Multiple reports over the past year have suggested an increase in problematic alcohol use during the pandemic. While many of us acknowledge succumbing to less healthy habits throughout lockdown, for some it was more serious than letting go of their normal exercise regime or eating more comfort food. The Office of National Statistics reported a 20% rise in deaths caused by alcohol misuse last year, compared to 2019.
It’s not always easy to know if a friend or family member is struggling with their alcohol use. For one thing, you might not see very much of them. They may be stuck in a cycle of addiction and shame, deliberately keeping away from the people who know them well.
Addiction of any kind is regularly accompanied by shame. Over the past 20 years as a psychotherapist in the NHS and private practice, I have worked with individuals experiencing many different types of addiction, as well as helping those close to them. While loved ones and family members may feel shut out, rejected or abused, the person dealing with the addiction is likely to be grappling with feelings of self-loathing. To hide this - from themselves as much as anything - they can end up alienating the people that care about them.
People in active addiction often talk about ‘isolating’. Many who are in and out of recovery understand this is a bad sign. When they start to turn away from other people, it can be an indication that they are close to relapse. For someone struggling with problematic alcohol use, drinking alone is both a way to avoid scrutiny or confrontation, and an embodiment of the shame and self-loathing they feel. This becomes a compounding problem, with loneliness and isolation adding to the unhappiness they already feel.
Therapy needs to be a safe, non-judgemental space for people to begin to break this cycle. There is a great deal of stigma attached to addiction, which is often seen as a self-imposed problem. Frequently, however, it is a coping strategy that has gone wrong. Drugs and alcohol, as well as behavioural addictions like gambling, are ways of numbing pain; but they are short term solutions which end up causing more problems of their own. Often by the time someone decides to seek help, they will have had many negative experiences around their addiction and will be only too aware of the need to change. However, knowing what needs to happen and being able to do something about it are two different things, and this is where therapy can come in.
Many therapists will not work with someone unless they’ve been abstinent for a fixed period of time. In addictions services, there may be a ‘sober on the day’ policy. When someone is actively under the influence of a substance, therapy is unlikely to be productive, but a useful start can be made otherwise, even if it is slow steps at first. As a therapist it is important to understand the vulnerabilities that caused a person to turn to substances in the first place and work at an appropriate pace. In the long run, a good therapist can help people to address the problems underlying the addiction and achieve lasting sobriety.
Psychotherapy can offer a safe space to explore your feelings, YOU CAN LOOK FOR AN ACCREDITED THERAPIST ON THE UKCP WEBSITE
You can also find support by contacting:
In an emergency, call: 999
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47
The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123