpless failures. They followed their instincts, and any hope for healing was pushed further out of sight.


Any hope for healing hides quietly in a counterintuitive kind of love.


I write often about the similarities between alcoholism and the chronic disease that is almost as widespread and almost as deadly: cancer. I consistently urge love and support for victims of alcoholism – the very same love and support we offer to cancer victims – instead of shame filled hushed whispers about moral failings and lack of willpower. And my argument makes sense. It is logical. It is rational.


But how do you love and support the irrational? The hardest thing about helping the alcoholic you love isn’t knowing what to do. It is doing it in a relationship filled with vile name-calling, a lack of trust and constant discomfort. It is like trying to hug a cactus.


What do you do when the person you love most in the world is also the person who causes you the most pain? Christianity teaches us to turn the other cheek. Loving and helping an alcoholic requires far more patience, restraint, self confidence and tenderness than just refusing to fight and walking away. It requires us to swim in the collateral damage of addiction without blaming the person making the mess.


Please understand – I’m not suggesting for a minute that it is the responsibility of a person in love with an alcoholic to fix the alcoholic. It’s not your job. Your health and safety, and the health and safety of your children, absolutely come first. My wife cringes when people tell her she is strong for keeping our marriage together. She cringes because she is afraid her example will convince someone to stay in a physically abusive alcoholic relationship. Sheri does not want that. I do not want that. If you or your family are in danger, get out. Get out without regret for your actions. The wounds left by alcoholism last forever. It is not your job to take a beating – mental or physical.


But if you are not in danger, and you choose to stay, please educate yourself about the actions that can help your loved one who suffers at the hands of alcohol. Your instincts to fight back or make demands won’t make things better. Blaming and shaming the afflicted is one of the best ways to make a drinker drink more.


So what can you do? You can’t fix someone. You can’t force them into treatment, and fighting back only makes things worse. How do you help the one you love when their behavior fills you with hate and rage?


Blame the disease, not the victim. It is as simple and unfathomably difficult as that. Think about it for a minute. You would never blame a loved one for contracting cancer. And if caring for them while they suffered became difficult, your natural reaction would be empathy and love. That’s all I am suggesting you offer to the alcoholic you love. Find a way to separate the alcohol-induced painful actions, and love the person who suffers from the world’s most prolific disease.


If you’re not addicted to booze, you likely don’t understand why someone who is can’t stop drinking. If your brain is not hijacked by alcohol, you probably don’t understand why the drink can cause a person to act irrationally and say vile and hurtful things. If you aren’t an alcoholic, you can’t fathom the insanity of continued drinking in the face of indisputable evidence that alcohol is doing irreparable damage. It simply doesn’t make sense. So what do you do when you don’t understand?


Learn. Educate yourself. Find a way to understand the damage done to the brain of an alcoholic. Know the truth. Put yourself in a position to help the process of healing.


Learn about brain chemistry and the way dopamine and other neurotransmitters are controlled by alcohol. Learn that drinking becomes a survival instinct that the alcoholic’s subconscious mind prioritizes like oxygen and shelter. Learn about nutrition that speeds recovery, and learn about the benefits of fellowship so the alcoholic understands their predicament is not unique or unbeatable.


Learn the stories of survivors. Read about marriages that have gone through hell and made it out. Listen to recovery methods that put outspoken support above whispers in church basements. Become an expert on the disease that is ripping your love apart.


And once you know – once you understand – you are in a better position to make the right decision and take effective action. And if your decision is to leave, you should do so without regrets.


But if you decide to stay, it is time to love unconditionally. It is time to blame the reprehensible behavior on the disease, and educate your loved ones on the source of all their pain. They are not to blame, and they need to hear that from you. They are not the enemy. They are the victim. And so are you. And that camaraderie is something to build on. Healing can come from the shared victim-hood of the despicable disease of addiction. Nothing but pain can come from the divisiveness of blame and shame.


Don’t follow your instincts. Learn. Reject the hate the disease thrusts upon you. Choose love instead.


This is no fairy tale. You’ll likely never face a challenge like recovering from alcoholism – whether you are the afflicted or you love a person suffering from addiction. You are in for the fight of your life.


But if you go into battle armed with resentment, blame, anger and shame, you secure your own defeat. When you bring education, compassion, love and understanding into the war against addiction, you can persevere if you and your loved one want it badly enough.


Alcoholism is an insidious, life-destroying hatemonger. We all know you can’t fight hate with hate. If you want your love to survive – if you want to help the one you love – the only solution is understanding and love.


If you are ready to start to fight with understanding and love, I want to share what I’ve learned about this disease. Please read my FREE ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety. This book is designed to help anyone effected by alcoholism – the drinkers, their family and friends alike. I hope you’ll find something to help you help someone you love.

Guide to Early Sobriety


Untoxicated Podcast

Now featured on the Untoxicated Podcast: Ep7 – Drugs, Alcohol and Teenage Invincibility with Dave Friedentag

Thinking or Drinking
October 13, 2020
#1 Reason to Recover Out Loud
March 13, 2019
The Myth of Unconditional Romantic Love
February 1, 2023
  • Reply
    April 5, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    Thank God for Sheri. Great picture.

  • Reply
    April 9, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    I’m blessed to read and relate to what you write. I used that analogy of a person having cancer and it was dismissed because “people who have cancer, don’t do it to themselves”. i was devastated by that comment. Alcoholism is a disease and not an excuse. What you wrote is true. Only another alcoholic can relate. Thank you for your writings. I am encouraged on my journey of recovery and sobriety. Blessings to you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 9, 2019 at 7:03 pm

      “Only another alcoholic can relate.” That’s the part we have to change. You don’t have to have cancer or heart disease to understand that those diseases are real. People should not have to have an addiction to understand addiction. That level of awareness is my mission. Thanks for reading and commenting, Duane!

      • Reply
        David F.
        May 4, 2019 at 7:25 am

        I find your postings very helpful….I relate to everyone of them. I know I am a High functioning alcoholic and as I continue to read your posts and relate to your take on this awful disease I feel like I am not alone and not crazy. Please keep the posts coming…Thank you.!

  • Reply
    David F.
    May 4, 2019 at 7:26 am

    I find your postings very helpful….I relate to everyone of them. I know I am a High functioning alcoholic and as I continue to read your posts and relate to your take on this awful disease I feel like I am not alone and not crazy. Please keep the posts coming…Thank you.!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 4, 2019 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for your feedback, David. That is exactly, 100%, what recovering out loud is all about. Connection. Not feeling alone. Please feel free to comment anytime!

  • Reply
    Gregory Rake
    November 29, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks, Matt, for a gift that keeps on giving. It’s November 2023 and what you wrote in this blog in 2019 makes so much sense. And you don’t gloss over anything. This is tough stuff! And people who love alcoholics have very difficult decisions. Just like for us in sobriety, they need conntections!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      November 30, 2023 at 6:49 am

      Connection and self-esteem is so critical for all of us. Thanks for relating, Gregory!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *