During a recent consultation phone call, a mother of a young woman who was binge-drinking argued that her daughter was a full-blown alcoholic and needed intense treatment.
“But,” I said. “Is she using alcohol compulsively?”
Her brow furrowed and her face betrayed her confusion. “How the hell would I know?”
“Well, does alcohol drive her behavior or does she seem to use it consciously?”
She shook her head, “Still don’t know what you mean. Speak English.”
“Ok, Ok. As far as you can remember over the last month, has she sought out alcohol every single day?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “She’s only been drinking because of her loser boss. I keep telling her to quit that damn job but she refuses. Other than this last weekend, she hasn’t really even drank much alcohol at all.”
“Ok, there you go. By the sounds of it, she’s using alcohol to cope with work problems. It’s not healthy for her because it sounds like binge-drinking, but someone who’s physically addicted, as an alcoholic is, NEEDS the alcohol and seeks it every day.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess that makes some sense.”
“So, what do I do about it?”
“Well, sadly, there’s nothing you can do about her problems.”
She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, eh I think there is.
“Look,” I said. “Alcohol is really good at numbing people’s emotions. I suspect, and again, I haven’t even met your daughter, but my guess is that she needs to learn some better ways to cope with emotions she doesn’t like.”
“But, please, I think it would you to stop seeing her as an ‘alcoholic’ because seeing you’re probably treating her from a negative perspective. Since she probably feels overwhelmed, indicated by her heavy drinking, I don’t think you’re helping much.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Probably not.”
She hung up soon thereafter. Hers was the type of conversation I have frequently with family members who really want their loved ones to stop using substances. As was the case with the mother, most want to “fix” their loved ones and end up frustrated that they can’t. But understanding the substance and the substance use does seem to help; I urge everyone to learn as much as they can about addiction and substances. There is comfort in understanding.