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Alcoholism is a family illness

Alcoholism can have a devastating impact on the mental health and wellbeing of family and friends, particularly during a pandemic. But there is help out there, says Al-Anon member Sarah.

by Sarah
Shallow focus of brown glass bottle
Eeshan Garg (Unsplash)

January is a time of the year when many people, recovering from Christmas excess, decide to go sober for a month. Dry January started in 2013 and since then it’s become a yearly event where thousands of people take a month off from drinking.

This year feels different though. 2020 was a year like no other and understandably many people are drinking more as a result. One survey suggested that a third of drinkers had been drinking at an increased rate from May to October 2020. Perhaps more worryingly, 53% of respondents said they’d been drinking for mental health reasons, like feeling anxious or stressed. Another survey indicated that high-risk drinking nearly doubled during the first lockdown.

The vast majority of people can enjoy a drink with no serious negative consequences to themselves or the people they love. But for some, this latest lockdown will mean being at home with a loved one who has a drinking problem.

Alcoholism has always been a part of my life. It’s led to disappointments, arguments, gut-churning calls from the hospital, anxiety and stress. I’m not an alcoholic – but my dad was.

I didn’t realise my dad's drinking wasn’t normal until I was a teenager and noticed that when my friends’ parents drank, they behaved very differently to him. During my 20s and 30s his drinking worsened. He was in and out of hospital and rarely turned up to family events. He became more isolated. His mood swings and verbal aggression made being at home a lesson in walking on eggshells.

It was extremely difficult watching this happen to someone I love and not being able to do anything about it. I couldn’t talk to anyone, as there’s still so much shame associated with alcoholism.

In 2010, another let-down finally made me find help. I went to a meeting for an organisation called Al-Anon, held in a musty old room above a church in Hillsborough. Al-Anon is a ‘12 Step’ programme that provides help and support for friends and family members of alcoholics. In the 11 years I’ve been attending meetings, I’ve heard stories of hope and heartbreak from the parents, children, siblings, partners and friends of alcoholics.

I learned very early on that there was nothing I could do to stop my dad from drinking. I met this realisation with a strange mixture of horror and relief; it wasn’t my fault and my dad’s drinking wasn’t my problem to fix.

It took many meetings and a lot of love and support from Al-Anon members to get my own mental health back. My dad’s alcoholism had affected me in many ways, from low self-esteem, perfectionism and anxiety, to a need to ‘fix’ people and take control over everything. Slowly I learned to focus on my own happiness, whether my dad was drinking or not.

My dad died from the disease in 2017. He was a lovely, funny but deeply troubled man who sadly never found recovery.

There’s rarely a set point at which someone switches from enjoying a drink to becoming an alcoholic. For most people, drinking never becomes a problem. For a few though, alcoholism creeps in slowly and it can often take years for the alcoholic or their family to notice that their drinking has become problematic. It can take much longer to admit it.

No one chooses to become an alcoholic and, despite what some people might think, there’s no shame in getting caught up in such an insidious illness. There’s no shame in asking for help either. Admitting I could no longer cope with my dad’s drinking was the first step in my own recovery to becoming a more balanced, compassionate and sane person.

Learn more

If you’re troubled by someone else’s drinking, Al-Anon has meetings five nights a week in Sheffield (now via Zoom) where you can find help. Full listings are available on the Al-Anon website

There’s also help available locally for people worried about their own drinking, including Sheffield Alcohol Support Service, the Sheffield Treatment and Recovery Team at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

For general mental help support, Sheffield Mental Health Guide provides information, support and activities in the city.

by Sarah
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