Ask Katie: Can I Save my Alcoholic Ex?

By Katie MacBride 11/14/16

How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? 

Hands ripping an image of a woman's face and a table with bottles and cigarettes.
It doesn't mean you don't love each other.

I'm worried about my ex-boyfriend, Joe*. We were together for almost 10 years, and the last two his alcoholism got really bad. A withdrawal seizure a year and a half ago prompted him to get help, and it's been a tiring process of recovery since then, including two visits to the hospital for detox and periods of sobriety and relapse. Unfortunately, he really doesn't have any friends, though he did when we first met, and doesn't speak to his family. He doesn't have a job right now, and I'm worried he's living on his credit card. Two weeks ago, he found out I had been cheating on him (which was my unhealthy way of coping with our situation) and kicked me out. I'm currently living at my parents, though we have a lease through next summer. I really care about this man, love him, in fact, despite my actions. It kills me that I can't help him right now. I'm worried he's going to get really bad again and not have anyone to help him. (When we were together, there were several times that I would find him on the floor, blacked out). Any advice on how to help someone that won't speak to you (or only in angry drunken tweets)? Admittedly Co-Dependent

I’m so sorry you are going through this, Admittedly Co-Dependent. It sucks. It sucks to be in love with someone who is active in their addiction, it sucks when the person you love is endangering his health—physical, emotional, financial and otherwise. Of course, the most painful part is that he won’t communicate with you at all (and let’s not count drunken, angry tweets. They are not an acceptable form of grown-up, productive conversation).

Your ex-boyfriend is sick. He is battling something that is turning him into a vestige of his former self—the person you love—and it’s incredibly painful to watch. Of course you want to help him. Of course you’re worrying on his behalf because he’s not together enough to worry about himself—much less take action to change his situation. These aren’t bad instincts, ACD. You’re an empathic, loving person and someone you care deeply about is in need. But all of our best, natural instincts can be taken to negative extremes—extremes that start to chip away at our own health and well-being, and I think that’s happening here.

You’ve spent the last two years (and probably a few more before that) caring for this man. You’ve seen him struggle to get sober—a valiant fight to be sure—and you’ve been disappointed alongside him when it didn’t stick. You have had to worry about him when you found him blacked out on the floor and you’ve had to play the role of significant other, friend, family, and nurse all at once. That’s a heavy load to bear, ACD. It’s also the kind of load that makes you feel as if you, and you alone, are responsible for the well-being of this person. And it’s not easy to let go of.

But let go of it you must, ACD. While you might be worried about Joe’s evaporating social circle, credit card debt, and lack of a job, nothing you’ve said in your letter gives me any reason to believe that Joe is concerned about those things. In fact, he doesn’t seem to want to even discuss those issues and, while this may be hard to hear, he really doesn’t want to discuss them with you (remember: angry, drunken tweets don’t count as communication. You would do well to block his Twitter account to avoid getting wrapped up in 140 characters of passive-aggressiveness). If he’s made a few attempts at recovery, I am going to assume that he is aware of the programs and resources available to him. If not, he can find many excellent resources here.

As for the cheating thing: I understand why it happened and no, it wasn’t the best decision you could have made but it also doesn’t make you a bad person. I do, however, think you need to consider why it happened. On the surface, it may just be that you were in need of comfort or were acting out, but here's another possibility: perhaps cheating on Joe was your way of trying to end a relationship that you didn’t feel you had the power to otherwise end. It’s unbelievably painful to be in a relationship where you very much love your partner but also know that it’s not working and that it probably isn’t going to start working. How do you end a relationship where you still feel the love, but everything else is failing? Sometimes, we call on external forces. We lie, we cheat, we do things that will upset the other person in order to make waves in the relationship. Maybe this is part of why you cheated, maybe it’s not. But I encourage you to think about it because it may be that you’ve known for a while that this relationship is not the best thing for either of you.

This relationship is not the best thing for either of you. Here’s what that doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other, it doesn’t mean he will never recover from his addiction, it doesn’t even mean that the two of you won’t someday end up together. It does mean that both you and he need to put yourselves first. I suspect he has done a better job of this than you have. It means you need to stay at your parents’ or somewhere away from Joe and not try to fix or maintain a relationship with him. I know this is scary. I know you are probably thinking, “but he has no one else to take care of him! He’s sick and if he continues on this path, he’s going to keep spiraling downwards with no one to stop him!” I don’t mean to understate how difficult it is to watch someone you love spiral in pain. But the reality is that we must take care of ourselves first. You know how on airplanes the safety video always reminds people to put their own oxygen masks on before helping others? You have to do the same thing.

How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? Who won’t communicate with you? By leaving them alone. By drawing firm and clear boundaries they can’t manipulate when the going gets rough. You signed your letter “admittedly co-dependent” but it's time to take a good, hard look at what that means. Co-dependents anonymous and Al-Anon are great places to start if you’re comfortable with 12-step programs. Therapy can also lead to some incredibly useful insights and behavioral changes. No matter what, you must take care of yourself first. Later, when you have processed everything that happened in the relationship, there will be plenty of ways for you to put your compassionate nature to good use. Not necessarily with someone with whom you’ve had an emotionally complicated 10 year relationship with, but people who want and need your help in an appropriate setting with appropriate boundaries.

We don’t get to choose the circumstances we’re presented with. Losing a relationship is something you may need to spend some time grieving. But I think this is a necessary pain, one you have to experience now so it doesn’t extend indefinitely. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the thick of it. How do you stay upbeat when the reality before you shows no slivers of hope? You take what you can and create your own hope. Surround yourself with family and friends who love you. Reach out to professionals so you can learn from your experiences and maintain your mental health. You hope Joe gets into recovery but you can let go of feeling responsible for him. You become the light that you wanted to inject into his life and you let it fill you with possibilities for your future. You find out who you are without the shadow of Joe’s needs hanging over you and you hold on to that person. You take steps towards the beginning of something new, something better, something yours.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at