It can be a hard row, being a working carer. It’s harder still when the person who must be cared for is an alcoholic.


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It can be a hard row, being a working carer. It’s harder still when the person who must be cared for is an alcoholic, doesn’t wish to be cared for, and spurns efforts to help.

This is the case for untold numbers of people who find themselves conscripted by the ties of love and/or family as unpaid, unthanked carers for serial alcoholics.

Caring for an alcoholic can become an all-consuming frontline struggle with the demons of addiction and, very often, with the ‘patient’ as well. This was illustrated in an anonymous posting to the ABC’s website recently in which a woman described her efforts to redeem her sister from a downwards spiral of drunkenness.

After months of rescue missions, Michelle dared to hope when Stephanie (these aren’t their real names of course) volunteered to return to the detoxification unit she’d previously escaped. Then, when she was ‘dried out’, she agreed to go into a rehabilitation centre to continue the process Michelle had embarked her upon. But after just a few hours, she walked out and disappeared.

The disastrous cycle would begin all over again. “Every time the phone rings, my heart sinks,” Michelle wrote in her ABC piece.

AL-Anon for relatives, friends and carers of alcoholics

For people in Michelle’s position there is help available. Everyone’s heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but there is also an organisation called AL-Anon for relatives, friends and carers of alcoholics.

They are realists at AL-Anon, offering no hollow reassurances.

“If she wants to drink, you can’t stop her,” Michelle was told. “She has to want to stop.”

And for certain, alcoholism is no simple matter. Addiction’s not just chemical. It’s a psychological disorder of vast complexity, frequently co-existing with other psychological problems: anxiety, depression, self-destructive or hostile impulses, post-traumatic stress disorder … and alcoholism may be the chicken or it may be the egg or it may be a hybrid egg-chicken.

Like many alcoholics, Stephanie would always deny that she had a problem. Drinking was her way of medicating against anxiety, she claimed. She would seem to be dependency-prone: she’s also so addicted to smoking that she lights up in airport toilets and risks setting off the alarms. And the proclivity can be hereditary by example.

There’s an old hillbilly song from way back in the 20th century in which the singer carols his ‘two good amigos, Nick O’Teen and Al K. Hole’. Stephanie has inherited the same two amigos. Alcohol killed her father. Both her grandfathers were alcoholics and both died through drink.

You can’t stop her drinking

That’s what Michelle is up against. “You can’t cure her,” she was told by her Alcoholics Anonymous contact. “You can’t change her. You can’t stop her drinking. If she wants to drink herself to death, that is her right.”

In June, Michelle fielded a call from security staff at Sydney Airport. They had Stephanie in custody after she’d been turned back at the boarding gate for an interstate flight. Stephanie had, then, been on the booze for three months without relent. When Michelle arrived to redeem her, Stephanie didn’t recognise her. She could barely stand up, couldn’t walk without support. But once she was walking, she had to get out of there as quick as could be: she was desperate for a smoke. Also, she stank.

Again, Stephanie insisted that she didn’t have a drink problem. She only drank to allay her anxiety.

That’s the nature of the ‘drunk crazy’ carousel. Drinking may relieve anxiety and associated depression etc., in the short term, but it exacerbates them in the longer term, requiring another dive to the bottom of the bottle with even deeper anxiety and depression to follow.

Maybe Stephanie recognised this. After the airport rescue, Michelle was surprised when her sister agreed to try detoxification. She’d had a few drinks by then. And Michelle’s first task was to persuade her to have a shower.

Drinking two or three bottles of wine a day

“It was hard to believe this was my sister – the person who used to take hours to get ready, doing her hair, her face, and making sure she looked just right before leaving the house. Now I was pleading with her to have a shower.”

Michelle found a place for Stephanie at the Gorman House detox unit at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital. But she had the care of her sister for the next five days before there would be a bed available and she learned in that time just how much Stephanie was drinking: at least two bottles of wine a day and sometimes three.

Michelle was advised that she shouldn’t try to stop her sister drinking: to do so without medical supervision might well be dangerous.

So, it might have been the wine talking when, at Gorman House, Stephanie announced very positively: “I need to do this.”

Three days later she checked herself out. There were too many ill-mannered people in detox, too many crazy people, “meth-heads throwing furniture”. Michelle’s reading on it was that Stephanie had started to feel better and wanted to celebrate the fact the only way she knew – by going back on the grog and having a good time.

That’s the nature of the addiction enemy. It may be persuaded to make a tactical retreat for a while – for weeks or months or even, sometimes, for years – but then, too often, it will insidiously reassert itself. The addiction may have become an identity: the victim will embrace it as her/his special reality, without which she/he is a nobody.

Patient must admit they have a problem

For the carer trying to rescue an alcoholic ‘patient’, the perspective is a maze of warning signposts. The very first step might be insurmountable: nothing can happen, the experts say, unless the patient can first be persuaded to admit that she/he has a problem. But the basic rule is that it’s useless to attempt to discuss a drinking problem when the patient’s drinking. Catch-22.

Nor, the experts argue, is there much use in trying to persuade an alcoholic to cut down on their drinking: that’s like telling a girl to get only a little bit pregnant (Dennis Wholey, The Courage to Change). 

Sister refused to go to hospital

A few days after Stephanie signed herself out of Gorman House, there came, inevitably, the ‘come-and-get-your-sister’ call. Michelle found Stephanie in a pub in a sodden, slurring, staggering condition with a stranger who was using her credit card to buy drinks.

Michelle took her sister to the St Vincent’s emergency department, hoping she could get her readmitted to the detoxification unit. But Stephanie refused to go in and Michelle, not for the first time – and, she knew, not for the last – walked despairing away. But then …

The fundamental essential of alcoholic rescue is that the alcoholic must seriously want to stop being an alcoholic. And that’s what appeared to happen next. The morning after Stephanie refused to enter the St Vincent’s emergency department, she called and said she was ready to go back to Gorman House.

This time she made it through the detoxification program and transferred to a rehabilitation centre. “They say only three per cent make it,” she told her sister. “I’m going to be one of them.” But after just a few hours she walked out and left no word where she was going.

For Michelle, it was back to Square One. She, like all carers, was trying to live her own working life in tandem with the ‘patient’ rescue effort, but Stephanie’s ‘crazy’ was taking over her existence.

That’s the standard warning support organisations like AL-Anon give people: You are not responsible for another person’s drinking, but you ARE responsible for your own wellbeing.

And, indeed, it’s an irony of the alcoholism rescue business that the mission may become such an all-absorbing obsession that the carer forms a dependency on her/his identity as the alcoholic’s lifeline.

Some days after Stephanie disappeared, Michelle’s phone rang. She knew what was coming. The caller was a stranger. He said he’d seen a young woman in a distressed condition on one of the country platforms at Sydney Central Station. When he asked her if she needed help, she gave him Michelle’s number to call.

To contact AL-Anon in New South Wales, the ACT or Southern Queensland:

Al-Anon Family Groups Southern NSW Area (includes A.C.T.):

Office Address: * Suite 4, 2 Ormonde Parade, Hurstville NSW 2220
Office hours: 10:00 am to 3:00 pm Tuesday & Wednesday
Telephone: (02) 9570 3400
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
* Service disability access is not available at this location, with apologies

Information Service Office Canberra:

Office Address: Level 1, Room 1.11, New Griffin Centre, Genge Street, Canberra ACT 2601
Telephone: (02) 6249 8866
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Al-Anon Family Groups Northern NSW Area:

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 217, Hamilton NSW 2303
Office Address: Room 6, St Peter's Church Hall, Dixon Street, Hamilton NSW 2303

Office hours: Monday:10.00 am to 2.00 pm 
Telephone: (02) 4969 3889
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Al-Anon Family Groups Western NSW Area:

Office Address: Suite 108 A/B, 114-116 Henry Street, Penrith NSW 2750

Office Hours: Tuesday 11.30am - 2.30pm
Telephone: (02) 4731 1442
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Al-Anon Family Groups South Queensland Area:

Office Address: Unit 3, 1050 Manly Road Tingalpa QLD 4173
Office hours: 10.00 am until 2.00 pm Monday to Thursday
Telephone: (07) 3890 1244 | Fax: (07) 3854 03336
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

National: Australian General Service Office

Mailing Address: GPO Box 1002, Melbourne Vic 3001
Office Address: Level 7, 51 Queen Street, Melbourne Vic 3000
Office hours: 10:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Thursday
Telephone: (03) 9620 2166 | International: +61 3 9620 2166 | Fax: (03) 9620 2199
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.