Why can’t he just stop drinking?

I recently had a young man reach out to me for help. He was desperate to quit drinking. Alcohol was destroying his life. I met him at a local coffee shop to hear his story and see how I could help. He had recently totaled his car and been arrested for drunk driving. The prosecution agreed to a deferment but it meant he would be on probation for 5 years and required not to drink. Violating his parole would have some pretty terrible consequences. And yet he drank. He wanted to stop. Tried doing it on his own. Finally he started reaching out for help.

After our meeting I agreed to help hold him accountable. I went with him to local AA and Celebrate Recovery meetings and started doing a step study with him. He was required to call me every day by 7pm or I would assume he was drinking. Over the next several weeks this went on. He came over to my house and hung out and we talked regularly. And still he drank. He would drink before we went to a meeting. He thought he was hiding it from me.

One weekend I didn’t hear from him at all until Monday. When he called on Monday he had this long crazy story about why he couldn’t call. The story may or may not have been true. You see, the problem is that even though he is a good guy and he really did want to quit, because of the alcohol he couldn’t stop lying. This story he told, it was serious, but I couldn’t tell if it was true. Ultimately it didn’t matter. As the weeks went by a pattern developed where he wouldn’t call me on the weekends. I would talk to him before the weekend and ask him what his plan was to stay sober. He never had one. I would suggest ways he could stay sober but he wouldn’t take them. His alcoholic brain already had a plan of getting totally f’d up. Which is what he would do. He would drink a bottle of vodka and drive. He hit stuff. Blacked out. Then did it again. It was scary and it finally scared him enough to realize he needed more serious help than what I or anyone else around him could provide.

Monday he checked in to a treatment facility where he will spend the next 28 days. This is his second time in a treatment center. Hopefully this time he gets it.

Along the way many of us asked the question, why can’t he stop drinking? Even I asked that question and I’ve been there. For those of you who aren’t addicts or alcoholics but have a loved one that is, you have likely asked this question hundreds if not thousands of times. This young man has a great support structure with a lot of people around him who love him and who are willing to help. He is not being enabled by family, which can sometimes keep an addict stuck. He also has serious consequences. His drinking got him kicked out of the place he was living. His drinking totaled his car and could have killed him or someone else. His drinking will land him in jail the next time he is caught. Yet none of this was sufficient motivation. What is his problem? Why can some people stop and others can’t?

There isn’t any easy answer to these questions but there is an explanation. The bottom line is that it comes down to compulsion:

an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes

He has an irresistible urge, that no matter how much he fought it with his conscious mind, he could not win. The alcohol always won. Does this mean he was hopeless? By no means! Treatment isn’t a cure for addiction or alcoholism but what it provides is a period of time where the alcoholic is forcefully separated from his or her compulsions. It is also a time to learn how to handle your compulsions. That is what he has never learned. It is what I tried to teach him. It is why I tried to help him develop a plan for the weekends when the compulsion would be the strongest. It is why I told him he needed to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.

Watching a loved one destroy their life when they should have every motivation and reason to stop is frustrating, infuriating, and a helpless feeling. What they are doing makes no sense. We don’t have to pretend it makes sense. We can understand it though. We understand it in light of it being a compulsion that they really don’t have the ability to fight on their own. They need help. They need new ways to deal with the compulsion. It is possible. But it isn’t possible to do it on their own.

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