Ask Katie: Can I Trust my "Recovered" Partner to Drink in Moderation?

Ask Katie: Can I Trust my "Recovered" Partner to Drink in Moderation?

By Katie MacBride 10/18/16

Should we trust a one-time problem drinker's newfound moderation? How do we figure out how to draw the line between acceptance of a loved-one's behavior and self-care? Katie weighs in.

Image: 
A man drinking a bottle of beer with chips on lap and woman leaning on him, exasperated.
Should you trust him?

Hi Katie!

I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary with my partner. We've hit milestones with our relationship, but we've also both individually matured emotionally.

When we met, John* had a problem. He'd drink liquor heavily when out with friends, which resulted in him being an asshole to me and one time he even threw up all over me. (I know, this was difficult to forgive.) He finally confronted the problem when he got arrested for drunk driving earlier this year. 

I'm cautious about his "recovery" from the incident since he suffers from anxiety and other mental health issues. (Quality mental health care is inaccessible in his rural town, not helping the situation.) He doesn't drink like he used to at all and even told himself he wouldn't drink for years after the incident. However, he hasn't kept his promise and he drinks beer occasionally, sometimes alone. 

I'm nervous about him having a single drink. Should I trust him to drink in moderation? How do I not be anxious? Is there anything I can do?

From,

M

*name has been changed

Dear M,

Thanks for writing and I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I’ve been on both sides of this equation: the person struggling with substance use and mental health issues, and the person who cares about the person dealing with those things. It’s a tough situation no matter which side you’re on. 

When I was a teenager, I found out that someone very close to me (let’s call them Jane) was drinking and using in secret. While my own drinking was accelerating, I wasn’t at the point of drinking alone. No matter how I looked at the situation, it was clear that Jane was an addict. She was drinking and using in secret, blacking out, and pretty obviously at the “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” end stages of addiction. Even my desperate-to-escape-reality teenage self knew that Jane needed help. There was only one problem: I was the only person who knew about Jane’s problem. 

The weight of this responsibility was almost unbearable, M. I ended up sharing what I knew and Jane got the help she needed. Even when Jane returned from treatment, clean and sober, I worried. I watched her like a hawk, looking for any sign that she was up to her old, sneaky behavior. Jane didn’t try to moderate her drinking like John is, nor can I say with certainty that he is an alcoholic. But I suspect the responsibility and anxiety you feel is much like what I felt following Jane’s return. I had seen the places alcohol took Jane; you’ve seen (and felt and smelled, from the sounds of it) the ramifications of John’s drinking. He’s put his life in danger. Of course you’re worried. 

Before we go any further, let’s sit with that for a second. OF COURSE you are going to be worried. He endangered himself and others while he was drinking. He said he was going to stop and he hasn’t (though his drinking hasn’t escalated to the same level it was before). You haven’t said that he’s expressed concern about his occasional beer habit, so I’m going to assume he thinks that if he maintains this level of alcohol consumption, you don’t have anything to be worried about. While I intellectually see his point, I also know how hard that is to actually feel. So please know that your concern is logical and understandable. I hope he can see that, even if he doesn’t agree with it. (And if you haven’t expressed your concerns with him, now would be a very good time to bring that up. You don’t need to protect him from your fears.)

You’re also right to be concerned about the untreated mental health issues as a barrier to recovery or moderated drinking. Studies show that a high number of people with substance use disorders (myself included) have a co-occurring illness like depression or anxiety. If John is struggling with two conditions, both need to be treated in order for him to recover. If he’s only dealing with one (the anxiety), he still needs to address that. If he’s not currently dependent on alcohol but still suffering from anxiety, addressing the anxiety makes him much less likely to develop a dependence on alcohol in the future. 

The real question, though, is how is his anxiety and drinking impacting you and your relationship? Aside from the fear (which is indeed very real and warranted), how much is his anxiety a factor in your relationship? Is it something that’s manageable, or something you wish he would address? Is he open to addressing it and only thwarted by the lack of resources in his area (more on that in a minute)? 

Put another way: if you weren’t worried about what John’s substance use might become, would you be happy with the way your relationship is right now? 

Because right now, his drinking isn’t the problem. Yes, it’s possible that it will become a problem. If it does, you’ll know. I think you’re asking because you want to know if there’s anything you can do to prevent it from becoming a problem. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive way to prevent someone from developing a substance use problem. Even though I watched Jane’s every move when she returned from treatment, I could not have prevented her from relapsing. 

What can (and in my opinion, should) be addressed are John’s untreated anxiety and mental health issues. These are of paramount importance both because treating them decreases the likelihood of developing dependence on a substance as well as for his overall well-being. It may be challenging for him to get access to mental health services in his rural area, but he might want to check out the National Institute of Mental Health's Behavioral Health Treatment Locator and/or take a look at some of the other resources they provide.

But my answer to your original question (“should I trust him to drink in moderation?”), which might be unsatisfying, is maybe. There are people who go through periods of very heavy drinking and are able to recover or change this behavior on their own. However, when the drinking is compounded by untreated mental health issues, this is harder to achieve. I’m not a therapist, but statistically speaking, recovery from anxiety and/or substance use disorder is much more likely with some kind of professional treatment, and with a support system in place. 

So there are a few questions you need to consider. Even if it’s challenging, is John open to getting help for his anxiety/mental health issues? If those issues go untreated, what’s the impact on your relationship? Are they minor enough that you can have a happy and healthy relationship without addressing them? And finally, can you live—at least for the time being—with the uncertainty of not knowing if or how his drinking will progress? 

For an advice columnist, I feel like I’ve given you very few answers. I wish I could tell you what John’s drinking and mental health will be like in two, four, or six months. Unfortunately, we can’t know that. The real question is not what you can do to help John, but what it is you need to take care of yourself.  

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. Send your general advice questions to Katie at [email protected] with the subject "Ask Katie."

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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 www.katiemacbride.com.

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