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Family must stop allowing ‘freebies’

A common question I get from the family members of alcoholics is, “just how bad does it have to be before they quit.”

My response is almost always the same. I usually say, “as bad as it needs to.”

I don’t mean to be flip, but the consequence that takes one alcoholic to their knees doesn’t even faze another.

At first, family members are thinking about the alcoholic’s endurance or lack thereof, but eventually they wear down and begin to think, “how much more can I take.” As difficult as it might be to understand, when a family member begins to think that they themselves can’t take anymore, we’ve just turned a very important corner. They have stopped thinking about the alcoholic and started to think about the limits of their own endurance. This could be the beginning of getting comfortable with their own limits and this spells the end of the “freebies” when it comes to the drinking.

What a “free drink” means in alco-language is other family members are suffering more than the drinker for his or her bad behavior. As long as others suffer more, they will always be more inclined to take remedial action, and the drinker is therefore “free” to have another drink. I know this sounds simple, but try to get an alcoholic to suffer their own consequences. As many family members have told me, “easier said than done.”

It may take time and a concerted effort to allow the consequences to be properly aimed, especially in areas such as shared finances and child rearing.

It will certainly take special skill not to follow the alcoholic down the emotional sinkhole.

It will undoubtedly take advanced training to avoid guilt-traps and blame-games while maintaining some sense of self esteem, a little inner peace and a firm understanding of the alcoholic illness.

In the last analysis, less suffering for family means more suffering for the alcoholic, and more suffering for the alcoholic means fewer “freebies.” Fewer “freebies” means more awareness of drinking as a problem, and this means more likelihood of inner motivated change.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting


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