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Drinking Habit, Relapse, & Bargaining: Common Questions from Families in Addiction

How Do I Tell the Difference Between a Drinking Habit or Problem?

I am going to answer this question assuming that by “problem” you mean addiction. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between and bad habit and an addiction. An easy assessment medical doctors use is the 3 C’s: Compulsion, Control, and Consequences. We can feel a compulsion towards our habit and even lose control over how much we engage in our bad habits, think about eating chocolate for example! The difference is in the consequences.

With an addiction the person’s number one relationship shifts from their loved ones to the object of their addiction, in your loved one’s case; drinking. This shift leads to putting drinking before responsibilities and obligations.

The biggest sign that someone has an addiction is the person’s continued use despite continued negative consequences. For example, someone with a drinking habit that gets a DUI would stop drinking and driving and cut back on their drinking. If their doctor told them their habit was killing them, they would stop. In other words, they would change their behaviour. But a person struggling with addiction keeps drinking despite the consequences, even if they run out of money, even if their wife leaves them.

What are Some Signs of Relapse Before Relapse?

Some of you may not know, but research shows that relapse is usually preplanned (consciously or not) about 1-2 weeks beforehand. Looking back one can often pick out the warning signs leading up to it. So it is helpful to know what to look for in advance.

For each person, it will look a little different, depending on their particular situation, but the behaviours often resemble how they were when engaged in active addiction. Some common behaviours are irritability, manipulating, lying, spending time with ‘old friends’, isolation, breaking promises, and borrowing money. If you are noticing these red flags you may want to make sure that your boundaries are protecting you.

Please remember our main message here at SCHC: personal authorship, so do not engage in policing your loved one. Instead, use gentle feedback that you have noticed a change in their behaviour.
You may not know this, but your loved one in recovery is in Post-Acute Withdrawl (PAWS) for up to two years. The symptoms of PAWS can sometimes look like some of the red flags mentioned above, such as irritability, depression, difficulty sleeping. So make sure not to jump to conclusions. Instead, maintain open communication with your loved one. This is done best by avoiding judgement and making assumptions. I have heard many times from the guys that when others judge them and think that they are using when they aren’t they just want to give up and use. Ultimately this is their choice, but don’t give them the excuse. The best way to communicate is open, honest and with love.

I’m Finding it Impossible to Let Go Now That My Don Isn’t Home. What If He Makes the Wrong Decision Because I Wasn’t There?

This question really gets to the core principle of our approach here at SCHC: personal authorship. One of the undeniable facts of our human existence is that only you can live your own life, and only I can live my own life. It is absolutely impossible for me to live another person’s life or for them to live mine. This fact is as basic as our mortality. But despite this fact, people often try to abdicate their responsibility on others or alternatively try to control others. This is particularly true of people struggling with addiction, and so it is important to address as they come into recovery.

To get back to the question, your son absolutely needs to make his own decisions and live the consequences be they good or bad. He will undoubtedly make the “wrong” decision at some point, assuming he is human. He needs to do this on his own to build his confidence and self-worth. By trying to make all of his decisions, or at least intervene when he is making a wrong one, you are removing the gift of adulthood from him or preventing him from building trust in himself.

As you can see, it is important that you do let go, for both of your sakes. I realize this is much easier said than done and I suggest bolstering your own support, maybe even seeking counselling for yourself. If you have not attended our Family Program, please do if possible. It is complimentary and available to all family members of our clients for a year after their stay.

How Do I Know if My Husband is “Bargaining” With his Addiction?

Bargaining can look like trying to get away with using less or using a different substance instead. For example, someone who quit heroin smoking pot. Sometimes moderation or ‘harm reduction can work, but there is no way to know in advance whether this is the beginning of a long painful slippery slope. Abstinence is the safest bet in avoiding the return of a full-blown addiction.

In the case of your husband, I would be concerned if he is fresh back from treatment and this is taking up much of his focus. He is best to focus on building a life and nurturing meaningful relationships and pursuits. Sobriety needs to be more fulfilling than using substances, a meaningful life is the best relapse prevention. For this reason, early recovery is particularly vulnerable because the person is still building up their life and strengthening their coping skills.

The best thing you can do is have open, honest, and supportive communication with your husband. While you cannot force him to talk honestly, you can help to maintain a non-judgmental, realistic, and grounded conversation. If you do not feel capable of this then recognize your limits and suggest that he speak with a close friend or counsellor who is supportive and he can feel safe to be honest with. Only in being honest with himself will he be able to distinguish if his actions are problematic.

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