Ask an Expert: Why Does My Brother Still Act Like an Alcoholic?

Ask an Expert: Why Does My Brother Still Act Like an Alcoholic?

By John Kelly 02/01/16

Our expert weighs in on why one reader's brother still displays alcoholic behavior after 30 years sober.

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Ask an Expert: Why Does my Brother Still Act Like an Alcoholic?
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Why, after 30 years of not drinking, does my brother still display so many alcoholic behaviors? Hypercritical, know-it-all, vengeful, holding huge grudges, seething for weeks, months or years about some perceived wrong committed against him and blasting me about it. He will never accept my apology for the things that I didn't even do. It is as if he needs to punish me for something. The blaming is so constant it is almost comical—if it didn't hurt me so much. He is on his third wife and she is the worst yet. Feeds his hatefulness and poisons his heart against me.

My father has stopped drinking also and I am living with him because of his health problems. However, he still displays many of the same behaviors as my brother, only not as extreme. Is it due to not being involved with AA? Neither one sees the need to go to meetings. Dad believes in God. Brother does not. I am trying to understand why so much negativity is seething in these men. They both have so much to be happy about. 

John Kelly: First, it should be noted that holding grudges, being vengeful, seething for weeks, etc., are common human behaviors and not necessarily anything to do specifically with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or AUD recovery. Although there may be popular anecdotes about “alcoholic behaviors” these are not based in any systematic science. So, it is unclear whether such behaviors can be attributed to anything to do with his history of alcohol problems. Nevertheless, from what you describe, these behaviors seem objectionable to you and your brother doesn’t sound like he’s a happy camper.

There are many things that your brother might do to help himself with these attitudes and behaviors. First, if they seem entrenched and long-standing, it is possible that he could also have another type of psychiatric problem (e.g., major depression) that can make people very irritable. Getting psychotherapy and/or medications can help with depression. Sometimes, also, such behaviors can be caused organically by physical problems of various kinds. I would want to rule out those possibilities.

You mention he doesn’t attend AA. AA’s recovery program is designed explicitly to help individuals with AUD recover by leading a life that is based in sobriety, happiness, and contentment, and there is evidence that the program does help people achieve those outcomes. For family members affected by AUD, there is Al-Anon which has similar emphasis but empowers family members to achieve some peace of mind despite the presence of the illness. Consequently, Al-Anon may help you, irrespective of whether your brother changes or not. Both AA and Al-Anon have the advantage of being free of charge and widely available. That said, AA and Al-Anon are one pathway and there are myriad other things that might help, including education and practice in anger management, mindfulness meditation and yoga, either with or without a recovery-specific focus.

Also, the emphases in compassion and loving kindness inherent in many spiritual and religious traditions are also pathways that appear to help people achieve greater peace and meaning in their lives. Individuals in recovery from severe AUD often find these kinds of things helpful and enjoyable.

John F. Kelly, MD is the Elizabeth R. Spallin Associate Professor of Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School—the first endowed addiction Professorship at Harvard. Dr. Kelly’s research focus has been to improve the quality and effectiveness of addiction care. Full bio.

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