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Treating the Alcoholic With Compassion

July 29, 2021

After writing my passion paper that was worth 40% of my final grade, and sharing it as an invitation for people who qualify as Al-Anon members to view the disease of alcoholism with compassion, I discovered the tension that some people might have to this concept of openly loving someone who is slowly destroying themselves (and hurting others while they do it).

Sadly, this world is not very confident in what compassion looks like, but I had to learn the hard way what it actually is, and how to exhibit it. Compassion is not the same as submission. Compassion is not the same as weakness, or having no boundaries, or having low self-esteem. No, it is the opposite. 

Compassion is being strong when feeling completely beaten down by darkness. It’s giving, by caring about what the other person is experiencing, more than what one’s own desires or discomforts are. It’s looking for a solution when the world has long given up. It’s understanding that things are not as they seem on the surface, and that someone who is hurting themselves is in their most basic form, very hurt. Compassion is strength. It’s holding space and sharing, even when we don’t want to. 

For a few months, I stopped understanding alcoholism as a disease, and I rejected that model. I believed that it was a great step forward that gave alcoholics a way to receive help, instead of being locked away mercilessly and in some cases cruelly, but I also thought it was time to evolve this model to include trauma. What I didn’t take into account is, trauma can be healed, but the recovered alcoholic cannot ever safely pick up another drink. I therefore had to concede, once again, that alcoholism is an illness that goes into remission, at best.

I empathize that people who have been hurt by a loved one’s drinking might think that they were the good ones, or the innocent bystanders, but when honestly looking at the whole picture, we generally don’t treat alcoholics well. It’s normal to respond to problem drinkers without compassion, and it’s a way of life to not have the space to process the confusing challenges that disease, such as alcoholism, presents to us. 

Enabling or people-pleasing are not the same as compassion, though they can become problematic character traits that arise from the traumatizing circumstances of living in an alcoholic home. Enabling or people-pleasing is doing something to get something, whether it’s a feeling or an action, or it can be to avoid something such as an argument. Those traits are sicknesses in and of themselves, rooted in dishonesty, that drive the person acting out in them further into dis-ease. 

Compassion, on the other hand, is action out of genuine concern for someone else. An act of compassion can be as simple as saying hello and acknowledging someone, and then walking away. An act of compassion has boundaries, and it is not self-sacrificing. Compassion does not deplete us or leave us with character traits that need to be healed – it is a protected strength that comes from the understanding that all people are equal, and some are in insurmountable pain. Compassion thinks ahead – it sees the frailty of human life, and the suffering of the afflicted. A person who can act in compassion can put a moment of discomfort aside, to get to the truth of the matter. Compassion is the principle behind holding space, which becomes a safe place for all people to recover.

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