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words to a stubborn alcoholic
a necessary dose of tough love
by alex b (@Lexistential)

Tough love. After-school specials, Nancy Reagan, and a selection of lovely leather goods are among what come to mind when I hear the phrase. Tuff love, shmuff love. I've heard the phrase tossed around so often that its meaning is dwarfed, and hardly feels serious.

But lately, where a friend is concerned, life is teaching me otherwise.

The friend in question is, in fact, my longtime best friend. He's a brother from another dysfunctional mother, the person I think to list for an emergency contact, the former roommate who got into a colossal perfume fight with me that seemed like a fun idea at the time (don't ask). For some six years' worth of guys and more guys, riches and pay cuts, and even skinny and fat phases, he has been a constant presence.

Thus, it pains me to write of severance when I've long defined him as a soul I've always felt connected to. The reason is his alcoholism, which wrecked our living situation before, and is once again rearing its ugly little head. And, where I was once there for him in drunk and drunker times, I now draw the line.

Lest anyone think I'm a prohibitive Carrie Nation, I'm hardly so. If anything, after five-plus years of bartending, I've developed a fairly impeccable bullshit meter around cocktail consumers. Some people are fun drunks unlikely to do more harm than singing karaoke off-key, or falling on the sidewalk while flirting. Others shouldn't simply drink- the lousy drunks, the emotional hysterics, and the belligerents at the epicenter of every alcohol-related meltdown destined for a syndicated episode of "The Maury Povich Show."

Unfortunately, my friend is That Guy Who Shouldn't Drink. Worse, he's been an alcoholic for over twenty years- someone who bonded with vodka long before a serious boyfriend. He drinks regularly, but spins it with an easy quip. He cries about trying to change and enters a 30-day rehab program, but departs after a week on the grounds that others are more fucked up than he is and that "he doesn't need the help when they do." He even knows how to play people by second-checking the advice of one friend against another less savvy one, thereby finding a rationale to not change.

Apart from a massive addiction characterizing his life, sadly, my friend also faces AIDS. But, even with the presence of our generation's most significant illness, alcohol still plays the leading- and more potentially threatening- role.

Up until this point, what I knew of my friend was based on phone calls- conversations where he told me he was okay, was resting, wasn't really drinking, and was in fact just coping with being sick. I didn't learn the full truth about his health and his drinking until this past summer, when I witnessed him have a seizure after having several drinks, and physically walked him back to his home while he was in convulsions. I didn't have to be told that his health had deteriorated more than he admitted to me, and that his drinking was still a constant presence.

In short, I had been lied to.

After having had one last severe conversation where I called out my friend on his behavior, I felt tired, and sick of arguing. It was then that I suddenly got it: I have to give up. I have to surrender. Much as I love him, my friend will never accept my exhortations for his health and sobriety. And, I have the choice to move on.

It kills me to think so, of course. Especially since I can empathize with addiction. After once having a drug-defined phase, I've taught myself to adapt back to sober patterns. I have my moments where I'd like to do more blow off a stripper than Charlie Sheen and am bored out of my mind, but I make do. I banish the thought. Most of all, I keep up what I started.

But, that's my story, one that I wanted to have for myself, and one that my friend doesn't share. He has yet to own up to his behavior with any mature humility. And without that impetus to change, I know all too well that he purposely won't progress for the better.

It's here that I know that my friendship is at a fairly insurmountable impasse, and is possibly destined to recede into a woodwork where people I've met are remembered but not spoken to. Where I choose to maintain the changes of my life, he defends his right to fall back on his drinking like an adolescent challenging a curfew, even in the face of AIDS. I have no idea if we'll begin to sort out our differences, and I don't necessarily care if we do. I only know that his alcoholism is something I cannot force him to change, and that I have seen enough.

I don't want to accept that conclusion, even though my common sense tells me that I won't win. I tell myself not to return his calls, but part of me knows I could pick up the phone and sweep this under the rug. I could pretend that I'm not as upset as I am, but I also know that I'd seethe and eventually provoke a heated discussion leading to nowhere positive.

I also tell myself that maybe eventually, I will speak to him. But, I know that's just consolation. For the most part, I think to back off, say no more, and leave him be. I feel defeated, for I don't want to give up on my best friend. But, I know what I oppose, and should step back.

So, past a few leather jokes, I actually don't find tough love terribly funny. It feels masochistic, neurotic, and generally miserable. However, I just hope that a solution presents itself for my friend, and maybe even for me, too. Though I have little faith in my friend becoming a sober person, I hold a shred of hope that tough love can help find the way.

If it does, then I may just like it a little more.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b


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lucy lediaev
9.19.11 @ 2:28p

I think you made the right decision, Alex. You've articulated the issues well. I recently walked away from an alcoholic for whom I cared deeply when it became clear that 1) he would never stop lying to himself and everyone else; 2) he was belligerent and offensive when intoxicated; 3) at 70, he was likely to die soon of the other health issues he was complicating with alcohol. I decided that if he was not going to listen to various expert health professionals, he surely was not going to listen to me, despite repeated promises to change.

alex b
9.19.11 @ 4:55p

Hi Lucy! Thanks for sharing your comments and stopping by.

My friend is 40. He has a reasonable amount of time left, and is living better than expected with his health and medications. I can accept that someday, he will pass from an AIDS-related consequence. What I refuse to condone is him drinking his life away on purpose, and lying to me about it.

Like you with yours, it is pretty clear to me that my friend is not going to change. He'll keep lying to himself and others, keep triggering seizures, and generally tempting the gods. I'm tired of arguing, sick of not being listened to, and there seems little else for me to do but accept that he won't change.

dirk cotton
9.20.11 @ 5:38p

Addicts hijack the lives of their friends and families and you have to fight to get your life back. The trick is to have a life while still supporting someone you love. Sometimes, I think, that means distance. I think you have to go with your gut on this one. I feel your pain and wish you the best.

lucy lediaev
9.21.11 @ 12:02p

Dirk, you hit the point exactly. Distance for me was the only way to cope. I still talk to him by phone, but have told him that I will never take his calls when he is intoxicated. He was ruining my health along with his and that was the deal breaker.

alex b
9.21.11 @ 4:07p

Since writing this, I got a message from my friend that wasn't hugely happy. But it was expected, and the two of us are not completely on the rocks. I also had a chance to fully express things I needed to say to him specifically.

It sucks to be in this boat with my friend. But I'm glad I'm not angry from holding back, while also feeling relieved and sad.

Distance is going to have to be the way I cope now, because doing the so-called right and supportive things haven't worked. And, I feel like the odds are stacked against me being able to help. For all the moral support I give, the liquor store is right around the corner, and a couple bars are nearby. Another constant presence is his boyfriend, who is an even bigger idiot disaster of a drunk than he is. His choices are not changing, but mine can.

It's a necessary lesson, and though this feels like the right thing, this still sucks.

alex b
9.21.11 @ 4:10p

And on a further note- I have to say that as a former addict, I want to toss in two cents and say that some of us are capable of achieving change and eventually getting ourselves back to a place where we stop hurting ourselves, family, or friends. Sometimes, it happens.

And, I'm really, really happy that alcoholism was never my vice.

adam kraemer
9.22.11 @ 10:05a

Well, it's like what we spoke of the other night. Taking responsibility for your life and the things you do in your life.

alex b
9.22.11 @ 1:22p

Unfortunately, my friend thinks that taking responsibility lies in saying, "I'm an alcoholic and will be for the rest of my life," while pretending he only drinks on the weekends.

Taking responsibility is a process where you make yourself open to accountability, fully acknowledge that you're the one at the epicenter of your own bad choices, and that you are, in fact, behaving harmfully to either others or yourself. You stop underrating things like rehab or AA, pointing fingers, or laughing it off. You grow up.

In any case, it's difficult to point out responsibility to someone who absolves himself from it. And as my friend does not fully embrace it, there's not much left to do but back off.

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